Befouling America’s Future

Charles Folkard, Detecting palace corruption in “Princess and Curdie”


When I was a child, one of my favorite fantasy novels was George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie (1883), which is about a miner’s son who journeys to a corrupt city, saves the good king from his evil counselors, and marries the princess, whom he has met in the previous novel (The Princess and the Goblin). The ending is an unexpected downer, however: Curdie and Irene have no children and their successor squanders the kingdom’s resources so that the country literally comes to a crashing end.

MacDonald could be writing about the way that Donald Trump is squandering America’s and the world’s resources while letting subsequent generations fend for themselves.

I’m thinking mostly of climate change, of course, but also of how Trump has decided to blow up the deficit to satisfy America’s financial elite (including himself), thereby jeopardizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I could also mention how he’s plundering our national parks, alienating long-time allies, and throwing the markets into chaos with his tariff shenanigans. Pray that he doesn’t start a war to to distract us from the Mueller probe.

Before turning to MacDonald’s concluding image, however, I should mention how Curdie drains his country’s swamp given the non-stop financial scandals involving Trump and those around him. Curdie has been given special powers to detect fraud by Irene’s fairy godmother, who has him plunge his hands into her “fire of roses.” As a result, he can detect a person’s character simply by touching him or her. For instance, here he is testing the king’s physician, who is secretly poisoning him:

But when he took hold of [the physician’s hand], Curdie very nearly let him fall again, for what he held was not even a foot: it was the belly of a creeping thing. He managed, however, to hold both his peace and his grasp, and pulled the doctor roughly on his legs—such as they were.

Curdie commands a troop of monsters known as “the Uglies,” and in an immensely satisfying chapter they swarm all over the palace and either capture or expel those he has identified as corrupt. Would that it were this easy.

But back to squandering. As a miner, Curdie discovers gold beneath the capital city, and when he becomes king he carefully uses this precious resource to undo the damage wrought by the king’s counselors. His successor is less prudent:

Irene and Curdie were married. The old king died, and they were king and queen. As long as they lived Gwyntystorm was a better city, and good people grew in it. But they had no children, and when they died the people chose a king. And the new king went mining and mining in the rock under the city, and grew more and more eager after the gold, and paid less and less heed to his people. Rapidly they sank toward their old wickedness.

In this attack on Victorian materialism, MacDonald concludes the novel with an apocalyptic image:

But still the king went on mining, and coining gold by the pailful, until the people were worse even than in the old time. And so greedy was the king after gold, that when at last the ore began to fail, he caused the miners to reduce the pillars which Peter [Curdie’s father] and they that followed him had left standing to bear the city. And from the girth of an oak of a thousand years, they chipped them down to that of a fir tree of fifty.

One day at noon, when life was at its highest, the whole city fell with a roaring crash. The cries of men and the shrieks of women went up with its dust, and then there was a great silence.

Where the mighty rock once towered, crowded with homes and crowned with a palace, now rushes and raves a stone-obstructed rapid of the river. All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.

The very name of America will not cease from the lips of men (or women) if Trumpism prevails. We’ll hear a lot of cries and shrieks, however.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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