Weaving a Web of Truths: An Intertextual Study of the Role of Spinning in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (Part 1)
Overview: Through a discussion of The Princess and the Goblin, I seek to follow the threads of intertextual dialogue occurring with classic narratives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Catullus’ poems and the more recent Grimm’s fairytale, Brier Rose. My focus will be specific to the role of spinning in each of these narratives.
In George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, young Irene happens upon an old lady spinning in the castle garret. After entering through an uncommon door, she climbs a steep and narrow stairwell to find hidden rooms. Already this narrative echoes that of Brier Rose in which the princess also climbs the narrow staircase of a newly discovered castle tower and unlocks a strange door to a room where an old lady sits spinning. And, like Brier Rose, Irene has never seen a spinning wheel before (MacDonald, 13). For the child reader/listener who’s familiar with Brier Rose (or Sleeping Beauty), these echoes may trigger certain expectations or raise particular questions as MacDonald’s narrative unfolds. Who is the old lady, exactly? Is she magical? Will Irene prick her finger? Part of the intrigue of MacDonald’s narrative, then, becomes how these expectations will be met—or not—and how these questions will be answered, if answered at all. I shall return to explore these parallels more fully, but for now it is clear that, however intentional MacDonald may or may not have been in crafting the parallels with Brier Rose, he wants special attention paid to the old lady’s spinning. Chapter three concludes with “Guess what she was spinning.”
Before I give consideration to what the old lady is spinning, however, I’d like to address the act of spinning itself. Here, a number of classic narratives have set precedence. Jumping back further in literary tradition, Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains a number of narratives that associate spinning with story-telling. Book IV tells the account of The Daughters of Minyas; three daughters who choose to denounce the god, Bacchus, and offer their worship to Pallas, the goddess of spinning and weaving. Failing to attend Bacchus’ festival, these three sisters risk his wrath and spend their time spinning. As they spin, they tell stories. Also significant in this narrative, is that Ovid uses very specific language that equates these three daughters to Catullus’ three Fates—feminine deities who spin the fate of all on a grand spinning wheel and who may end the life of a mortal by the snip of a thread. Ovid suggests that these three daughters of Minyas are spinning their own fate. In the end, Bacchus transforms them into bats.
Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains a second narrative that equates spinning with story-telling. Arachne, a young woman gifted at spinning, draws the jealous attention of the goddess, Pallas. The two rival against one another in a spinning contest and “on the loom an ancient tale [is] traced” (6. 71). Arachne weaves stories of how the gods have misbehaved with mortal women. Pallas weaves stories of her own victories, but in the end, Pallas can find no fault with Arachne’s work and Arachne is deemed victorious (6. 130-133). Unable to accept the situation, Pallas repeatedly strikes Arachne over the head with the shuttle of the loom until the girl is near death. Finally, in a moment of pity, Pallas transforms Arachne into a spider and “as a spider, still weaving her web, [Arachne] pursues her former skill” (6.131-151).
So what do these narratives have to do with The Princess and the Goblin? I now attempt to unravel the intertextual significance. First, in each of these narratives the spinner is immortal or divine. Brier Rose’s spinner is a Wise Woman or fairy godmother, Catullus’ Fates are three feminine deities, and Ovid’s ultimate spinner, Pallas, is the goddess of spinning and weaving (among other things). This provides affirmation to the more direct textual references in The Princess and the Goblin that the grandmother may be perceived as a divine figure. References which include—but are not limited to—her beyond-mortal age (16 and 121); her foreknowledge of events—for example, the question of where Irene got the ring (118 and 125); and her ability to reveal herself to whom she chooses (91 and 177). One may ask why there is any necessity for (or value in) an intertextual reference when there is already sufficient textual reference. Well, I argue that what is woven into the grand narrative web often makes the intricacies of the individual narrative more poignant—which leads to the second intertextual significance.
While MacDonald’s spinner-grandmother may be identified as a divine figure by comparison to the spinners in the other three narratives, she also stands in contrast to them. Brier Rose’s spinner is angry, jealous and vengeful over not being invited to a celebration. The Fates stand distant and removed from those whose lives they spin. Pallas is envious, easily-angered and physically abusive when Arachne outshines her at the loom. MacDonald’s grandmother is good, kind, generous, loving, patient, and the list goes on. For instance, when Irene pricks her finger in The Princess and the Goblin it echoes Brier Rose’s pin prick. But there are notable differences. Irene’s pin prick is not caused by the old lady spinning in the tower. Rather, it is healed by her! There are ample textual references which demonstrate the righteous and faultless character of the grandmother, but the intertextual contrast between the grandmother-spinner and other divine-spinners makes her righteous and faultless character all the more profound and striking—she is divine among the divine.
Next post, I will continue this discussion with Weaving a Web of Truths: Part 2. Check back soon, or better yet, subscribe!
Now it’s your turn.
- Are you familiar with any texts that may contribute to this conversation? If so, what do they have to say?
- I have two others in mind; can you guess what they might be?
- Did you notice my under-developed discussion on the correlation between the act of spinning and story-telling? In a future post, I plan to pick up these loose threads, also inviting E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web into the discussion.
 Lecture given by Dr. Maggie Creese on February 13th 2009. Ovid orders the two Latin words, deducens and police, one after the other, as Catullus does.
Catullus. Poem 64. http://www.vroma.org/~hwalker/VRomaCatullus/064e.html
MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1872. Reissued in 1996.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A. D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Reissued in 2008.
Zipes, Jack. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam Books, 2003. (Brier Rose pages 171-174).
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