Friday, 6 February 2015

Toys, Fairyland and the Peasant Imagination, Part 2 - The Light Princess

After having written part 1 of this almost 4 years ago, I think it is time I revisited fairyland.  

To understand the fairy tale connection with the Haslemere Peasant Arts movement, it is important to start with George MacDonald.  He was the father of Greville MacDonald and in the words of Wikipedia: "a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer C.S. Lewis.  His writings have been cited as a major literary influence by many notable authors including W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle."  I will focus on the subject of fairy tales alone.  George MacDonald lived in Haslemere in the last years of his life, between 1900-1905, in St George's Wood on the Grayswood Road.  This house was built for MacDonald by his son, the architect Robert Falconer MacDonald.

MacDonald, George, The Light Princess and other Fairy Tales,
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1893
Having recently read MacDonald's The Complete Fairy Tales I think it is worth looking at some of the story lines in these short fairytales.  Some of the tales in this book are from MacDonald's books: Adela Cathcart, Dealings with the Fairies and At the Back of the North Wind.  The Light Princess is from Adela Cathcart (1864).

The Light Princess
This is one of MacDonald's most famous fairy tales.  In 2013 a new musical, The Light Princess by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson debuted at the National Theatre.  The official trailer for the musical is on YouTube here.

from The Light Princess, and Other fairy tales

The story begins mirroring the tale of Sleeping Beauty: a longed for baby princess is cursed at her christening by her forgotten aunt, Princess Makemnoit ("make 'em know it"), who is also a witch.  She  "deprives the child of all her gravity.  If you ask me how this was effected, I answer, "In the easiest way in the world.  She had only to destroy gravitation."  For the princess was a philosopher, and knew all the ins and outs of the laws of gravitation as well as the ins and outs of her boot-lace.  And being a witch as well, she could abrogate those laws in a moment; or at least so clog their wheels and rust their bearings, that they would not work at all."

The Light Princess,
illustration by Dorothy P. Lathrop
The Light Princess,
illustrated by William Pene du Bois, 1962

The baby Princess floats up to the ceiling and thus begins her life of weightlessness.  Below stairs, she plays ball with the servants by being the ball herself.  As she grows up she is so light-hearted that she can take nothing seriously.  "Perhaps the best thing for the princess would have been to fall in love.  But how a princess who had no gravity could fall into anything is a difficulty".  The palace is on the shore of the "loveliest lake in the world" and she discovers that when in the lake she can escape her gravitational curse.  She increasingly spends all of her time in the lake "in it alone she enjoyed her freedom.  For she could not walk out without a cortege, consisting in part of a troop of light-horse, for fear of the liberties which the wind might take with her.  And the king grew more apprehensive with increasing years, till at last he would not allow her to walk abroad at all without some twenty silken cords fastened to as many parts of her dress, and held by twenty noblemen.  Of course horseback was out of the question.  But she bade good-by to all this ceremony when she got into the water."

promotional photograph from The Light Princess,
the musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson,
National Theatre 2013

Hearing of the pleasure the lake gave the Light Princess, Princess Makemnoit unleases a White Snake of Darkness to drain the lake dry.  The only way to staunch the flow of the water is the body of a living man.  A passing prince who has fallen in love with the Princess, and has swum with her at night in the lake,  gallantly offers himself up to do so.  As he plugs the hole and slowly sinks under the water he is subject to the relative indifference of the Light Princess, until it appears that he has breathed his last breath at which point the Princess frantically pulls him out: "By this time her people were on the shore, for they had heard her shriek.  She made them carry the prince to her own room, and lay him in her bed, and light a fire, and send for the doctors.  "But the lake, your highness!" said the chamberlain, who, roused by the noise, came in, in his nightcap.  "Go and drown yourself in it!" she said."

from The Light Princess, and Other fairy tales

When the prince finally opens his eyes "the princess burst into a passion of tears, and fell on the floor.  There she lay for an hour, and her tears never ceased.  All the pent-up crying of her life was spent now.  And a rain came on, such as had never been seen in that country.  The sun shone all the time, and great, which fell straight to the earth, shone likewise.  The palace was in the heart of a rainbow.  It was a rain of rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and topazes. The torrents poured from the mountains like molten gold; and if it had not been for its subterraneous outlet, the lake would have overflowed and inundated the country.  It was full from shore to shore."  Her gravity restored, the Princess and Prince marry and live happily ever after.

The Light Princess
illustration by William Collins


  1. Hello Kate. I came across this while looking for something else and wondered if you'd seen it? "Revival of English handicrafts: the Haslemere industries," by Mary Schenck Woolson, The Craftsman (USA), Vol. 1 No.4, Jan 1902. It's digitised here but I couldn't open it.

  2. Hi Marshall. Many thanks for the link. Yes I have seen the article, I've got a link to it on my 'literature' page. It has a marvellous photograph of the Weaving House with a tree in the middle of the road outside and some children, one with a hoop. Plus it's a great article. I posted some of it here:

    Here's a link that should work to the article if you're interested. It requires a bit of patience to upload:

    Best wishes


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