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The Goblin Studies Perspective

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Organizer: Caren Irr

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Goblins and other small humanoid creatures populate folkloric imaginations throughout the world. Whether as Greek κοβλανος, Korean dokkaebi, Latin American duendes, Swedish tomten, or the fantastic inventions of TikTok’s goblincore aesthetic, goblins get around. In all their many forms, though, they remain strongly associated with forests and rural roadways. They scurry through the undergrowth, collaborate with frogs, and entangle themselves with the surprising lives of fungi. Although they sometimes appear in guises of vampiric elegance, ugliness and rank decay are their most common calling cards. They favor dark, dirty, and mossy environments that set off the shiny objects they are thought to collect. They can be miners as well as hoarders; while occasionally helpful, they are more often naughty. Some of them are clever tricksters, but others are clumsy and easily deceived. This messy range of attributes consistently frames goblin figures, and together these figures root a fractious and weird sensibility that is rapidly proliferating. Goblins, we suggest, may be the new zombies. They speak to the animistic cultural remnants of an environment in crisis.

Despite their abundance, goblins have attracted considerably less scholarly attention than some of the more glamorous figures from folklore and monster studies such as the aforementioned zombies and vampires. Critical accounts of the goblin’s unique significance are rare, apart from the plenitudinous commentary on Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”

To rectify this situation, this seminar will consider literary and filmic sightings of goblins within and well beyond the Victorian English sensibility. We will be asking some--or perhaps all--of the following questions: what kinds of ecological unconscious do goblin stories propagate? How do erotic desires--especially queer and nonbinary desires--attach themselves to goblins?  Which forms of racialization have goblin stories kept in circulation (here’s looking at you J.K. Rowling)? Where, when, and why do goblin stories keep pagan and/or animist ideals alive? What does the non-human status of goblins suggest for an understanding of animals? What arises when in addition to observing or contacting goblins one becomes goblin? How do the senses and affects of a goblin’s fantasy being ripple through a denuded late capitalist environment? What distinctive methodological challenges does the perspective that we hereby designate goblin studies face? And, of course, goblins, gnomes, gremlins, dwarves, orcs, elves: what’s the difference? What kind of taxonomic challenges--including challenges to categorization itself--do goblins pose?

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