Having to do With Goblin Men
If you were to take a survey of a hundred people, regarding how they felt about goblins, you’d probably get many different responses, the most prominent of which would be “I don’t believe in goblins.” Those that do believe probably think of them as little, usually green, creatures with vaguely animalistic features and with a fairly low intellect. There might be a die-hard gamer or two out there that could tell you a goblins “stats” for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or something of the like. There’s probably even at least one child of the eighties who would say that goblins look a little something like David Bowie. Seen in this light, the goblins in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” seem more frightening than in any way tempting. Why would Laura want to eat fruit, even good fruit, that was being carried by strange, green, ugly, stupid little men? But a little over a hundred years ago, goblins would have been viewed in a much different light, something that Rossetti uses to her advantage throughout “Goblin Market”.
The term “goblin” to people from the 1800’s would have suggested a much larger range of faerie folk. Several stories, including ones from Wirt Sikes “British Goblins”, use the term interchangeably with words like elf, faerie or, on occasion, even ghost. For many people then, there was little distinction in what being a “goblin” was, other than it was something strange and utterly foreign. Distinctions were made between good and evil goblins, but just about all terms were interchangeable with one another. Goblins (or elves, or faeries) in one story could be good, and evil the next. Some attempt was made to distinguish the two by separating the faeries into “seelie” and “unseelie” courts, with the “unseelie” representing the evil fae and the “seelie” comprising the helpful or friendly fae (Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies 419-420). Some goblins, therefore, were considered good and these often were called “hobgoblins”. The “hob”, says writer K.M. Briggs, was placed on the beginning of “goblin” to indicate a more helpful, but usually mischievous type of spirit, which is sometimes also called a brownie (Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies 223).
However, this distinction between good and bad goblins would have been completely removed by Rossetti’s time by the Christian authority. To the Christians, all “goblins” were evil spirits sent by the devil (Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies 194). Several Christian legends that would have been known at the time mention or involve faeries, always casting them in a very negative light. The king of the faeries is revealed in one such legend as also being the King of Hell (though, oddly enough, not necessarily the Devil himself) and his faerie powers are used to tempt the holy man into sinning by consuming faerie wine and fruits (Sikes, Chapter I, part IV).
The concept of eating fruit and being forced to stay beholden to the faeries or goblins in some way is also not a foreign concept. In many of the folktales and legends that Rossetti would undoubtedly be familiar with, eating the fruit of the faerie-folk carries with it some kind of penalty. Many times, it even leads to one not being able to leave the world of the fae at all (Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature 17). In fact, any contact at all with the world of the goblins tends to make mortals pine away, looking for a glimpse of it again, even if what they saw was quite horrible (Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature 18-19). There is also an interesting story about two male best friends who heard the chanting of the faeries. One went off to dance with them and was not seen again for a year, when his friend came back and, with the help of a few others, managed to rescue him (Sikes, Chapter VI, part IV). Whether this had any influence at all on Rossetti is unknown, since it was a legend told well before her time, and was possibly of pagan influence, but it’s similarities to “Goblin Market” are many.
The taking of a lock of Laura’s blonde hair is also significant in goblin mythology. Golden haired children were much more likely to be stolen by the fae, as they supposedly thought highly of mortals with blonde hair. This sometimes had a positive side as well, with the good faeries protecting a child with blonde hair, but in either case, golden locks made the young person much more likely to grab the attention of the fae, due to the great value the fae placed on their locks (Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies 195).
Whether Rossetti was aware of any of these particular myths and legends is, of course, partially speculation, though it’s safe to say she must have known something about the mythos of the goblin. The goblin and faerie myths seem to be much more prevalent in Europe than they are here, and while it is doubtful than very many people still believed in these goblins during Rossetti’s time, it would have certainly been a mythos they were familiar with. Her audience would have believed that goblins were varied, and sly, waiting to lure people into their traps with promises of forbidden fruit. It is these mysterious and strange creatures that tempt Laura into eating their wares, not the mindless, pygmy-like creatures that we picture when we think of goblins today. Rossetti knew what her audience would think of when she mentioned goblins, and she uses that to her advantage, giving her new, moralistic story the feel of an old folk tale or legend, which would have appealed to fairy-tale loving children, and made them much more likely to listen to her story than if she had simply stated the morals that it encompasses.
Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- - -. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.
Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. 1880. <www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfl>