The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith. New York: William Morrow. 208 pp. $15. GEORGE MACDONALD belongs to what has often been called the Golden Age of English children's literature, a period that extended through the latter half of the 19th century and included such figures as Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Randolph Caldecott, Arthur Rackham, Rudyard Kipling, and Beatrix Potter. MacDonald may not be the best remembered or most celebrated of these figures, but a number of his classic ``fairy stories'' continue to attract an ardent following, especially among those readers who are drawn to fantasy literature, an area in which he is an important innovator. ``The Princess and the Goblin,'' MacDonald's second novel, was published in 1871, just a few years after the appearance of that ground-breaking work of fantasy, ``Alice in Wonderland.'' ``Alice,'' of course, is about what happens when everything is inverted -- logic, language, conventions, expectations. But MacDonald's friend Lewis Carroll told Alice's story as an accidental fall into a surreal dream world, with results that are puzzling and inconclusive. MacDonald's fantasies, on the other hand, trace the journeys that his young heroes and heroines must make in order to unravel the mysteries of their being. They embark on archetypal travels of the heart and soul to deeper, fuller understanding about the human spirit.
In ``The Princess and the Goblin,'' one of these travelers is Irene, a young princess whose mother has died and whose father, because he is such a responsible king, spends more time away from Irene administering his kingdom than he does at home, in his ``half castle, half farm-house'' in the mountains. The mountains, meanwhile, are full of ugly goblins, who live underground, cultivating their centuries-old grudge against one of the king's ancestors and the rest of the surface dwellers, the ``sun-people.'' They are plotting revenge: to kidnap the princess and make her the bride of the prince of the goblins.
Half the story is about Irene's growth as a person who can eventually cope with this threat from the forces of darkness that are burrowing within the mountain beneath her. To gain the inner strength that she will need, she is nurtured by her great-great-grandmother, a beautiful and mysterious woman whom only Irene can see. She lives in the attic of the castle, spinning the gossamer thread that later helps Irene to rescue her friend Curdie, the son of one of the local miners' families, from the goblins.
This new edition of the novel, with its generous size and its misty-eyed illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith, was first published in 1920, and it is good to have it back again. In some places MacDonald's Victorian diction is a little worn, and in others it can sound rather precious and cloying to the modern ear. But despite these and other marks of time, the novel still succeeds in making its magical voyage of self-discovery.