The word Goblin is nowadays almost inseparable from the word “horde”. We imagine these short, ugly, ravening creatures of evil hanging out in great gangs in the wastelands of old forests and abandoned mines waiting to feast on the flesh of unwary travellers. Tolkien is largely responsible for the modern concept of misshapen malevolence in insect like legions. Folklore rarely sees goblins in such numbers, in fact, it rarely sees them at all and they would only appear to have been with us for about six hundred years under the name in question. So what are they and where did they come from?
The earliest appearance in British literature tells of a hillock in the midst of a dense wood where a tired knight might call out “I thirst!”
and immediately find himself in the presence of “a Goblin with a cheerful countenance, clad in a crimson robe, and bearing in his outstretched hand a large drinking-horn richly ornamented with gold and precious jewels, full of the most delicious, refreshing and unknown beverage. After the drinker had emptied the horn, the Goblin offered a silken napkin to wipe the mouth. Then, without waiting to be thanked, the strange creature vanished as suddenly as he had come.” Hardly terrifying. Typically an arrogant knight nicked the generous forest dweller’s horn and he withdrew his services.
With little to go on the folklorist generally turns to etymology to trace the origins of supernatural beings. It appears the word goblin may have been derived from the German “Kobold”. Now, the Kobold is a house spirit, famed for their domestic usefulness and their ability to remain unseen. They were sufficiently common that most houses had one who was looked after with great care, having food left out for them on a daily basis. As with any invisible helper, it was a bad idea to try to see them and one story tells of a persistent burgher throwing ashes around the room to make the kobold, King Goldemar’s footprints apparent, resulting in the householder being dismembered, roasted on a spit and eaten.
As the religious fervour of the middle ages took hold, these pagan house spirits fell out of favour and were, along with witches and the like, demonised. Stories of their helpfulness were told less often than the tales of them turning nasty on overly inquisitive humans; whilst the original message of such narratives, treat all beings with respect, was replaced with the implication that we should fear the unknown and the supernatural.
They say there is nothing to fear but fear itself and the goblin is a fine example of that truism, fear having turned the commonplace in to something fearful. The goblin as we know him now is a horror of our own making. Their willingness to assist mankind for the price of a meal, a roof over their head and a little privacy as to their appearance has been rejected, leaving thousands homeless and desperate roaming the wastes of our imagination… and they’re hungry.