Fighting Goblins with Verse

One of my reading goals this year is to read something by George MacDonald. Many authors reference his fairy tales, which inspired Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Madeleine L’Engle, to name a few. So I picked up The Princess and the Goblin (1872) last month and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the first modern fairy tales and a precursor to modern fantasy, this book pits humans against goblins and is unconventional in its female heroine, the eight-year-old Princess Irene who rescues her miner friend Curdie from the goblins. Curdie, in turn, rescues Irene and everyone else who lives in the castle from a goblin invasion. The goblins have concocted a plan for revenge against the humans who live in the mountains above them and who, according to legend, drove them into the subterranean dwelling ages ago where their bodies began to twist and dwarf in accordance with their physical space. The goblins’ Plan A is to abduct the princess and wed her to one of theirs. Their backup plan is to flood the mines where many humans in the kingdom work, thus destroying their livelihood.

I love that a fairly tale from 1872 featured a girl rescuing a boy and where a princess does dirty work, removing rocks one by one from the mine to access the spot where the goblins imprisoned Curdie. And I love that Irene’s great-great-grandmother spins her a magical thread that leads her and Curdie safely out of the mines and back home, whereas Curdie’s rope that he used to eavesdrop on the goblins and return from the mine was found by the goblins’ pets. In a wonderful inversion, the pets reel Curdie in in one scene like he is the dog and they are the owners. 

But what I love the most is the role of poetry in the book. Early on, MacDonald establishes poetry or verse as the best weapon to fight the goblins:

As I have indicated already, the chief defence against them was verse, for they hated verse of every kind, and some kinds they could not endure at all. I suspect they could not make any themselves, and that was why they disliked it so much. At all events, those who were most afraid of them were those who could neither make verses themselves, nor remember the verses that other people made for them; while those who were never afraid were those who could make verses for themselves; for although there were certain old rhymes which were very effectual, yet it was well known that a new rhyme, if of the right sort, was even more distasteful to them, and therefore more effectual in putting them to flight.

This is yet another inversion in the book—that creative, generative, imaginative language like poetry can fight against evil. It reminds me of the aphorism The pen is mightier than the sword.

Thomas Whyte interviewed me last year about poetry and one of the questions was, “Why is poetry important?”

I wrote:

Like all art, poetry is a response to the world, and as a wise person once told me, “Response matters.” It seems that there are just as many ways to respond to the world as there are ways of being human, and that’s a mind-boggling thing. Art responds creatively, generatively, which is an important distinction from the ways we can respond destructively. Poetry connects us to place, to people (including ourselves), to worlds past, present, and future. Poetry is not fast reading or listening. It requires slowing down, sitting with, reflecting, returning. In our high-speed, consumer-driven culture, poetry is nothing short of subversive. 

Curdie is the poet in The Princess and the Goblin. His rhymes are funny, disarming, and truer than they seem at first listen. Except for when he is grossly outnumbered, Curdie’s rhymes work. They repel the goblins. They keep him company when he is held captive:

There was nothing for him to do but forge new rhymes, now his only weapons. He had no intention of using them at present, of course; but it was well to have a stock, for he might live to want them, and the manufacture of them would help to while away the time. 

There’s a lot of destructive activity and speech in our country right now. I’ve long been a fan of Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan who wrote the poem “A Tomorrow” when the pandemic arrived early 2020 (incidentally, I first heard him perform in downtown Ottawa when I was a university student). I was recently made aware of this poem and have been thinking more and more about this generative response in light of the vitriol we’re hearing from both sides of the vaccine mandate debate. As he asks in the poem, Where do we go from here?

While I’m not naive enough to think that poetry can solve all our problems, I think it can do something like slow us down, quiet the noise, maybe help us see and live in the tension of the here and not yet, of who we are and who we could be.

On this note, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite scenes in the book between the Princess and her great-great-great grandmother that could have been written for today and which pierced me sharper than any sword.

 “But in the meantime, you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.”

“What is that, grandmother?”

“To understand other people.”

“Yes, grandmother. I must be fair—for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself I see.”

Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.