“Why are so many people going ‘goblin mode’?” a headline in the Guardian asked last week. Once I figured out what the hell this even meant—per the paper, it’s a state defined by never getting out of bed, never changing into real clothes, eating crap, binge-watching, doom-scrolling, and other familiar pandemic behaviors—I had another question: Who says goblins are so grimy and lazy? Is this not goblin slander? To get some answers, I called up Merrill Kaplan, a professor at the Ohio State University with a specialty in, you guessed it, goblins. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Heather Schwedel: Is the article I sent you the first time you’d seen the term “goblin mode”? Apparently it’s been lurking around for a while now, but it’s only just getting a lot of attention now.
Merrill Kaplan: Since you mentioned it, I poked around a little bit, so I’ve seen it used in a few other articles, but I confess I had not seen it in the wild before. Slang is fascinating. I’m a folklorist, and it’s one of these cool artistic things that people do that I study, they make up words and are creative with language.
You study goblins. Is there a classic definition of the goblin?
Can I turn it around? What’s your understanding of what a goblin is?
Preparing to talk to you got me thinking that I’m not sure I could confidently describe what one is! I can’t really make a distinction between goblin, gargoyle, gremlin, Gollum, troll, etc. Definitely like a creature that’s a bit ugly or weird and non-human and creepy.
Is Harry Potter mostly the source of your image of what a goblin is like?
Yes, it’s part of it, and the way the goblins are in Harry Potter doesn’t seem to have anything to do with being, like, unshowered and having lots of snacks.
I spend all my time in 19th century folklore texts and things that are much earlier, medieval things. So I like to talk to the young folks to see how they’re using these words that I think I know things about. But I don’t get to decide what these things mean. What things mean is decided by the people who actually use them. Since there isn’t a canonical goblin—and we can’t run out to the zoo and measure this use of goblin against the goblin that they’ve got in a cage—what a goblin is is a moving target. At the moment, for some people, enough of them that it’s become what the kids call “a thing,” enough people are thinking that goblinness is being unshaven in your apartment and it sounds like cave-dwelling.
I got super intrigued by two things here: First of all, people are talking about goblins? Cool, more data for me. But also, there are competing goblins. I went and I brushed up on where pop-culture goblins are right now, where is this being drawn from. And I thought probably there was some Harry Potter in the mix. But there’s definitely Tolkien in the mix. Before Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when it was just the folklore and some romantic literature that is pulling on folklore, goblins were even more of a moving target because goblin was pretty much synonymous with elf, with fairy, with sylph, with gnome. What were the differences? In this village, it may have been one thing, in the next village, it’s another thing. The very same experiences, like spooky stuff that someone might experience—say there’s a haunted barn or something in one village. That village may be like, “Oh yeah, look out, the goblin is in there.” The exact same thing might be happening in the next village, but they might talk about it as a ghost.
These things are very, very vague in the folklore. It’s all kind of this big welter. Tolkien is the one who comes in and is like, “I’m gonna do taxonomy. I’m gonna make goblins one thing, and I’m gonna make elves another thing.”
How did Tolkien change the trajectory of the goblin?
This is a much more involved story, but he takes all of the stuff that is kind of impressive and human but slightly better and he sticks it on elves. And he takes all the stuff that is less attractive, less refined, things about being subterranean, things about being not quite physically human because of having claws, and he sticks those on goblins, which he calls goblins in The Hobbit and then he calls orcs in the later books. This is where we get goblins are the bad guys, elves are the good guys. It’s all Tolkien. And then everything that is downstream of Tolkien has kept that.
That’s really interesting. I think a lot of people that are using this term might not realize that they’re basically referring to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Probably not, which is fine. Tolkien’s just incredibly influential because he influences fantasy literature and Dungeons & Dragons, he influences all games downstream of that. There’s this huge geek culture that gives an image of a goblin that’s very exploitable in the context of a pandemic to describe this experience.
It seems like people’s definitions of “goblin mode” vary a little. For some people, goblin mode seems to be more about being dirty and subterranean, but for some people, it’s more about being lazy or self-indulgent, or kind of chaotic.
I would call those all antisocial—not “I don’t wanna be around other people” antisocial, although it can mean that, but antisocial in terms of violating the norms of society. That can be just not shaving. That that can be behaving oddly, breaking the rules. We know it immediately if someone’s breaking those rules. It’s something that’s very distinctive about small children. They don’t know them yet. So they’re kind of little goblins. Breaking those social rules, the social contract type stuff, that also makes sense that that would be goblin mode as well.
How would you describe the goblins in Tolkien’s books?
I teach a whole course on this. This is literally weeks and weeks of stuff. And it’s ugly, unfortunately. The problem with trying to describe “Well, what are the goblins and orcs in The Lord of the Rings like?” is that Tolkien makes them out of racist caricatures. Later articulations of them try to get away from this.* That’s a way of dodging it. They’re described as being animal-like and they have claws and fangs, they’re described as hairy, they’re described as squat, as having long arms that drag the earth when they run. So that’s all sort of like animal or Simian, apelike things. Their language is described as harsh and guttural. They’re described as not very bright in all cases, as afraid of sunlight in most cases. They’re also described as having broad faces and flat noses and slanted eyes.
The racism is pretty bad in Tolkien.* Fans hate this. There are a lot of emotions tied up with Tolkien, and I get it. But you know, it’s there.
None of that really seems to be reflected in the term goblin mode, which I think people are just kind of delighted by.
It is kind of delightful. We should all be goblins. Embrace your inner goblin. A thing that is nice about this use of goblin is that this is a usage that is about the antisocial stuff, there’s not a racist aspect to this piece of slang that I have discerned. It’s much nicer for everyone when your monsters and your language around monsters doesn’t hurt actual human beings. Maybe someone will milkshake-duck this for me, and that will be sad, but as far as I can tell, we’ve just got some innocent consumption of Doritos in bed.
One thing that’s funny to me about goblin mode is that this term is just spiking in popularity now, two years into the pandemic.
Folklore is hard to predict. Then again, it’s probably a year ago that it was all over all over TikTok, I think, there were these videos about supposedly people spotting feral people in the national parks. It was a thing for like a whole 14 days or something. And then no one remembers it, because folklore moves fast. And that was totally lockdown folklore. That was totally people feeling like they’re going feral and having these fantasies of being not in lockdown, of being in the most outdoors-outdoors you could imagine, being out there in the woods. The Wellerman craze was also its own kind of pandemic folklore. It allowed all these people who were separately in lockdown to sing with each other through this technology.
Maybe goblin mode arriving now is related to how used to the pandemic we’ve become. Right now in the U.S., we’re mostly between major variant spikes, but we know we could easily go back into lockdown mode. The mode thing is about how we’re getting used to switching between modes, maybe.
We’ve been focusing on the goblin part of this slang, but the mode part of it is just as interesting because it does suggest that this is something you can turn on and off. And that’s totally relevant to the situation, that there’s change. As recommendations change, as the state of variants change, what mode are we in? Are we in goblin mode? Absolutely.
Correction, March 23, 2022: This piece originally misquoted Kaplan as saying that Tolkien made orcs green in later articulations of his work—she meant later pop culture articulations did this—and that his racism was paternalistic, which was said in reference to something else that was cut from the interview. The sentences have been removed.