I came out of my reading of MacDonald’s The Light Princess in an enchanted daze, the way I think you’re supposed to with fairy tales. “What did I just read? What did I just . . . experience?” Puzzlement led me back into the story to ponder and marvel. But George MacDonald, whom C. S. Lewis famously referred to as “my master,” is too skilled with words for only one reading to suffice. He does so much with puns and layered imagery. So, I had to read it a second time.
Since MacDonald was never one to explain his stories, I’ll be vigilant about doing the same. But I will offer the following musings.
The Good of Gravity
The princess in this tale has the curious problem of lacking gravity, an effect of a curse. She is light in the sense of lacking gravity not just in pounds but also in passions. Her body floats, but so does her mind. Her feet don’t take the earth seriously, and her mind doesn’t take the world seriously. With the king, we ask, “What is to be done?” The story shows what must be done, and I won’t spoil that for you.
We think of gravity as a limitation, as something that literally holds us down. But being grounded is a necessity for us. We know it is physically, which is what draws the attention of children in this tale: a floating princess thrown as a ball and held down to the earth by tassels, as a human kite. But parents will be quick to notice how disturbing her lightness of mind is. When you take nothing seriously, you have no purpose, no passion, no direction. You drift. And flowing from the mysterious pages of God’s own word, we find the one thing that can give us gravity of mind: love.
A Change in Atmosphere
The light princess floats in the air, but things change when she goes in the water. She has weight in the water. What helps her is a change in atmosphere. Her parents grow tired of trying to use words to help her. She can’t be argued into change. But she can be immersed in it. I don’t suppose you see any gospel parallels there, do you? No one can enter the kingdom of God, after all, without being born “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
This change in atmosphere can extend even to emotions such as love. Love pulls us headlong into a relationship, into the atmosphere of another person. It’s in caring selflessly for someone else that we find our true value. This, of course, has gospel brilliance ringing through it.
Here are some other things to note about this book, which I believe is best suited for 8–12 year-olds, though some younger children may be able to marvel at it with you. I read it with my seven-year-old and found myself having to explain some of the language on each page.
The foreword. I know, I know—we usually skip over forewords. But Jennifer Trafton’s foreword matches the enchantment of MacDonald’s prose. It’s not only beautifully written, but also gives sound advice. “The best way to read a story by George MacDonald is to be still and listen. Whether laughing or crying or both, listen. Wait for the wind” (p. 17). I suggest you read it.
The beauty of the book. People are usually unaware of how much skill and craftsmanship goes into a finer edition of a book. This edition from the Rabbit Room Press is bound in blue leather, which is then embossed with designs evoking a fairy tale spirit, and uses gilded gold print for the cover type. It’s a work of art. Speaking of art, the illustrations by Ned Bustard were quite gripping for my children and loaded with allusions to other works from MacDonald (which I’ll now be reading all of!).
The afterword. I’ve loved reading Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga, and I respect him as a writer, so I was eager to read the afterword as well. Again, I know we often skip over these bits, but they’re worth reading. I especially appreciate his call to be “gobsmacked” by the wonder of a tale before you go on trying to dissect and apply it. When we lose our wonder, we often lose the power of the tale. Children are good at this. Adults need a lot of practice. Peterson’s afterword may help you think about approaching other stories with your children, including the stories from Scripture.
The Light Princess has stood the test of time for a reason. MacDonald truly is a master of fairy tales. This is one of those special books that continues to enchant and teach both parents and children with each reading. Highly recommended!