Rates of (Ex)Change: The Goblin Marketand Voodoo Accounting

by Helen Pilinovsky

Goblin Market Illustration by Lawrence Housman

Welcome to the Market

The market as an image has expanded from the ideal of rustic buyers wandering past thatched cottages: now, the term is as likely to bring to mind bond traders as it is rural vendors. But the Goblin Market represents a slightly different ideal. It, too, has changed from its original image of goblin men offering temptation by the road in the form of enchanted fruit to encompass the strange little shoppes and the enchanted thoroughfares. Though its magic is eternal, regardless of whether it is proffered by breech–clad bogglesor Vivienne Westwood–wearing wizards, its most recent incarnations in fantasy literature reflect a new view of magic, one which takes into account the issues of industrialization and globalization, of societal change in the arenas of finance and interaction. "Voodoo accounting," a popular marketing term based on the precept that any method which increases profits through trickery will eventually catch up with the offending party, causing their profits to vanish like faerie gold, draws upon many of the commonly held assumptions which associate magic with trickery and lies.Such is not the case, however, in the Goblin Market or its many, many offshoots, where magic is not only the means to an end, but also often its own reward. From Christina Rossetti’s usage of the trope in her 1862 "Goblin Market," through the adaptation of the idea of magic as a commodifiable good in the myriad stories of magic stores in Golden Age science fiction and fantasy, and into its usage in (post)modern day urban fantasies and fairy tale retellings, the Goblin Market has represented a melding of magic and mortal ingenuity: in this examination we will explore the changing tropes of the market through the present day,and the normalization of the "exchange rate" between magic and mundanity.

Opening the Goblin Market

Goblin Market Illustration by Lawrence Housman

The first incarnation of the Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti’s poem of the same title, is on its surface a tale of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who encounter a troop of sinister supra–natural merchants whose wares carry temptation and, potentially, damnation. The goblins offer delectable fruits — "Apples and quinces,/Lemons and oranges,/ . . . grapes fresh from the vine,/ Pomegranates full and fine  . . .” — which, once consumed, leave the "customer" with an unassuagable longing for more of their wares, hearkening back to the apples of the Garden of Eden,the pomegranate seeds of the Underworld, and the fairy food of countless fairy stories.

In this tale the more careless sister, Laura, succumbs to the goblin call of "Come buy! Come buy!" with such haste that she must accede to their terms. Laura is aware of the dangers posed by the Goblin Market: upon hearing their initial calls for custom, she remarks "We must not look at goblin men,/ We must not buy their fruits:/ Who knows upon what soil they feed their hungry thirsty roots?" But curious, impetuous Laura lingers to listen longer to the cries of the goblins while the cautious Lizzie flees, and finds herself thoroughly tempted. Though she resists it at first, aware that by her own standards,she has no acceptable currency — we read, "Laura stared but did not stir,/ Long’d but had no money" and later in her own words that "Good folk, I have no coin;/ To take were to purloin:/ I have no copper in my purse,/ I have no silver either,/ And all my gold is on the furze/ That shakes in windy weather/ Above the rusty heather," she eventually accepts the goblin bargain to trade a lock of her golden hair when they offer to barter. According to the magical Law of Contagnation, which states that any part of a thing is equivalent to the entirety, Laura has given them herself; in exchange, she has taken their corruption into herself.The consequences of that action — her "addiction" to and subsequent "withdrawal" from the fairy fruit — can be attributed to both her ignorance of the dangers of the wares in question, and her proportionate disregard for the rules of the marketplace as they apply to her.

Goblin Market Illustration by Lawrence Housman

It appears, as well, that she knows what she has done; after clipping off a lock of her hair, we read how she "dropped a tear more rare than pearl," signaling her knowledge of her doom. In marked contrast, her wiser sister Lizzie, who is tempted not by the fruit but by the chance to save her gormless sibling, prepares in advance and manages to foil the goblins through her superimposing of mortal rules over magical preferences, setting the pattern for the development of the Goblin Market as a metaphor for the increasingly commodified interactions between the realms of Faerie and Mundane through their mutually preferred coin of  . . . coin. The manner of Laura’s rescue from the goblins by Lizzie is particularly interesting.Lizzie ponders long and long the matter of whether it will be possible to cure her sister by other means, as well as the question of the price that she will have to pay: we read that Lizzie longs "to buy fruit to comfort her,/ but feared to pay too dear" until finally, as Laura fades further still, "Lizzie weighed no more/Better and worse;/ but put a silver penny in her purse,/ Kissed Laura, crossed the heath with clumps of furze/ At twilight, halted by the brook:/ And for the first time in her life/ Began to listen and to look," a sequence of events which underscores the care and forethought behind her plan.

Lizzie goes to buy fruit for her sister, but offers no more than mortal coin; the goblins receive it, not of their own volition, but when she tosses it at them casually. This is not their preferred payment; they wish to gain her company, and herself, but she refuses. Nevertheless, they have accepted payment, which they do not return when she says "If you will not sell me any/ Of your fruits though much and many/ Give me back my silver penny/ I tossed you for a fee." The deal has been struck, and sealed with silver; by ancient rules of Faerie, of which Rossetti appears aware and which still operate in full force even in the confines of the market, they must attempt to fulfill their bargain; they "give" her the fruit by violently attacking her with it in their fury at her refusal.But Laura will not accept their conditions, and they cannot force her to acquiesce under conditions that she had not agreed to. The goblins return her penny and storm off after their attack without having gained any advantage over her, allowing Laura to carry the fruits of their rage (or, pulped drippings, as the case may be) back to her sister as an antidote to the original poison, transmogrified by her sacrifice from poison to anodyne. The goblins attempted to fulfill the bargain on their terms, by forcing the goods that she had inquired about and paid for in advance upon her. When she would not allow it, they refused to fulfill the bargain on her terms by simply giving her the fruit to carry off, knowing that they would not gain her "spirit" in that way, and that they would perhaps lose the benefits of a former "customer."Thus, matters might have concluded with a draw; except, by breaking the rules of the market–place by using physical force, they granted her what she wanted all along: the means to rescue her sister from their coils. Simply put, Lizzie triumphed by knowing the rules of the market place.

Grounds of the Goblin Market

Goblin Market Illustration by Lawrence Housman

Christina Rossetti’s "Goblin Market" is dated to 1859, was first published in 1862, and is thought to have been partially inspired by earlier fairy poems, as the subject gained steadily in popularity throughout the Victorian period. Notably, her original title for the poem was "A Peep at the Goblins," alluding to a popular poem, "A Peep at the Pixies," written by Eliza Bray in 1854; the title that we know was suggested by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the course of his illustrating the text. The themes of the two works possess significant parallels; "A Peep at the Pixies" concerns the tale of a young woman who chances to hear fairy music, and pines for it thereafter. Rossetti is also thought to have been inspired by the Reverend Bray’s fairy tale, "The Rural Sisters" (1859) and "The Pixies" (1857) by Archibald Maclaren.However, earlier Victorian pieces were far more restrained in their treatments of the parallels between the older customs of folklore and modern life; Rossetti, in marked contrast, appears to have coupled an extensive knowledge of folkloric convention with the conscious aim of addressing societal concerns. Rossetti’s innovation in using the traditional structure of folklore to add depth to a contemporary moral message represented a new idea for the Victorians, as she was one of the first authors of that time to treat the fairy tale form, largely scorned as childlike, as a medium to explore concerns about topics touching adult society.

It is interesting to note that this poem is the first important piece of fantasy to use the market as its primary setting, reflecting the growing commodification of Victorian culture resulting from the Industrial Revolution, and extending even to the commodification of personal interaction. Older tales frequently discuss journeys into fairy realms, by minstrels, midwives, and maidens, but this blended realm of the market is a new thing, representative of the temptations that had made their way into the Victorian world — temptations that ran the gamut from narcotics to the loosening strictures of sexuality — to create a liminal space, a tenuous boundary between what had been proper in the past, and what would be proper in the future. The liminal space of the market is an intensification of the pre–existing nature of Faerie as a land of borders, as is reflected in Rossetti’s use of traditionalconventions such as the facts that the girls can apparently only interact with the goblins at dusk and dawn — intermediate times that are neither night nor day — and in their increased vulnerability on the bank of the river and the road — places that imply travel, and change.

Goblin Market Illustration, Lawrence Housman
Goblin Market Illustration by Lawrence Housman

Many older folktales are set in human markets, where those who had already been touched by Fairy in some way could discern the true nature of the Other in their midst; the mortals touched by fairy ointment (for example) representing, perhaps, those who had already been corrupted in some way. Such tales would typically show a mortal paid for performing some favor for a fairy with the ability to see their kind: however, in instances where other fairies discover the mortal’s ability to interact with them, most often in the circumstances of broad social exhange represented by the market, the consequences are rarely positive. In the older tales, there is a clearer demarcation between Them and Us. In Rossetti’s "Goblin Market," by contrast, mortals previously untouched by magic are fully susceptible to the lures of the goblins, the seeds of their own destruction germinating within them.The older rules of magic that separated the Mundane from the Fantastic no longer protect them. Now, they must rely solely on human traits of will, and on the rules of the market place itself. In stories of this type, beginning with "Goblin Market" and continuing through the later tales using this trope, always, there is some "unlawful" behavior, and the enactment of strict regulation by what authorities there be to bring matters back into balance.

Fundamentally, the market represents both economic and social transgression — or, rather, the amalgamation of the two by a society that came to see money as being equivalent to honor and power. Social transgression came to be expressed through economic means. Thus, all of those instances of mortals buying goods unintended for their hands, as in Rossetti’s "Goblin Market," or of stealing them, cheating others, and breaking contracts, as in subsequent fantasy tales, become newly significant of their transgressions against the norms of society, and doubly significant because of their occurrence in the borderland of the market — a place where the rules must be more strictly observed, rather than less, so as to maintain the borders between the permissible and the forbidden.

The only question is, whose rules? Those of the magic realm, or those of the mortal world? Moving from the fairy markets of traditional folk tales to the Goblin Market of Rossetti’s poem, we see a systematic change from the barter economy where the "exchange rate" favored magic as a greater market force to the regulation of magic through established social and fiduciary conventions, reflecting the overall normalization of society from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Modern literature shows a sweeping progression towards a system which operates equally on the rules of both worlds while retaining its liminal nature. Many are the works which could stand to be described along this path: those roughly contemporaneous with Rossetti’s poem; those works of modern values set in modern times prior to our own, such as the Odde Shoppe stories from the Golden Age of science fiction; those works written in our own time, but set in the past,such as Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust; and finally, those both written and set in the present, such as Holly Black’s Valiant and Delia Sherman’s Changeling.