Author George MacDonald was one of the greatest literary geniuses of his era. Using fiction to drive home great theological truths, his writings continue to be widely read to this day. According to the great C.S. Lewis, there is “hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continuously close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”[i]
His 1872 work The Princess and the Goblin has replayed in my mind on numerous occasions, particularly when I am going through times of uncertainty. In this account, an eight-year-old princess named Irene and a young miner named Curdie are the central characters. Irene is lonely living within the confines of a large palace. Curdie, on the other hand, spends much of his time beneath the surface of the ground in search of precious treasure.
Unbeknownst to them, the mines near the castle are inhabited by a race of goblins who were once banished from the kingdom and are eager to enact some form of revenge on humans living above ground. Through a twist of unfortunate circumstances, Curdie is captured and held captive by the queen of the goblins. Barricaded inside a small rocky room, he is intended to be reserved as meat.
Princess Irene is having a much different experience. One rainy day while exploring the castle, she stumbles into an upper room and discovers a beautiful lady who identifies herself as Irene’s great-great-grandmother. This lady is strangely mysterious and, as Irene will discover, not visible to all.
She gives Irene a beautiful fire-opal ring attached to an invisible thread and gives her instructions for if she ever finds herself in a place of danger. She tells Irene, “You must take off your ring and put it under the pillow of your bed. Then you must lay your finger, the same that wore the ring, upon the thread, and follow the thread wherever it leads you.”[ii] Irene is immediately excited and replies, “Oh, how delightful! It will lead me to you, grandmother, I know!”[iii]
But her grandmother offers her a word of caution. “Yes. But, remember, 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.”[iv]
Not long afterwards, Irene is asleep in bed when she wakes up to hideous noises in her room. She is frightened but immediately remembers her grandmother’s instructions and takes off her ring, placing it underneath her pillow. Sensing her grandmother’s hand but seeing nothing, she assumes the thread is going to take her back up to the castle tower where her grandmother will comfort her.
Instead, the thread leads her down the stairs, out the door, and into the open countryside. On and on it goes, taking her down a path and up the side of a rough mountain, eventually leading her into the side of a cavern with a stream bubbling out the side. The thread takes her through the hollow mountain and up dangerous paths before it dead ends into a huge heap of stones.
“At length the thought struck her that at least she could follow the thread backwards, and thus get out of the mountain, and home. She rose at once and found the thread. But the instant she tried to feel it backwards, it vanished from her touch. Forwards, it led her hand up to the heap of stones—backwards it seemed nowhere. Neither could she see it as before in the light of the fire. She burst into a wailing cry, and again threw herself down on the stones.”[v]
This part of MacDonald’s classic always makes me pause and reflect. I think of the many times when faith has taken me to a seemingly dead end with nowhere to turn. Going backwards is not an option because this would be out of God’s will and, thus, would forfeit the closeness of his presence and direction. What to do? Where to go? It’s here that I remember these simple words: “Follow the string.”
Unbeknownst to Irene, on the other side of this pile of stones is her captured friend Curdie. Instead of giving up and going home, Irene chooses to pick rock after rock from the pile and press forward. She is far away from the safety of the castle tower, but it is where her grandmother wanted her to be. And through obedience, she is able to rescue her friend and eventually help him discover her grandmother for himself.
Coming up against the stone piles of life is not easy. When all around us seems hopeless and we are living in a fog, waiting on God’s promises to be fulfilled is difficult. Like Irene, we’re tempted to throw up our hands and quit. Faith in God is too confusing, frustrating, and uncertain.
But in the moments of greatest doubt, follow the string. Journey through the stone pile, for in that place your faith in God will be strengthened far more than if you limit your experience to the castle tower.
[i] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald (New York: Harper Collins, 2015).
[ii] George MacDonald, The Collected Works of George MacDonald: The Complete Works (Oxford: Pergamon Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), Location 3,460.
[iii] Ibid., 3,465
[iv] Ibid., 3,465
[v] Ibid., 3,854