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Goblins, Imps, Brownies, Trolls, Pixies, and Bogies – Yesterday and Today

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Goblins, Imps, Brownies, Trolls, Pixies, and Bogies – Yesterday and Today


In modern day, one is not likely to encounter a goblin in one’s travels, except perhaps those found scurrying after candy on Halloween night. However, goblins, as well as imps, brownies, trolls, pixies, and bogies were once considered as much a part of daily life as cows and chickens.(Briggs, These were the fairies, the half-natural, half supernatural beings that helped and haunted mankind throughout most of the world. The Scottish divided these fairies worldS into two groups, the Seelie Court, those helpful to humans, and the Unseelie Court, those who were mischievous, misleading, or downright evil. At the lowest rungs of the Unseelie court, one would find the goblins. (Briggs, 357) The goblins have changed, however, since these dark times, and it is the purpose of this paper to show the evolution of these monsters from medieval fairy, to subterranean miner, to Sauron’s horde of minions, and into other various modern-day incarnations. Additionally, the cultural driving forces of feminist theology, Freudian psychology, political agendas, and technological fears will be used to explain several of the more notable goblin literary works. Finally, it will be shown how the medieval concept of the goblin, the fairy trickster, will resurface after a hundred years of exile in the form of the gremlin.

The goblin as a fairy has its roots mainly in Britain, although they had counterparts in most of Europe. The French had goeblins, the Germans kobolds, the Welsh pwca (pooka), and even the Japanese had the tengu. However, the name ‘goblin’ is attributed to an Italian origin. The story goes that in Florence there were two infamous houses, the Guelfs and the Gibelins. So malicious were the members of these families that mothers would warn unruly children that the Guelfs and the Gibelins would come to get them if they did not behave. Thus the modern words ‘elves’ and ‘goblins’ were born. (Latham, p. 48) The fairy goblin ranged in disposition from the truly sinister to the near-harmless trickster. An example of the nastier medieval goblins is the legend of Redcap, a vicious goblin who inhabited a deserted castle. He was described by William Henderson in Folklore of the Northern Countries as a “..thickset old man, with talons like an eagle and long, pointed teeth...” (254) Interestingly, Henderson also writes that this goblin, while being near-invulnerable to common weapons, could be forced away by reciting scripture or with a crucifix (255). This is likely due to later Puritan Christian influence. (Briggs, 343) On the friendlier extreme were the hobgoblins, a sub-group of goblins that were generally considered helpful to humans, and would frequently inhabit farmhouses and help with chores, although they were likely to play pranks if mistreated. The word ‘hobgoblin’ is likely a shortening of “Robin Goblin” which stems from “Robin Goodfellow” a celebrated mythic figure of medieval England. He was said to be a merry character, the bastard son of Oberon, king of the fairies, and to have shape-shifting powers and an affinity for prankish behavior. (Briggs, 345)

This hobgoblin archetype is epitomized in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594) in the character of Puck. In the play, he is referred to as a goblin, a hobgoblin, and as Robin Goodfellow, and is written to embody the sense of all of these. (Latham, 97) Incidentally ‘Puck” is a derivative of “Pouk” a medieval slang for the devil that had decreased in severity somewhat by Shakespeare’s time, and the term ‘pouk-ledden’ was a term often used, along with “pixy-led” to describe a traveler who had lost his way (Briggs 333).

In between the merry Puck and the vile Redcap lay the bulk of the medieval goblin lore. Although widely varied in size and description, most cultures shared these facets of goblin lore: First, that goblins were responsible for waylaying travelers, stealing children, leaving households in disarray, and basically anything else that needed a scapegoat. And second, that usually these goblins could be won over to aid humans with the right amount of bribery or trickery. (Latham, 49-50) These are important facets that would be lost in the following centuries, only to resurface in the 20th century. In the years following Shakespeare, the goblins began to polarize as well. No longer were they described in the medieval sense of half-real, half-spirit, but almost exclusively as wholly one or the other. The most notable next incarnations of goblins, and the start of the aforementioned divergence between the natural and supernatural variants, come from the middle Victorian period.

The first literary work of interest is the poem “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), first published in 1875. Rossetti was one of very few woman authors with published works at the time, and the bulk of her poems and stories were directed at children. (Burlinson 6-8) This fairly short poem depicts two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Daily, in the woods nearby their house, there appeared a band of goblins of a most interesting sort. Rossetti describes them thus: (ll 71-76)

One had a cat's face,

One whisked a tail,

One tramped at a rat's pace,

One crawled like a snail,

One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,

One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.

This is quite different from the image of a goblin that the modern reader would likely have for such a creature. However, as Styles puts it “her love of the less glamorous inhabitants of the animal was well known in her family” (151) and this description of goblins fits in nicely with the medieval folklore of shape-shifting pranksters. However as far as medieval goblins go, these are on the severe end of devilry. These goblins carry with them plates full of the most succulent fruits that they try to sell to young maidens. Laura gives in to temptation and buys some in exchange for a lock of her hair. Afterwards she craves more of the fruit with all her being, but can no longer see or hear the goblins. Laura soon becomes despondent and ceases to live by any normal description. Lizzie, who can still hear the goblins, yet is too scared to buy more fruit for her suffering sister, eventually sets out to sate her hunger. When the goblins learn that Lizzie will not eat the fruit, they attack her, beating her badly. She refuses to eat, and on returning home, her wounds and bruises serve to revive her sister. The poem concludes with the two growing up, and telling the tale to their children as a show of sisterly power. The language and symbolism in the poem are very direct in their attempt to illicit representations of adolescent sexual tensions, the danger of giving in to temptations, and even some incestuous homosexuality. (Burlinson 44) These topics were frequently covered in much of Rossetti’s work, yet the representation of the goblins themselves is somewhat subtler. Burlinson claims the initial interpretation is that of lecherous men, seeking to corrupt young women. (46) However at the time, England was in a significant state of upheaval, there were many fears about an uprising of the working class, and here the goblins might represent Irish workers, the likes of whom were unsuitable for an upstanding English maid to consort with. (Burlinson 47) Another more likely interpretation arises from Rossetti’s main work at the time. In 1859 when she wrote this poem, Rossetti’s was working at St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary at Highgate. This was an institution for reforming “fallen women”, essentially prostitutes, back into domestic society. Rossetti wrote the poem with this work in mind, as the female sisterly bond was one of the most stressed points for the girls in the penitentiary. (Palazzo 24-27) Palazzo also wrote in Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theologies that “The fall into prostitution is also to accept the Victorian man’s valuation of the female self.” (p 27) Thus the goblins here may represent not just the solicitors of prostitutes, as may be inferred from the title “Goblin Market”, but also the entirety of the male point of view in Victorian society, the likes of which the proto-feminist should not submit too, lest she lose her sisterly powers. (Palazzo (27-28)

Working almost at the same time as Rossetti was George MacDonald (1824-1905). He was a renowned author of fantastic tales for both children and adults, and two of his most famous children’s tales feature goblins. These are The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and its sequel The Princess and Curdie (1883). MacDonald’s goblins are from the other end of goblin land, the ‘organic’ goblins. . He describes these as large, nearly the size of a man, grotesque, and without toes. This is a holdover from the medieval concept of a “fairy defect”, the medieval brownie, too, had a similar problem with webbed hands. (Briggs 301) Another borrowed aspect of MacDonald’s goblins was that they were subterranean miners. In the 17th century there was a proverb that a mine that ceased to produce was the victim of goblin nocturnal mining (Briggs 117). Macdonald’s first tale is that of a land where a thousand years prior to the depicted events, the king banished the thieves of the kingdom to the caves in the mountains. Over the years these people moved further into the caves and became the race of goblins, possessing a deep hatred of mankind. In creating this origin, MacDonald removes the ‘magical’ connotation of goblins inherent to the previous versions. In the tale, the young princess is sent away from the king to a small castle on top of a mountain to be raised by her nanny. She befriends a miner boy by the name of Curdie, and the two subsequently have adventures fighting against the goblins and their evil king.

MacDonald was primarily a writer of fantasy and unlike Rossetti, his work carried little political or social undertones. He instead, crafted his worlds based on fairly straightforward psychological models.(Cusick 81) The Princess and the Goblin follows the Freudian procession of Id, represented by the banished goblins living underground, the Ego, in the form of the princess and Curdie, and the Superego, in the form of the Fairy Grandmother living in the castle attic who sets the story straight in the end. The whole world, too, is laid out to support this hypothesis. The castle attic, the castle itself, and the subterranean mines are all described as being maze-like, full of twist, turns, and dead-ends, a pictorial representation of the human brain at the three Freudian levels. (Reis 87) MacDonald himself has acknowledged this interpretation, and his psychological themes continued in his later works, such as Lillith and Phantastes, to include the theories of Jung as well.(Cusick 82) Thus, at the turn of the 19th century, the goblin had been split into two halves, one spiritual, and one organic. Both of these would appear in 20th century works.

Perhaps the most famous goblins of all of literature come from the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien has stated that MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin was one his favorite books as a child (Rogers 63), so it should be no surprise that Tolkien’s goblins follow in the MacDonald organic tradition. These goblins, or ‘orcs’, as Tolkien would later refer to them in their own tongue, too were mutated, defiled creatures, though in this case it was elves, not men. They lived mostly in caves and were just as vicious and evil as MacDonald’s. The mining aspect however, Tolkien transferred to his Dwarves. This green, slimy, evil form of the goblin has now come to be the most standard modern representation, as is the case for most of Tolkien’s forms.

As similar in form as they may be to MacDonald’s, the cultural representation here is political, rather than psychological. Tolkien’s political use of the goblin started a bit before he introduced them in The Hobbit in 1939. When his children were young, circa 1930, he would write them letters at Christmastime under the guise of Santa Claus. These letters progressed over the years to tell tales, several of which included Santa’s brave polar bear fighting off goblins at the North Pole. He mentions in one that goblins were an ancient race and had caused a particular amount of trouble in 1453. Upon investigation one learns that the only significant event of 1453 was that the city of Constantinople was overrun by a horde of Turks, who used bombs and subterfuge.(Rogers 63) This scene would replay itself in Tolkien’s second book of the trilogy The Two Towers at the Battle of Helm’s deep. Thus here Tolkien is referring to the Turkish horde as monsters. This is, of course, a subtle point in comparison to the orcs of the trilogy, who were depicted as mindless servants of a dark lord seeking to overrun the world. Little analysis is necessary here, as Tolkien began writing this body of work in 1937, at the height of Hitler and the Nazi’s power. (Rogers 36) Therefore one can easily call Tolkien’s orcs almost entirely political in nature.

The ‘organic’ goblin has changed little since Tolkien’s usage, this creature is now found in almost any so-called ‘medieval’ text, not the least of which are the Dungeons and Dragons series of role-playing games, and their plethora of derivatives. Although in much of these the orc and goblin have become distinct races, the orcs larger and bloodthirsty, and the goblins small and cunning. However one should note that there have been almost no accounts of the Macdonald type goblin living past the Victorian era. Tolkien and the rest who utilize this creature almost inevitable place him in a medieval setting. This is in stark contrast to monsters such as vampires and werewolves who have both stalked along modern city streets many times. It would seem the goblin, as a natural race, is extinct.

Fortunately, the magical goblins, those more akin to Shakespeare and Rossetti, live on (as magical creatures tend to do). There are two major occurrences of these lately: the goblins of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth (1986), and those of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1998-). Both of these sets of goblins inhabit a magical world. In Labyrinth this world is the Goblin City, ruled by the King of the Goblins, Jareth, who is, of course, played by David Bowie. In the Potter universe, this is Gringott’s Wizzarding Bank set in the strictly magical version of London. Henson’s goblins are small and grotesque, and follow Rossetti quite well in tempting the young heroine Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) into making a wish that she almost instantly regrets and that leads her into a very Campbellian mythic quest to save her baby brother. Rowling, on the other hand, creates magical goblins from Macdonald’s subterranean, gold-loving model, although in the civilized 20st century the creatures have turned their specific talents into banking and underground security. Perhaps these are MacDonald’s goblins after all, just having found a new world to inhabit. This isn’t all that unlikely, for in 1847 the Scottish writer Hugh Miller wrote in “The Old Red Sandstone” a description of one Sabbath morning where a small boy and girl observe a most unusual procession of small men going by, the tale ends:

“'What are ye, little mannie? and where are ye going?' inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence. 'Not of the race of Adam,' said the creature, turning for a moment in his saddle: 'the People of Peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.'

Accordingly, accounts of goblins and the like, as actual creatures anyway, disappeared soon after.

The tale of goblins does not end here, however. The 20th century, although mostly devoid of the dark forest roads, lost travelers, and missing children that had created the goblins more than 500 years before, still had its share of unexplained happenstances. Perhaps it’s the fault of the Victorian-era writers so precisely defining the goblin one way or another that the original, half-mischievous, half friendly prankster was forced to resurface in the 1920’s under a new label, the gremlin. The term gremlin arose from the superstitions of the pilots of Britain’s Royal Air Force. These small creatures were blamed as the cause of any unexpected flying mishap, whether it was mechanical failure, or a lost pilot.(Treglown 64-66) These new goblins were unknown to the rest of the world until 1942, when famed children’s author Roald Dahl wrote about them after serving in the RAF and being the victim of a plane crash himself. In the first book he ever published “The Gremlins” Dahl tells a tale of the little creatures.(Treglown 67) Dahl was quite familiar with the folklore of northern Europe, as well as Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Treglown 90), and as such he described the gremlins as a race separate from the “goblins and trolls and hobgoblins and pixies” of England. Apparently these creatures were once peaceful but had been angered by man’s destruction of the forest and subsequently vowed revenge. Dahl likely did this to avoid the cling associated with calling them goblins, for it should be clear to the reader that these gremlins are nearly identical in behavior and description to the most ancient of the goblins and hobgoblins. Even to the point where, as Dahl writes it, the pilots are able to coerce the gremlins into being helpful companions, after some care and the right reward. This potentially helpful nature was common in goblin lore. The gremlins also exhibit the same half-natural, half-supernatural nature, being selectively invisible, surviving at high altitudes, etc, all while being cognizant to the common man.

Thus as the goblins were forced into magical and temporal exile, the gremlins took over the family business of mischief in the 20th century. Following Dahl’s book, Disney attempted a major motion picture based on Dahl’s Air Force gremlins, but it never got off the ground (that’s a little plane humor). Warner Brothers instead made a short series during WWII featuring a gremlin pitted against Bug Bunny. This gremlin was almost exactly true to Dahl initial rendering as an airplane saboteur. The interesting point here is that the cultural driving force for these creatures is almost identical to that of their ancient predecessors, namely, the fear of danger or mishap while traveling in unknown lands. Although instead of forests and horses, these men had the sky and airplanes. Or, more generally speaking, while medieval man had magic to fear, the modern man had technology as his unpredictable and possibly helpful adversary.

In more recent history, after a brief stint as an AMC automobile, the gremlin finally made it to the big screen in the film Gremlins (Dante, 1986) and its sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante, 1990). In these films the gremlins are larger, green, incredibly grotesque, and quite sinister, and rather similar in appearance to Henson’s and Rowling’s goblins, further solidifying the connection. One would be hard-pressed even to call them gremlins if they had not retained the good/evil duality of their predecessors. Specifically the characters in the first movie buy an adorable little creature in Chinatown called a Mogwai (incidentally a Chinese word for a demon quite comparable to a gremlin or goblin) which comes with a specific set of rules. Upon the easily predicted violation of these rules, the friendly little helpful pet unleashes a horde of evil gremlins. Gone in the films are the technological fears of the eary 20th century, but the more general idea of something seemingly nice or helpful becoming evil or mischievous remains. This is true to Dahl’s gremlins as well as the medieval fairy goblin of centuries past.

And so it is here that goblins find their place in the modern world, having traveled and mutated numerous times since their dark origins. They have cropped up almost anyplace mankind needed someone to scapegoat, or just as an object of unavoidable fears. In the end, the goblins came full circle, finally finding themselves back in roles for which they were first created.



Works Cited

Briggs, Katharine Mary. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2002

Burlinson, Kathryn. Christina Rossetti.. Writers and their Work 107. Plymouth, U.K: Northcote House, 1998.

Cusick, Edmund “George MacDonald and Jung” The Gold Thread: Essays on George MacDonald. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

Dahl, Roald. The Gremlins. Disney 1945

Gremlins. Dir. Joe Dante. Warner Bros. 1984

Gremlins 2: The New Batch Dir. Joe Dante. Warner Bros. 1990.

Labyrinth. Dir. Jim Henson. TriStar Pictures, 1986.

Latham, Minor White. The Elizabethan Fairies; The Fairies of Folklore and the Fairies of Shakespeare. New York: Octagon Books, 1972.

MacDonald, George. The Princess and The Goblin 1872. reprinted New York: Puffin 1986

---. The Princess and Curdie. 1883. reprinted. New Tork:Puffin.1986.

Palazzo, Lynda. Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology. New York: Palgrave, 2002

Reis, Richard H. George MacDonald. New York: Twayne 1972.

Rogers, Deborah. J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market” 1875

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic 1998

Styles, Morag. Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing, and Childhood 1600-1900. New York: Reutledge. 1997

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937

Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.

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