Sunday, 11 September 2011

On Goblins

Goblins always seem to get such a raw deal in modern fantasy literature. For one thing, they don’t show up that often. Entire series full of elves and dwarves, undead and suspiciously derivative short people on long journeys can go past without a single goblin. That’s particularly true for many urban fantasy series. In fact, I can only think of two off hand that bother with them.

The second problem is that people treat goblins like they’re stupid. Like they’re cannon fodder. Like they don’t matter or have individual personalities. Like they are, in fact, straight out of Lord of the Rings. The trouble is, those that show up there are essentially just target practise for the heroes. If it’s not Lord of the Rings, it’s the dungeons and dragons view of them, which again goes ‘stupid short green people for heroes to kill’.

Contrast that with the goblins who show up in European literature and folk myths. Firstly, they aren’t uniformly short and green. Goblin is a term used for almost any mischievous or unhelpful spirit, and so can cover a lot of ground. Just think of the wide range of ones set out by Christina Rossetti.

They don’t have to be stupid, either. In fact, if you look at most of the tales pre-fantasy, they’re actually brighter than most humans. They’re tricksters, albeit very dangerous ones. They’re as clever as your heroes, and they may actually be more cunning.

Of course, my own occasional goblins are a bit weird. I am coming mostly from the standard place, because I want to make fun of it, yet I have a certain fondness for goblin man-servants who seem to have read too much Wodehouse. It’s kind of a combination of the two approaches, because they manage to be cannon fodder by type, but far too clever to actually get caught up in it in practise.

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