Maiden’s Quest: The Hero’s Quest and Cycle of Feminine Power in _The Princess and the Goblin_

I wrote this paper for a class I am taking on the history of The Hobbit. I was rather pleased that I still remember how to write academic papers… 


Maiden’s Quest:

The Hero’s Quest and Cycle of Feminine Power in The Princess and the Goblin

Faerie stories are replete with women whose underlying message is often that they must be divorced from their power to be of true worth. Traditionally, faerie story heroines depend on their ability to secure a man’s protection. One story that may be viewed through a more empowering lens is George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Princess Irene and her Great-Grandmother each serve as two separate facets of the Triple Goddess cycle of feminine power, representing the Maiden and the Crone, respectively. Irene undertakes a Maiden’s Quest and in doing so, manifests her own feminine identity and power.

In Pagan tradition, the concept of the Triple Goddess stems from ancient societies, many of which had triplicate deities, such as the Celtic Brighid or Norse Freya. In some modern Pagan practices, she is depicted as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, each embodying various aspects of feminine power. The Maiden represents growth, potential, and self-confidence; the Mother nurturing, maturation, and adulthood; and the Crone wisdom, transformation, and guidance. There is a growing movement in Western cultures claiming that “witch [or Crone] and goddess are one … [and] that ‘ordinary’ women can self-identify both as witch and goddess.”[i] Irene and her Grandmother are simultaneously Woman and Goddess, in their respective stages of power.

Initially, Irene is very sheltered. Her protected existence is a symbolic womb from which she must emerge to begin her Maiden’s Quest. When the call to adventure comes, the means for her to begin her journey appears by way of a magic door in her room. The hall beyond serves as a birth canal through which she must pass, first enduring fright and hardship. Thus, she takes her first steps on the Maiden’s path, toward self-confidence and exploration. MacDonald writes, “She ran for some distance… At last her hope failed her. … She threw herself on the floor, and burst into a wailing cry broken by sobs.”[ii] Irene’s reaction is a typical child’s response but she soon rallies, finding within her a source of strength that will build throughout the story. As Irene soon learns, the Maiden requires either the Mother’s or the Crone’s mentorship to complete her journey to her full empowerment.

In the absence of her own mother, Irene’s “great big grand-grandmother”[iii] fills the role of both Crone and Mother. The Grandmother immediately takes on a mentoring aspect and teaches Irene about her name. In many faerie stories, names are vitally important. Their shared name binds them in terms of familial power and a sisterhood of history. That the Grandmother deliberately shared her own name at Irene’s birth implies that she always intended to lead her on the journey into womanhood. This idea is supported by the fact that the king does not take Irene with him on his travels, and that the Grandmother had “a principal hand in preventing it.”[iv] The Grandmother also gives over some of her own power to Irene via her name. She tells Irene, “Your papa…asked me if I had any objection to your having [my name]; and, of course, I hadn’t. I let you have it with pleasure.”[v] Sharing names sets the stage for the Grandmother to act as Crone, guiding Irene as she undertakes her Maiden’s Quest.

As the Maiden’s Quest progresses, the Grandmother continues to act as Irene’s mentor, a primary role of the Crone. However, her mentoring often occurs through lessons that Irene must decipher for herself. The journey is, after all, one of independence. The Crone’s participation in Irene’s life is entirely voluntary, an honor bestowed upon the younger generation who benefits from her vast experience. Her presence is not without its price, for the Grandmother appears only if Irene believes that she is real. The Maiden has an obligation to return and absorb the wisdom the Crone offers. The obligation is reinforced when the Grandmother tells her to come back in a week. She says,

…I must put you to one trial. … This night week you must come back to me. If you don’t, I do not know when you may find me again, and you will soon want me very much. … The only question is…whether you will believe I am anything but a dream. You may be sure I will do all I can to help you to come. But it will rest with yourself, after all. On the night of next Friday, you must come to me. Mind now.[vi]

As any mentor does, the Crone is requiring a task of her apprentice, pushing her further along the path towards full Maidenhood, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and independence.

Later in the Maiden’s Quest, the Grandmother gives Irene a ball of invisible spun silk. The act of spinning is itself interesting in this context. The Grandmother is actually performing a subversive act, couched in the traditionally feminine tasks of spinning and weaving. It is in these actions that the Grandmother best embodies the Crone aspect, taking on Norn-like qualities, for she seems to have foresight into the events of the mountain that Irene does not. The thread provides another test, for Irene must have the same faith in her abilities as her Grandmother does. The Crone tells her, “If ever you find yourself in any danger … you must lay your finger…upon the thread, and follow the thread wherever it leads you. … [It] may seem to you a very roundabout way indeed, and you must not doubt the thread. Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.”[vii] Irene’s test is to have faith without evidence, and to trust her innate strength, something she had never been taught to do before. Additionally, the thread connecting them highlights the concept that ordinary women can be simultaneously Crone or Maiden and Goddess, and that all women are connected at a deep spiritual level.[viii] The Maiden’s Quest is to discover her life’s lessons, which will prepare her to become Mother and eventually Crone; Irene’s Quest prepares her for exactly that.

When the Maiden’s Ordeal arrives, Irene is frightened but ready. Not only has her Grandmother mentored her well, but Irene has her own feminine strength that she has learned to tap into. She calmly follows the thread, winding unpredictably through the mountain. Her faith is tested when she encounters the rock wall, believing that her Grandmother has abandoned her. “The thread…had brought her into a horrible cavern, and there left her! She was forsaken indeed!”[ix] Through her distress, however, Irene’s Maidenly strength sustains her and she perseveres. Her difficulties build her confidence and ultimately empower her. Irene takes pleasure in working and her faith is restored: “…she worked on, sustained by the pleasure of seeing the heap slowly diminish…”[x] The function of the Maiden is to lead one down new paths, seeking exploration, finding pleasure in simple tasks. Irene is manifesting all of these qualities with this single scene. Thread and weaving are not perfect crafts; sometimes, they unravel. It is through unraveling and reweaving that Irene is able to grow in her role as Maiden, strengthening in the face of adversity, the weft and warp of her loom creating the tapestry of her life. The feminine skills the Crone uses to spin Irene’s thread teach her these lessons in full, living color.

Upon rescuing Curdie from the goblins, Irene is close to realizing her Maidenly identity. She takes charge, leading them out of the mountain. Irene truly comes into her own here, though she is still unaware of it. She has unconscious control over Curdie, who says, “…as she insists on taking the lead, I must follow.”[xi] Irene’s grasp of her role as Maiden is still imperfect, though. The Crone tells her it is most important “to understand other people.”[xii] Irene discovers that, to be understood, she must understand others and be fair, as she is not to Curdie when he refuses to see her Grandmother. Once she accepts this lesson, Irene fully adopts her identity and takes up the mantle of Maidenly power. This is apparent to all, including the servants. Before her Maiden’s Quest, she had been a child, and was treated as such. Now, she commands the servants and they obey, almost to their own surprise, for “[up] to this moment they had all regarded her as little more than a baby.”[xiii] Irene’s experiences shape and change her. She can now welcome her true identity,  as well as a sense of her own self-worth.

By the end of the story, Irene has grown into full Maidenhood. She takes up the Maiden’s easy authority and even the unimaginative Curdie has to acknowledge it. Irene is the Maiden and is now learning to understand this new phase of her life. The Maiden’s Quest has prepared her for the next step, eventually to become Mother and ultimately Crone, taking her place beside her Grandmother at the spinning wheel, mentoring the next Maiden to find her way into the tower.



Christ, Carol. “Why Women Need the Goddess.”, 2017. Retrieved from

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. In The George MacDonald Treasury, edited by Glenn Kahley, Kahley House Publishing, 2007, 1-84

Rountree, K. (1997). The new witch of the west: Feminists reclaim the crone. Journal of Popular Culture, 30(4), 211. Retrieved from 


[i] Rountree, K. (1997). “The new witch of the west: Feminists reclaim the crone.” Journal of Popular Culture, 30(4), 211-229, p. 211

[ii] MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. In The George MacDonald Treasury, edited by Glenn Kahley, Kahley House Publishing, 2007, 1-84, p. 3.

[iii] MacDonald, p. 5

[iv] MacDonald, p. 44

[v] MacDonald, p. 5

[vi] MacDonald, p. 33

[vii] MacDonald, p. 42

[viii] Rountree, K. (1997). “The new witch of the west: Feminists reclaim the crone.” Journal of Popular Culture, 30(4), 211-229, p. 211

[ix] MacDonald, p. 54

[x] MacDonald, p. 55

[xi] MacDonald, p. 57

[xii] MacDonald, p. 62

[xiii] MacDonald, p. 69


2 thoughts on “Maiden’s Quest: The Hero’s Quest and Cycle of Feminine Power in _The Princess and the Goblin_

  1. […] This children’s novel actually has quite a lot going on in it. It’s been described by Tolkien himself as a source book for The Hobbit. The argument can be made that it is in part a discussion of post colonialism, since Irene and her people moved in on the goblins’ territory and made them have to leave their homes because of it. It is also very much a hero’s quest, since Irene goes on her quest to save Curdie, growing as an individual in the process. She becomes a young woman rather than a child by the end of the book because of her experiences. I wrote a paper for a class about the quest, actually, which I posted here. […]


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