They’re underrated, they really are. Sure, you’ve got The Lord of the Rings with its orcs and uruk-hai and they’re a bad lot to be sure, but there’s something about those goblins.
On one level, they’re the perfect bad guys for a children’s fairy tale. Not that The Hobbit doesn’t have other antagonists, but the goblins fulfill an essential role. The spiders are creepy, but they’re not so much evil as they are—well, spiders. Spiders eat whatever they can catch in their web; it’s just what they do. Likewise, the trolls are too clumsy and stupid to really justify being called evil. The elves are mean, yes, and selfish, but you can’t really hate or fear them. They feel more like immature children with too much power than calculating villains (why yes, I did just put elves in the ‘bad guy’ category. So sue me). And there’s Smaug, of course, but he’s more an ancient force of nature than a malevolent entity.
Which is where the goblins come in. They are malicious and cruel and vicious. They are the wolf in Grandmother’s clothes or the witch with a gingerbread house and child-sized oven. They say, “See here, children, I am what badness looks like. I am the thing you lie awake at night dreading. I am fear and death and loss and pain.” And so when Bilbo—or Little Red Riding Hood, or Hansel and Gretel—overcomes or outwits the specter of childhood nightmare, the child curled up under his blankets reading with a flashlight is assured that he, too, can vanquish the night. Remember when you were three and a half feet tall and had to trot to keep up with your mum or dad? The world was scary place then, do you remember? Everything, even a good-sized dog, was bigger than you were. You were a Hobbit living in a Man’s world. When Bilbo escaped his enemies unscathed, you felt sure you could, also.
That’s why The Hobbit needs its goblins. Generation after generation of kids read of Gandalf appearing among the goblins in a flash of light and know they’re not alone with the monsters under the bed. Not only that, but the goblins provide a healthy and satisfying target for animosity. You can wholeheartedly root against them and not worry about niggling shades of gray. They are not simply misguided or behaving according to animal instinct: no, they’re well and truly bad, so you feel a sort of righteous thrill when Gandalf smites them dead.
And on an entirely different level, the goblins represented that which Tolkien abhorred. They are creatures of caves and fetid air, turning their backs to the sunlit land to dwell in darkness. They are clever and creative, but rather than using these attributes to better themselves, they turn their abilities toward inventing new methods of pain and destruction. To take a line from my English professor, they “devote most of their creative power to coming up with efficient ways to hurt people.”
I read an article the other day in what was probably “Wall Street Journal” (or it may have been “The New York Times”) that discussed the goblins’ song. You know the one:
Clap! Snap! The black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!
The writer compared the song to others in the book—the majestic Misty Mountains song, say, or the dwarves’ rollicking threats to destroy Bilbo’s crockery—and noted how Tolkien used the rhythm and lyrics of his songs to reveal aspects of the singers. The goblins’ song is full of sharp, jarring syllables and caustic syntax, mirroring their propensity for harsh actions. They see a way they can hurt someone and see no reason not to do it. They hurt people and laugh while doing it. If that’s not disturbing, I don’t know what is.
So yeah, there’s something about those goblins.