Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Inspired by Beer

Having finished with Halloween we now move (more or less officially) into the “holiday season,” my favorite time of year in Seattle. Despite the rain (and flooding), the rotting leaves in the streets, and the gray-gray sky, November weather always puts a spring in my step…crisp air, a brisk wind, and the end of Goddamn Daylight Savings Time (which I hate with a passion usually only reserved for Republicans and the Pittsburgh Steelers)…all of these things combine with the general holiday cheer to make for a delightful season.

This year, my thoughts turn to goblins.

I admit it…I have a “thing” for goblins. No, not the typical D&D goblins you find lurking in caves with spears covered in their own filth…Jesus, if I had a Top Ten list of things that really bug me with Gygax’s take on fantasy, it’s goblins as “cannibalistic savage.” Gross.

Not that you find much better in other fantasy RPGs…Warhammer’s “greenskin” race has a little consistency, at least (little goblins, big orks, biggest trolls, and littlest snotlings). But are green-skinned, toad-like “goblinoids” much better than the pig-faced orcs of AD&D? Or even the hairy brutes of D20? No, not really.

When I say I dig on goblins, I’m talking about the goblins of traditional myth and folklore…you know, the “dark faerie” type. Or maybe you don’t know. D&D has been around for so long, and has colored so much of the “fantasy” genre, that many young people wouldn’t recognize a goblin if it bit ‘em on the ass.

Maybe we should talk a bit about goblins before I launch into a series of goblin-inspired posts.

Dungeons & Dragons is a hodge-podge of stuff…traditional myth and folklore, literature, sci-fi and horror films, Christian mythos, etc. Much of it is inspired by the pseudo-mythic works of TolkienThe Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, etc. Tolkien himself was inspired by a combination of traditional English and Germanic (Nordic) folklore with his own spin/history woven into the mix.

Gygax and Arneson seem to have taken a schizophrenic approach to the material, drawing on both Tolkien’s (bastardized) work AND their own American (bastardized) understanding of traditional folklore, in order to create something completely new and unique (if ridiculous in many ways).


Look at orcs. What the hell is an orc really? Well, it’s a knock-off of a Tolkien orc, of course…and like the orcs in Tolkien, they are mean and brutish, but also stupid and played for comic relief except when exercising that dangerous “low cunning” so many of them have.

Now what’s a goblin? A small humanoid monster, completely different and separate from orcs, that nevertheless has much of the same temperament.

Okay, so…in Tolkien, Goblins and Orcs are the EXACT SAME THING. “Orc” is simply the term for “goblin” in the elvish language.

And what exactly is a goblin in “Tolkien folklore?” I’ll tell you one thing: they are NOT the little mischievous faerie-folk of English folklore. The ones that are akin to elves and leprechauns and such.

Except that they ARE akin to elves…in Tolkien’s universe, goblins are simply elves that have been twisted and ruined….broken by the dark power of the Big Bad Guys.

But elves in Tolkien are not the little pixies and sprites and faeries of the English countryside. Tolkien’s elves are the Norse alfar, beings that were more-or-less human, if somewhat angelic and possessing a greater degree of perfection than us ordinary folk.

See how that works?

Norse Alfar = Tolkien Elves
English Goblins = “Dark” (Twisted) Faeries
Tolkien Goblins = “Dark” (Twisted) Norse Alfar

Tolkien is fairly fast and loose with his descriptions of goblins, but we can gather they are around the same height as men and elves (or would be if they weren’t stooped from poor posture) and wield weapons of a similar size. Certainly, these are not knee-high faerie folk. In D&D terms, these critters are ORCS.

[and if the early artists of TSR chose to add pig features to an orc…well who can blame them? "Orc" DOES rhyme with "pork," after all]

So then, what’s a D&D goblin? Because we can see they have a different language, different features, are terribly small compared to orcs (half the size!) and are of a goblin species, not an orcish one.

These are still Tolkien in derivation. However, they are derived from the Hobbit and an improper understanding of Tolkien folklore.

In The Lord of the Rings, goblins are nearly always described by their elvish term “orc.” In The Hobbit, they are described solely as “goblins,” with the only mention of the term orc being Thorin’s sword, Orcrist. "Orcrist," Elrond tells us, can be translated as “Goblin Cleaver” (so Orc = Goblin and Rist = Cleaver, right?).

The goblins of The Hobbit seem smaller than a normal human…after all they appear to be on par with dwarves (who are, after all, DWARVES). Furthermore, they ride on wolves…though the “wargs” on which they ride appear to be (on closer reading) a larger and more primitive species of animal…these are closer to the prehistoric “dire wolf” that was about three times the size of a standard gray wolf. Still not horse-size…but we are talking “rotten elves,” not ogres, riding these things.

Tolkien also mention how goblins dig on their infernal machines that make smoke and noise and noxious smells…and this gets filtered and filtered until we have this idea that goblins are mechanically inclined and orcs are just dumb brutes. Again, see Warhammer (or World of Warcraft).

Ugh! Again you have to keep in mind that Tolkien’s goblins and orcs are the same exact thing, NOT two separate species of creature. The Uruk-hai of Tolkien may be bigger and stronger orcs, but they are still just orcs. And orcs are goblins.

So when I say I have goblins on the mind, I’m not talking about Tolkien goblin/orcs or even D&D goblins…which as I mention, I have almost zero interest in (except as to “how can I get these guys back to the goblins of folklore?”). Nope, I’m talking about the Halloween goblins…the goblins of folklore (the same folklore where elves look more like the Keebler variety and less like Legolas). Though it wasn’t Halloween that turned me on to the subject matter…it was a beer:

Hobgoblin ale. Good, tasty stuff (and on sale at my local market…one thing about the Baranof I DON’T like is the crappy selection of beers on tap). See that hobgoblin? Positively inspiring artwork.

Oh and by the way: a HOBGOBLIN (in folklore) is a SMALLER, WEAKER goblin, not a stronger more martial one. The discrepancy between real world folklore and the D&D monster can also be attributed to Tolkien, who (in The Hobbit) refers to hobgoblins as a larger, more menacing form of goblin. Dammit, Tolkien!

Anyhoo, D&D is what it is and I’m not about to retro-clone it myself just to fix a few folklore discrepancies. However, I’ve got a lot more to say on the subject of goblins (quite a few ideas kicking around my head) and you can expect that to be theme for this week’s series of posts.
; )


  1. One of the things I really liked in the B/X Companion (despite reminding me of David Bowie in "Labyrinth") was the Goblin King monster listing. The idea of a fey, sorcerous creature that ruled the nasty runt is a cool image.

    I think an simple mixing of the "fairies" in B/X (sprites, brownies, etc.) and goblins could yield some nice results.

  2. @ Big: You and I are on the same page, man.
    : )

  3. There's a pub in my town, just around from where I work, called The Hobgoblin. It serves the ale on tap, as is only appropriate. It has a lot of character, as you might imagine.

    My favourite goblins are the Warhammer sort. Sorry.

  4. @ Kelvin: ow could they NOT be?

  5. I'm with you. Gygax's decision to stray away from the mythical depictions of both Trolls and goblins has always puzzled me a bit. People keep trying to cram Trolls back into their mythological mold, but it never quite sticks.

    I've got an adventure where a group of "Faerie Goblins" are still serving out their indentured servitude to maintain a dungeon, even though their employers are long gone. I'm happy with everything about the characters, except it irks me every time I have to write "Faerie Goblin" instead of just "Goblin."

  6. The 1e Forgotten Realms boxed set lumps kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, ogres, bugbears, and trolls together under the heading of "The Goblin Races." The illustration on the next page even shows five of these creatures getting all chummy with each other and the label "Goblinoid." Back then, we took this to mean that goblinoids were kinda like dogs: all one species, but several different breeds. kobolds were the chihuahuas of the goblinoids and ogres were the great danes. That way, mixed packs in a dungeon didn't seem out of place.

    In later years, in my own 3e campaign, I didn't see the need for so many different monster manual entries for 1HD to 2HD humanoid bad guy races. So, I picked the few that I liked and went with the "same creature, multiple names" approach wherein what the elf called an "ork" and the human called a "hobgoblin" were in fact the same creature.

  7. Oh, and it may just be because I grew up reading Spider-Man comics, but I've always seen hobgoblins as being largely identical to goblins, except more clever and with orange skin. ;)

  8. I just googled that beer & learned it is not available for shipping outside of the UK! Is it sold in liquor stores, do you know?

  9. I've seen it in the states (at a tiny bodega in Brooklyn, even), so it must be findable...

    I'm not a Tolkien scholar, and I'm sure the LOTR movies were not 100% canon, but they certainly portrayed orcs and goblins differently. Weren't those supposed to be goblins that were climbing the walls and ceilings and swarming all over in the Mines of Moria or whatever? Is this a further misinterpretation of Tolkien, or a producer's wish for more and varied monster foes?

  10. I used to drink Hobgoblin beer occasionally in Tokyo, so it is available in other countries. Whether it's imported, or brewed locally under license, I don't know.

    And I feel the same about goblins etc. I've got no problem keeping orcs as pig-faced brutes, but kobolds are no longer little dog-men (or worse, pint-sized lizard-men), and are instead twisted little evil gnomes like Rumplestiltskin. Goblins get a 'normal' D&D type, and a fairy tale type (just using Elf stats but described as a fairy tale goblin in appearance).

  11. I'm drinking Hobgoblin again tonight...it's about all I can do as I watch these election results come in. It's available at my local grocery store (the Greenwood Market). Good stuff.
    ; )

  12. Orcs as pigs could also be due to the word "orc" meaning "boar" in the Gaelic languages.

    Traditional elves/fairies were actually more similar to Nordic Alfar until the Renaissance or so, by which point the Shakespearean concept had taken over. Of course, the issue is more complicated than that, since "fairy" was used in English to describe a fairly wide array of spirit creatures, from the Green Ladies and Black Annis to the Gruagach (and that term was used for a couple of very different seeming entities) and Red Men, among many others.

  13. I'm pretty sure the pig-faced orcs came from the Brothers Hildebrandt calendars of the early/mid seventies. I remember seeing them everywhere as a kid, well before I knew what D&D was.


    ...and to think I bought your B/X Companion :p

  15. @ Jason: Um...I live in Seattle, remember?

    I've got nothing against the Pirates or the Penguins, though.
    ; )

  16. Oddly enough, four years after you wrote this, I adopted a copy of the Hobgoblin beer fellow for halflings in my homebrew. In my setting, I've made halflings, goblins, and hobgoblins are the principle fey populations. Halflings have "almost given up" chaos, and replace thieves as non-backstabbing wall climbers handy with locks. Really been enjoying your work since picking up the old B/X rule books when my then six-year-old showed some interest, in late '14.

    1. @ Michael:

      Ha! That's pretty cool. I like the idea of halflings being a little more "gnarly" looking ("twisted by evil" and whatnot). My child turns 5 in a couple days and I'm looking forward to him joining the gamer ranks...really need to think of how I'm going to 'skin' his campaign.