the drover’s wife vs goblins

Monsters are frightening in proportion to what they can take from you. I was recently rereading “The Drover’s Wife,”1 but instead of snakes, I was back to thinking about goblins.

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin.

“Adventuring” humans, that is. The PCs, the kind we pretend to be. Some NPCs do, too, the bigfolk, those sitting in the manor house with the bailiff delivering the rents.

Goblins are different when you don’t carry a broadsword for a living, or can’t afford the smithing of one, or haven’t ever seen one beyond the make-believe type the shepherd-boys pretend their crooks to be.

Comfortably civilized folk may think goblins are vermin, but let’s not forget that vermin kill more people than war does. If we really want to understand a setting, maybe the correct perspective isn’t that of the one-in-a-thousand who fight when they want to, but the thousand who fight only when they have to.

Say you’re a cottager, well-worn from trying to feed your wife and children off a few acres of someone else’s land, miles from the trade road and miles more from the market town. You’ve got a good oaken cudgel, a door that never does fit in the frame just right, and just enough firewood to use every other night or so. And your dog.

Your dog was lying in the garden this morning, and you had to figure out what to tell your little girl about why all those little black arrows were sticking out of it. But thankfully your wife got everyone to sleep, save you, awake with the weight of care.

Those crazed little eyes out in the darkness, whispering in the barley rows, how harmless do they feel now?

1 “The Drover’s Wife,” by Henry Lawson, a (very) short story about a mother, her children, their dog, and a snake. It hasn’t aged well, but it is quite good at conveying what it’s like when you’re poor, and the sun is going down, and the next neighbor is nineteen miles off.

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elves : humans :: humans : goblins

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin. Goblins are weak, annoying creatures, dangerous in the way a rat might be. Ultimately of little concern. They live short, frantic lives, causing trouble and breeding prodigiously. They find empty or weakened niches in geography or ecosystem to populate, and when those are filled, overrun outwards, rapidly depleting the resources (food, fuel, patience, goodwill) of the places they spread. They are nearly universally despised by the longer-lived, more-civilized races, and seem just as universally ineradicable.

So why don’t elves consider humans in the same way that humans consider goblins? In most traditional fantasy settings (read: those derived extensively from Tolkien), elves are nigh-immortal elder beings, cultured and thoughtful. To an elf whose goals and experiences likely span centuries, humans must seem obnoxious upstarts, never to mature and incorrigible in their violence, dizzyingly busy and almost infinitely resilient. How could an elf ever see a human as a peer? How could an elf see human social structures as anything beyond a child’s attempt at playing civilized?

If goblins appear to humans as the embodiment of id-driven wasteful children, humans almost certainly appear to elves as forever-teenagers, discomfitingly mature in body but never able to gain the wisdom that comes with experience. At least goblins are manageably small; all else equal, they’re still only three feet tall. A human has the ability to do much greater harm, lumbering man-children given the tools of destruction but never the temperance to match. Can a human aspire to wisdom any more than a dog can aspire to song? If a goblin dies of his foolhardiness after fifteen years of life, or a human after seventy, how much difference does that make from a perspective of seven centuries? Or six millennia?