The Goblin is one of the classic monsters of myth. More a class of creature than a single creature itself, it draws from myths across the world. While the classic goblin is fairly easy to describe, the many sub-species of goblin make it the type of creature that can fit into virtually any story.
Quick Facts about Goblins
- They are shorter than average people but larger than pixies, gnomes and elves.
- They are often described as being greenish in color, and having large, pointed ears.
- Goblins are usually presented as devious, mischievous or evil creatures.
- Stories of these creatures have strong roots in Europe, but can be found in folklore around the world.
- Some have magical powers, but one of their trademark traits is that they are stealthy.
- They are frequently referenced with ghosts around Halloween (e.g. ghosts and goblins).
- There are a variety of classes or types of goblin such as hobgoblins and redcaps.
- Goblins have appeared in several popular movies including the Harry Potter series.
- Underneath the ruins of Yester Castle in Scotland is an ancient hall called Goblin Ha'. People believe the hall was built by demonic forces.
Where did Goblins Originate?
Goblins are a generally European invention, with the bulk of modern folklore coming out of present-day Germany. There are, however, goblin-like creatures described virtually everywhere in the world.
Goblins have a tendency to pop up in rural areas, especially in those that are near forests. They represent an overall fear of the dark and unknown, with the tacit admission that humans can't necessarily fight back against those things that can't be seen.
Because goblin myths are so ubiquitous, though, they have the relatively uncommon benefit of being able to fit into virtually any type of myth framework.
What do Goblins look like?
One of the real issues with describing the appearance of goblins is that there are several types of goblin. Depending on where in the world you are and when the story was written, goblins can range from the terrifyingly inhuman to monsters who are only differentiated by a few minor features.
There are dozens of different types of builds and bodies, though there are at least a few things that tend to be true. In most cases, goblins are short. They are not tiny like fairies, but they are generally shorter than the average man.
Most goblins tend to be quite ugly, bordering on hideous or monstrous. They have deformed features, often accompanied by being strangely hairy or having grayish or greenish skin that is oddly-textured.
Goblins in modern fiction tend to have long, grasping fingers that might end in claws. Most goblins also have decidedly inhuman eyes. Many also have long and pointed ears.
What type of demeanor do Goblins have?
They tend to work well as generic evil spirits and creatures, the kind of monsters that can be held responsible for everything from simple mischief to truly horrifying acts. These are the monsters that are used to explain events that are generally too horrifying the blame on man or nature.
Even the more benevolent goblins in folklore have tended to have a mean streak, so they're also a good example of myths surrounding the importance of keeping one's word and upholding contracts.
What are some special abilities of Goblins?
The powers and abilities of a goblin tend to be related to the type of goblin in the story. There are fairly few universal constants in terms of power, with the exception of the fact that they can be relatively stealthy.
Goblins are more likely to be active at night or in hidden places, but some myths do tend to give them the ability to turn invisible at will. As general trickster monsters, some versions of goblins may also have access to limited magic and the ability to change shape at will.
In more modern tales, goblins tend to be deceptively strong for their size. They are easily able to kidnap and subdue adults, though they often are seen to prey on children and livestock. Goblins may have a certain affinity for gold or for treasure, though they can also be bound by promises and contracts.
Goblins are such a diverse type of monster that it's safe to attribute virtually any type of behavior or power to these creatures.
Are there different kinds of Goblins?
There are actually various kinds or classes of goblins from different folklores around the world. A few of the more well-known types include the following:
- Hobgoblin: Hobgoblins are described as helpful, short and hairy creatures. In stories, they can be found doing tasks and chores in homes. They can also at times be mischievous and play practical jokes and pranks on people. One of the most famous of these is the character Puck from "Midsummer Night's Dream".
- Brownie: Brownies are very similar to hobgoblins in that they do work at night. They often require food and drink, such as milk or dairy, in exchange for their work. Brownies are generally less mischievous than hobgoblins. Like hobgoblins, they are also small, hairy and ugly, and if they have any clothing at all it is made of old rags.
- Redcap: Redcaps are possibly one of the more grotesque and violent types of goblin. In folklore, they were said to coat their hats in the blood of the people they killed. Tales of these creatures originate from the northern parts of England.
- Hogboon: Hogboons are friendly kinds of goblins that are said to bring luck to a family if they are treated well. The hogboon lives in a mound near a particular family's home. The family would sometimes leave food for the hogboon.
- Boggart: Boggarts are evil types of goblins that disturb people while they are sleeping. They can pull covers off people or tug on their ears. They may also cause things around the house to go missing. Boggarts are often believed to be hobgoblins that were mistreated or abused.
What are some stories about Goblins?
The Goblins who Turned to Stone
In 1918, an author named William Eliot Griffis published a book titled "Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks". The book is a series of short fairy tales and stories filled with fantastical creatures such as giants, mermaids, elves and even oni.
One of the stories in the book is titled "The Goblins who Turned to Stone". This story is set in Holland, and in it Griffis provides a substantial amount of detail about goblins that 'used' to live there. The story notes that goblins were cousins of kabouters, the Dutch word for gnome or leprechaun, and that goblins were short, smart and extremely quick. They were also very ugly, and for that reason had been commanded to live underground during the day. If they came out during the day, they would turn to stone.
The story also notes that they were envious of how tall humans were, and that the goblins would sometimes steal human babies and replace the human babies with their own. The goblin baby that was left with the human would be weaker and thinner than a typical human baby, and would often get sick. These are known as changelings.
The story goes on to say that the goblins were able to make themselves invisible by using small red hats. One night, a goblin sneaked into an old woman's room through a keyhole. He was feeling extra mischievous that night. He took off his red hat to try and scare her and the old woman saw him. Though she was frightened for a moment, the old woman began throwing shoes at the creature and he quickly tried to escape. Before he got away, the woman stole his red hat.
The woman came up with a plan to destroy the goblins. She left a note for the goblin that had lost the hat that she was going to set the red hat on a bush and that he should bring her a gold necklace.
However, the woman set a trap. When the goblins came to get the hat, villagers ambushed them. As the goblins were invisible, the woman had instructed the villagers to grab and pull as much as possible even if they couldn't see anything, in order to try and get as many of the red hats as possible.
The villagers weren't able to get all of the goblins' hats, but they did get a few. Once a few of the goblins were visible, the villagers chased groups of them across the countryside. The goblins weren't able to make it back underground before daybreak, and they all turned to stone.
Goblin Market is a poem that was written by an English poet named Christina Rosetti sometime around the year 1859 and published in 1862. This poem begins by telling of two sisters named Laura and Lizzie who hear goblins calling out for people to buy their fruits.
Lizzie tells Laura not to look at the goblins, but Laura's curiosity got the best of her. One day she spied upon the goblins. She was enamored by their lush fruits and saw that the goblin men had strange features. One had a cat's face while another had a tail.
The goblin men approached Laura and began to show her their fruit and asked her to buy some. Laura had no money but the goblins said that all they wanted was a lock of her hair and a tear. Laura obliged and then began to eat the fruit. It was the sweetest and most delightful fruit she had ever eaten.
As the days started passing after Laura ate the fruit, she could no longer hear the goblins calling out to buy their fruit. Strangely, her sister Lizzie could still hear them. Before long, Laura began to age rapidly. Her hair turned grey and she could no longer do the household chores.
Laura desperately desired to eat the goblins fruit again, and as she was near her death Lizzie wanted to give her a taste of the fruit. Lizzie set out to buy some of the fruit and put a penny in her purse. When Lizzie found the goblins, she asked them if she could buy some of the fruit from them and tossed the penny their way. They said to wait and asked her to sit down and eat with them.
When Lizzie said she couldn't because she had someone waiting at home for her, she asked for her penny back. The goblins became very angry and began to pull at her clothes and hair. They tried to force her to eat and squeezed the fruit around her mouth and face. But Lizzie fought and refused to eat the fruit. Eventually the goblins gave up and gave her penny back.
Lizzie rushed home to Laura and said to taste the juices that the goblins had forced on Lizzie's face. When Laura tasted them, they were no longer sweet but awful. Laura became writhed in agony, and eventually fell to the floor.
Lizzie sat up and watched over Laura that night. When morning came, Laura returned to her younger self and was spared death. For many years, Laura told the story of how her sister saved her life to the children of the town.
Goblins have become a go-to in modern fantasy media. They are often the rank-and-file monsters, though many authors have supplanted them with the historically-similar orcs. Works that feature goblins include, but are not limited to:
- The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
- Snuff by Terry Pratchett
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- World of Warcraft
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Magic: The Gathering