You see too deeply into things to be able to laugh nicely,” wrote fairy tale author and art critic John Ruskin to his friend, George MacDonald, in 1863. Ruskin was referring to the “curious mixture” of childlike levity and thematic depth in MacDonald’s then-unpublished short story, The Light Princess. MacDonald’s works of fantasy would later inspire authors like Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. At the time, however, MacDonald was struggling to find a publisher for The Light Princess. Readers were unsure of the intended audience: Was it meant for adults or children?
Eventually, MacDonald was able to insert The Light Princess into the broader narrative of his book Adela Cathcart (1864) as a story told by one of the central characters, John Smith. The other characters humorously mimic Ruskin’s criticisms by asserting that the story is both “too silly” and that “there is a great deal of meaning in it.” Ruskin wrote back in feigned offense about his fictional counterparts. Through Smith, MacDonald offers this defense of the story’s “mixture”: “if both church and fairy-tale belong to humanity, they may occasionally cross circles, without injury to either.” The story is not meant for only one age group, but for all who are childlike in faith and imagination.
One-hundred and fifty years later, The Light Princess remains one of MacDonald’s most beloved works. In it, a young, unnamed princess is cursed by a witch, with the result that the princess has no gravity. The effect is both physical and spiritual. If not tethered to the ground or leashed to her royal attendants, the princess is at risk of simply floating away into the air, never to be seen again. At the same time, she is unable to take her peril (or anything for that matter) seriously. Even the distress of her parents over her plight provokes her laughter.
The princess only finds gravity when she is swimming in water. This baptismal water makes her solid. It restores her humanity. The solution is only temporary: When on dry land, the princess returns to her foolishness. Yet, because of the personal freedom of movement that swimming affords her, she spends a lot of time in the lake. One day, a prince comes across her swimming and joins her. They fall in love. Yet the prince discovers that, while the princess behaves normally in the water, she is foolish outside of it. Though he loves the princess, marriage does not seem possible, as they cannot live their entire lives in a lake. The princess is not prepared to be a bride.
Meanwhile, the witch discovers that the princess is happy and satisfied whenever she is in the lake, and so the witch begins to drain the lake of all its contents. The only way to keep this from happening is for a man to enter into the hole at the bottom of the lake and stop the flow of the water. At that point the lake will refill, but at the cost of this man’s life. “Death alone from death can save.” He who closes the pit will bless the princess with a gift of life-giving baptism, but his own baptism will be a baptism of death. The prince chooses to give up his life, and descends to his fate. He eats a last supper of bread and wine. The vaporous princess watches, not grasping the seriousness of the situation. Her response to his decision is not one of dread but of glee and delight.
The water covers the prince and the lake fills. Suddenly, the princess seems to understand what is happening, and swims to the bottom to save the prince. She brings his lifeless body to shore, and he is taken into the castle. The princess no longer cares about the lake. Her cursed state, however, remains.
It is not until the prince returns to life that her salvation is achieved. The prince opens his eyes and the princess weeps tears of joy, water of the spirit. For the first time, her spirit is immersed, not with flighty and foolish happiness, but with solid and lasting joy. For the first time, her soul has gravity. Her humanity has been restored by the life-giving water of the prince’s death and resurrection.
The Church today is the light princess. To be ready for the eschatological wedding feast she must be made solid. She must be marked by a sobriety that befits her time, place, and calling. Ultimately, a culture without faith in the death and resurrection of Christ is a culture that is flighty, fleeting, and foolish. The Church is not to be swept up by this but to instead be marked by gravitas in her witness to the advent of Christ’s kingdom and the new creation. The sacraments remind us that we do not belong to this age but to the age to come, when creation shall no longer be vaporous but made whole in Christ. And yet, the sacraments also demand that we engage the culture, for they remind us that our faith is not just about spiritual and eternal reality, but about physical and temporal reality. We engage the culture with the message “repent and be baptized.” We offer the culture not aimless laughter or cynicism, but the deep and abiding joy of the Gospel. We follow Christ’s pattern of self-sacrifice so that the world too may experience the water of life.
The Light Princess is the product of a baptized imagination. It will baptize the imaginations of you and your children as well. The story is now in the public domain and can be easily accessed on the internet for free. Tolle lege.
Albert L. Shepherd V is a doctoral candidate in divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland