A young princess finds herself in a kingdom beset by creeping shadows—monsters which lurk far underground. In the darkness below they tunnel endlessly, plotting to one day rise up and take over. Who from the kingdom will challenge this dark foe? Who is worthy to lead the forces of good to beat back the enemy once and for all? This is what fairy tales are made of. We know what's supposed to happen next. A prince will arise, seeking to win the heart of the princess. And what better way to do that than to fashion himself into a fearless, conquering hero who can do anything simply because he believes in himself? It makes perfect sense to our modern ears. As the great philosopher and poet of our age Miley Cyrus once said, “If you believe in yourself anything is possible.” (It’s impossible to find the source of this quote, but I'm sure we will eventually if only we believe in ourselves enough.) But while the prince is off on his own saving the day, one question remains. What's a princess to do in the meantime?
Perhaps Princess Irene can help us out with this question. In the children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, Princess Irene is an eight-year-old girl with a penchant for exploring. Her curiosity takes her to all kinds of exciting places, whether that’s getting lost on the rocky slopes of the nearby mountain as daylight begins to fade, or getting lost wandering the endless hallways and staircases of her father’s castle. Her poor nursemaid Lootie. She looks away for one moment and little Princess Irene is gone again, probably getting captured by goblins for all she knows. When Irene comes back one day with a tale about meeting her great-great-grandmother in the attic, Lootie will have none of it and notes that “princesses are in the habit of telling make-believes.”
How should a princess act? Lootie has some pretty low expectations. If young princesses are indeed so prone to spreading lies then we can’t really expect better of them. No wonder the prince gets the responsibility of saving the day. Princess Irene, however, continues to defy expectations. She has some very different ideas for how a princess should behave. As she tells Lootie at one point, “Nurse, a princess must not break her word.” You see, Irene has standards. But it's also possible to take her statement the wrong way. Maybe she's saying that it’s perfectly all right for you vulgar peasants to engage in petty trickery and deceit, but as for us royals, we will not stoop to that level. Irene's standards show up again when she gets rather annoyed at Lootie for dismissing her strange story about talking to her great-great-grandmother. MacDonald writes, “Not to be believed does not at all agree with princesses: for a real princess cannot tell a lie.” Well, I guess that settles it. A true royal simply comes from better stock than the rest of us and is therefore naturally virtuous and morally superior. No wonder they’re granted the divine right to rule. No one else is qualified.
David Raphael Hilder
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