Monday, December 1, 2008

Where Have All the Goblins Gone?

By Stuart Sharp

Have you noticed that there’s something of a dearth of goblins in fantasy writing these days? No, I imagine you have a social life instead, so you’re going to have to take my word for it. But think about it. It used to be that no sooner had you got through the first couple of chapters than the pages started to fill up with short green chaps whose only real purpose in life was to be cut down by the intrepid heroes.

For a brief period after Tolkien, practically every fantasy book was full of the things. These days, though, there hardly seem to be any, just as there seem to be rather fewer bushy-bearded wizards, arrow-shooting elves, and overly muscular barbarian types who never seem to be able to afford enough clothes despite all the priceless jewels they steal.

The answer to this, of course, is that fantasy writing, as with any writing, is far from static. Just look at how the goblins started out. Before Tolkien got hold of them, they were just a collection of moderately malevolent fairie creatures scattered across a host of folk-tales. They weren’t even green, for the most part. Just take a look at the widely varying goblins of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, with their bestial heads, for proof of that. Just as writing changed to become what we now think of as fantasy, it was inevitable that the style of fantasy would change to meet the imaginative leaps of new generations of authors, and to fill the needs of new readers.

As with so many other areas of writing, one of the obvious reactions to fantasy’s traditional forms was to parody it. The likes of Esther Freisner, Tom Holt, Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett and countless others have turned the traditional forms upside down, inside out, and every other way they could think of. The main question, though, is what did they do with the goblins? Sadly, they mostly seem to have ignored them. Freisner made some small use of them, and Mary Gentle’s Grunts makes wonderful fun of their usual orcish counterparts, but for the most part they’re absent.

They’re not entirely alone in that, since any straight ahead fantasy component wasn’t likely to last long under a relentless barrage of comic fantasy oddness. The difference is that where most of the obvious elements were easily transformed into something workable, producing, among other things, an almost unending stream of inexperienced, incompetent or simply weird wizards, goblins don’t seem to have merited the same treatment. The major exception is the work of Tom Holt, where they make regular appearances as mildly sinister office workers in such books as The Portable Door and Earth, Air, Fire and Custard.

Perhaps the reason for this is that comic fantasy has largely changed its focus. The shift is readily apparent if you just read the earliest of Pratchett’s Discworld novels followed by some of his more recent ones. Where The Colour of Magic is firmly rooted in subverting the conventions of fantasy, something like Hogfather or Making Money is far more focused on making fun of the world as we know it.

A similar sort of shift has taken place in the more serious sort of fantasy too. Take a look at the relevant section of your local bookshop. Maybe once it would have been filled with books set in unpronounceable worlds and faithfully reproducing every element of traditional fantasy, even if they changed a few of the names. Now though, there’s hardly space for it under the weight of urban fantasy, supernatural thrillers and modern supernatural romances. Not that I have any problem with any of those genres. For anyone who hasn’t them yet, I can heartily recommend the likes of Living With the Dead by Kelly Armstrong, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Swallowing Darkness, and Storm Born, by Richelle Mead. But, except for those that show up as minor characters in Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series, they don’t really leave much room for goblins.

Ok, I promise that’s enough about the goblins. They aren’t really the point anyway. The point is just how much fantasy writing has changed over the years. Even the more traditional sort of epic fantasy has changed so much as to be virtually unrecognisable. The likes of the late David Gemmell and Joe Abercrombie have taken to writing a brand of fantasy that is much more character driven and gritty than much of the earlier stuff, bringing the unpleasant sides of their characters forward as often as the heroic ones. Even someone like Trudy Canavan, whose fantasy is much more obviously fantastic than either of the others, still seems far more interested in the inner world of her characters than in the spectacular world around them.

To me that seems like a good thing, but it does have one mildly unpleasant side effect. Occasionally, it means that I can read what are considered fantasy classics and not particularly like them. And now for the words that have already caused me at least one argument: I don’t particularly like Tolkien. I really don’t like the main Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s no more than my opinion, obviously, but I find him too focuses on his world and his grand quest, and not enough on those engaged in it. My feelings on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories are even more ambivalent, and I can only take Fritz Leiber in small doses.

I suppose the point, therefore, is just how quickly fantasy can date. It’s not the same genre that it was at its inception. Nor is its main focus the same as it was even a few years ago. Of course, if that’s the case, then there’s always the question of what it will look like in another decade or two. Will it just be more of the same, or will it find yet another way to reinvigorate itself. I have no idea. I am, however, kind of hoping that whatever the future brings, it will still have some sort of place for goblins.


Jodie said...

'I don’t particularly like Tolkien. I really don’t like the main Lord of the Rings trilogy.'

Thank you! I can't get past the eleves in the forest in book one.

Diamond said...

Jim C Hines writes one of the best goblin series on the market. Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel, Name of the Wind, is wonderful! Some names to check out: Joshua Palmatier, Patricia Bray, SC Butler.