WARNING: IN WHICH TESSA TALKS ABOUT FAERIES AND SEX. A LOT OF SEX.
Few faerie stories fill me with as much glee as Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” And I’ll admit, it’s an unholy academic sort of glee.
Here’s a link full text of the poem, which I highly recommend reading. It’s just that much fun. However, I’ll offer a brief summary:
Laura and Lizzie are sisters, beautiful and innocence with pale skin and golden hair. Every evening they go down to the river to fill their water jugs and hear the songs of the goblin men as they try to sell their fruits and wares. Laura listens and watches, despite Lizzie’s warnings, and after Lizzie flees, Laura sells a lock of her hair to the goblins in return for a taste of their fruit. She goes home completely absorbed in her desire for more of the fairy food. As days and weeks pass, Laura pines more and more for the food, but she can no longer hear the calls of the goblin men down by the river, though her sister Lizzie can. Laura fades away, her hair turns gray, she becomes weak and laconic and is slowly dying. Lizzie finally goes back to the river to buy fruit from the goblins for her sister. She offers a silver penny to the goblin men, but the goblins say she cannot take fruit with her, she must eat it herself. Lizzie refuses and the goblins attack her, shoving fruit at her, covering her with juices and pulp. They tear at her clothes and hair and face, but finally they give up. Lizzie runs home and offers herself to Laura, who kisses her sister and sucks the juice from her skin. The juices have turned bitter on Lizzie’s skin, and Laura is cured of her deathly desire.
So, what exactly makes me go all mushy over this poem? Well, besides the Dr. Seuss-like quality of some of the rhythm and rhyme, this is the most overtly sexualized fairy story I think I’ve ever read. You get anti-sex in the majority of fairy tales (especially the ones written down in the last 300 years), a la Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, and the older ones are ripe with sexual issues, though the taboos vary depending on culture and timeline.
With “Goblin Market” there’s not much done to hide the symbolism. There are no phalluses masquerading as spindles here, just plain old forbidden fruit. PLUS, it’s got this veneer of Victorian propriety over it, which makes the actual meaning so much more delicious. (Those Victorians were a lot more overtly sexual than we give them credit for.)
Let me show you:
The fruit the goblin men are selling are described as “Plump unpecked cherries, melons and raspberries, bloom-down-cheeked peaches…. wild free-born cranberries…all ripe together…figs to fill your mouth, citrons from the south, sweet to tongue and sound to eye, come buy, come buy.”
The innocent sisters are blushing and sweet, clear white and golden. They are compared to swans, lilies, and moonlit trees. They say to each other, “We must not look at goblin men, we must not buy their fruits: who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots.” Roots. Riiiight.
The goblins themselves are half-man, half-beast, with cat parts, rat parts, tails, fur, and claws. If that isn’t symbolizing their overt sexuality (and lower-class status, too), I’ll eat my keyboard.
When Laura gives in to the goblins, she is “a vessel at the launch, when its last restrains are gone.”
The goblins leer at each other, “brother with sly brother” and bring out their fruit for Laura. The purr and sing and seduce. When Laura has no coin, they ask for a lock of her hair – symbolizing her virginity, her giving of her own body. She then “sucked their fruit globes fair or red… she never tasted such before… she sucked and sucked and sucked some more, fruits which that unknown orchard bore, she sucked until her lips were sore.”
Then she goes home, confused and aching. Lizzie reminds her of their friend Jeannie, who spent the night with goblin men and then died. And the ground where she is buried will grow no life. THAT is where Rossetti links the goblin fruit directly with SIN and evil and badness. They’re the snakes of this garden. (Hehehe. Snakes.)
Lizzie comforts Laura, and the sleep together like “two blossoms on one stem, like two flakes of new-fallen snow.” They are innocent when together, and the illusion of maidenhood is still present.
But Laura soon begins to pine away for the goblin fruit – especially when she realizes that having lost her innocence, she can no longer hear the call. Lizzie can hear it, though. Now we know for certain that the goblin men are predators who hunt only the virgins. Their entire purpose is to steal innocence.
Lizzie hates seeing her sister suffer, and thinks of Jeannie again, “who should have been a bride.” She resolves to sacrifice herself for her sister (not for desire or personal gain!), and goes out to the river again. For the first time she listens and looks. The goblins come and see her, and are so happy. They “hugged her and kissed her, squeezed and caressed her,” and offer her the fruit. “Pluck them and suck them!” they exort her. When she refuses to eat, the goblins turn on her. They call her names and insult her, then attack. They “tore at her gown and soiled her stocking, twitched her hair out by the roots, stamped upon her tender feet, held her hands and squeezed their fruits against her mouth to make her eat.”
Um, rape, anyone?
But Lizzie stands resolute against them, and they beat her. They scratch and pinch bruises onto her, they kick her and punch her, but she never opens her lips. Finally, the goblins give up and Lizzie runs home with the fruit juice covering her skin and clothes. She offers herself to her sister: “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices, squeezed from goblin fruits for you, goblin pulp and goblin dew. Eat me, drink me, love me, Laura make much of me.”
(Yeah, this was written in 1859.)
Laura is cured by the now-bitter juices when she drinks them from her sister’s body. She wakes at dawn, whole and happy. They both live long lives and Laura is careful to warn her own children away from the temptation of goblin men.
I’ve read several articles (mostly from feminist or anthropological perspectives) about different things the poem might be analyzing. Drug addiction, Victorian marriage practices, sexual mores, family ties, lesbianism… and I think they’re all pretty easy to see.
But since I mostly come at this as a faerie tale fan (and feminist), I tend to stick more strictly with the idea that this poem, along with almost all faerie folklore, is about taboo. Specifically sexual taboo. The Goblins represent everything that is taboo for young Victorian women, and Lizzie represents everything that a good young Victorian woman should be: pure, strong, sacrificing, innocent, beautiful, responsible.
What is most interesting to me, is that Laura is redeemed. Most fallen women DIE. Especially in Victorian lit. Once you tarnish your purity, you are doomed. Excuse me, that should be with a capital: Doomed. But here we have a sister’s love (the non-masculine, purest kind of love) as *stronger* than the evil temptations of Satan/goblin men. It’s a sister-bond, a woman to woman relationship that saves the day, not a man, a husband, brother, knight-in-shining armor. This love is strong enough to forgive, to redeem without God’s permission – and that’s what makes this poem just a little bit subversive.
And subverting dominant paradigms (especially with faeries) is my favorite thing EVER.