Possibly one of the most confusing creatures to classify in all of mythology is one of the most highly encountered in tabletop gaming: the goblin. They have many names, numberless descriptions, and are often indistinguishable from other spirit folk, malevolent or benevolent. Many games break their heritage up in very specific ways. Goblins are small, weak, often green with long noses and ears, and stupid, so very stupid. Hobgoblins are treated as a more powerful and intelligent cousin, while the seemingly random addition of bugbears like a cave-man version. The original mythology is so much more nuanced and endlessly more entertaining. Looking at the definitions of each word and a few stories gives us a clearer idea of how amazing and interesting goblinoids can be in a game.
Being Faeries complicates what a goblin is because it allows them to be more closely tied with creatures similar in purpose and appearance. Chief among these are brownies, dwarves, gnomes, and hobgoblins. This article won’t take the time to define and classify each of these, but know they are typically described as small, mischievous, sometimes grotesque spirits with short tempers and an eye for shiny gifts. Additionally, many of them live under ground, or in small, cave-like areas of homes and other dwellings. This kind of blows the previous efforts to define a goblin out of the water; hence, the difficulty in defining them. Too many stories present each of the cited creatures committing similar acts to the others for various reasons, including using small enchantments, outright kidnapping, and the glorious tradition of using changelings. For this writer, even though there are stories of benevolent goblins, the most crucial aspect of a goblin is their maliciousness.
Goblins are nasty little buggers, worse than any spoiled child (even though spoiled kids are still awful, which is probably why Jareth, the Goblin King, in Labyrinth used unwanted children to form his goblin army). Christina Rossetti’s poem, The Goblin Market, illustrates just how nasty goblins can be when mildly annoyed. The poem is about the sacrifice one sister makes to save the other from withering away due to her addiction to the food the goblins fed her one night. After the first sister ate the goblin’s fruit, she became ill and no other food would satisfy her; in fact, she became so sick that she rapidly aged. The second sister then seeks the Goblin Market to acquire some more magical fruit, but upon finding out the charitable reason for her wanting the fruit, the goblins fly into a rage. They horribly beat her and try to force feed her the fruit. Luckily for the second sister, this tale ends well and both sisters recover from the experience. Maybe not the harshest example, but not many people are physically assaulted with the purpose of shoving fruit, magical or otherwise, down their throats. Another example of a wicked goblin comes from the German Erlking. Many stories are told of the “Earl King” and his lust for the lives of mortals, usually to dance and feast with him through eternity (but usually without their accompanying mortal coils). In the venerable Goethe’s version, the author of Faust – a doctor who sells his soul to the devil – the Erlking preys on children. The last example of a malicious goblin this article will address can be found among the border myths of northern England and southern Scotland in the form of the Redcap. These blighters are fortunately tied to their residence, which is often a ruined castle or some site of horrendous slaughter, and cannot leave it for long. Unfortunately, they are so swift that you cannot escape them once a mortal presence is detected; game over. They appear as shriveled old men with red eyes, hands ending in wicked talons, wearing iron boots, carrying a wicked iron pike, and are so named because they soak their caps in the blood of their victims. Once again, the best way to draw the line on traditional goblins at the table is by how nasty they are. Which begs the questions, what does a goblin look like who doesn’t want to eat my spleen? Are there benevolent goblins?
The short answer is yes, there are. Aside from a fair number of tales exhibiting the average goblin as purely a greedy rogue willing to trash your farm and starve people out of their homes if crossed and not necessarily inspired to consume succulent mortal organs, there are tales of beneficent (a term used very, very loosely) goblins. These are often called hobgoblins. Make no mistake, though, even though many stories of hobgoblins have them performing household chores a la Dobby the House Elf style (where’s my house goblin, dang it, I hate doing dishes), these creatures will not tolerate being disrespected in any way. Many sources draw a parallel between hobgoblins and the trickster Puck, who was known for playing pranks like spoiling milk or tripping the elderly. Others have them escalating their antics to personally harming members of the offending household or by threatening the avenues of livelihood until appeased. Conversely, if on their good side, a hobgoblin will assist in chores and may even bring small gifts, sometimes enchanted, or money. These types of stories seem to serve as a cautionary tale for children, meant to inspire obedience through reward, and the avoidance of punishment. The last goblinoid this article will address isn’t meant as a mundane motivation, but to utterly terrify children into obedience: the bugbear.
The Bugbear comes from an interesting combination of words. As with many etymologies, the exact origin of “bugbear” is up for debate; however, the word has another meaning. Not only does it refer to an actual thing, which will be addressed in more detail presently, but it also means “an object of dread; an imaginary terror.” Bugbears were used specifically to frighten. Even the prefix of the word “bug” means “a ghost, an object of terror.” It’s also closely related to another object of childhood terror: the Bogeyman. Mixing the Bogeyman with a freakin bear is just a jerk move, medieval parents. Worthy of note is that in the United Kingdom, bears were eliminated fairly quickly. We can infer this by the curious lack of the presence of bears in stories where it would otherwise be appropriate. This suggests that bears became endangered, and later extinct, pretty early on in the island’s history. Also curious is the presence of bears in the family names, titles, heraldry, and cave drawings. So bears, at one time, must have existed there. Also, a word for bear exists within the vocabulary of Old English. This means that the people living at the time were at least aware of the beasts, and maybe even some of their habits. And since the large and wild wood sprawled for thousands of acres in those days, not only could stray bears have survived into later periods like the Sasquatch, losing a child to the trees and whatever else was inside of them wouldn’t be a very difficult thing to do. So what better way to keep an eye on them than to scare the ever-living piss out of them than by making up a story of an intelligent goblin-bear who loved to eat kids? Seriously, the definition given by Oxford explains them thus: “A sort of goblin (in the shape of a bear) supposed to devour naughty children.” Our ancestors had a thing for striking terror into the hearts of their progeny. No wonder the world is so paranoid these days. In any case, these sentient, malevolent bear-goblins had all of the sass of their smaller cousins, but had less of a will to trick you into giving up your gold and a stronger desire to follow the market proposed by Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
The moral of the story? Goblins are scary, demonic, beings with a massive short-man complex. Hobgoblins will be just as likely to tie your hair in knots if you forget to leave out a saucer of milk for it as they are to leave gold in your shoes for obeying its every whim. Bugbears should make you pee your pants, because they are going to eat you forthwith.
We hope you enjoyed this little journey through historic goblinoids with us! Have you ever changed the stock tabletop model for goblins? Let us know below, we’d love to hear from you.