Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: "Goblin Market".

When I chose this poem to talk about, I did it mainly because it’s October and I thought the poem was kind of spooky.  I mean, it’s about goblins after all.  However, when I did a little searching around, I found that there might be some more to this story than I thought.

First, some background on what exactly a goblin is.  We’ve encountered “goblins” before in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.  In that story, they were essentially kobolds or tommy-knockers.  However, the word “goblin” is actually derived from the old French “goeblin” and tends to be used as a catch-all for any kind of malevolent or mischievous fairy creature.  In fact, Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” refers to himself as a goblin.

The author of this poem, Christina Rosetti came from a family of creative and intellectual types.  Her father was an Italian political exile and her mother was a half-English, half-Italian woman trained as a governess.  Two of her brothers were members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who thought art had taken a severe downturn since the days of the Renaissance artist Raphael.  In fact, an early edition of “Goblin Market” was illustrated by her brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
The poem follows two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who can hear the hawkers at the goblin fruit market.  They’re selling all manner of fruit, including a number of ones that were probably out-of-season (this would be a strange and notable thing in the Victorian era in which this poem was produced).  Lizzie is dead set on avoiding the goblin men and their fruit, but Laura gives in to temptation and goes to the Goblin Market.  She has no money, so she trades a lock of her hair for their fruit goes into a sort of frenzy, eating her fill of the strange fruit.  After returning home in a trance, Lizzie upbraids Laura and reminds her of the story of Jeanne, a girl who partook of the goblin fruit who suffered a long decline and died.  As time goes by, Laura starts to decline herself.  When it seems she’s at death’s door, she heads to the goblin market herself where she tries to buy some fruit.  The goblins though, try to force her to eat it herself.  She resists and ultimately ends up going home covered in fruit juices.  Laura kisses the juice off of Lizzie’s cheeks and is cured of her declining health, albeit in a painful way.  Years later, they tell their children about the whole thing as a cautionary tale.

I’m sure I’m not doing this poem any justice with that synopsis, so you can read it right HERE.  Though, one thing I’d like to mention that I find interesting is how the various goblins are described as having animal traits.  It’s an approach I’m not sure I’ve seen done with goblins before.

Still, it’s kind of creepy, right?  All those strange goblin men and the poor woman wasting away because of it.  But then I started reading up on the analysis and subtext that people have taken from the poem over the years.

People have interpreted this poem and its subtext in numerous ways for years.  A great deal of that interpretation seems to come from views regarding women, sexuality and Christianity (an example HERE).  The Victorian period was a time when all three subjects were kind of loaded.  Rosetti had even worked in a home for so-called “fallen women” for a time.  I can totally see where these inspirations are coming from.  It’s easy to see the goblins’ fruits as the classic “forbidden fruit” usually represented by the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  However, when I read the poem at first, it didn’t occur to me.

Instead, what I was first reminded of was classic fairy lore.  It’s a fairly common bit of lore regarding the fair folk that human beings should not eat their food.  In some cases, it’s because if you eat their food while in fairy lands, you will not be able to return to the world of men.  In other cases, just trying to eat the food will make it disappear before you can get a bite.  In general, eating fairy food was always a bad idea for humans.  To some degree, this calls back to classical mythology and the story of Persephone.  Because Persephone ate six pomegranate arils from a pomegranate of the underworld, she was compelled to stay there for half the year.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Of course, that’s probably because I come from a rather secular family who live in a rather secular country during a rather secular time.  Victorian England would have been a different matter altogether.

I’ve seen another interpretation that suggests that Rosetti was trying to create a new type of literary heroine.  One that stands fast against temptation. 

That’s not all, though.  Just looking at the Wikipedia entry, it seems there are a number of other interpretations.  Some see an anti-semitic undertone in the poem.  Some see it as a critique of Capitalism.  Others see it as a criticism of Victorian marriage markets.  (Note: I did not fact-check the Wikipedia article.  So, I'm taking it at its word).

Now, you know I’m not the type to go much into subtext or analysis or interpretation.  Not because I can’t but because I’d rather not push my own interpretations on other people.  Interpretation is much more interesting on a personal level without someone saying “this story is really about such-and-such”.  But it’s still kind of interesting that so many people have gotten so much out of this one spooky little goblin poem.

And if you have the chance, check it out.  Who knows what you might get out of it.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting one, thanks for sharing. Not sure about an interpretation yet. Your summary is hard to understand at times, when it comes to who does what. Yyou might want to read over it again.

    My thoughts:

    a) Were crabappels actually sold at markets? If they were they must have been bought by very poor people who could not affordregular apples. Their presence at the goblin market that otherwise only sells awesome fruit seems couterintuitive, unless of course the implication is that *even the crapappels* are awesome. Their ordiariness of course also makes a nice contrast to the pineappels in the next line. Pineappels were both absurdly expensive and absurdly popular in Victorian times to the point where they even could be rented for a day to impress guests. (Source: http://www.levins.com/pineapple.html) So heir presence at the goblin market heightens the sense of wonder.

    b) I can definitely pick up sexual undertones, especially in the second half. I think one of the blogs I follow recently had a post abouthow food is a often replacement for sex in children's lit (I assume that the poem was intended for children?), but I follow too many blogs to be able to recall which one it was. Can anyone help out?

    However the undertones go beyong food metaphors:

    "Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
    Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
    Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
    Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
    Against her mouth to make her eat."

    reads to me like a rape scene.

    c)animal motivs associated with goblins is not unheard of, but uncommon. I was reminded of the Puca, a fairy-like being that can turn into different animals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%BAca

    d)Antisemitic tendecies - I can kinda see it, but associating any negatively portrayed merchant in older literature with antisemitism is in my opinion neither fair to the authors nor to the Jewish community. I couldn't detect any stereotypes about Jews that I'm familiar with in the description of the goblins (except that they are overzealous merchants, which as I said, does not immediately scream "anti-semitism" to me). Especially that they are explicitly not motivated by money seems to speak against Rosetti (consciously) working in anti-semitic viewpoints.
    I couldn't read the source, because it's from am e-zine that my university is not subscribed to. So anyone who knows more about the topic or has access to the source, please fill me in if I'm mistaken.

    e) The ending really confused me... what's the implication here? That you can get cured by simply eating the fruit for a second time? No addiction where you are depedent on the fruit for your whole life, you just have to eat it *twice*? Then what's the problem in the first place?

    Ok, I know it was meant as a Frozen-style "Cured by sisterly love", but that should have *really* been made clearer in the text. Because if I had read this text as a kid (I still assume it was intended for children?), I would have been confused as hell.