In the Haunted Glen: Finding the Middle Grade in “Goblin Market,” a guest post by Diane Zahler
I don’t remember exactly when I first read Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market.” It might have been in college; it might have been when my husband, a literature professor, taught it in a class and shared it with me. But as someone who has long been fascinated by fairy tales, I was immediately enthralled by the story of two sisters, one who is enchanted – cursed – when she eats fruit offered to her by a goblin, and the other who must find a way to save her older sibling.
At some point in the years that followed, I realized that I wanted to rework “Goblin Market” as a children’s novel. It had everything a scary, creepy, and ultimately redemptive story needed: evil versus good; nasty goblins; a heroine who must fight her own terror and find a way to break a curse. But when I delved deeper into the poem, I realized how rich it was in other ways – and how difficult it might be to reimagine it as a tale for young readers.
“Goblin Market” has inspired an astonishing number of diverse interpretations. Some critics see it as a religious allegory. For them, the goblin fruit represents the apple that Eve eats in the Garden of Eden and the younger sister, Lizzie, is a Christ figure sacrificing herself to bring salvation through the eucharistic offering of her body. Or they view it as a recasting of the parable of the Prodigal Son, with Lizzie bringing the prodigal Laura back to life and home. It’s been called a proto-feminist critique of violence against women, as when the goblins attack Lizzie: “the goblins cuff’d and caught her,/Coax’d and fought her,/Bullied and besought her,/Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,/Kick’d and knock’d her,Maul’d and mock’d her…” Such critics have also read it as a protest against the predatory nature of the patriarchy, represented by the goblin men.
By contrast, some readers have interpreted the poem through a Marxist lens, with the goblins as arch-capitalists who attempt to seduce their customers through advertising and market manipulation (“Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;/Come buy, come buy.”) Still other critics see it as autobiographical, a satirical assault by Rossetti on the tightly-knit all-male Pre-Raphaelite circle of writers and artists that included her brother, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It has been read both as a story of the loss of sexual innocence and as a tale of redemption from sexual corruption. (Playboy magazine thought it was so erotic that they published it in 1973, along with some rather pornographic illustrations.) It’s been viewed as a study of mental illness, with Laura’s desperate need for goblin fruit a manifestation of addiction, and her inability to eat and withering away suggesting anorexia. And there is the psychoanalytic school, which interprets the poem as a Freudian fantasia of repressed desire and sexual liberation through incestuous lesbian fulfillment, as when Lizzie runs home to her sister after meeting the goblins: “Did you miss me?/Come and kiss me./Never mind my bruises,/Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,/Goblin pulp and goblin dew./Eat me, drink me, love me…”
“Goblin Market” was often presented as a children’s poem after its initial publication in 1862, though the poet herself objected to this, having earlier noted that “children are not among my suggestive subjects.” Yet even in 2017 there was a picture book version published. Generally, however, readers understand that many of the poem’s themes, symbols, and images are deeply complex and sophisticated – better, perhaps, for adult readers than for children.
With all this in mind, I struggled for several years to find a way to do “Goblin Market” justice, while still respecting my audience. I’m a middle-grade writer, and middle grade is generally considered ages 8 to 12. In this era of book-banning and censorship, I needed to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, what middle-grade readers would understand and appreciate based on their age and experience, and, on the other hand, what parts of the poem’s content I felt I could leave out of my version without being guilty of censorship myself.
So I chose to focus on two other interpretations of “Goblin Market” that I haven’t yet touched on. One sees it is as a celebration of sisterly love, a love that forces one sister to face her fears so she can find the courage to save the other. It’s a theme that runs through many of my books for young readers, and as a sister myself, it’s a theme that resonates with me. And the other views the poem as a fairy tale, but not merely as a form of nursery entertainment. Fairy tales, of course, are never truly simple; they illuminate some of the most basic and harshest truths of childhood. Fear of separation, the unjustness of the world, the incomprehensibility of parental actions — fairy tales treat the greatest terrors children suffer and help them process and move past those fears.
By emphasizing the fairy-tale and sister-love aspects of the poem, I found I could incorporate features from some of the other readings. My Lizzie sacrifices herself – or tries to – for her sister. My goblins are violent and predatory. My Laura – renamed Minka – desperately, addictively desires fruit and withers away without it. And my girls prevail, feminists to the end.
I did, however, dispense with the Marxism, the Old Testament, and the more explicit sex. And I left out Freud altogether. There will be plenty of time for my readers to grow up a little, read the original poem, and discover those juicy bits for themselves.
Meet the author
Diane Zahler grew up reading children’s books and never wanted to do anything but write them. She worked in the children’s room of her public library and in a children’s book publishing company, and now she’s the author of many fantasy and historical novels for middle-grade readers. She lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with her husband and slightly neurotic dog in what is aptly nicknamed the Bug House.
About Goblin Market
One sister must save the other from a goblin prince in this rich, spooky, and delightfully dark fantasy!
“TERRIFICALLY TIMELESS. . . SPLENDID.”—Shelf Awareness
Lizzie and Minka are sisters, but they’re nothing alike: Minka is outgoing and cheerful, while Lizzie is shy and sensitive. Nothing much ever happens in their sleepy village—there are fields to tend, clothes to mend, and weekly trips to the market, predictable as the turning of the seasons. Lizzie likes it that way. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. She hopes nothing will ever change.
But one day, Minka meets a boy.
A boy who gives her a plum to eat.
He is charming. He is handsome. He tells her that she’s special. He tells her no one understands her like he does—not her parents, not her friends, not even Lizzie. He tells her she should come away with him, into the darkness, into the forest. . . .
Minka has been bewitched and ensnared by a zdusze—a goblin. His plum was poison, his words are poison, and strange things begin to happen. Trees bleed, winds howl, a terrible sickness descends on Minka, and deep in the woods, in a place beyond sunshine, beyond reality, a wedding table has been laid. . . .
To save her sister, Lizzie will have to find courage she never knew she had—courage to confront the impossible—and enter into a world of dreams, danger, and death.
Rich world-building inspired by both Polish folklore and the poetry of Christina Rossetti combines with a tender sister story in this thrilling novel from Diane Zahler.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/16/2022
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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