George MacDonald and nineteenth century science

I’ve been reading through some of the more pleasing bits of my syllabus – including The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (not, under any circumstances, to be confused with George MacDonald Fraser) and its sequel The Princess and Curdie. Both of them are far more appealing than At The Back of the North Wind, which I really did not like.

I read both of these in school, and the titles always annoyed me. In The Princess and the Goblin, there isn’t any one particular goblin set up in opposition to the princess. There’s Harelip, who wishes to marry her, but he’s barely mentioned. The Queen of the Goblins distinguishes herself somewhat, but hardly enough to name the book after her – and anyway, her main conflict is with Curdie, not Princess Irene.

Curdie and Irene both have prominent (and in many ways similar) roles in this book – each of them rescues the other, each of them has to learn to believe in Irene’s great great grandmother, each of them follows a thread to lead them out of danger, and each of them gets a good chunk of the book devoted to them.

So why is the sequel called The Princess and Curdie and not this book? In The Princess and Curdie Irene is hardly present, and even when Curdie joins her in Gwyntystorm she doesn’t do much. If TP&C has a heroine (other than the great-great-grandmother Queen Irene) it’s Lina the ugly dog. I’ve seen these two books together referred to as the “Curdie books” which makes much more sense.

Here’s something that struck me:

The first was, that some grievous calamity was preparing, and almost ready to fall upon the heads of the miners; the second was – the one weak point of a goblin’s body; he had not known that their feet were so tender as he had now reason to suspect. He had heard it said that they had no toes: he had never had opportunity of inspecting them closely enough, in the dusk in which they always appeared, to satisfy himself whether it was a correct report. Indeed, he had not been able even to satisfy himself as to whether they had no fingers, although that also was commonly said to be the fact. One of the miners, indeed, who had had more schooling than the rest, was wont to argue that such must have been the primordial condition of humanity, and that education and handicraft had developed both toes and fingers – with which proposition Curdie had once heard his father sarcastically agree, alleging in support of it the probability that babies’ gloves were a traditional remnant of the old state of things; while the stockings of all ages, no regard being paid in them to the toes, pointed in the same direction.

It’s not that interesting till you realise that TP&TG was published in 1872. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and The Descent of Man in 1871.

And then there’s this wordy bit on mountains at the beginning of TP&C (1883):

I will try to tell you what they are. They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon down below, and rushed up and out. For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones. And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight – that is what it is.
Now think: out of that cauldron, where all the bubbles would be as big as the Alps if it could get room for its boiling, certain bubbles have bubbled out and escaped – up and away, and there they stand in the cool, cold sky – mountains. Think of the change, and you will no more wonder that there should be something awful about the very look of a mountain: from the darkness – for where the light has nothing to shine upon, much the same as darkness – from the heat, from the endless tumult of boiling unrest – up, with a sudden heavenward shoot, into the wind, and the cold, and the starshine, and a cloak of snow that lies like ermine above the blue-green mail of the glaciers; and the great sun, their grandfather, up there in the sky; and their little old cold aunt, the moon, that comes wandering about the house at night; and everlasting stillness, except for the wind that turns the rocks and caverns into a roaring organ for the young archangels that are studying how to let out the pent-up praises of their hearts, and the molten music of the streams, rushing ever from the bosoms of the glaciers fresh born.

(There’s another couple of paragraphs on this, but it’s a bit ridiculous to quote the lot. Also, my emphasis)

I haven’t studied any of this except cursorily in school. But from what little I remember and have gathered in a very scientific manner from Wikipedia, Sir Charles Lyell (the author of Principles of Geology and someone who had quite an influence on Darwin) was a believer in Uniformitarianism,* the idea that the geological processes we observe in the present are the same as the ones that shaped the earth in the past. The alternative theory was Catastrophism** – that catastrophic events over a shorter period had been responsible for the shaping of the earth. Religious people liked this one better, for reasons that should be obvious. MacDonald was a Christian minister. In the section that I’ve quoted above, it would appear that he was a catastrophist as well.

There isn’t much point to this (there never is, is there?) but I suspect George MacDonald and his friends and Charles Darwin and his friends didn’t attend the same parties.

*If they’d enlisted a few decent liberal arts people they might have come up with better words for these things.

**Which sounds slightly better, but you see what I mean?

5 Comments to “George MacDonald and nineteenth century science”

  1. It’s always fun to read or see something that comes before a watershed event. Sort of like pre-internet or cel-phone (or indeed pre-Einstein) SF. Most people don’t realise that even the Lord of the Rings was written in a time when evolutionary biology and quantum physics were well-established sciences.

    I’ve never read this book but I have a vague feeling I’ve heard of it sometime in childhood. The animated version looks nice, in this very 1980s way.

    And there’s another pre-watershed moment for you; nowadays every fantasy has to look like those LotR movies (case in point).

  2. What makes this so exciting for me is in part that it’s happening during a watershed event – all these new ideas are out there, but not yet taken for granted, still being argued over and trying to prove themselves and people like MacDonald are taking sides.

    The LotR movies are a major Event, certainly, but I’m not sure how world changing they are outside their own genre.

  3. Well, yeah, I guess the LotR movies aren’t really a world-changing event in the same way as the Origin of the Species of the Theory of Relativity. I just called on it because we have so much more media (accessible) now that the life-cycle of one of these events is so much more condensed, and almost because of this they can never rise to the level of a world-changing watershed event. It’s an event in microcosm, and I suppose I’m personally affected because I remember what fantasy and CG looked like before it arrived.

    I wonder if there will ever be another thing that changes the world — or culture, at least — as much. First contact with alien intelligence probably won’t garner more than a few twitter bursts and a youtube mashup of the recording with LOLspeak.

    And you correctly identify it as being during rather than before. Hindsight may be 20/20, but debate is much more entertaining.

    (this whole post and discussion reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything)

  4. If you are looking for watershed events currently, look at modern biology for pointers.

    Neuroscience and genetics are good fields to keep an eye on.

  5. Vishal, ‘Mouse – This is really interesting. I mean, as Mouse says, happenings in modern biology are pretty amazing right now, and people are learning things that should be life-changing/ worldview-shattering. And surely this knowledge is more accessible to people in general than it was in the late 1800s. And it’s not – possibly because Vishal’s right and events do have a shorter lifestyle.
    It’d be interesting to study the ways in which these debates have leaked into public discourse though, particularly in non-SF books.

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