Three days ago, as I was taking copious notes on goblins, trying to investigate how far the myth went, and if it was older than the word itself, I heard a knock outside my study door.
“Yo, it’s open,” I said.
The door swung open and in stepped Big Stevie Cool. Now, for anyone not familiar with 1990’s pro-wrestling, our little group of friends got into the habit of calling Steve ‘Big Stevie Cool’ because he bears a striking resemblance to the pro-wrestler Steven Richards—Aka Big Stevie Cool of the Blue World Order—without the big muscles, of course.
So, anyway, Stevie is pretty tall, about six-one, I think; and he has a goofy way of dressing for a guy in his mid-thirties—Dragonball t-shirts and khaki shorts. Plus, he has long hair like a heavy metal drummer.
“Dude, you writing?” asked Stevie.
“Nah, just taking some notes,” I answered. “I usually start my writing only after I get all my notes in order.”
Stevie looked around, spotted the extra chair I keep in my study, pulled it towards him, looked straight at me, and said, “Thanks for offering me a seat,” and then plopped himself down on the chair.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Come on, give me a break. You know manners are so last century. The future belongs to barbarians, friend.”
Stevie smiled, that weird smile of his that always seems so genuine, big as a house but shy at the same time. He once told me that his wife had proposed to him. I bet he used that smile on her.
“So what you taking notes on?” Stevie asked.
“Oh, goblins,” I answered.
“Goblins? What, like Lord of the Rings?”
“Well,” I said, scratching my head, “there aren’t that many goblins in Lord of the Rings, but they do play a significant role in the Hobbit. So, yeah, kind of. But you have to realize that the goblin myth is much older than Tolkien.”
Stevie narrowed his eyes. “Who’s Tolkien?” he asked.
I had a brief moment of flabbergasted disbelief, as if a titan’s hand had just face-palmed me. Then I had the thought that maybe Big Stevie Cool was pulling my leg, but one look at his mug disabused me of that thought. He was dead serious.
“Holy decadent feces,” I said. Yeah, I really said that—Stevie don’t like swearing. Since he is my friend, I do try to be respectful—though I don’t always succeed, I must admit.
“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked. “You do know that J.R.R. Tolkien is the creator of Lord of the Rings, right?”
Big Stevie Cool snorted. “Dumbass,” he said. “Everyone knows Peter Jackson created Lord of the Rings.”
I face-palmed myself, hard. Then I stood up, walked over to my bookshelves—yep, old-school—searched through the fantasy section, and pulled out an old copy of the Fellowship of the Ring. All the while, I could feel Stevie’s eyes following my movements. When I turned to face him, I saw that he had an eyebrow raised and wore a quizzical expression on his face.
“Here,” I said, handing the book over to him.
He took the book from me and looked it over.
“It smells funny,” he said.
“That musty smell is the sweet scent of old age in books,” I said. “Now check out the year of publication.”
Big Stevie opened the book and carefully examined the first few pages.
“First printing: October, 1965,” he read aloud.
“That’s the paperback edition,” I said. “Look at the copyright.”
“Wow,” he said, “1954.”
“Yeah,” I said, “the books are probably older than Peter Jackson himself.”
“Okay, whatever,” said Stevie, shrugging his shoulder like if it was no big deal. “So what is it about goblins you’re interested in?”
I could tell by the look in Big Stevie’s eyes that he knew he had made a boo boo. Confession time: I’m in my forties, but when I talk mythology I’m twelve again. All my friends know this and fear it.
“Well,” I said, sitting straight, huge smile forming on my face, and my eyes sparkling with mad glee. “If we focus just on the word ‘goblin,’ this little creature clearly has European roots. English goblin is first recorded in the 14th century, and it probably came from the Anglo-Norman ‘gobelin,’ which appears in Ambroise of Normandy’s Guerre Sainte in 1195. If we go a little further back, it appears in Medieval Latin as ‘gobelinus’ in Orderic Vitalis in 1141, which just happened to be the name of a devil haunting the country around Evreux, Normandy.
Now, right, Anglo-Norman tells us that goblin is a creature of Germanic and British folklore. Further, it seems to be somehow associated with faeries, as an evil opposite.”
I’m pretty sure I saw Stevie glance over at his watch about now. And had I better manners, I would have asked him the purpose of his visit, but I was in twelve-year old mode and had to—just had to—share my enthusiasm with the nearest victim. Poor Stevie.
“According to some traditions,” I continued, while I looked for the source of the tradition, “the word goblin comes from Ghob, the king of the gnomes. His underlings, you see, were called ghob-lings.”
“So that’s where the name ‘goblin’ comes from?” asked Stevie, to my surprise.
“It’s an interesting tradition,” I answered, “and cute, too. However, it’s more than likely not very accurate. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-French ‘gobelin,’ which could be a diminutive of Gobel, a name related to the German word kobold.
“Oh, okay,” said Big Stevie Cool, and he started to get up.
“Not so fast,” I said, and I wagged my index-finger like a school teacher. “We have only touched upon the name goblin. If we go beyond the name, things start to get really interesting.”
“Oh, do tell,” said Stevie, sinking back into the chair.
I’m not a mind-reader, and I totally cannot read social cues, so when I get consent to continue, I plow forward. So I continued.
“Okay,” I said, “goblins are grotesque faeries that can range from dwarf height to human height. They’re usually depicted as having brows covered with thick hair and mouths filled with crooked yellow teeth. Goblins have coarse, raspy sounding, and high-pitched voices. They’re also cunningly smart.”
“Gotcha,” said Stevie. “Ugly little green men.”
“Green is a very modern tradition,” I said. “If you look at pre-modern drawings of goblins, they’re portrayed in a variety of colors.”
“Oh,” said Stevie. “You said something about going beyond the name.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, smiling widely. “If instead of focusing on the name we choose to focus on characteristics, goblins appear in a variety of cultures.”
“What are the characteristics of a goblin?” asked Stevie.
At this point, I’m thinking that either my enthusiasm is beginning to rub off on him or that he is just too polite to say, “Dude, shut up. This is what I’m really here for.” Either way, I saw my opportunity to keep going, and I took it.
“Well,” I said, “goblins are always malevolent, cruel, and very ugly. A goblin smile can curdle blood, and its laugh can sour milk and cause fruit to fall from trees. In some legends, goblins steal human babies and replace them with ugly goblin babies—these are called changelings. From this we can surmise the qualities of a goblin: malevolence, cruelty, mischief, envy, jealousy, and, what appears in many of the different legends—though not in all—subservience to a greater evil.
From this we can spot goblin-like creatures from other cultures.”
Big Stevie Cool shook his head a bit. “You just might be overreaching here,” he said. “I mean each culture has its own menagerie of creatures based on its own unique experience. These similarities that you think you have found might just be coincidental.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, and felt really confident in what I was about to say. “Our cultural experiences might be different, but not our natures. Think about it. We can read Homer, for example, and even though we don’t understand anything about that ancient Greek culture, we do understand the people represented in the poem.”
I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure if he was being sincere with this question or just contrarian. I answered anyway.
“I’m not an expert, obviously,” I said, “but I am human; and while human nature remains unchanged, I recognize myself in every human being.”
“Whoa, wait, even Jack the Ripper?” Stevie’s eyes grew very wide as if he had just discovered the White Chapel murderer in North Carolina, over one-hundred years after his murder spree.
“While the Ripper’s actions are grotesque and evil to me,” I started, “I can fathom what it must be like to be so totally consumed by hatred and rage. Every single human being not hindered by ego can do this. The Iliad endures because all of us can understand Achilles’ rage; we also understand the lament of the woman at the end of Beowulf, that now the land will be conquered and its people enslaved because its protector is dead; and Odysseus’ desire to get back home. These stories resonate with us and are timeless because they speak directly to our humanity. I think the same is true when it comes to horrible things. I can understand Jack the Ripper, and I can also understand, say, a monster like Caligula, because they were human. What I would not be able to understand, what I think no one could, would be a kind, loving, deeply compassionate torturer. Now that would truly be a mystery.
Going back to the subject of goblins. If creatures that are short, ugly, malevolent, and cruel appear in just about every culture, this is telling us something about our psyche. Well, either that or goblins are real.
Anyway, what I think the goblin represents—and bear in mind, I’m no expert—is fear of deformity coupled with fear of the unknown. One of the most curious and universal aspects of humanity is the tendency to attribute agency to everything. In the past, you see, people didn’t just get sick; someone made them sick; people did not have bad luck; some sprite jinxed them, and so forth. Goblins, like the entire host of mythical creatures, are explanations.”
“Damn,” said Big Stevie Cool. Then he said, and to my surprise, “So what other types of goblins have you found?”
“The most interesting ones, so far,” I answered, “are the Japanese mountain goblins, called ‘tengu,’ which are in the form of either an old man who has a long nose and walks barefoot, or a crow ‘tengu,’ having the wings, beak, and claws of a bird but the body of a man. This creature, this ‘tengu,’ likes starting fires, and kidnapping and eating children. It can also, when the fancy strikes it, transform itself into a human to fool people and cause great mischief.
Then there are a few more that I still need to research but have already caught my attention; namely, the murderous goblin of British folklore known as Redcap, the malevolent goblin of Greek and Cypriot legend called Kallikantzaros, and the German kobold, which seems to be the original goblin as far as giving birth to the word goblin.”
“Okay,” said Big Stevie Cool. “You got it out of your system yet?”
I couldn’t help myself. I had to laugh. “Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Sorry about that. So, what brings you by?”
Big Stevie Cool popped out of the chair. Then, in a near perfect imitation of Keanu Reeves in his Bill and Ted mode, said, “Dude, we’re having a barbecue. I just came to pick you up. We’ve got beer, steak, and ribs.”
“Holy shit, man!” I said. “Why didn’t you just say so? Those are my three favorite things.”
Stevie shrugged his shoulders. “I know you, man,” he said. “If you don’t get it out of your system, you’re going to be obsessing about it all day.”
“In other words,” I said, “you didn’t want me to bore the rest of your guests.”
I think this caught him by surprise. Stevie, he doesn’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, and I could tell he thought he had hurt mine. But my feelings only get hurt by intentional malevolence, never by the truth. I do realize some of my weaknesses, like talking too much. So I reassured him that I wasn’t offended.
“I’ll be the perfect example of stoic restraint,” I assured him. “Now, let’s go get some beer.”
I closed the windows in my computer, saved my notes, and shut it down. Then we left the study and headed off to beer and grub.
All the while, I kept thinking about our shared human heritage and how so many similar creatures tend to appear throughout different cultures—although with different names—and what this could mean. There is something primordial in these myths, I think.
When we got to Stevie’s place, however, all I could think about was steak and beer. These are important, too.