LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

It’s a Hard Knock Life – For A Goblin

on January 31, 2013 8:09am

“Now in these subterranean caverns lived a strange race of beings, called by some gnomes, by some kobolds, by some goblins. There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or another, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought to severe taxes upon them, or had required observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country…They had all taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, whence they never came out but at night, and then seldom showed themselves in any numbers, and never to many people at once” (Macdonald 3).

Reading George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and his exposition of the goblin characters, this introduction passage kept clouding my hate for the allegedly villainous goblins. A reading of this text introduces the political and social implications that surround the less-than-favorable relationship between the humans and the goblins and raises the question, at least for me; can you really blame the goblins?

Presenting the landscape of the kingdom and its distinctive characteristic of having underground mines, Macdonald introduces the setting of these subterranean (a big word for a kid!) caves, which later become important locations in the story. In these caves lives a race of beings – described as strange, especially considering they live in the ground. The insertion of the different of their different labes is intriguing; do they each mean something different or are used in different contexts? Macdonald later uses the term “cob” much more than any of these terms – could that be considered a racial slur for the goblins?

Throughout the novel, I kept referring back to the subsequent passage explaining why the goblins “disappeared from the face of the country.” Firstly, no one even really remembers the exact reason why they left, and interestingly enough, they were probably like other people prior to their departure underground. Most of the legends as to why they left trace it to oppressions imposed by the human king, either severe taxes, observances the race of goblins opposed, or maltreatment. Macdonald surprisingly contends that the goblins took “refuge,” a term normally associated with the notion of having been wronged or victimized. The goblins seek asylum in the night and learn to never reveal their true numbers, their population, to the many humans.

This passage reveals the reason why the goblins voluntarily erased themselves from the kingdom – they were an oppressed minority escaping the dominant class and searching for new opportunities. They removed themselves from their suppressors peacefully and silently, and their plans of revolution and desire to return to the kingdom, while obviously unethical, are somewhat understandable. Macdonald, well-versed with how the Scottish were oppressed by the English ruling class, uses the relationship between the humans and the goblins to introduce children to the social and political implications of class distinctions in the 18th century Western world.

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3 responses to “It’s a Hard Knock Life – For A Goblin

  1. p2murphy says:

    While I can see where you are coming from with your analysis of the goblins’ long lost upbringing, I must disagree on several points. I find it irresponsible to take responsibility off of the goblins because of some long ago slight; and even if that slight was real – which they say cannot be recalled definitely – there were courses of action that could have led them on other paths. For one, they could have resisted the tyranny like the Scottish and Americans resisted the English – albeit to differing degrees of success – or if not actively resisting, could have made an effort to rejoin the surface world in the countless generations between their initial retreat and the story’s events. As for their actions themselves, looking at the brevity of them – both the kidnapping and forced marriage of an 8 year old and the back-up plan of miner genocide – seems to me to minimize the mitigation one might be tempted to give their developments and circumstances. These creatures thought nothing of feeding Curdie to their creatures or brutally beating a woman on a mountain path. Separation from the surface world is not an acceptable reason for a culture of violence and the goblins should be held fully accountable for their actions.

  2. Aaron Pirkkala says:

    I would have to partially agree with Viceligar in the sense that the goblins were, long ago, victimized due to some unfair political action or some new law passed within the kingdom that segregated classes of people or encouraged inequality, thus giving the–previously human–goblins little to no choice but to recede from the kingdom and form their own sovereignty in the nearby subterranean caverns. On the contrary, I completely agree with p2murphy’s case in the matter of just how far one can go in pitying the goblins, a race governed by a cruel and selfish nature, as described adequately in the text:

    “But as they grew in cunning, they grew in mischief and their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy people who lived in the open-air storey above them… still they so heartily cherished the ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions, and especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors” (MacDonald 5).

    Said simply, the goblins use far-off history as an excuse for their revengeful, meddlesome, and troublesome acts. Furthermore, they seem to make no effort in restoring peace or forming a truce with the king and his kingdom. Rather, they have resorted to taking order under their own hands: kidnapping an eight-year-old princess, and flooding out and killing miners, even contriving to steal the sun-people’s lands and produce for their own use, as the queen puts it:

    “I cannot imagine how it is that… we permit them to exist at all. Why do we not destroy them entirely, and use their cattle and grazing lands at our pleasure? Of course we don’t want to live in their horrid country… But we might even keep their great cows and other creatures, and then we should have a few more luxuries, such as cream and cheese” (MacDonald 141).

    Pity the goblins, I do not, and could not; not ever. For, as p2murphy would agree, one bad act in the past (the kingdom’s stricter laws or severe taxes, for example) does not justify violence, killing, and kidnapping. Revenge is a selfish act mastered by man, and solves no purpose in that it only makes situations worse; more than likely resulting in dire consequences for both parties in the end, to which there usually is no end. Revenge only mimics the actions of the wrong-doer, thus inevitably poking one ever so closer off the gangplank of righteousness, and into the ocean of self-contradiction and drenching shame; evident in the scene of the goblin’s manufactured flood where, in the process of flooding and drowning the miners (as well as the flooding of the king’s house), “They had been caught in their own snare; instead of the mine they had flooded their own country, whence they were now swept up drowned” (MacDonald 231).

    In historical times, the goblins may not have deserved the maltreatment bestowed upon them by the king and/or his laws, but this does not justify their vulgar and unnecessary actions. As a result, the goblins drowned to their own demise due to their unjustified vengeance and devout selfishness.

  3. I like that you bring up the point of racism in the novel towards the goblins. We see them as evil creatures that live in caves but what about their side of the story? This reminds me of Jane Eyre and the woman locked in the attic. There was a book written to tell her side of the story; the story of “the other.” In this case the goblins are the other race and when thinking back to the novel, it makes me sad to think about how they could have been oppressed. I for one would be bitter towards someone if they imposed political laws against me and forced me out of my home. But what does this say about a children’s novel? We should be careful in what we pick for a children’s literature canon because like this book, it could be laced with hidden references that would be a hard lesson for children.

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