A figment of European folklore and fantasy, Goblins are usually considered to be mischievous, greedy and evil. Often narrated in racial comparatives, the history of their depiction has become relevant to feminist, racial and caste-based discourse. The physical characteristics, personality traits, lifestyle and social status of these fictional creatures draw relevance from larger political attitudes. In essence, it becomes important to use one’s socio-political lens to view what fantasy often sells as simple stories with a restricted moral vision. While enabling a proper understanding of Goblins throughout history, let’s look at some of the infamous depictions of these creatures throughout pop culture, literature and mythology.
Viewing monstrous creatures through an apolitical lens is impossible and quite frankly, unfair, given the fact that these narratives either condemn certain characteristics or homogenize them to stereotype a deplorable race of monsters who lack individual character. J.R.R Tolkein’s depiction of Goblins is one that reduces them to a breeding mass of evil creatures that lie at the lowest rungs of society. They are destructive, dirty, uncouth and lack civil character. Their social location in the narrative is simply to lend legitimacy to other important creatures on a comparative scale of goodness. This binary between good and evil is often used at the expense of certain mythical creatures who eerily resemble oppressed classes in the real world.
In Rayne Weinstein’s brilliant article on the anti-Semitic depiction of goblins, he draws a comparison that brings out uncomfortable racial undertones to the way goblins have been depicted as money hungry, greedy, dark, ugly featured creatures with an exaggerated nose. The stereotypical characterization of Jews finds an uncanny resemblance to Goblins in multiple narratives. The fact that Goblins in the Harry Potter series were Bankers, of which most were unnamed (except, of course, Griphook, who turned out to be evil and conniving) just shows how oppressed identities are often homogenized into convenient stereotypes that disallow individuality. Having unnamed characters often breaks down the narrative to a simplistic black and white binary that aids the larger plot of the story. This can be compared to the statistical approach we have towards the lived experiences of oppressed individuals, who more often than not, are reduced to simple, unnamed numbers. The narrative around Goblins is, however, not limited to a simple social commentary. Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, for instance, touches upon political literature during the Victorian age, one that employs a rebellious rhyme scheme that delves into sisterhood, lesbian love, female sexuality and temptation. The rhyme scheme is ragged, experimental and lyrically irregular. It represents seduction in an atmosphere where the prime characters, two sisters named Laura and Lizzie must not succumb to the forbidden temptation of the goblins’ fruits.
While Laura is described as the ‘fallen woman’ who falls for the evil Goblin merchants’ trap in a classic Adam and Eve narrative, one sees an irregular diversion in this poem when Lizzie embodies rational flexibility in such that she does the same things out of love and not temptation. She tries to procure an antidote from the goblins despite the fact that she must face the brunt of their hypermasculine advances. She doesn’t let the story remain a moral lesson for its readers, in fact, she embodies something rare for a Victorian woman- the instinct to save her sister from being ‘fallen’ forever. She actively throws herself at the mercy of masculine Goblins, faces
sexual violence, resists them until they give up and essentially revives her sister, who ultimately gets married in the end. Lizzie doesn’t epitomize ‘character’ as opposed to a morally unsound Laura (according to the standards of the time). She expresses a rational and flexible attitude towards the situation- something that makes her the enabler of a narrative that doesn’t necessarily navigate through conventional notions of morality.
The poem also allows the sinner, Laura to be happily married in the end.
As for the Goblins in this narrative, they represent deceit and evilness. They act as a homogenous mass of violent enablers whose fruits are feared yet tempted. While the poem mostly attaches sexual connotations to the forbidden fruit, it could also be representative of an addictive drug, most likely opium since it was both exotic and forbidden at the time. The Goblins
in this narrative hold no relevance despite the fact that the title prioritizes them. Again, they are used as a plot point, a device to set the moral standard on a scale of good and evil. While this poem tries to break through the shackles of morality, somewhere, the binary between good and
bad is enabled through the least important character.
A feminist critique of Rossetti’s poem offers beautiful insights into the sisterhood shared by Laura and Lizzie in the face of patriarchal constraints embodied by the Goblin Market. They emerge victorious at a time when women were expected to be passive enablers of subversion. The ‘fallen woman’ is redeemed by her sister despite the fact that women who committed sins often reached a point of no return in society. It is believed that much of this poem is derived from Rossetti’s experience of volunteering at an Anglo-Catholic institution that reformed, redeemed and rehabilitated prostitutes. The fact that they were even offered a second chance simply reflects in the way ‘Goblin Market’ allows Laura to transcend the binaries of morality. The vivid imagery in this poem enables a sexual imagination of their relationship which could possibly have been incestuous and far from heteronormative constraints.
Having looked at the different ways in which fantasy closely connects itself to politics, I have essentially tried to steer away from an apolitical understanding of monstrous creatures. While Goblins may be reduced to mere plot points to support narratives, it is important to view their relevance to larger social structures. Stories aren’t isolated narratives that act as mere tools of escapism, they are in fact, a manifestation of actual lived experiences in alternate realities that assume the abstract shape of one’s imagination. Fantasy is therefore, more often than not, an enabler of social and cultural attitudes, one that manufactures stereotypes under the shroud of creativity.
In viewing monster culture, the time set becomes important. Understanding the depiction of a creature is a task that requires one to have a sound understanding of history and society. It is impossible to regard literature to be of high value unless it is interpreted in its entirety. Looking at demonized characters is essential to develop an idea about the fears of the time, which more often than not, represent those most isolated by society. In my head, creatures simply manufacture imagination! No matter how complex writers try to get, there’s always a scale on which they set moral standards. As readers, it is for us to note how far our imagination is shaped by creativity and originality while fantasy feeds into cultural stereotypes.
About the Author: Tanya Yadav is a first year sociology major at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. She believes in writing stories through a socio-politcal lens that enables her to apply theory in practise as and when simple narratives unfold within larger social contexts. At present, she is trying to understand and navigate her way through political writing. You could reach out to her on firstname.lastname@example.org