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A NATURAL HISTORY OF GOBLINS - a guest blog by Teresa Edgerton

Some fantasy writers like to write about elves, others prefer werewolves, vampires, or zombies. I have a penchant for goblins.

In folklore, the word "goblin" has been applied in myriad ways. A goblin might be a mischievous sprite like Puck, a hideous, vengeful ghost, or even a beneficient house spirit such as a brownie. Sometimes it was used as a synonym for fairy, sometimes applied to a separate race: small, ugly, and malicious. I've taken advantage of this ambiguity, and in each series of books I've written where goblins appear, I've reinvented them.

In the second Celydonn series (sequels to The Green Lion Trilogy) they are fuathan, bad fairies if you will. I like writing about fairies. Even the best of them are not nice; they are not benevolent. On occasion they may be extravagently generous. Grateful for small favors, they return them with magnificent gifts and spectacular rewards. But you cannot trust them. Their morality is not our morality, their laws are not our laws, they are swift to take offense, and their vengence is as excessive as their gratitude. The fuathan — in folklore they are usually associated with water, but in this story not necessarily — are the very worst, because they are essentially lawless. These goblins come in many shapes and sizes, beautiful, ugly, grotesque, or horrific, but they can disguise themselves, so that you don't notice their . . . peculiarities. If beautiful, they are supremely seductive, but sleeping with them is not advised, for there is always a sting somewhere in their sexual favors.

But when it came time to write Goblin Moon and its sequel, my goblins became something quite different. There are, first of all, the great goblins of myth and legend, voracious and terrifying, exemplified by the personification of the devouring moon, swelling and growing hungry for half of each month, bringing high tides that eat greedily at the land.

Then there are the common, everyday hobgoblins, undoubtedly real, and a plague on mankind ... as well as dwarfkind, gnomekind, and all the other intelligent races. In appearance somewhere between a rat and a monkey, hobs have clever little hands with opposable thumbs, which give them the ability to open locks and creep inside houses. It is almost impossible to keep them out when they want to get in. At the full moon they are most vicious, for then the earth rumbles with tremors and quakes, driving them from their underground dens. Their bite is poisonous, and if not properly treated may result in the loss of a limb. For all these reasons they are regarded as vermin, and killed without compunction.

But in the second book, on the other continent, where humans and dwarves and other races of so-called "rational beings" have been settled for a scant few centuries, the hobgoblins are actually a separate species from the Old World hobs, mistaken and misnamed by the settlers, because of a superficial resemblence. They are mischievous but not dangerous: thieves, mimics, a terror to gardeners because they'll eat a rosebush from the bottom up in a single night, and they'll undermine the foundations of buildings with their tunneling and appetite for wood. Are they vermin? Are they intelligent? That is one of the mysteries that my main characters must solve.

Some years later, I wrote The Queen's Necklace. Originally the villains were to be a beautiful but terrifying race of fairies, which I named the Vough, who had ruled the world for five thousand years (give or take a century) before they were overthrown by humans and supposedly exterminated fifteen hundred years before the beginning of my story.

How the Vough became Goblins instead of fairies I don't remember, but somewhere between completing the outline and writing the first chapters it happened. After a while, I decided that "Vough" did not sound threatening enough, so I changed the name of their species to Maglore, something I ran across in a book of fairy tales, the name of a vengeful fairy godmother. But there is something about "M" names that stikes me as faintly sinister — who knows why? — so Maglore they became. Still beautiful, they had become willful, ruthless, and vain . . . and of course some of them had survived to produce future generations, or what would be the use of them?

As they had once ruled a world-spanning empire and lost it, when my novel begins they naturally want it back. Much of the story revolves around the schemes of the Goblin princess Ys, and her formidable governess, Valentine Solange.

As the story developed, my ideas about the Maglore evolved. They had survived because they are outwardly indistinguishable from humans, allowing them to hide in plain side, but that appearance is deceptive. Salt is poison to them. As salt is rather pervasive, I decided they can ingest it in very small amounts without any harm, but sprinkle their food with it and they die quickly and dramatically. Likewise, they are extremely flammable, and a chance spark can burn them to ashes in only a few seconds. When they wish to suicide (and more about that in a bit), they generally choose to poison themselves with salt or swallow ground glass. Why the glass? I don't know. It was just one of those ideas that seemed to come to me out of nowhere.

There are other Goblins in the story, four species once subservient to the Maglore. Regarding them as harmless, Men contented themselves with herding them into ghettos, where they continue to live in poverty, even though many are exquisite craftsmen, or gifted in philosophy and the natural sciences. I had come across the names previously — Ouphs, Padfoots, Grants, and Wrynecks — and liked the sound of them. The first three are mentioned in the Denham Tracts, which were written in the mid 1800s, as part of a long, long, long list of fairies, goblins, spectres, woodland spirits, and other supernatural beings (which rather interestingly includes hobbits). I don't remember where I encountered the Wrynecks. These Goblins lack the beauty of their former masters — in the eyes of humans they are small and malformed, or tall and gangly — but share their vulnerability to salt and fire.

The natural life span of the Maglore is measured in centuries, and for most of that span they age slowly, but near the end they swiftly deteriorate, mentally as well as physically. They are expected to suicide as soon as this process of rapid aging begins, but vanity drives many of them to do so at the very first wrinkle. But the last Empress was greedy for life, and not only lived on as her beauty withered but even after her mind had lapsed into senility. When she died she had no obvious heirs, since her daughters and granddaughters, nieces and great-nieces had all departed at the first signs of age. With the succession in doubt, the government in turmoil, the Maglore were vulnerable, and it was then that Men rebelled and won their freedom.

As I was writing their story I was learning more and more about them. Goblins, I realized, and particularly the Maglore, lack a certain capacity for planning ahead months or years into the future. They prefer to live in the Eternal Now. Only a few extraordinary individuals have the ability to see further and devise complex strategies. One of these is Ys's governess, Valentine Solange.

When Ys became pregnant and went to a Wryneck physician for advice, I learned two new things. When she asks if it might be possible that the human king she had recently seduced might be the father of her child, the doctor unexpectedly tells her (at least I didn't expect it), "You had as well ask if an oak or a rose or a cabbage could impregnate you. Indeed, the chances are slightly better. The organization of the human animal bears no resemblence to that of a Goblin, whereas a cabbage—"

With that I discovered that my Goblins are more nearly related to plants than to animals. This actually made sense because I had already decided that Wrynecks and Grants were conceived of mandrake roots, seeded with the sperma viri of their fathers, and incubated in glass vessels. For this reason, all Wrynecks and Grants are male. Sometime, somewhere, there must have been a Maglore scientist or alchemist who fathered the very first of their kind, but being copies of copies of copies they have become (as the Maglore see it) physically defective.

Really, I don't know where some of these ideas come from; they seem to rise unbidden from my subconscious mind. Or one idea will lead to another, taking many unexpected twists and turns along the way. I won't say that the stories write themselves, or that my characters take over, but I have an internal collaborator, and she likes to spring surprises on me.

I knew about the theory of telegony — accepted by physicians in our own world well into the nineteenth century, and which we have recently learned may indeed happen among fruit flies — which holds that a woman's offspring might inherit the traits of a her previous sexual partners. According to this belief, if a widow married a second time, all the children of that marriage might resemble her first husband.

It was this idea that led me to an interesting feature of Maglore conception: that it takes two separate inseminations to create a viable fetus. The first insemination leads only to the formation of the infant. It is the second insemination, once the fetus is fully formed, that quickens it. Until that happens — and it might be months or years — the infant lies dormant.

And here was the part that had the greatest impact on the history and culture of the Maglore: the second insemination need not be the result of sexual intercourse with the same male as the first conception. Therefore, it was entirely possible for a child to have two fathers, inheriting traits from both. And because the question of paternity could be so complicated, it seemed necessary for inheritance to pass through the female line, and for the Maglore to be a matriarchal society.

That fit very well with the story I had already planned, since somehow all the major Maglore characters were female anyway!


There is much more I could tell you about my goblins, but since most of that involves magic, it would be a subject for another day, and not relevent to this discussion.


Enjoyed this, Teresa. I like the Maglore. And my favorite character of yours ever is Wraith...though my feeble brain can't remember if he is Maglore or something else. I remember it was quite mysterious. I'm still holding out hope to see him again sometime.
Anonymous said…
As an Indie with [so far] only ebooks to my repertoire, I've never considered getting out there to meet people face to face. But once I do have an actual, physical book, I may spread my wings a little.

Interesting post. Thank you. :)
Joanne Zebedee said…
I'm glad it was useful. I didn't get out to meet people until after I was published, either :) Good luck when you spread the wings!