Search This Blog

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Goblin Market

There is a long tradition in folklore of various fairy markets, places that humans sometimes stumble across and that can be perilous or provide opportunities for trade, depending on how the human behaves. Many stories of these markets or fairs appear in collections of folklore from the last several hundred years, when writing down such stories became fashionable, and often reflect similar themes. These stories portray the ambiguous nature of the Good Folk, who may reward those with good manners or severely punish those who they feel are violating their privacy, and the markets themselves can be pleasant or dangerous (Briggs, 1976).

One particularly interesting type of fairy market, mentioned in a poem written in the late 1850's, is the Goblin Market. Literary critics, especially those discussing the poem in the latter part of the 20th century, tend to ignore the piece's folklore and fairylore themes and discuss it purely as a work of Victorian literature with cultural, sexual, and feminist undertones. However the work has strong and clear ties to traditional fairy beliefs and deserves consideration on those merits as well.

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, public domain

The poem is the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Every 'morning and evening' the girls would get water at the brook and would hear goblins calling out, selling fruit. Lizzie warns her sister not to even look at the goblins, but one time Laura can't resist peeking at them and what they are selling. Lizzie runs away, but Laura stays and the goblins, who are processing past caring trays and baskets of fruit,  offer her their wares. When she explains she has no money they trade her the fruit for a lock of her golden hair and single tear. She then gorges herself on the fruit and on the juice and afterwards, not knowing if it was night or day, she stumbles home. Her sister meets her at the gate, upset and reminding her of their friend Jeanie who also bought the goblin fruit and afterwards pined to death searching in vain for another taste but unable to find the goblins again. Laura dismisses her sister's concern and says that the next night she will get more fruit to share with Lizzie, mentioning that she already wishes she had more of it to eat herself. The next day Laura is already pining for the fruit but when evening comes although her sister can still hear the goblins' call at the brook, Laura cannot. Laura then falls into decline, refusing to eat, her hair turning grey, losing the will to do her chores; remembering their dead friend Jeanie, and in desperation to save her sister Lizzie takes a silver coin and goes to find the goblins. They come to her, pleased, and she gives them the coin and asks to take the fruit, but they insist she eat with them. She refuses and says if they will not sell her the fruit to take she will take her coin back and go. The goblins become furious and attack her, clawing and hissing, trying to force the fruit into her mouth. Finally, having pinched her black and blue and covered her in fruit juice but failed to force her to eat, the goblins admit defeat and give her back her coin and leave. Lizzie flees home and tells Laura to lick the fruit juice off of her, and though she cries and the juice is like 'wormwood on her tongue' she does. Tasting the fruit a second time puts her into a fit; she tears her clothes and leaps around the room until she collapses. Lizzie tends her throughout the night and in the morning Laura awakens completely cured and restored to her previous self. The poem ends with both sisters grown and married, telling their children the story of how their sisterly love for each other saved Laura from a terrible fate and emphasizing the value of sisterhood.

Looking at the story conveyed in the poem several obvious fairy themes are immediately apparent, including the importance of liminal spaces and the dangers of dealing with malicious fairies. Katherine Briggs suggests three main themes for the goblin market as well: the violation of fairy privacy by looking at them, the breaking of the taboo of eating fairy food, and the rescue of a person from Fairyland (Briggs, 1976). All of these concepts can be found in various forms in other stories of fairy markets and fairs, although few are as overtly dark as the Goblin Market. Even small things in the poem, like Laura choosing to address the goblins when she speaks to them as 'Good folk' and the description of them as each deformed in some way yet alluring in their manner hint at traditional fairylore. In the poem both Jeanie and Laura are described as going gray, and this too may reflect a known effect fairies can have on people; in some anecdotes those who have interacted with fairies display premature aging as a result (Narvaez, 2001). And it is also worth noting that after dealing with the goblins each person loses track of time entirely, becoming unsure if it is even day or night, with a loss of time or time shifting yet another common occurrence when dealing with fairies (Briggs, 1967).

The goblins only appear at 'morning and evening' or in other words the liminal times of dawn and dusk. These times are well known to be likely for fairy encounters and caution is often advised for those travelling at such times (Briggs, 1967). Additionally the girls only hear the goblins when they are in another liminal place, standing on the banks of the brook, at the very edge of the water filling their pitchers. In this position they are neither on land nor in the water, but between the two. We see a third reference later to another liminal place, when Laura runs home after eating the goblin fruit, Lizzie meets her at the gate, warning her sister again about the danger as she stands on the threshold between their yard and the outside world, with Laura still on the outside.

 Briggs suggests, and I agree, that Rossetti's goblins - with their cleverly baited trap set to lure mortals to their doom - are certainly Unseelie court and are strongly reminiscent of the darker tales of fairies to be found in traditional lore (Briggs, 1976). Dealing with such beings, intentionally or accidentally, often proves painful or fatal for the mortal involved. In the poem the reader finds out that the girl's were aware of the danger presented by the goblins, as they had lost a friend previously to the fruit. Lizzie says when talking about Jeanie's death no grass will grow on her grave and the daisies that Lizzie planted there 'never blow' making it clear that the girls knew her death was unnatural. Briggs relates the maliciousness of Rossetti's goblins to bogies, as well as the menacing fairies of Finnbhearra's court, and the malevolent revelers of Lady Wilde's tale of 'November Eve', all of whom cause human suffering (Briggs, 1976). In general it is neither uncommon nor surprising for fairies to be harmful or to seek to either trick people or to steal young women (O Súilleabháin, 1967).  However to exclusively do so is the hallmark of the Unseelie Court which is said to be inimical to humanity by nature*.

The first misstep by Laura is to give in to the temptation to look at the goblins as they pass by with their traveling market. Although they are the ones tempting her to look, and ultimately to taste the fruit, there are old taboos about acknowledging to others that one sees the fairies and especially about watching them when they are going about their business. Although the girls can hear the goblins they cannot see them unless they intentionally look for them, something Lizzie knows is dangerous as she immediately says 'we must not look at goblin men' and when her sister seems tempted again she says 'Laura you should not peep at goblin men'. The fairies are well-known to be secretive people who punish those who spy on them and more so those who talk about what they have seen (Briggs, 1976). This perhaps explains Lizzie's panic when Laura looks at the goblins anyway and tells her sister in detail what she sees, prompting Lizzie to say 'No, no, no....their evil gifts would harm us', stick her fingers in her ears, and run away.

The fruit itself seems to be classically taboo fairy food, utterly tempting and dangerous to eat; to eat the food of Fairy as a mortal is to be trapped in that world and lost to the mortal realm. It is a widespread belief in fairy stories, especially Irish ones, that a person should never eat the food or drink anything of Fairy, or you will be trapped there, and often a person who is tempted will be warned by another human among the Fey folk not to take what is offered (Ballard, 2001). The danger of the fruit is demonstrated by the story within the poem of Jeanie who ate the fruit and pined away. If the food does act as other fairy food on the mortal, one may assume that, like some uses of elfshot, Jeanie may not have died in truth but rather was taken as a changeling with the fruit binding her to Fairyland. Briggs however suggests that the fruit is a deadly part of a trap designed to murder the unwary (Briggs, 1976). In either case those who eat it are doomed in the sense that they are lost to mortal earth, although it does raise the interesting question of the connection between the dead and the Fey, which has always been ambiguous. The fruit may also reflect the idea of fairy glamour, where something is given the illusion of something else, in this case whatever its true nature the goblin fruit appears to be incomparably perfect and delicious, so wonderful that after tasting it no mortal food is good enough and the person refuses to eat. It is also worth noting that Laura does not pay for the goblin fruit with money, but with parts of herself, with her hair and with her tear, the two substances echoing the nature of the two materials - earth and water - that she stood between when she first heard the goblins speaking. Lizzie, however, goes to the goblins with silver to buy their fruit to take home and ultimately returns with her coin in her pocket.

The final theme mentioned by Briggs is the rescue from Fairyland and this may be the least obvious although it is certainly present in the poem. Although Laura has not fully been taken into Fairy she is clearly under its enchantment from eating the goblin fruit and is close to death. Usually in examples of rescue from Fairyland a person must either have a way to force the Fey to release their captive or, as in the story of Tam Lin, must endure trials to earn the captive back. In this case it is through trials that the presumptive captive is freed, as well as a somewhat impossible quest being achieved. Normally once a person tastes the goblin fruit they are no longer able to hear the goblins, and thus can never find them to get a second taste; the first taste alone then dooms them. In this case the only way that Laura can be saved is for her sister to follow in her footsteps, to go as she did to find the Goblin Market but instead of buying the fruit with pieces of herself in trade Lizzie pays with silver. She resists giving in to temptation and eating the fruit, instead insisting that she must have some to bring away with her. She endures the assault of the goblins without complaint, without running away, and without fighting back, only focusing on not allowing any of the fruit into her mouth. She retrieves her money and returns from the liminal space, like her sister no longer knowing if it was day or night. Having endured the trial she is able to administer the cure to her sister, a second taste of the goblin fruit which is now bitter instead of sweet but ultimately frees Laura from the fairies' influence.

The Goblin Market is a complex story and often overlooked in fairylore, yet it deserves a place alongside other older traditional tales. The market itself with its liminal location and constant movement, and its summer fruit at all times of year, as well as the deeper themes of buying death - or perhaps freedom from it - from the goblins with pieces of mortality (literally pieces of the person themselves) fit in well with other traditional tales. The goblins themselves are much like classical depictions of bogeys or the darker sort of deformed goblins found in some folklore. The poem can stand as a cautionary tale of dealing foolishly with the dangerous fairies, or of what happens when one gives in to obvious temptations and ignores the hidden costs. The Goblin Market, ultimately is a place where you can only buy the illusion of what you want and only sell what you should not part with.

*although it should be remembered that nothing with Fairy is ever that cut and dried and there are always exceptions to every rule

Rossetti, C., (1859) The Goblin Market
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Briggs, K., (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature
Narvaez, P., (2001) The Good People
Ballard, L., (2001) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
O Súilleabháin, S., (1967) Nósanna agus Piseoga na nGael


  1. “We must not look at goblin men,
    We must not buy their fruits:
    Who knows upon what soil they fed
    Their hungry thirsty roots?”
    “Come buy,” call the goblins
    Hobbling down the glen. '

  2. There's a link to the full poem by Rossetti here: