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One of the most interesting things about fairytales is how the author has borrowed ideas from ancient myths and legends and kept them alive in their writings. The Princess and the Goblin is one of these fairytales. In writing this novel, George MacDonald has incorporated much of the folk tradition in his characters and plot. Specifically, his concept of goblins seem to be drawn from the tradition of dwarfs, gnomes, and kobolds of Germanic myth and the fairies, or elves, of Celtic myth.
In accordance with the Celtic and Germanic traditions, the goblins of The Princess and the Goblin dwell inside mountains, away from sunlight and especially away from those who live on the earth's surface. The Celtic story of the Green Children tells of two children who, after accidentally wandering up to the surface, had fainted under the sheer brightness of the sunlight (Curran, 129). The Germanic dwarfs only dared to venture out to the surface after nightfall, because the sunlight would turn them into stone (Kafton-Minkel, 34). Although MacDonald's goblins would not encounter the same fate as the Germanic dwarfs if they were to surface during the day, they do detest the brightness of the sun, and prefer to remain underground, surfacing infrequently and only at night (4, 61). The goblins' irregular, grotesque features are most likely a consequence of their subterranean habitat. The once humans "had greatly altered in the course of generations" (MacDonald, 4) and very much resemble the dwarfs and other mine spirits of the folk tradition. Due to the lack of sunshine and unbalanced diet, MacDonald's goblins are short and "ludicrously grotesque in face and form" (4). Their long arms, nail-less hands, and toeless feet are only some examples of their deformations. However, because of their work, digging out precious stones, tunnelling through the mountainous rock, and living hard lives in their rough and crude cavern homes (Kafton-Minkel, 35), dwarfs and goblins are not weak, but broad, stocky, and unbelievably strong. Dwarfs are known to be "stronger, craftier, and more skilful than humans" (Kafton-Minkel, 34), and this characteristic is also attributed to the goblins in The Princess and the Goblin; although the goblin queen was surrounded by "such skilful workmen" (MacDonald, 207), she still hadn't had a replacement shoe made.
Those are not the only similarities between MacDonald's goblins and the subterranean creatures of the folk tradition.
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The last similarity between the underground-dwelling creatures of myth and George MacDonald's goblins is their shared dislike for music. The Knockers, mine spirits believed to have frequented the mines of the 18th and 19th century Cornwall, were offended by whistling, among other things, and would play dangerous tricks on those who had offended them (Parkinson and Topham). MacDonald's goblins "can't bear singing" (35). They flee at the sound of it, allowing the miners to use it as a mechanism for safe passage when goblins are about.
The races of small beings that inhabit hills and mountains and other underground places have existed in folk tradition for many hundreds of years. Although goblins occupy a different folk tradition than dwarfs, elves, kobolds, fairies, and gnomes, it is my belief that George MacDonald has used many of the original ideas from the ancient folk tradition of the latter in his portrayal of the goblins in his story The Princess and the Goblin.
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Kafton-Minkel, Walter. Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races, & UFOs from Inside the Earth. Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited, 1989.
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Parkinson, Danny J., and Ian Topham. Web Page. Mysterious Britain: Mysteries, Legends, & the Paranormal. 2001. http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/