Six Degrees: From Angharad to The Wise Woman
Well, hullo there wanderer, and welcome to another edition of Six Degrees of Kool Books. In this playful little literary trail we hop from one book to the next looking for characters that have similarities and trying to find connections between sometimes very different books. Where else will you find Heidi, Dr. Jekyll, and Robin Hood all in the same series of articles? Only in the Six Degrees world.
Speaking of Robin Hood, last week, Jenelle Schmidt introduced us to the world of Hood, Stephen R. Lawhead’s retelling of the Robin Hood story. She found a connection between Edmond Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo and Bran ap Brychan (Robin Hood, essentially) from Hood.
One of the characters from that story was Angharad, a “wise old woman” who nurses Bran back to health when she finds him in the woods. Described as something of a “sorceress” with “healing arts”, her greater purpose seems to be “to guide him [Bran] towards being the king that Elfael needs.” And that description fits to a “T” the character I have in mind for this week’s installment. I am referring to “The Wise Woman” from George MacDonald’s fairy tale classic, The Lost Princess. Yes, that’s really her name. Or at least that’s all that MacDonald tells us. In fact, when the story was originally published that was actually its name as well, simply The Wise Woman. Why MacDonald changed it, I do not know, because The Wise Woman certainly overshadows the entire story and the original title fits much better in my opinion.
Like Angharad, The Wise Woman tends to her charges in her little cottage in the woods. And also like Angharad, she has the reformation of her wards’ character in mind. She clearly has some sort of magic, though not really of the sorcerous kind. Her magic seems to flow from simply who she is. This perhaps explains why she does not get a proper name. She is simply The Wise Woman, and we do not need to know anymore about her.
Brats come in all shapes and sizes
The Wise Woman attempts to help two very different, but very similar young ladies in this story. The first of these is the lost princess herself, Rosamund. This young lady is a positive terror when we first meet her. Picture a girl whose parents never told her “no” and spoiled her rotten, and then realize that her parents were the King and Queen so that the size of the spoiling should be positively royal, and then multiply the sort of nasty, temper-tantrum prone little brat you’ve created inside your head times one hundred and you’ll come close to the sort of shrew who is the princess Rosamund. Her clueless parents deserve much of the blame, but at least they had the sense to call in The Wise Woman when they were at their wits end as to what to do with their tyrannical daughter.
As bad as Rosamund is, on the surface, The Wise Woman’s second patient appears at first to be an angel. Agnes, unlike her counterpart is a shepherd’s daughter who comes from humble circumstances. Unlike Rosamund she is outwardly obedient and seems to cause her parents few problems. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that her heart is just as black as Rosamund’s only in more deceptive, more pernicious ways. For Agnes is above all conceited, believing that the world will fall to her feet if she will only prove to everyone just how marvelous and admirable she is.
Sometimes parents just don’t understand
Really, these three characters make up the bulk of the story, but there are some incidental ones of note. I’ve already mentioned the King and Queen, but I will add here that when The Wise Woman confronts them with her solution for their daughter, they prove that the apple does not fall far from the tree and have a hard time seeing the harm their permissive parenting has done.
Their counterparts, the Shepherd and the Shepherdess, are not quite as permissive. They do make Agnes work, but they tend to heap praise upon her, often for no good reason, and fail to see how coddling their daughter has given her an inflated sense of self-importance. They, too, are reluctant to admit their mistakes, but are a little more clear-headed in the end than the royal couple.
Finally, there is Prince, the Shepherd’s dog who takes no nonsense from anyone. Like all good dogs, he is a true friend, particularly to Rosamund. He doesn’t put up with her beastly attitude and is perhaps the first thing in Rosamund’s tiny little world to ever stand up to her.
I’ll let you read the book to find out how this story plays out and whether there is any hope for either of these two girls. But I’ll just note in parting that this is one of my favorite stories of all time. It is my favorite MacDonald story, and that’s saying a lot, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything of his which I did not like. In short, a marvelous, moving, insightful story, which, as part of the public domain, can actually be downloaded for free. I hope you have the chance to meet The Wise Woman one day and, if you do, that you’ll come to love her as much as I do.