Since this is actually a sequel to MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, I’ll start with a bit of backstory:
Princess Irene, the widowed king’s only child, has been raised in a manor house in the mountains which run along the periphery of the kingdom of Gwyntystorm. While humans mine the portions accessible from the mountains’ surface, a malicious race of goblins, and their cobs (domesticated animals), live not too terribly far below these humans’ scratchings. The goblins, led by their King and Queen, are planning to break out of their imprisonment under the humans; Curdie the brave, honest miner boy and the Princess Irene must thwart this without the aid of the adults, other than the princess’s “great-great-great-grandmother”, also named Irene, who lives in what the adults believe to be an abandoned tower along with her doves and pigeons, emissaries of her soul.
This adventure brings Curdie to the attention of the king himself, who offers the boy a place in his court. Curdie refuses, preferring to remain with his beloved parents.
The Princess and Curdie picks up about a year later, when the elder Princess Irene summons Curdie to her tower, in order to task him with travelling to the capital of the kingdom, where things have begun to go awry. Curdie sets off for the capital, armed with a pure heart, his mattock and a magical gift given him by the elder Princess, the ability to tell a person’s inner nature by grasping his (or her) hand, and accompanied by Lina, one of the gargoyle-like goblin’s creatures1. Along the way, they collect a band of phantasmagorical creatures, from a meters-long snake with four near useless legs clustered at one end and rudimentary wings at the other, a tapir-like creature with a flexible nose more hard than Curdie’s mattock, to a ball-like creature which can only roll about.
They arrive in Gwyntystorm, only to find the city in a grave state of moral decay–greedy, lazy, corrupt and distrustful of strangers to the point of setting vicious dogs on anyone from outside the city. Curdie takes refuge with one of the honest city residents, only to be captured and tossed into a subterranean cellar to await trial…but little do they know that the underground holds no barrier that Our Brave Miner Boy cannot overcome. He and Lina work together to escape into what turns out to be the castle’s wine cellar. There they find a castle whose lower levels are awash with more filth and corruption2, save only the quarters in which the ailing king is tended by his faithful daughter, wise beyond her years.
The two, aided by the few remaining honest servants and town residents, begin to nurse the king back to health with wholesome bread and wine, and refreshing sleep unbothered by medicines3. However, the corrupt councilmembers and courtiers, having fled to the neighboring kingdom of Borsagrass, return backed by the (armed) forces of that kingdom…but are thwarted by the noble king, his stalwart colonel, and Curdie and Lina’s army of cobs….oh, and a housemaid with a penchant for pigeons.
Like many of the Victorian-era “children’s” books, these two do have a moralizing streak in them, although they’re not nearly so sanctimonious as, say, The Water-Babies; they’re closer to The Wind in The Willows in this regard. In MacDonald’s case, it’s more that he stops periodically to insert maxims of proper behavior for kids: true princesses are uneasy if they’ve done wrong but not had the chance to admit their fault and make it right, or children must respect and love their parents. Lina and her beastie followers are collectively another example; MacDonald strongly implies that they were all human prior to taking on these monstrous forms as a punishment for the evils they have done; in aiding Curdie, they are redeeming themselves.
What to read next? Well, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series are a good choice for kids who love fantasies set in a slightly archaic world of legend, but don’t care for the multisyllabic Victorian vocabulary of this one. And for those who do, try The Wind in the Willows, for a slightly simpler take or William Morris and Lord Dunsany for a more complex one.
1Lina resembles nothing more than the ugliest of all wolfhounds, with a tail the size of a carpet runner and a lower jaw full of icicle-like fangs.
2moral and physical
3modern hospitals might want to make note of the ‘uninterrupted sleep’ and ‘good food’ aspects of this care, though somehow I doubt that wine will make it to the menu any time soon