Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros92 AutommeAdult-Led Conversations Between A...‘In physical things a man may inv...

Adult-Led Conversations Between Adult Narrators and Child Readers

‘In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey’: Addressing the Child(like) in George MacDonald’s Fairy Stories

« In Physical Things a Man May Invent; in Moral Things He Must Obey » : quand les contes féeriques de George MacDonald s’adressent aux enfants petits et grands
Audrey Doussot


George MacDonald fait partie des auteurs victoriens qui ont pris part au renouveau du conte féerique avant que celui-ci ne devienne un des genres par excellence de la littérature jeunesse. À une époque où les enfants commencent à être considérés comme un lectorat à part entière, MacDonald entreprend de s’adresser à eux, mais n’en oublie pas les adultes pour autant. Ses contes visent ainsi à divertir mais surtout à édifier un public jeune tout autant qu’un public d’adultes ayant gardé une âme d’enfant. Entre tradition et modernité, ses écrits féeriques s’appuient sur l’omniprésence du narrateur pour mener leurs héros et leurs lecteurs sur le chemin d’une rectitude morale à toute épreuve. Tout à la fois amicaux, attentionnés, et moralement intransigeants, les narrateurs des contes de MacDonald s’inscrivent dans la veine didactique des contes traditionnels mais reflètent également le tournant subversif pris par le genre dans l’Angleterre victorienne. Ces figures de probité et de clairvoyance promeuvent en effet une ouverture d’esprit propre à ouvrir aux lecteurs les portes d’une réalité alternative, qui bien que surnaturelle, les invite à remettre en question le modèle et les valeurs de la société de leur époque. En l’enfant petit ou grand, MacDonald voit un interlocuteur privilégié, un réformateur en puissance, pourvu qu’il soit accompagné dans sa quête de sens. Ses contes féeriques et les différentes voix de la sagesse qu’ils font résonner sont là pour ça.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1George MacDonald’s birth in 1824 was concomitant with the revival of the British interest in fairy tales. Raised in a deeply religious family versed in literature and Celtic lore, he was also very much influenced by German Romantic authors. From the 1850s on, he explored the realm of Fairyland and produced stories that are still regarded as classics of children’s literature. Ranging from fairy tales to novella-length fantasies, these texts belong to what is now considered an unprecedented moment in the history of British literature which simultaneously saw the ‘literary institutionalization of the fairy tale’ (Zipes xiv) and ‘the first Golden Age of Children’s Literature’ (Wall 40). As MacDonald wrote in a context of social and cultural change which involved the appearance of a childhood cult and culture, his texts contributed to the establishment of a form of literature made for children at a time when they were assigned a new status after the Romantic revision of the notion of childhood and the emergence of a bourgeois lifestyle that valorized family life (Wullschläger 26–27). Blending tradition and innovation, his fairy tales reconsider the genre’s storytelling conventions so as to better address and enlighten a Victorian audience composed of readers and listeners of all ages. Such an audience matches Barbara Wall’s definition of ‘dual address’, a process by which texts address ‘both children and adults simultaneously’ (22), taking the two audiences equally seriously while trying to allow ‘adult narrator and child narratee a conjunction of interests’ (35). As they take their dual audience into consideration and aim at dual address these tales are also instances of cross-writing, or, as John Pennington and Roderick McGillis explain, writing that ‘appeals to both the child and the adult. Some might call it fiction for all ages’ (viii).

2Michael Newton further notes that fairy tales by major Victorian writers like George MacDonald, W. M. Thackeray or Oscar Wilde ‘do not envision an absolute literary divide between children and adults, but rather appeal to the literariness of the child and the childlike in the adult reader’ (xvii). Interestingly, MacDonald himself named his ideal audience ‘the childlike’ (MacDonald 1999, 7) and conceptualized it as including not only adults and children but also, more remarkably, the child in the adult. Derived from the Romantic child, ‘the childlike’ is an ideal that defies the Victorian conceptions of adult and child. It glorifies frankness, open-mindedness and immaturity—in the sense of moral purity uncorrupted by adult cravings for power, status or prosperity. Liberated from narrow-minded norms, the childlike is more receptive to seemingly irrational discourses, like the marvels and wonders described in fairy tales, and is therefore a perfect addressee for MacDonald’s ‘utopian’ tales which, according to Jack Zipes, sought to ‘suggest alternatives to common English practice’ and to open ‘our eyes to the ossification of a society blind to its own faults and injustices’ (xxiii–xxiv). Victorian fairy tale writers, Zipes also argues, ‘always had two ideal audiences in mind when they composed their tales—young middle-class readers whose minds and morals they wanted to influence, and adult middle-class readers whose ideas they wanted to challenge and reform’ (xi). Engaged as he was in perpetuating the history of the fairy tale while trying to change mentalities, MacDonald could not but have the middle-class audience in mind—if only because the genre was very successful in this section of society whose prosperity and positive appreciation of family life supported the emergence of products meant for children. As stated by Zipes, the ‘moral impulse’ traditionally present in fairy tales particularly appealed to a Victorian middle class whose ‘gradual recognition and acceptance’ of the genre stemmed from their realizing that ‘the rigid, didactic training and literature used to rear their children was dulling their senses and creativity’ (xviii). As a result, the Victorians reexamined their relationship to the fairy tale because they saw in it a genre that could offer both recreation and food for thought for the whole family (xviii). The renewed trust of the Victorians in imagination after years of rejection by the Enlightenment did not mean that fairy tales could indulge in reckless fantasy and overlook their traditional bent towards didacticism though. Barbara Wall rightly underlines that writers writing for children in this period were aware that ‘[although] they were writing for children, they needed also to satisfy adult standards of what was considered appropriate for children’ (40). And what was considered appropriate for children then was literature that would certainly entertain but, above all, edify.

3In this context, fairy tales were still expected, at least by middle-class parents, to offer relevant models for socialization. ‘The young’, Gillian Avery comments, ‘would be educated and improved through their reading, reasoned into sensible and upright behaviour through moral tales . . . and although writers treated the child with increasing tenderness . . . , there was still a tendency to lecture and reprove’ (126). For Avery, Victorian authors were still endowed with the pedagogical mission of ‘giving their stories a morality that fitted the society for whom they were writing’ (131). As a writer of fairy tales for the whole family, George MacDonald certainly aroused expectations of didactic moral discourse among his readers; however, a close reading of his texts reveal his tendency to fulfill his pedagogical mission in a rather subversive way. Positioning himself in relation to the dominant socializing process, the author promoted a strong code of ethics but paradoxically did not hesitate to question the ideology valued by the middle-class society for whom he was writing. MacDonald’s fairy texts invite readers, whatever their age, to react to what they are told. Adults and children alike, provided that they prove ‘childlike’ enough, are encouraged to challenge commonly accepted discourses and values but only to the extent that this can lead them to improve themselves. They are expected to use their imagination as much as their intellect to revise their certainties, insofar as their calling into question of the world they live in is in accordance with ethical principles that will help them become better individuals. The purpose of what follows is therefore to examine how MacDonald makes use of a carefully constructed narrative voice to guide his audience on the way to Fairyland as well as on the way to personal reevaluation and social reform. We will consider how his fairy texts seek, firstly, to address Victorian children specifically within the framework of his personal approach to readership, which combines the notions of ‘childlike’ ideal addressees and dual address; and, secondly, to give them means to find a way of making sense of the world and of their lives within a strong moral framework that can at times be at odds with the realities of Victorian society. As we will also try to demonstrate, part of George MacDonald’s reinterpretation of the fairy tale conventions is indeed a response to the Victorian appropriation of the genre and the partial rejuvenation of its audience—an authorly search for ways to convey his moral and social views even to the youngest and, ultimately, to all of those who had the ‘childlike’ turn of mind to welcome them.

4In his 1871 fantasy At the Back of the North Wind, MacDonald introduces a noteworthy embodiment of the figure of the storyteller, Mr Raymond. This character both nods to the fairy tale tradition that he was keen to emulate and encapsulates some of the issues that he had to face as a teller of fairy stories in the Victorian context. Mr Raymond is friends with Diamond, the young protagonist of the story and this gentleman happens to be a writer. As they visit a children’s hospital together, Mr Raymond is asked by the children to tell a fairy tale. Standing amidst the children so that they can all see and hear him, he gives an oral performance of a tale entitled ‘Little Daylight’ that no one has ever heard before because as he explains: ‘[the tale] came into my head this morning . . . and if it turns out well, I will write it down, and get somebody to print it for me, and then you shall read it when you like’ (237). Identified in the text as the author of ‘the story of the Little Lady and the Goblin Prince’ (314), Mr Raymond is no mere storyteller repeating and/or elaborating on an old anonymous tale but the creator and writer of his stories, reminding the audience that fairy tales are now legitimate literary business. Furthermore, as Roderick McGillis notes, here is ‘a reference to a book by the author George MacDonald which is yet unpublished. When it does appear [in 1872] it will have the title, The Princess and the Goblin’ so that the author ‘duplicates himself in the person of Mr Raymond’ (McGillis 86). MacDonald’s choice to limit Mr Raymond’s addressees to a group of children to whom he appears significantly close suggests his intention to give a prominent place to the young in his audience. Finally, the figure elected by the author to be his literary double reveals his own awareness of the nature of his audience and of the conditions in which his texts could be read.

5Being a bachelor gentleman, that is, a figure of Victorian society who was probably not expected to engage in activities with children, Mr Raymond embodies the challenge of giving adults the possibility to tell or read fairy tales to children without endangering their adult status and the adult-child power relationship. Analyzing the importance of the narrative voice in nineteenth-century children’s books, Barbara Wall remarks:

Children, no doubt, wished to like the voice in which they were addressed by the narrator; but adults demanded, in the books which they thought suitable for children to read, a narrating voice of which they could approve. Books to be read aloud demanded a voice the adult reader could identify with without loss of dignity; books to be read silently . . . must be narrated by a voice which could command the respect of both children and adults. (Wall 41)

6As a respectable gentleman and writer, Mr Raymond surely had the adequate profile and social status to satisfy the adult reader; but what reaction did such a character provoke in his child audience? ‘They [the children] all listened with apparent satisfaction, and certainly with great attention’ (237) and they ‘were delighted with the story, and made many amusing remarks upon it’ (260). Such narratorial comments suggest that his performance was appreciated by the young listeners of ‘Little Daylight’ and encourage us to think that it could be equally appreciated by the young audience of At the Back of the North Wind. MacDonald’s storytelling character reveals the author’s particular attention for his juvenile audience as well as his will to be able, like Mr Raymond, to satisfy them. If we are to identify Mr Raymond with MacDonald, then we can see in this gentleman storyteller the embodiment of the Victorian author’s hope of finding the right words, voice and narrative persona to reach the young, in order to, perhaps, have some impact on their minds through his storytelling. George MacDonald, writing fairy tales through which he hoped to reach the youth without alienating the adults, thus had to adapt his writing to the specific nature of an audience, that, he knew, had diverging expectations and positions. Mr Raymond’s performance can thus be read as a mise en abyme exposing the author’s condition as a writer of tales meant for adults and children alike. It reflects MacDonald’s own situation, as he too had to bridge the gap in age and status separating him from his younger readership.

7It is a prerequisite often mentioned by specialists of children’s literature that targeting a child audience first implies adapting language and literary practices to ensure good communication and understanding without weakening the discourse that the writers aim at conveying. ‘[T]he challenge’ Wall remarks ‘is a stiff one: to adjust language concepts and tone to the understanding of the child without loss of meaning, significance and dignity’ (18). In his effort to reach the young and convey to them his views in a manner both for formative and entertaining purposes, MacDonald paid careful attention to the language that he used as well as to the voices and personas delivering his message to his readers. In doing so, he revitalized the fairy tale tradition and made the most of the fantastic mode to give his audience a powerful depiction of his vision of the world and of childhood. Exemplifying the author’s distinctive blending of traditional and modernized elements, the beginning of The Princess and the Goblin illustrates how he reworked the fairy tale genre with his audience in mind. The opening words—‘there was once a little princess whose father was king over a great country’ (1)—replicate the conventional introductory formula of fairy tales and indicate the author’s intention to find a place of his own within a long storytelling tradition. Such an elementary yet promising sentence evoking the beginning of so many tales was bound to engage a Victorian audience who was rediscovering fairy literature. With its objective, non-interfering narration, the whole of the first paragraph of the book actually follows the standards of the fairytale genre which favor the anonymity and neutralization of the narrative voice that facilitate the effortless transmission of the story from one storyteller to another. As early as the second paragraph MacDonald however moves away from the traditional model and punctuates his text with marks of an individual narrating presence: ‘The princess . . . at the time my story begins was about eight years old, I think . . . I doubt if ever she saw the real sky with the stars in it, for a reason which I had better mention at once’ (2). The change in tone is notable. The author constructs an unconventional narrator who claims authorship, draws the audience’s attention to the storytelling process but also acknowledges the possibility of inaccuracy in the story. Leaving perceptible traces of what Ivan Kreilkamp calls ‘individuated storytelling’ (59), he shifts the narrative voice from universal to personal, instilling thereby his subjectivity into the tale.

8MacDonald’s narration reduces the distance between the reader and the narrator usually found in traditional fairy tales. His reinterpretation of the figure of the narrator is part of his authorial project to create proximity with his audience, and especially with the young in this audience. He was also apparently aware that, in order to make his tales interesting and understandable to children, he had to adjust his writing to the capacities and interests of his juvenile addressees, if only by using expressions and vocabulary they could understand and by including themes and references relevant to a child’s universe. The previous quotations suggested MacDonald’s ability to use in his narratorial statements a common, unadorned language, which is sometimes close to mimicking the spoken language that may have been used in old oral fairytale storytelling. The same simplicity is perceptible in the following passage and so is his intention to place his story within the reach of his juvenile audience:

I have said the Princess was about eight years old when my story begins. And this is how it begins. One very wet day . . . she got so tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her. You would wonder at that if I had time to describe to you one half of the toys she had. . . . It was a picture, though, worth seeing—the princess sitting in the nursery . . . at a great table covered with her toys. . . . The next moment after you see her sitting there . . . the princess wakes up a little, and looks about her. Then she tumbles off her chair and runs out of the door. (MacDonald 1996, 6)

9In addition to signposting language leading his readers through what is being told (‘this is how it begins’), MacDonald uses straightforward language and basic syntactic structures (‘she got so tired’). His comment on the remarkable nature of the princess’s toys together with his direct address ‘you’ suggest the possibility of a conversation between the narrator and a juvenile addressee. This passage is also reminiscent of Mr Raymond’s storytelling performance in At the Back of the North Wind, which would tend to confirm that MacDonald believed in the efficiency of a conversational tone to generate proximity with the readers.

10To strengthen the impact of the direct address, the author also anticipates the young narratees’ possible reactions (‘you would wonder’), showing his intuition of how children can respond to his allusion to toys and of how to rouse interest in such a readership. To hook his child readers, MacDonald draws the portrait of a bored girl who is about to embark on an adventure. The scene immerses the young into a state of discontented inactivity that they may have experimented themselves. He thus narrates an episode not only plausibly familiar to them but also potentially attention-grabbing. Making his readers witnesses of the scene (‘you see’), MacDonald tries to draw them in and invites them to identify with his young heroine and take part into the story. There is however some guidance in the way the narrative voice introduces the readers to the princess’s story. As he leads his readers into his story, the narrator of The Princess and the Goblin appears somewhat prescriptive about the way they should read the story (‘you would wonder’, ‘the next moment after you see her. . .’). If this narrator is prone to confess his fallibility—not being always quite sure of what he can state with certainty or having not so much time to tell a story (‘if I had time’), he nonetheless shows more confidence when directing the readers through the story.

11Narrative intrusions, in George MacDonald’s fairy tales, may be here as much to create complicity between the narrator and the child reader as to supervise an acceptable, if not recommended, reading of the tale. MacDonald’s narrators often ask questions which are meant to stimulate the intellect or imagination of readers, if only by questioning their expectations in terms of fairy tale conventions or Victorian etiquette, but they are rarely true open questions. When the children in ‘Cross Purposes’ meet an owl with a book in one foot ‘muttering to himself’, the narrator seizes the opportunity to test his readership’s imagination: ‘And what do you think the owl was saying? I will tell you. He was talking about the book that he held upside down in his foot, . . . so learned was he’ (MacDonald 1999, 112). His questions sometimes require deeper reflection. For instance, he encourages the reader to ponder on the relevance of fairy tales like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ to young girls, when marriage and romantic courtship in Victorian Great Britain were infused with social considerations concerning class and respectability. Instead of leaving his questions unanswered, the narrator immediately provides his own answers again and orients his readers’ opinion. The narrator’s questions are really rhetorical. They do not require answers from readers but get the readers thinking only to influence their response.

I never knew of any interference on the part of a wicked fairy that did not turn out a good thing in the end. What a good thing, for instance, it was that one princess should sleep for a hundred years! Was she not saved from the plague of young men who were not worthy of her? And did she not come awake exactly at the right moment when the right prince kissed her? For my part, I cannot help wishing a good many girls would sleep till just the same fate overtook them. It would be happier for them, and more agreeable to their friends. (MacDonald 2001, 241)

12Never mentioning the title of the tale to which he refers, the narrator takes it for granted that his audience will identify the princess in question. The thinly veiled reference to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in this passage is an instance of how MacDonald tried to place children and adults on an equal footing, if only temporarily. MacDonald aimed at improving the communication with the young by relating his stories to some shared knowledge that children and adults, like him or their parents, may have had. The Princess and the Goblin contains a comparable reference which is even more revealing of how MacDonald sought to interact with his whole audience through the inclusion of a common fairy tale heritage, hence creating a form of transgenerational proximity. As his hero, Curdie, uses a ball of string to find his way in the mines, he explains:

In order [to return from his expedition], he had brought a huge ball of fine string, having learned the trick from Hop-o’-my-Thumb, whose history his mother had often told him. Not that Hop-o’-my-Thumb had ever used a ball of string—I should be sorry to be supposed so far out in my classics—but the principle was the same as that of the pebbles. (94)

13The narrator, who obviously intends to accompany his narratees in their meaning-making process, makes his intertextual reference to what he calls a classic strikingly explicit. An adult would certainly have understood the comparison without the second sentence but, seemingly, MacDonald felt that some clarification was necessary for the less learned minds. Such narratorial remarks actually reveal a specificity of the young reading public. Because, as Wall explains, child readers ‘not only lack experience but also the words in which to describe and analyse experience’ (248), they ‘just [begin] to master the conventions of fiction and must continually be taught how to read their works by the writers themselves’ (204). Again, MacDonald, focusing on the youngest among his readers, shows great care in making sure that they grasp the meaning of what he intends to be a common ground for adults and children and the right framework in which to interpret his tales.

14To address the young and their need for more supervision in reading texts, MacDonald appears to have counted on some pervasive narratorial guidance whose persuasion would come from the nature of the narrator’s persona. As indicated by the numerous allusions to fairy tales and the rules governing Fairyland in his texts, the distinctive narrative voice created by the author is that of a connoisseur of the genre whose authority comes from his knowledge of the subject and who, as a result, is in a legitimate position to teach children how to read fairy tales. MacDonald’s narratorial omnipresence constructs a narrative personality whose authority, beyond scholarly authority, is linked to experience, status and moral strength. The tone is caring but firm, sometimes playful, sometimes severe, as is the tone of a paterfamilias who plays with his children but also educates them. This tone may well be an example of what Aidan Chambers identifies as the conventional, ‘direct, clear, polite, firm, [and] uncluttered’ (82) tone traditionally used in English children’s literature. Considering the works of twentieth-century author Roald Dahl, Chambers further defines this distinctive tone in a description that could have been written about MacDonald’s own works: ‘[The tone of voice] sets up a sense of intimate, yet adult-controlled, relationship between [the author’s] second self and his implied child reader. . . . It is, in fact, the tone of a friendly adult story-teller who knows how to entertain children while at the same time keeping them in their place’ (69). There is indeed a combination of intimacy and authority in MacDonald’s narrative tone and if it helps the author reach his child audience, it also certainly helps him achieve a form of dual address that includes adults as well. Consider for instance this passage from The Princess and the Goblin: ‘[the princess] didn’t hang on to the handle of the door, and stare without moving, as I have known some do who ought to have been princesses but were only rather vulgar little girls. She did as she was told, stepped inside the door at once, and shut it gently behind her’ (12). The narrator here describes a young princess’s impeccable behavior as in any traditional fairy tale but he also gives his young audience a parental lesson in good manners. MacDonald’s narrative stance establishes another type of proximity bringing the adult storyteller and the adult reader together in their common preoccupation with socializing children and teaching them to behave in ways that are generally accepted in society. In this respect, the author manages to produce a narrative voice that can reconcile children’s and adults’ varying expectations described by Wall (41): it is a voice that children can find acceptable and enjoyable and that adults can approve of and identify with. MacDonald’s narratorial identity actually reflects his willingness to endorse the tutorial responsibility with which writers in the position of being read to or by children were endowed in his time.

15With a view to satisfying adults’ standards, he assumes roles which matched those accepted by adults in the situation of communicating with children in Victorian society. One of those is the role of parent and his recurrent directives for children to behave well show his readiness to address children as a surrogate parental figure. For Wall, surrogate parent or teacher or preacher were indeed the main roles appropriated by nineteenth-century writers’ narrative personas (42), and George MacDonald assumed all of them. ‘She did as she was told’, he tells about Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin. Here is a key-sentence summarizing his position concerning the moral didacticism of fairy tales. His texts are scattered with aphoristic statements such as ‘The road to the next duty is the only straight one’ (MacDonald 1996, 7), ‘we must accept righteous sacrifices as well as make them’ (MacDonald 1994, 8), or ‘when a child’s heart is all right, it is not likely he will want to keep anything from his parents’ (MacDonald 1994, 33). The modal verbs and the present tense give instructional weight to these sentences. Assertive and demanding when it comes to morality, the voice is that of a surrogate teacher in morals. It scolds those straying from the straight and narrow path but extols virtuous behaviors. ‘In physical things’ MacDonald wrote ‘a man may invent; in moral things he must obey—and take [the laws of the spirit] with him into his invented world’ (1999, 7). His tales therefore exhibit a strict moral code to be respected whatever the situation. Praising consistency, he insists on the necessity for humans to conform to morality and tolerates no questioning of the high standards he champions in his tales, even if those might go against the ambient Victorian ideology. This attitude notably leads him to subvert the Victorian central notions of gentlemanliness and nobility. Building on Murray Knowles and Kirsten Malmkjær’s argument that MacDonald’s main concern was to ‘establish nobility as a moral, rather than a social, concept’ (171), Osama Jarrar claims that ‘[the author] believed that anyone, young, old, rich or poor, could attain salvation by the cultivation of the inner goodness of the heart and soul. So it is no accident that [his] fairy tales and fantasy novels picture poor characters as noble’ (16). For Jarrar, MacDonald, in redefining the notion of nobility in terms of personal ethics above all, undermines the standard beliefs, whether moral, religious or social, held in his time.

The Victorian middle-class, in MacDonald’s eyes, had internalized a false notion of gentleness and nobility, believing that nobility of character was exclusive to people of high rank. This idea was based on a traditional hierarchy, which necessitated the presence of wealth and high social rank. This meant that the poor were excluded from the privileged structure of the Victorian social scale [and would] always remain inferior to the rich. . . . MacDonald’s nonconformity stems from the fact that he challenges the supposed hereditary gentleness of middle-class ideology, and rationalizes his assumptions on the grounds that nobility of character is genetic . . . . Nobility, in MacDonald’s view, was not bound to a specific social class. . . . One should be aware that MacDonald was a Congregational minister and because he expressed his heterodox views about salvation from the pulpit, he [was] forced to resign. (Jarrar 15–16)

16MacDonald’s narratorial comments that shed a highly positive value on poor characters such as Curdie, whose ‘elevation makes him a prince’ (Knowles and Malmkjær 180) in the Princess books, or Nanny in At the Back of the North Wind, who is ‘so sweet, and gentle, and refined that she might have had a gentleman and a lady for a father and mother’ (234) incite his readers, both young and adult, to reconsider the way they judge people. He particularly shows children that it is possible to take distance from established norms and that it is a fault to judge by appearances.

17Overall, MacDonald’s narrative persona emphasizes the necessity of valuing strong moral standards to abide by to lead a decent, respectable and rewarding life, instead of misleading social hierarchies, deceitful values or corrupting material riches. Only such values can indeed help children live up to their full potential as individuals. As embodied by the model characters of Irene and Curdie in The Princess books or Diamond in At the Back of the North Wind, willing, helpful and, above all, obedient children are rewarded; contrariwise, faulty children are severely punished. One good example is ‘The Wise Woman’ in which a female fairy means to reform two young girls’ warped personalities. The fairy acts more than she speaks but the narrator formulates the moral teachings to be remembered: ‘To be conceited of doing one’s duty is a sign of how little . . . one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures’ (MacDonald 1999, 262). The girls’ greatest fault is for MacDonald their self-conceit that keeps them from being open to the rest of the world and from understanding the importance of self-effacement in carrying out one’s duties. Like his other tales, ‘The Wise Woman’ advocates values of obedience, industry, courage and the capacity to re-evaluate and reform oneself, even if it means going against the norm. In this tale, the author chastises childish faults as much as he denounces the development of ‘societal conventions [that] restrict self-development’ in Victorian society (Zipes 176). As he points to a need for change while advocating strong moral values, MacDonald—a minister and a brilliant orator himself (Raeper 5)—adopts a markedly didactic narrative posture through which he can assume the role of surrogate preacher mentioned by Wall. Such a teacher-preacher-father persona gives both appeal and authority to his (re)formative messages. Simultaneously close and firm, as Chambers noticed, MacDonald’s narrative voice offers guidance but also opens new perspectives. It draws the readers’ attention to characters who seem to depart from Victorian norms but only prove, in the end, that there are alternatives to the Victorian way of seeing and doing things. Seeking, in Zipes’s own terms, to influence the young as well as to challenge and reform the adults, MacDonald certainly knew about the duality of an audience whom he meant to entertain and teach. However, when composing his fairy tales, he may have had a different image of his audience in mind, one that was not so much characterized by duality as by similarity. And this very personal view of what he conceived as his ideal audience was consistent with his approach to the fairy tale as a potentially subversive and reformative discourse.

18‘For my part I do not write for children but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five,’ George MacDonald wrote in his essay ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1999, 7). Distinguishing himself from other Victorian fairy tale writers, he conceptualizes a specific implied narratee whom he would more particularly address. As he endeavors to bring together adults and children into one readership community, he transcends the age gap to reach the child as well as the child in the adult. A common set of qualities thus characterizes individuals whose age has, in the end, little importance. A remarkable purity of the soul, a capacity to wonder, and unprejudiced innocence constitute the childlike turn of mind. For U. C. Knoepflmacher, however, the most striking feature of the childlike is a noteworthy ease in dealing with the elusiveness and indefinability of our world and in accepting that there may be not one but multiple meanings in fairy stories as well as in life. Underlining how, in ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, ‘MacDonald exploits the unease of a putative reader who confesses his inability to come up with the ‘meaning’ of fairy tales’ Knoepflmacher argues:

When such a reader worries that he might pass on his own confusion to the child he is expected to guide, MacDonald coyly suggests that this insecurity may itself be instructive: ‘If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so?. . . A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. . . It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning’. Indeed, MacDonald proposes that children are far more comfortable with unsettled meanings than their adult counterparts; they possess something like a Keatsian ‘negative capability’ that allows them to keep contraries in suspension without feeling compelled to come up with a singular ‘right’ answer. Instead of demanding hierarchies of meaning, children . . . willing to entertain multiple perspectives . . . MacDonald therefore invites his adult readers to adopt the same elasticity and open-mindedness that come naturally to the child. (MacDonald 1999, ix–x)

19Underlying the childlike is a vision of the child as an unadulterated mind open to unfamiliarity and unprecedented experiences that will primarily interpret people and situations intuitively according to his/her own criteria, and not according to predetermined sociocultural patterns. MacDonald’s construction of the childlike thus conveys his belief that imagination is the most powerful form of perception. It is noticeable that the author even equates insight with the capacity to literally see in the Princess books where Irene and Curdie embody two different stages of childlike perceptiveness. Young Princess Irene immediately perceives her fairy great-great-grandmother and hardly has doubts about her existence, unlike Curdie who is older and who is for a long time unable to see her. Raised among the miners who consider fairies as foolish old wives’ tales, he has lost contact with his childlike nature. The narrator makes it unambiguous that, as he grows more mature, Curdie becomes less open to supernatural possibilities (MacDonald 1994, 10). Curdie’s case is a reminder for readers not to disregard their childhood innocence as it will restrict their understanding of the world, and notably their ability to perceive some truths unattainable through rational thinking. If Irene is a model for youngsters, Curdie is one for adults who are urged to recapture their original childhood naivety. In conceptualizing the childlike as a potential in every one of us to be preserved and trusted, MacDonald perpetuates the idea of childhood as a visionary stage and insists on the possibility for it to last into adulthood. In his fairy tales the childlike is, as can be expected, first embodied by children. Although he is less loquacious about them, there are also instances of childlike adults whose simple, noble open-mindedness enables them to welcome the existence of alternative realities: among them are Curdie’s parents who are ready to believe in Irene’s fairy ancestor’s existence or Mr Raymond whose fairy tale was inspired by the fairy North Wind. It is MacDonald’s belief that morally guided children who can keep their innate innocence as well as adults who do not forget the children that they were will have sufficient open-mindedness, imagination and unselfishness to question the ambient empiricism and accept alternative ways of getting access to meaning. And it is nowhere more visible than when childlike child characters interact with ‘un-childlike’ adult humans.

20When children interact with adults in MacDonald’s texts, they often face disdain and misunderstandingexcept of course when they come across adults who share their childlike nature. Irene’s confrontations with her nurse Lootie in The Princess and the Goblin show how the author aimed at teaching his childlike audience consistency and confidence. These confrontations are as many challenges to the princess’s faith in her fairy great-great-grandmother’s existence. The nurse repeatedly rebukes Irene for telling nonsense when she mentions the old woman’s secret presence in the castle. The attitude of the narrator, who specifies that the princess’s persistence in not backing down is due to her reluctance to lie, confirms that he (and MacDonald) clearly sides with the princess and deplores the nurse’s loss of innocence that incapacitates her. ‘Why won’t you believe me?’ Irene asks her nurse who can only answer ‘Because I can’t believe you’ (MacDonald 1996, 22). Such a character embodies most adults’ failure to communicate with children who can perceive things that they cannot. She also has a paradoxically didactic role, as she unwittingly is a test to the princess’s incorruptible innocence. In a notable reversal of roles, Irene, showing her moral superiority, corrects the nurse’s behavior. When, narrating her first fairy encounter, the princess tenaciously insists, the angered woman exclaims ‘Bother your grandmother!’ only to be scolded and punished by the girl: ‘Nurse, that’s very rude. You are not fit to be spoken to till you can behave better’ (MacDonald 1996, 23). Here is a scene where the child corrects the adult and the childlike overpowers the blinded limited adult. The failing adult, unable to guide the child because of a lack of perceptiveness, is a recurrent figure in MacDonald’s tales. It is a countermodel testifying to the need to preserve a willing suspension of disbelief and of the self to elevate oneself beyond the mundane and the normative. It is also a recalcitrant addressee to the childlike who tests the depth of their broadmindedness and confidence. Finally, it is a narrative strategy by which the failing adult who cannot go as far as the childlike into the exploration of an alternative reality empowers the child. The morally superior and open-minded child will then face uncommon situations in which his/her qualities will be put into practice and in which his/her achievements will also demonstrate how warped and erroneous the spiritually limited adults are.

21In conclusion, George MacDonald’s fairy tales are not so much about fitting in society as about self-development in spite of social conventions. These tales indeed show possibilities for the young who prove of significant moral strength to transform themselves and society, notably by overcoming the limits of flawed social conditioning and challenging established ideology. The emphasis is laid on the individual and more particularly on the young individual as an untainted yet perfectible being who can make the world a better place. The author’s predilection for child protagonists is evidence that he believed—as many Victorians did—in the redeeming potential of the young, provided that they were given the right moral guidance; and this is what his fairy tales aimed at. Because MacDonald aspired to ‘[wake] a meaning’ and not convey one, his texts do not impose one ultimate true meaning. They rather suggest possibilities of meanings for those who, like the young, have the imaginative childlike mind to envision them, no matter how much they depart from what is accepted as the norm. Their narrative voices do not explain and rationalize the world but offer guidance in fairytale literacy and morality. MacDonald’s narratorial comments give children keys to make their way through Fairyland but also to read his fairy tales as utopian tales inviting them to restore values of innocence, virtue and nobility in individuals as well as in society. They empower children in as much as they give models to emulate, moral support and benevolent guidance that are meant to help them behave properly and ethically even when their own personal strength is tested. The moral lessons taught in MacDonald’s fairy tales could well, in the end, be the indispensable nourishment without which his ideal of the childlike could not thrive.

Haut de page


Avery, Gillian. ‘George MacDonald and the Victorian Fairy Tale’. The Gold Thread: Essays on George MacDonald. Ed. William Raeper. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990, 126–39.

Chambers, Aidan. ‘The Reader in the Book: Notes from Work in Progress’. Signal Approaches to Children’s Books 23 (May 1977): 64–87.

Jarrar, Osama. ‘MacDonald’s Fairy Tales and Fantasy Novels as a Critique of Victorian Middle-Class Ideology’. North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 30 (2011): 13–24.

Knowles, Murray, and Kirsten Malmkjær. Language and Control in Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 1996.

Kreilkamp, Ivan. Voice and the Victorian Storyteller. Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

MacDonald, George. At the Back of the North Wind. 1871. London: Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics, 2001.

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. 1872. London: Puffin, 1996.

MacDonald, George. The Princess and Curdie. 1882. London: Puffin, 1994.

MacDonald, George. The Complete Fairy Tales. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher. London: Penguin, 1999.

McGillis, Roderick. ‘Outworn Liberal Humanism: George MacDonald and “The Right Relation to the Whole”’. Behind the Back of the North Wind: Critical Essays on George MacDonald’s Classic Children’s Book. Ed. John Pennington and Roderick McGillis. Hamden: Winged Lion Press, 2011, 82–89.

Newton, Michael, ed. Victorian Fairy Tales. Oxford: OUP, 2016.

Raeper, William. ‘Introduction’. The Gold Thread: Essays on George MacDonald. Ed. William Raeper. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990.

Wall, Barbara. The Narrator’s Voice: The Dilemma of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Wullschläger, Jackie. Enfances rêvées. Alice, Peter Pan. . . nos nostalgies et nos tabous. Paris: Autrement, 1997.

Zipes, Jack. Victorian Fairy Tales. The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Audrey Doussot, « ‘In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey’: Addressing the Child(like) in George MacDonald’s Fairy Stories »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 92 Automme | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 24 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Audrey Doussot

Audrey Doussot teaches in the language department of the University Toulouse 1 Capitole. She is the holder of an agrégation in English and a PhD in English studies with a specialization in fairy painting and illustrated literature in the Victorian era. Her research interests include the fairy tale genre, storytelling and memory in visual culture and text/image relationships within art and literature in the 19th-21st centuries. Her latest work focuses on the representation of the writer in visual culture.
Actuellement PRAG au département de langues de l’Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, Audrey Doussot est agrégée d’anglais et l’auteur d’une thèse de doctorat sur la peinture et la littérature illustrées féeriques à l’époque victorienne. Le genre féerique, les processus de storytelling et de mémoire et les relations texte/image dans l’art et la littérature depuis le xixe comptent parmi ses domaines d’intérêt. Ses derniers travaux portent sur la représentation de l’écrivain dans la culture visuelle.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search