Raw Head and Bloody Bones - Goblins

Welcome to the third in our author Jack Wolf’s series of blogs exploring the myths and legends behind The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, published by Chatto & Windus on 3rd January. To find out more about the book, watch our trailer and hear a special song composed by The Bookshop Band, visit The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones page on Facebook. 

rawheadI could, of course, have chosen to identify Raw Head in his role as dangerous faerie seducer as an 'Elf Knight' – and indeed, at first sight this might have seemed the more appropriate appellation, as at least one of the ballads from which I drew source material refers to the character by this name. I chose, however, to use instead the middle English word 'goblin', as this word, which according to the oxford dictionary derives from the germanic “kobald”[1], does not bring up either the twee Victorian associations carried for most modern people by the word 'elf', or the post-Tolkein images of a tall, fair, exceptionally wise, immortal being. Indeed, the Victorians and later generations do not seem to have developed the same trivialising, or idealising, affection for this generally malevolent, earth dwelling sprite as they have done for his Scandinavian counterpart[2], although the “unseelie” (ie, dark, hostile or wicked) members of both Nordic and English faerie mythos are surprisingly similar in aspects of appearance, function and dwelling place. 'Goblin men' appear in the poetry of Christina Rossetti (sister of the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante) and, even here, in a poem aimed at children, their presence retains the sinister and threatening aura that I have suggested is characteristic of pre Victorian attitudes to faerie[3]. I am inclined to wonder how much of this has simply to do with the sound of the word itself, which seems to echo the word 'Gobbling' and which makes me think immediately of the primal, existential terror that must have formed a big part of the night for ordinary people before our modern, rationalist era and its electric street lighting put paid to fears of supernatural monsters that lurk beyond the light.

In The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, Goblins take on the role of Tristan's main tormentors. They swarm, or so he fears, outside his father's house, a multitude of twisted creatures, “green as toads, red as liver, black as ditch water”[4] plotting evil against him and his family. Terrified that they will find a way to creep in, he walks around the entire interior of his house every night to ensure that every door and window is sealed shut against them. Of course, the possibility is that Tristan's persecutors may not really be outside at all.

Tristan's nightly prowl around Shireland's Hall is not actually as bizarre as it might seem to modern readers. In the eighteenth century, it was common practise and sound sense to make good and certain that every door and window was locked after nightfall against burglars and cut-throats. Leaving a door unfastened not only provided a temptation to would be thieves, but also gave them something of a legal defence – if it could be proved that a householder had been negligent in leaving his or her door unlocked, a thief could not be convicted of housebreaking, but only of theft, which carried a lesser punishment. In the English countryside during Tristan's time it would have been par for the course for the responsible housekeeper of a large establishment such as Shirelands to have undertaken exactly the ritual he does – but not, or at least, not primarily, because of any fear of Goblins.

[1] Generally a more benevolent spirit than is implied by the English 'goblin'.

[2] 'Elf' is originally a Scandinavian word. Dark Elves inhabit the netherworld under the roots of Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Viking mythology.

[3] “Lie close,” Laura said,
 Pricking up her golden head:
 “We must not look at goblin men,
 We must not buy their fruits:
 Who knows upon what soil they fed
 Their hungry thirsty roots?”

[4] From The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones