Goblins, Race and The Other
Goblins are a deep, almost ubiquitous part of Western culture. They march, sneak, waddle, scamper and even fly all over folklore, fantasy and children’s literature. We chose them as the protagonists for the first incarnation of Brave New World because they are familiar, relatable and yet avowedly not human. However, there is a dark question-mark hanging over some literary and artistic uses of goblins, which we felt that we had to address head on, especially given the nature of this project.
There have been times when goblins have been accused of feedings the fires of racism and hatred, either by acting as an avatar for a human social group, or simply by encouraging the “other” to be seen as intrinsically sinister or threatening. We need to acknowledge this, with deep sadness, but it is only a small part of a much bigger picture.
What are goblins?
As far as folklore is concerned, goblins are part of the magical fauna of the world. Until the XIX century, there was a widespread belief an unseen realm cheek by jowl with our own, populated by a vast range of mystical inhabitants. In this paradigm, goblins are most definitely not human, they are part of the Fairy Kingdom. The exact etymology of the word “goblin” is slightly murky, the OED traces the word to Middle English from the Old French ‘gobelin’, suggesting that the term might have been related to the German ‘kobold’, and ultimately derived from the Greek κόβαλος (kobalos) meaning rogue or imp.
An important point to note is that fairy creatures are not coded representations of other races or cultural groups. Firstly, the entire concept of race in the contemporary sense did not begin to enter social consciousness until the Early Modern period, a. And secondly, that the fear of other humans was not really what goblins existed to convey. Like other creatures of their ilk, they embodied aspects of natural world not easily understood or controlled. It’s reasonable to observe that, most of them time, goblins tended to be somewhat down the fairy food-chain. They didn’t have the grace, grandeur and dazzling beauty of the elves, but they didn’t have their level of menace either. Elves were mystical and capricious beings who might sustain life or bring death, much like the rivers, lakes and mountain sides with which they were associated. Goblins on the other hand tended to lurk around, make a nuisance of themselves and do some petty thieving. At one level, there were embodiments of everyday instances of Murphy’s Law, and occasionally also little pieces of good luck.
Goblins in art
Story-tellers, composers and authors inevitably appropriated these curious little creatures for a range of purposes. They have made convenient comic characters and not too threatening villains, especially in works aimed at children. They have been a way to explore forces which might frighten or disturb, for example in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market they perhaps convey anxiety about growing up, puberty and the transition to a world of adult responsibility. (The poem is often interpreted as simmering with sexuality just below the surface, but it could be as plausibly be read as a metaphor for learning the balance between exploration and restraint, and processing the glittering array of choices, trade-offs and alliances which the freedom of grown up life offers.)
It is these sorts of depictions of goblins which have raised concerns about racism. The links in the chain and cogent, but complex. One common feature of goblin-lore was a love of gold, jewellery and anything shiny, but they also had a tendency to thieve food and other resources. Consequently, goblins could be used to explore themes of greed and avarice, and it was in this context that some undoubtedly problematic representations have occurred. Some historical imaginings of goblins do appear to have Anti-Semitic overtones, and far more shockingly, some recent films and books have no only picked up on these tropes uncritically, they have grabbed them to run with. The design of the goblins in the Harry Potter franchise is deeply disturbing and distasteful; if you doubt this or haven’t noticed, look at the pictures on the link. It beggars belief that this could occur in a mainstream children’s film of the twenty-first century, and we have zero desire to defend it.
Nevertheless, other creative minds have used goblins to show the dark things which threaten to attack or consume us, without misguidedly linking these to their fellow human beings. For instance, the modern classic Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins is a tale of a band of wicked monsters who invade a town’s synagogue, making the people miserable and taking away their Hanukah. The goblins in this story could be understood as symbols for greed, fear etc, or they could just be some obnoxious and not very bright magical creatures, but either way, they are defeated by a brave and clever hero who quite literally lights a candle in the darkness. Certainly, Eric Kimmel’s book is proof that there is nothing intrinsically anti-Semitic nor racist about goblins as a literary device (and if you haven’t read it, we highly recommend the story and pictures, whatever your cultural background, it deserves its success).
There are also many examples of stories around goblins which represent the “other” as beautiful, mystical or enticing. Take for instance Harold Munro’s Overheard on a Saltmarsh:
“Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
Give them me. Give them me.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.
Goblin, why do you love them so?
They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man's fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.
Hush, I stole them out of the moon.
Give me your beads, I want them.
I will howl in the deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.
Give them me. Give them.
The words have enchanted generations, they conjure up a picture both strange and vivid, the reader almost sees moonlight splashing across the page and catches the scent of salt-marsh in the air. It is immediate, and yet utterly alien at the same time. The voices are real and haunting, but the conversation makes no sense to human ears. The audience is drawn into a universe which is beyond their knowledge, we desperately want the poor goblin to have the beads, and yet fear that the nymph is in no position to hand them over, unless she wants to be in dire trouble. It is a wonderful example of how the presentation of other does not have to be terrifying, it can be exhilarating instead. Therefore, we can empathise from hitherto undreamt of perspectives, and catch glimpses of a world from otherwise inaccessible angles.
It was this capacity of the imagination to set us free to explore new perspectives which led us to choose goblins and a goblin world. Difficult themes of inequality around gender, race and even economics can be explored, but without the discomfort or social baggage which would accompany human protagonists. Our goblins are not ugly and they are no more wicked than any random homo sapiens. The goblins we present are thinking, feeling people, who for the most part just want to live a happy and comfortable life. The role of our goblins, and indeed Brave New World, is to help us to engage with the other people’s experience and perspective, certainly not to demonise them. We chose goblins mindful of the context, and with a purpose which we believe to be wholly positive.