ENGL 289: Classic and Contemporary Fairytales

English 289
March 2, 2011
Dr. Pennington

 “The Princess Looked Wild”: Sexuality and Gender in MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”

            Those who’ve studied George MacDonald’s fairy tales have drawn the conclusion that MacDonald often skews gender roles and coats the tale in sexual references. Roderick McGillis, for example, testifies that MacDonald “clearly sets out to challenge conventional notions of gender”. In addition to his meddling with gender norms, MacDonald’s tales also expose his child audience to sexual references whether the child can interpret them or not. In MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”, a popular tale of a weightless princess’s grounding, it is as if he reaches into our society’s set stereotypes of gender and physically mixes them until they are pleasantly mixed yet not indistinguishable. George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” follows a young princess’s fall from the realm of innocence into sexuality and the exploration of the male gender role.

            In “The Light Princess”, George MacDonald rejects John Rushkin and Charles Dickens’s definition of a fairy tale. He incorporates sex into several scenarios of the tale, and Rushkin believes that the fairy tale itself should stay within strict moral guidelines because “children need shielding from the ugliness of the world” (Pennington). However, Macdonald believes he can, with his fairy tales, allow the child to “embrace childhood innocence, adult experience, and religious imagination” (Pennington). Also stacked against the views of George MacDonald is Charles Dickens. In Dickens’s mind, in order for the fairy tale to be preserved “in their usefulness, they must be as much preserved in their simplicity, and purity, and innocent extravagance, as if they were actual fact” (Pennington). MacDonald, however, challenges the idea of preserving the fairy tale with the preservation of innocence, simplicity, and purity. To MacDonald, the fairy tale “is dependent upon the mutual dependence of reality and fantasy, clarity and translucence, meaning and mystery” and therefore is to remain unclear and explorative (McGillis). This opinion of George MacDonald’s should not be surprising since he has proclaimed his dislike of “finished, well-polished, sharp-edged systems” (McGillis). This being said, it’s obvious that he does not intend for his fairy tales to be clear-cut in the least. In fact, it is apparent that he uses sexuality in the fairy tale to “help young children overcome fear of their own sexuality and the changes it brings in their physiology” (McGillis). His meddling with gender roles and input of sexuality is a prime example of this in “The Light Princess”.

            There is very good reason for Rushkin to tell MacDonald that “The Light Princess” is “too amorous throughout” (Pennington).  The theme of sex is quite obvious to a watchful eye throughout the tale. For instance, fairly early on in the story MacDonald hints at fertility and the spreading of a seed in reference to the princess: “the day was so sultry that the little girl was wrapped in nothing less ethereal than slumber itself” when a “frolicsome fairy wind” came in through a window and carried her like “a dandelion seed” and took her under a rose bush (19). Several romantic notions were involved here, and it only begins the amorous theme in the tale. Later on in the story, she is blown into the arms of a young page, and “she must kiss—and she kissed the page. She did not mind it much; for she had no shyness in her composition; and she knew, besides, that she could not help it” (24). MacDonald pushes on with his theme of sex, and eventually introduces the reader to the lake scenes. The lake, after all, is the only place that allows the princess to regain gravity, but also the wet abyss represents the natural desire of sex for procreation purposes. The sexuality of the lake is very obvious in MacDonald’s description of the princess reaching the lake “through a shallow reedy passage” and “out into the wide wet water” (29). Her fear of falling from the innocence world of weightlessness and into the depth of sexuality is apparent. “‘Oh! If I had my gravity’ thought she, contemplating the water, ‘I would flash off this balcony like a long white sea-bird, headlong into the darling wetness’” (30). When the prince finally discovers the princess in the water, she is mentioned as a “woman” and no longer referred to as a girl. When he places her on the bank MacDonald points out that “no one has succeeded in putting her into a passion before” (33). When the couple plunges into the water together, “for a moment or two, she could not even laugh, for she had gone down with such a rush, that it was with difficulty she recovered her breath” (34). The sexuality of this description is undeniable, and causes the lake to become the location of the princess’s fall into sexuality; and the cure to her lightness “is to engage in a successful sexual relationship” (McGillis). In their discussion of falling into the lake, the princess says “It seemed to me like going up” and the prince admits that it was a feeling of elevation to him as well (34). That night, the prince dreamed of “swimming with the princess” (36). As they continued to swim together, “the princess was in ecstasies of delight, and their swim was delicious” (38). Such sexual adjectives and scenes create a gradual slope to the sexual climax of the fairy tale. After the prince volunteers his very life to save the princess’s lake, it creates the most sexual scene of all. The prince’s body is lodged in the hole while the princess sits alongside him and feeds him until he is to die. The description, however, is most scandalous.

The water rose and rose. It touched his chin. It touched his lower lip. It touched between his lips. He shut them hard to keep it out. The princess began to feel strange. It touched his upper lip.  He breathed through his nostrils. The princess looked wild. It covered his nostrils. Her eyes looked scared, and shone strange in the moonlight. His head fell back; the water closed over it, and the bubbles of his last breath bubbled up through the water. The princess gave a shriek, and sprang into the lake. (50)          

This highly sexual scene is the demonstration that the princess’s lightness is her innocence, and the falling into the lake with the prince is her sexual experience. Finally, we see her release her sexual desires and become “wild” when facing the death of the prince. The sexual theme in George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” is carried out by his meddling with gender norms.

             Because “The Light Princess” includes sex as one of its main themes, MacDonald also uses this tale as an opportunity to play with the perception of gender. According to Roderick McGillis, MacDonald “‘queers’ what he writes about just as he ‘queers’ the genres he chooses to write in.” In this case, the word “queer” refers to the fact that MacDonald portrays his characters’ masculinity as being deeply feminine (McGillis). In fact, his male characters tend to be associated with such things as daylight, work, rationality, physicality, travel, and leadership while his female characters tend to be associated with such things as moonlight, contemplation, imagination, spirituality, domesticity, and passivity (McGillis). This aligns perfectly in the tale “The Light Princess”. The princess prefers to swim in the moonlight, just as she grows wild in the boat while bathed in the same glow. The prince, however, steps up and sacrifices himself for the princess; demonstrating a sensitive masculinity that leans towards feminine rationality. This selfless sacrifice of the prince is parallel with the opinion of Roderick McGillis that “a reconfigured masculinity appears: the gentle, even angelic masculinity” in tales such as “The Light Princess”. For instance, the prince contemplates his sacrifice:

She will die if I don’t do it, and life would be nothing to me without her; so I shall lose nothing by doing it…How lovely the lake will be in the moonlight, with that glorious creature sporting in it like a wild goddess!  (44)

Not only does MacDonald fiddle with the role of masculinity in this tale, but he also plays with the feminine role. The princess is very sexual and this is usually quite taboo. His description of the near-death scene reminds us of this sexual emancipation. Because his female characters are usually associated with moonlight, it is no surprise that the moonlight-drenched swims had by the prince and princess are borderline erotic. This is quite obvious in the following description:

When the moon came, she brought them fresh pleasure. Everything looked strange and new in her light, with an old, withered yet unfading newness. When the moon was nearly full, one of their great delights was, to dive deep in the water, and then, turning round, look up through it at the great blot of light. (38)

Along with his incorporation of sexual themes, George MacDonald’s rearrangement of gender roles results in title as even more of a radical in the fairy tale genre.

            Though MacDonald’s intention for his fairy tales rejects the ideas of famed critic Rushkin and writer Dickens, his incorporation of sexuality and gender places him even farther into his winning the title of best writer of the original fairy tale. The incorporation of sex in “The Light Princess” will better introduce children to the adult world, and result in their own sexual exploration. As for the meddling of gender, it causes us as readers to view the modern-day world of gender differently. Stereotypes have been broken and we can now see people as being more androgynous. George MacDonald’s emancipation of the princess’s sexual desires deepens the poetic skewing of the prince’s masculinity, and results in a tale that still can be viewed as amorous.

Work Cited 

Pennington, John. “The ‘Childish Imagination’ of John Rushkin and George MacDonald: Introductory Speculations”. North Wind 16 (1997): 55-65. North Wind Archive. Web.

MacDonald, George. “The Light Princess”. George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales. London: Penguin Books 1999. 15-54. Print.

McGillis, Roderick. “‘A Fairytale Is Just a Fairytale’: George MacDonald and the Queering of Fairy”. Marvels & Tales 17 (2003): 86-99. ProjectMUSE. Web.

McGillis, Roderick. “George MacDonald Then and Now: The Case of ‘The Light Princess’”. North Wind. North Wind Archive. Web.