It all begins when Curdie, on his walk home from another day at the mines, kills a pigeon. He then realizes that pigeons were associated with the mysterious and wonderful great-great grandmother of Princess Irene. So he takes the dying bird to her, but what is restored is not merely the dying bird but the dying spark in Curdie’s life, that is being slowly quenched by coarseness and beastliness. He is bid to thrust his hands into a fire of rose petals through which the beastliness is cleansed and he is given a special capacity to discern those growing in their humanity from those descending into beastliness as he grasps their hands.
This is a key theme that runs through the book, that people are on one of two roads, growing more fully human or descending to the level of beasts. Yet even for the latter there is a hint of hope as some of the beasts we encounter in this story seem to be former humans on a journey of redemption–which strikes me as an odd note, a form of reincarnationalism, or a second chance for the condemned from a Christian author. Yet this is fantasy, and the note here perhaps is one that the power of redemption is greater than that of beastly evil.
Curdie is sent by the great-great grandmother to the king’s city of Gwyntystorm along with Lina, a fierce, ugly, dog-like creature who is intensely loyal to him. He is not told his mission but that it will become apparent as he obeys and properly uses his gift. It is apparent from the moment of their arrival that all is not right in the town as they are rudely treated, then imprisoned.
They make their escape and find their way into the king’s castle, and quickly learn that all is not right at the heart of the kingdom. The castle is in disrepair, the servants are rude, lazy and corrupt. Worse yet, the king’s councilors are conspiring and the king’s doctor is slowly poisoning him as he lies ill in tormented delirium. Princess Irene is at his side, using all her powers to comfort him, while not fully grasping the evil plots surrounding her and the king.
The remainder of the story unfolds how Curdie and Lina accompanied by a host of beasts and a few who remain faithful to the king attempt to save king, princess, and kingdom from the corruption that has crept into the heart of Gwyntystorm.
The image of Curdie as one sent on a mission the nature and end of which is not disclosed rings true for any who have taken up the life of discipleship. We do not always know into what the faithful use of gifts will lead us. Similarly, success is not a matter of compromise with evil or having the assurance that all will turn out well but the faithful pursuit of the right, leaving the results and consequences in the hands of Another.
Once again, one sees why these stories have had such an abiding place in the hearts of both children and adults and how fantasy may sometimes speak more truly of reality than the most “realistic” stories.