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A hobgoblin is a spirit of the hearth, typically appearing in folklore, which was once considered helpful but since the spread of Christianity has often been considered wicked. Shakespeare identifies the character of Puck in his A Midsummer Night's Dream as a hobgoblin.
The term "hobgoblin" comes from "hob" ("elf") and "goblin" ("mischievous and ugly fairy"); "Hob" is simply a rustic name for the countryside goblin, "a piece of rude familiarity to cover up uncertainty or fear". "Hob" is generally explained as a diminutive for "Robert", and here short for "Robin Goodfellow". The earliest instance of the word can be traced to about 1530, although it was likely in use for some time prior to that.
Hobgoblins seem to be small, hairy little men who, like their close relatives the brownies, are often found within human dwellings, doing odd jobs around the house while the family is asleep. Such chores are typically small tasks like dusting and ironing. Often, the only compensation necessary in return for these is food.
While brownies are more peaceful creatures, hobgoblins are more fond of practical jokes. They also seem to be able to shapeshift, as seen in one of Puck's monologues in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Robin Goodfellow is perhaps the most mischievous and most infamous of all his kind, but many are less antagonizing. Like other fae folk, hobgoblins are easily annoyed. They can be mischievous, frightening, and even dangerous. Attempts to give them clothing will often banish them forever, though whether they are offended by such gifts or are simply too proud to work in new clothes differs from teller to teller.
Billy Blind is a clever hobgoblin or brownie found in several ballads collected by Francis James Child. Billy Blind helps humans in dramatic situations by offering valuable information and advice.
Blue Burches is the name of a shapeshifting hobgoblin who played harmless pranks in the home of a shoemaker and his family on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset. His usual form was that of an old man wearing baggy blue breeches but he also took the form of a white horse, a black pig and a wisp of blue smoke. The family took his presence in good stride but some clergymen learned of his existence and banished him from the house.
Robin Roundcap (not to be confused with Robin Redcap) haunted Spaldington Hall in Spaldington, East Yorkshire and was a hearth spirit of the true hobgoblin type. He helped thresh the corn and performed other domestic chores, but when he was in the mood for mischief he would mix the wheat and chaff again, kick over the milk pail, and extinguish the fire. He is said to have been confined in a well for a stipulated number of years through the prayers of three clergymen. This well is known as Robin Roundcap's Well.
Dobby is another term for hobgoblin in Lancashire and Yorkshire according to the folklorist Elizabeth Mary Wright, especially one that is a relentless prankster. Much like the boggart, a dobby's pranks may become so troublesome that a family decides to move elsewhere, only to find that the dobby has followed them (one version of this tale involves Robin Roundcap). However, one Yorkshire dobby (or hob) lived in a cave and was noted for curing children of the whooping cough. Dobbies could be just as industrious as other hobgoblins and brownies, which led to the expression "Master Dobbs has been helping you" whenever a person has accomplished more work than was expected.
The bwbach (or boobach, plural bwbachod) is a Welsh domestic hobgoblin that will perform household chores in return for bowls of cream. They are good-natured but mischievous and have a dislike of clergymen and teetotalers, upon whom they will play relentless pranks.
In the poem "L'Allegro" (1645) by John Milton a domestic hobgoblin or brownie, known as a Lubbar Fend (or lubber fiend) and described as strong and hairy, threshes the corn then lays by the fireplace enjoying his bowl of cream that he earns as payment. In the earlier play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) by Francis Beaumont, a similar being is known as Lob-Lie-by-the-Fire, described as a giant and the son of a witch. The folklorist Katharine Briggs stated that the two creatures are generally equated. Her own fantasy novel, Hobberdy Dick (1955), is about a hobgoblin that lives in the home of a 17th-century Puritan family.
The term "hobgoblin" is used sometimes to mean a superficial object that is a source of (often imagined) fear or trouble. The best-known example of this usage is probably Ralph Waldo Emerson's line, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", from the essay Self-Reliance.
Hobgoblins appear in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien as a larger kind of orc. In the preface of The Hobbit he states that "Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds)".
- Briggs (1976) "Origins of fairies" p. 320.
- Scott, Charles P. G. (1895), "The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition", Transactions of the American Philological Association (1869-1896), 26: 96–102, JSTOR 2935696
- Briggs (1979) p.32 p.100
- Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "Gil Brenton"
- Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "Willie's Lady"
- Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "Young Beichan"
- Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter"
- Briggs (1976), p. 27.
- Gutch, Eliza (1912). County Folklore (Vol. 6). David Nutt. p. 54.
- Wright, Elizabeth Mary (1913). Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore. Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press. p. 202.
- Campbell, John Francis (1890). Popular Tales of the West Highlands (Vol. 2). Alexander Gardner. pp. 103–4.
- Sikes, Wirt (1880). British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington. pp. 30–31.
- The John Milton Reading Room: "L'Allegro". dartmouth.edu.
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle Project Gutenberg Canada.
- Briggs (1976), p. 270.
- Briggs, Katharine (2009, 1955). Hobberdy Dick. Faber & Faber Limited. ISBN 0571252060.
- "Self-Reliance". Emersoncentral.com. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1966) . The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin. p. 1. ISBN 0618002219.