Posted by: lcmoynahan | October 12, 2021

Mythical Creatures in Victorian Children’s Literature

The Golden Age of children’s literature was during the Victorian era. They focused on lessons and morals to teach children, ensuring Susie would grow up to be a well-mannered lady and John would be a proper English gentleman. But the device they used to tell these stories and morals were mythical creatures. Elves, goblins, and brownies were prominent figures in Victorian children’s stories and played a significant part in creating these novels.

These mythical creatures have a lot of powers and can create chaos from nothing. All children, no matter their century of existence, can create chaos. They experiment with boundaries, ask questions, and push back on rules. Dr. Dena Attar, author of “Why Do So Many Children’s Stories Feature Magical Creatures,” said, “They can act out the fiercest, most anarchic feelings and desires on behalf of a character, a reader or a listener, without endangering the child’s world. They can be counterparts of the invisible friends some children invent, who break things and scribble on walls, leaving the children themselves blameless.” Children can live vicariously through these creatures and see the consequences of doing these naughty things. Telling engaging and exciting stories with morals and lessons is more interesting than just saying it outright. It gives them a memorable example to remember when they encounter a situation requiring it. 

“War Stories” by an unknown illustrator. Found on https://mitziscollectibles.typepad.com/mitzismiscellany/2013/09/scrapbook-finds.html

One of the most mischievous creatures is the elf. While they are generally seen as pesky troublemakers, they can be helpful when they want to be. They prefer the forests and natural settings to call home. They tend to be synonymous with faeries, but they aren’t the same. Faeries are more graceful, having wings, and are generally female, while elves are typically male. There are some instances where female elves are present, but they come in the way of ballads, exciting stories told in poems or songs. Some mythologies say they’re human-sized, but English mythology says they’re tiny. Because of their impish behavior, some inconveniences were blamed on elves. Elf locks were the tangles in your hair caused by an elf messing with it. Elf stroke was some kind of paralysis, possibly sleep paralysis where you’re awake but can’t move. Elf shot was what caused maladies in people and animals. 

Laura’s Lock, Goblin Marketillustrated by Arthur Rackham

Goblins are considered more malevolent elves. They range from dwarf height to average human height. A group of male goblins is called a “horde,” but a group of female goblins is called a “hag” or “crone.” While bigger than elves, they are frequently invisible to humans, keeping themselves out of sight and hiding their spiteful deeds. The New World Encyclopedia says that “Many scholars believe that such creatures came out of an interest in Paganism and its mysticism, especially the belief in nature spirits and magic. Goblins could possibly come from the belief that, along with virtuous pagans, there were evil ones that became evil spirits.” One of the most well-known stories involving goblins is Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market.” These goblins are visible to humans and try to seduce women and young girls to come and eat their delicious fruits, exclusive to the goblins’ market. Of course, the fruit isn’t just the most delicious ever tasted, but it creates an all-consuming need for more with dire consequences. 

Brownies (also house elves) are domestic spirits from Scottish folklore. They come out at night and clean the “owners’” house, performing chores and tasks out of sight. Owners are to leave out offerings of milk and food as recognition for their work; however, owners are never to talk to or about the brownies in their house, lest it offend the brownie and it leaves. Giving them anything other than the typical food and milk will offend and anger the brownie.

In the last half of the Victorian era, Palmer Cox was a very well-known illustrator and wrote several books on brownies. His illustrations are some of the most circulated images of brownies. He described them as “imaginary sprites who delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.” In the 21st century, the most popular brownie isn’t even called a brownie, but an elf. Dobby from Harry Potter is much closer to a brownie than an elf. The house-elves in the Harry Potter series are very similar to brownies. They perform the domestic tasks around the house and refuse any non-food gift (Dobby seems to be the only exception, gladly accepting an accidental gift of a sock which sets him free). 

The mythical creatures of Victorian children’s literature continue in other countries and folklore, having their own particular characteristics and images. The variations make for great folklore to be passed down and retold, carrying on the traditions of learning lessons and morals. 

Works Cited

Attar, Dena. “The Secret Life of Children’s Books – the Open University.” The Open University | BBC Partnership, connect.open.ac.uk/history-and-the-arts/the-secret-life-of-childrens-books.

Auctions, Heritage. “Palmer Cox. Three First Edition Books in the Brownie Series.: Lot #94032.” Heritage Auctions, historical.ha.com/itm/books/children-s-books/palmer-cox-three-first-edition-books-in-the-brownie-series-includes-the-brownies-their-book-another-brownie-book-the-total-4/a/201412-94032.s.

britishfairies, ~. “Brownies in Literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby.” British Fairies, 14 Apr. 2020, britishfairies.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/brownies-in-literature-from-mrs-ewing-to-dobby/.

Curi, Mitzy. “Victorian-Era Scrapbook Finds, Part I.” Mitzi’s Miscellany, mitziscollectibles.typepad.com/mitzismiscellany/2013/09/scrapbook-finds.html.

Gates, Amy. “Laura’s Lock, Goblin Market Illustrated by Arthur Rackham.” Cove Collective, 29 June 2020, editions.covecollective.org/content/lauras-lock-goblin-market-illustrated-arthur-rackham.

“Goblin.” Goblin – New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Goblin.


Responses

  1. What an interesting read! I sometimes think it’s funny how children’s stories feature some of the most complex moral lesson and most basic fears in the plainest language or imagery. What you were talking about reminds me of how in theater, where in seeing other people act out a life similar to your own but separated by the fourth wall of drama, you may be able to better critique your own life or the world around you without having to feel affronted or too personally involved to think clearly.

  2. This was really fun to read! I loved the focus on children’s novels as moralizing agents. It’s really interesting to think about how much the stories we are told/read as children impact our views of the world. It also brings to mind a wider idea of how much this continues to be true for adults! I’m really interested in how much pop culture impacts, whether heavy-handedly or not, people’s views of how their life should play out.


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