Enter the goblins.

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.

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18 responses »

  1. David says:

    Reblogged this on The Warden's Walk and commented:
    Why “The Hobbit” needs its goblins.

  2. […] Chapter 4: Over Hill and Under Hill by taliesintaleweaver at Lights in the Library […]

  3. jubilare says:

    Hahaha! I agree with you about the elves in the Hobbit, though Tolkien does try to amend them in the end. I always thought I was relatively alone in my opinion, so it’s refreshing to learn that my resentment of the Mirkwood elves isn’t solely due to my Dwarven bias.

    I was always a little bothered by the goblins in Tolkien’s lore. I never could stomach the idea of entirely bad races. It’s one of the things I would like to discuss with Tolkien. You are quite right, I think, on the function they play. I understand that they are symbolic, but there’s always something in my heart asking “are there exceptions to this rule, and if not, what are the implications?”
    But all this is too serious a thought-process to apply to The Hobbit. I do love this chapter, and I love the tale. 🙂

    • Yes, I’ve had the same thoughts regarding whole races being intrinsically bad or good. But unless I’m forgetting someone, I think the only race(s) who seem wholly evil are goblins/orcs. And with those, I wonder if they’re evil merely because they where “created” by Morgoth. If that’s the case, do they have free will? And if they don’t, are they truly evil or simply behaving according to their nature in way a man-eating shark isn’t evil? Interesting thoughts. . .

      • jubilare says:

        I count the dragons and the spiders, too. And probably the trolls, but we don’t see as many of those, so who knows? With the orcs and dragons I can assume that any not-horribly-evil ones get killed off by their masters, but the goblins trouble me a bit more as they seem to be fairly independent. In The Hobbit it is easier for me to see the characters and races as representatives of people’s behaviors rather than true races of Arda, but it gets more difficult when I delve into the LotR or the Silmarillion. For a child, the idea that trolls are people who behave like trolls makes sense.

        Tolkien would probably laugh at us for considering the question from this angle. Ah well. It’s his fault for writing such a vast and fascinating mythology!

      • jubilare says:

        On a side-note, Tolkien does a better job at having his “good” races show their dark sides and failings. While he is a bit too enamored of his elves, even they show their dark sides and faults sometimes.

      • I’m not sure I would count dragons because I don’t think we see enough examples of them to make a decision as to whether they are all evil or only a portion of them are. I think you’re right that The Hobbit tries to draw pretty distinct lines between races, each one exemplifying certain characteristics so you can’t fully extrapolate from that book into the larger world of Middle-Earth. For this reason, I’d hesitate to include spiders, because they’re only in The Hobbit (except for Shelob, but again, I don’t think one example is enough to draw mass generalizations for an entire race). It’s a fascinating question though.

  4. emilykazakh says:

    Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    We must not look at goblin men, we must not buy their fruits…

    Thoughts on goblins, and a few other Middle-Earth baddies.

  5. jubilare says:

    It’s been a while since I read my Silmarillion, but I think it states that the dragons were created my Morgoth and were all evil. I remember only four, though, so maybe that isn’t enough for a “race.” The spiders are supposedly Shelob’s offspring, and Shelob is the daughter of Ungolaint, so I tend to lump them all together. You have a point, though. Personally, I wonder if Tolkien was a wee-bit arachnophobic 😉

    • Oh does it? I don’t remember that, but it’s been quite some time since I read The Silmarillion. Haha perhaps Tolkien was an arachnophobe. It would certainly explain the preponderance of evil creepy-crawlies in his books.

  6. Rob says:

    I always felt Tolkien used goblins as stand-ins for modern man. I mean, their language, while not cockney like the trolls, is definitely plain and ordinary with no poetry in it. They take Tolkien’s beautiful names for weapons, such as Glamdring the Foehammer or Orcrist, and call them instead “Beater” and “Biter.” Finally, this one line kind of seals it for me: “They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.” Banality can be horrifying.

  7. David says:

    I am thus far delighted by the goblins in The Hobbit, for the sheer fairy tale-ness they bring to the proceedings. They’re loads of fun, and, as you say, Taliesin, are almost essential as villains who are utterly obvious, and also dangerous without being overwhelming in the way that Smaug will later be. To be honest, I’ve never been particularly worried about the portrayal of them and the orcs as totally evil; I’ve always just accepted those races as personifications of brutish evil, specifically built by Morgoth to not have any of Illuvatar’s goodness in them, rather than like Nazis, who commit atrocities but are still human as the rest of us. And I imagine that Tolkien probably also put them into the monster category rather than the person-gone-bad category, at least for The Hobbit. When we get to the rest of his legendarium, it does get trickier. He says at some points that the orcs were bred from elves that had been tortured and corrupted in Morgoth’s dungeons for generations, which should definitely give them the free will and dignity of personage that comes with being Children of Illuvatar, however deeply and violently that heritage is buried! However, I can’t see that being the origin for the goblins of the Misty Mountains — they seem altogether a different sort.

    It makes me also think of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, which have sometimes been accused of encouraging racism because he uses different animal species to represent different types of humans, and certain species (rats, weasels, foxes, “vermin”) are always evil (there may be one or two exceptions, but I seem to remember him sometimes stating that all of a certain species were bad and not to be trusted). It never bothered me, though, because it all seemed so clearly representative. Still, even he would sometimes give them dignity and flashes of goodness buried deep within.

    Also, returning to the discussion above regarding Tolkien’s elves, I think he was enamored of the variety and depth of their potential — and fascinated by the tragedy of how they abjectly failed to live up to it whenever they separated themselves from Illuvatar. Reading The Silmarillion, I almost felt that the elven lords were doing more evil than good most of the time, especially when it counted most. Especially Feanor and his sons…

    • jubilare says:

      The goblins work marvelously for the story, I can’t argue with that. It is their role in the overall mythology that spurs my questions.

      While I don’t see Brian Jacques’s books as racist, the same issue always troubled me when I read them. There are problems with the argument that different animals represent different kinds of people, whatever he intended. Early on we have three of the same species (Tsarmina, Gingivere and Verdauga) who are each very different from the other. Also, the different kinds of animals (at least as far as I read) do not intermarry and a mouse’s child is a mouse and a badger has badgers etc. I understand the temptation for and even the logic behind clear good vs. evil groups in books, especially mythologies and children’s literature, but it has always been something that frustrated me. I wanted non-evil vermin in Brian Jacques books so badly that I tried to write my own story when I was little. As much as I loved (and still love) the Redwall books, there was a pain in my heart every time I remembered that the vermin were always evil and always would be, fated to corruption by history and biology without hope of redemption.

      Part of what moves and drives me in fiction is the unexpected, the exceptions to the rules that let the light of hope in. My worldview, as you know, includes the belief that the foundation of creation is Good, and that evil is a corruption, a twisting of that which is good. Therefore there must be hope of redemption for everyone. I love J. R. R. Tolkien and Brian Jacques regardless, (and to be fair, the former does a lot better job at including exceptions than the latter, though only to a point) but I would have been deeply grateful and joyful to see a few more exceptions to the fatalistic rules from both of them.

      This is essay-length. Apologies. But I find this subject fascinating.

      I understand, from a literary standpoint, the use of symbols, allegory, and simplification. I understand that, sometimes, we just want a simple story with clear lines. And The Hobbit is a fairly simple story, so I am more inclined to leave it alone.

      LotR and the Silmarillion, though, are far from simple. In those, Tolkien does an excellent job of showing us the blend of good, evil, strength and weakness in the Free Peoples of Arda. In Gollum he gives us a deep, complex struggle. He even shows us that some Orcs have honor, of a sort.

      To me, he proves that symbolic writing and realistic writing do not have to be mutually exclusive, but he does not answer my one niggling question.

      Am I wrong? Have I missed something? Do we have to choose between effective symbols and more realistic representations of mankind?

      Feanor and his sons are often frustrating (and tragic) but it is Maeglin who broke my heart.

      • I do absolutely get what you mean about the hope of redemption for all, instead of some races being fatalistically doomed to evil. However, at least as far as Brian Jacques goes, he did have Veil, who ultimately made his stand with the side of good.

  8. jubilare says:

    I was no longer reading the series when that book came out, but I do remember a friend of mine reading it. She showed me a passage at the end, the exact wording of which I can’t remember, where his (I think) only friend, who owed him her life, said that he really was bad and that he might have easily taken the other side. Reading that was so painful to me that I couldn’t bring myself to read the book.
    Perhaps I am not being fair to Jacques, but I don’t know how else to read his patterns. It’s oversimplification where none is necessary. In all other regards, I really love his books. They have wonderful characters, they delight the imaginary senses and uphold courage, honor and kindness. They were a formative part of my childhood, and my copies of Redwall and Mossflower, in particular, have been read to shreds. I’ve introduced kids to his books and if I ever have any children of my own, Brian Jacques will be part of their literary diet.
    So my issues with his “vermin” don’t turn me against him. They do sadden me, though, and make me want to write fanfiction, which I haven’t done since I was a child trying to write a novel with a good fox and rats in it. 😉

    • jubilare says:

      And a note on my personal bias: ever since I could read I was reading about animals, so I knew quite a bit about foxes, rats, weasels etc., and I liked them. This contributed largely to my feelings of injustice at them being characterized as evil. Kids don’t compartmentalize things very well. It wasn’t until I started to grow up that the larger implications dawned on me.

  9. Ana says:

    What a great article – I never even paid attention to the song (although I did read the translation, and not the original).

  10. […] Taliesin Tale-Weaver of Lights in the Library, I really appreciate his contribution to The Hobbit Read-Along on Chapter 4: “Over Hill and Under […]

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