4.17.2010

"Is that the sun coming?"

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Mucha
Numbered among my favorite writings of George MacDonald is "Princess Daylight". It is a fairy-tale within a fairy-tale, a chapter in the larger and exceedingly moving "At the Back of the North Wind", as told by the benevolent Mr. Raymond to an eager crowd of invalids in a children's hospital in Victorian London. As all of MacDonald's writing he moves beyond the conventions of "children's literature" (quite the institution at the time) and into what Tolkien expounds as the Secondary World of Enchantment which none can come into contact with without being moved in some way. (See his full and wonderful treatise "On Fairy -Stories" for more.)
Numbered among my favorite modes of reading such stories is out loud to my wife while she fills the house with the aroma of sautéed onions and peanut sauce. My father and mother read to my siblings and I in a way that I can only hope to emulate with my own children. Last night I read this tale aloud to my mother-in-law after our Margarita Friday feast.

The story's language is most charming: proper, 19th century, British, yet gentle and playful and full of asides. It makes you imagine that he was well versed in the art of extemporaneous storytelling to an inquisitive audience. His descriptions are vivid and fresh like a painter. His dialog among characters is often filled with wit and comedy, and the inner motivations and reactions of his characters give them a beautiful and honest reality.

Picture
Palmer

MacDonald is always pushing the bounds of convention, turning the conventions on it's head or poking fun at it. The evil fairy must "of course" curse the Princess at her christening, but first must find good cause to be insulted so as to categorize her machinations as revenge. The good fairies know such a thing is bound to happen and so take the precaution of keeping a good fairy in reserve to undo all she can; and when that doesn't work you find they actually kept two in reserve.
Traditional roles and expectations are also challenged in this story. The Prince is qualified as not simply of royal blood, but as someone who both does what he's told and tells the truth: a gentleman-prince. This notion is quite different from z.B. the Princes of the Tales of Grimm who need nothing more to their character than handsomeness, servants, and a title. The role of beauty is also poignantly explored in this story. The Grimm stories expound the simple (and insidious) correlation between physical beauty and spiritual holiness: in Frau Holle, the good and hard-working step-daughter is beautiful; the stupid, lazy one is ugly as a frog. (I would think these labels especially applicable to women seeing as the stupid and lazy "Man who set out to learn fear" in the end gets the Princess.) In "Princess Daylight" the heroine is cursed to not only fall asleep at the first hint on the dawn, but to wax and wane with the cycle of the moon. When the moon is its brightest and fullest the Princess is radiant and beautiful like a heavenly wood nymph. Yet when the moon fades to a crescent and darkness she looses health and seems like an octogenarian bent with suffering. The relationship between beauty and ugliness is rather the result of an evil enchantment and has no comment on her spirit or morals. From the beginning she is always virtuous and sweet, yet under a dreadful spell that causes her much suffering. Yet in the end the curse brings about its own undoing, as MacDonald's narrator assures us is the end result of all evil.
This story can not only be read as the 28th chapter of "At the Back of the North Wind" but also in a wonderful collection called "The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald". Read it out loud to those you love, and then to everyone else as well.

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