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Weaving a Web of Truths: An Intertextual Study of the Role of Spinning in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (Part 2)

The previous discussion of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin reveals:

  1. Existing parallels between The Princess and the Goblin and the Grimm’s fairytale, Brier Rose, trigger certain expectations and raise particular questions. How these expectations are met–or not–and how these questions will be answered, if answered at all, contribute to the intrigue of MacDonald’s narrative.
  2. Comparatively, the divine-spinners of the external narratives (see texts below) affirm the more direct textual references that the grandmother may be perceived as a divine figure.
  3. In contrast to the other divine-spinners, however, MacDonald’s grandmother is notably loving and good–she is divine among the divine.

And now the conversation continues with an additional intertextual significance. In Brier Rose, the Wise Woman spins a fulfillment of her own words: “In her fifteenth year the princess shall prick herself with a spindle…” (172). While Catullus’ Fates spin, they sing words that will never be proven untrue: “They then, as they struck the wool, sang with clear voice, and thus poured forth the Fates in divine chant. That chant no length of time shall prove untruthful…” (64. 320-322). In Ovid’s narratives, the stories that both Arachne and Pallas weave on their looms are also truthful. In total, Arachne weaves twenty-one true accounts of divine-misconduct—a particularly daring, yet also prophetic, decision to tell it like it is (6. 72-129). Spinning in these instances, is an act of truth-telling. Is it possible, therefore, that what Irene’s grandmother spins also gives evidence to the truth?

Like the Fates, who speak what shall come to pass, Irene’s grandmother demonstrates the quality of foreknowledge. This foreknowledge is not demonstrated through visions of what is to come, or foresight. Her foreknowledge is communicated through speech. In other words, what she says will happen does indeed come to pass. There is truth in her words. For example, Grandmother articulates Irene’s imminent need of her, “you will soon want me very much” (91) and this statement is proven true soon thereafter when Irene flees from a stilt-legged creature and gets lost in the dark night, only to be guided home by grandmother’s lamp (106-109). And in an enigmatic conversation about how Irene will explain the ring to Lootie, grandmother says that Irene will be the one to ask Lootie concerning the ring’s origin (118). Without false pretence on Irene’s part, this statement is also proven true (125). Irene’s grandmother is, indeed, a truth-teller.

Now to the discussion of what MacDonald’s old lady is spinning. In chapter eleven, grandmother reveals that she is spinning spider-webs for Irene. These spider-webs are brought to her from over the great sea, delivered by her pigeons. “There is only one forest where the spiders live who make this particular kind—the finest and strongest of any” (88). That the grandmother is not only spinning, but spinning spider-webs, resonates even more so with Ovid’s Arachne narrative. But to what truth might these spider-webs be attesting?

Irene’s encounters with the old lady are pleasant, enigmatic and memorable and, yet, while she is not with the grandmother, Irene wrestles with the reality of the grandmother’s existence. She often doubts and questions whether or not her encounters with the grandmother are merely dreams. After receiving the gift of the spun spider-webs, with one end tied to a ring worn by Irene and the other end remaining with the grandmother, these doubts wane and Irene grows confident in the reality of her grandmother. Irene’s transition from uncertainty to assurance is mapped out on her first journey following the thread of webs. When placing the ring under her pillow, she thinks she feels grandmother’s thumb and forefinger take the ring from her (150). This gives her courage as she sets off after the thread. She does not hesitate even when the thread leads her into the mountain through a hole in the rock where a stream pours out. Only in the mountain, surrounded by complete darkness, does Irene begin to fear. Here, thoughts of the thread give her assurance: “she became more and more sure that the thread could not have gone there of itself, and that her grandmother must have sent it” (154). When the thread finally disappears into a pile of rocks, Irene experiences a heightened moment of despair but, again, it is the thread that restores her certainty: “she was certain her grandmother’s thread could not have brought her there just to leave her there (157). The spider-web thread also behaves oddly: “as she uncovered a turn of the thread, instead of lying loose upon the stones, it tightened up; this made her sure that her grandmother was at the other end of it somewhere” (158). From this point on, after clearing away the rocks to find Curdie, Irene does not falter once in her assurance that the grandmother is, indeed, on the other end of the thread. And, sure enough, after rescuing Curdie the thread leads them out of the mountain and straight to the grandmother’s tower (171).

MacDonald further heightens the value of Irene’s spider-web thread by contrasting it to Curdie’s rope. Curdie’s mother must detangle his rope each night (95) whereas, Irene’s thread will “arrange itself” (120). Where Curdie’s rope fails in leading him out of the mountain, Irene’s succeeds. Where Curdie’s rope proves anchored to an untrustworthy source—his pickaxe (132), Irene’s thread proves solidly anchored to her grandmother. Like the spinning in each of the other narratives, the spinning in MacDonald’s narrative is also an act of truth-telling as the spider-web thread gives evidence to an important truth for Irene—the reality of grandmother’s existence.

Was George MacDonald intentional in weaving these parallels with Brier Rose, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Catullus’ poems into The Princess and the Goblin? By MacDonald’s own admission he would “be sorry to be supposed so far out in [his] classics” (94), but it is not possible to say decidedly either way. Nor is it necessary. With the exception of Brier Rose, it is not expected that a child reader/listener would have an awareness of these external narratives. But perhaps it is these threads woven into the grand narrative web that make MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin a delight for readers both young and old, one to which children will return as they grow older, one that becomes a classic.

Now it’s your turn.

  1. Are you familiar with any texts that may contribute to this conversation? If so, what do they have to say?
  2. Any suggestions for the next topic?


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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