Goblins: how do they work?
Okay, maybe this isn’t the Great Question of Our Time, but this is my airspace and I can write about goblins if I damn well please.
Goblins are a standard fantasy setting element deriving from folklore and more proximately (as with many other standard fantasy setting elements) from Tolkien. Tolkien abandoned the term “goblin” after The Hobbit, though, preferring “orc.” Goblins as gamers recognize them today spring largely from Gygax et. al.’s use of the species in as a common enemy for low-level players in Dungeons & Dragons. The archetypical low-level D&D adventure features a handful of player characters sallying forth into a goblin warren to kill goblins and make off with goblin gold.
D&D has traditionally viewed goblins as fast-breeding humanoids, evil by definition, who salt away treasure and present an ideal target for adventuring parties looking for experience and gold. This vision has a whole bunch of terrifying racist and colonialist implications, which others have critiqued in fictional form. But what if we’ve been wrong about goblins all along? What if evidence suggests goblins are much weirder than we thought?
Trawling around the internet last week, I found an old Daily MTG blog post about the creation of the Jund shard, a sub-world in Alara block and a bunch of you aren’t even reading this any more, you just see a string of “nerd nerd nerd” all along the screen. Well, you’re the one who clicked on a link about goblins and fungi, so who’s the nerd now?
Still me, probably.
Anyway, I find worldbuilding in Magic: the Gathering interesting, so I read the article, and about halfway down the page, found the following quote:
High ground is bad; low ground is good. Dragons are aerial predators, and usually hunt at high elevations. Most goblins, who actually revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, live up on the mountain peaks, welcoming the draconic attention. Smarter prey species, such as humans, live in the relative safety of the bejungled valleys and lowlands (where they’re picked off by viashino and carnivorous plants instead).
I hadn’t run across this particular piece of MTG lore previously, and it threw me. Goblins don’t just revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, which would be weird enough—they’ve built an entire civilization on mountain peaks, the better to be so devoured. What kind of even semi-intelligent organism would live in its apex predator’s habitat for purely ritual reasons? Remember, we’re not talking about an occasional Moses-like quest up to the mountaintops to meet glory in a dragon gullet. The article says “most goblins.” And there are a lot of goblins! That’s one thing goblins do: have a lot of themselves.
You can’t even explain this away by claiming this weird cultural quirk dooms goblins to extinction. For one thing, cultures rarely doom themselves—the most obviously self-destructive ritual movements, like Shakerism, tend to be subcultural. For another, the world in question, Jund, is described as being ruled by raw natural selection. Nothing even slightly weak survives. This is a realm of warrior kings and alligator men, carnivorous plants and enormous rhinoceroses. So, if goblins exist here, it’s because they’re frighteningly well-suited for this environment. And part of their being well-suited for this environment must involve being eaten by dragons.
Nor is this vision of goblinhood unique to this sub-sub-universe of the greater Magic: the Gathering cosmos. Goblins exist in as many realms as elves, which is to say basically all of them, because elves are the meth of fantasy—an addictive chemical substitute for real excitement and novelty. (Seriously. Elves. Not even once.) (Except in Tolkien. And Swanwick. And dammit I’m just gonna pull a Whitman on this one, claim my right to self-contradiction, and return to my original argument.) Wherever goblins appear in the Magic: the Gathering cosmos, they fit the same profile: insanely numerous, aggressive, and self-destructive. Let me give you an example:
You don’t even need to read the text to understand what this card does: the chirurgeon is sawing off one goblin’s leg, while another goblin waits on crutches for his new leg. The card lets you sacrifice goblins to help other creatures (the other creatures don’t even need to be goblins!)—which is a decent deal for a goblin player, because she’ll always have more goblins. Or consider this card:
This one’s a little harder to understand just from the picture, but it isn’t that much harder. Some goblins are trying to throw a comically huge Spy vs. Spy style bomb using a slingshot. That’s a dumb idea, you may say. The bomb could go off at any time! And in fact this is true: when Goblin Bangchuckers tries to, you know, chuck bangs, you flip a coin, and if you lose the flip, the Bangchuckers kill themselves.
How is this a reasonable way to run a military?
Oh, they’re just goblins, you may say. If you want artillery that works, call the dwarves! Being bad at stuff is just a Goblin thing. I mean, look at what happens when they do archaeology:
That’s an even less expressive picture, but, spoiler alert, goblins are horrible at archaeology. A goblin archaeologist, presumably trained in the profession, stands a fifty percent chance of destroying whatever object he’s trying to unearth, a 50% chance of straight up killing himself, and a 0% chance of doing anything that you or I would call archaeology. That’s even worse than Indiana Jones, who for all the justifiable criticism thrown his way has a 50% chance of actually retrieving the artifact he sets out to retrieve, and a 16.7% chance of getting it to a museum. (Based on observable evidence from movies that actually exist, which is to say, Raiders, Temple, and Crusade.)
How on Earth, any Earth, do creatures evolve that are so bad at everything they do? You could say that goblins didn’t evolve—but Word of God, which is to say, Word of Designer, indicates that natural selection does in fact apply in at least some Magic: the Gathering universes.
I propose: a species like the goblin will only arise if its evolutionary strategy is dramatically different from that of a mammalian scavenger species (e.g. us). In English, which I do speak occasionally: goblins only work if what would be bad performance in mammalian scavenger species is in fact good performance for them. Some aspect of goblins’ evolutionary dynamic must force them to self-destructive behavior.
Perhaps goblins have huge clutch sizes, or fast reproductive cycles. That would explain their aggressive behavior, since a rapidly reproducing species needs more space, and expansion will bring them into conflict with their neighbors. But this theory doesn’t justify individual goblins’ self-destructive behavior. Nor does it explain the relative absence of competent professionals among goblin ranks. If the best even a professional chirurgeon can do is kill one goblin to save another, if an archaeologist stands a fifty percent chance of killing himself whenever he plies his trade, we’re either dealing with a species that is predetermined to be Bad at Stuff, or one with some reason not to regard death as a big deal.
Which brings us to fungi.
Mushrooms and the like reproduce sexually and asexually, using spores released from the fruiting body of the fungus. Asexual reproduction means the fungus doesn’t have much reason to care for its individual survival: its clones endure alongside its children. The fungus is primarily concerned, to the extent anything concerns a fungus, with the question of spore dispersal.
Let’s ponder, for a moment, the kind of culture an ambulatory fungus might construct. Individual fruiting bodies would probably seem, to us, utterly unconcerned with their own survival when confronted with large-scale dispersive destruction. Struck with a fireball, or blown up by your own bomb? No problem! The force of the blast spreads your spores over the battlefield. Chopped up by a surgeon to patch up some other creature (not necessarily a goblin)? Great! The new creature will carry you around for the rest of its life, dispersing your spores on the way. Killed in battle? Your spore-laden blood sticks to your adversary’s boots—and when she washes off in the nearest river, the current will carry your spores to unknown lands. Eaten by a dragon? Best of all possible worlds. Assuming that your spores are resistant to a dragon’s intestinal juices, which is not implausible, being devoured by a dragon is a one-way ticket to dispersal throughout the plane—or even to other planes, if you’re very lucky, since some dragons have magical powers, including in some cases the power to shift from one universe to another.
Such an organism might even have a dramatically different sense of what being “good” at a trade might mean. We want our doctors to heal us so we can continue our daily business, with an eye toward eventually reproducing in safety—an ambulatory fungus wants a doctor to help it disperse. Our bombers want to survive; for an ambulatory fungus of the sort we’re imagining here, dying in a giant explosion is a good outcome. The fungus we envision does not sow or reap. It fights because battle is an efficient reproductive strategy. Whatever it does, it does in a way that maximizes its potential spore dispersal.
This species sounds an awful lot like the goblins described above. And Fungus Theory explains some other oddities of the species—for example, the fact that Magic: the Gathering goblins lack obvious primary or secondary sexual characteristics, and that a search of Gatherer, the database of all Magic: the Gathering cards, reveals a single nominally female goblin, the Goblin Matron, whose card art conveys no biological gender markers whatsoever. “Matron” might be a purely social role in the Goblin community, that of an enabler of goblin reproduction. Much more sensible if goblins are fruiting fungal bodies.
Seen in this light, rather than a designated target for “virtuous” adventurers engaged in campaigns of extermination and colonization, goblins become a complex, practically immortal species radically alien from the hominidae they regularly fight. Goblins obviously wouldn’t be forthcoming about this difference—their long-term reproductive strategy relies on humanoids treating them as humanoids. To a goblin, the human birth-death reproductive cycle would seem crude and disgustingly slow, the human insistence on throwing themselves into battle without promise of clone-resurrection borderline psychotic. Goblins’ role as fantasy cannon fodder serves to spread their species to undreamt of realms and alien shores. Who knows how many million goblins have spread to strange new worlds as a spore in an adventurer’s boot, as a growth on dragon fewmets, as a dried speck of blood on a planeswalker’s trouser cuff?
Consider the perspective of the goblin, suicidally immortal. Humans build their tiny cities, dwarves delve, elves frolic in treetops. But goblins thrive everywhere. They always have been, and will always be.
Or don’t, and enjoy your Designated Antagonist Species. I like my option better.
Thanks to Daniel Jordan, for the critical logical leap underpinning this essay.
Also: looking for a good Halloween read? I just finished Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which is delightfully creepy, and contains some cool theory-of-mind loop-de-loops to boot. Many folk seem to find Watts’ vision bleak; I don’t, which maybe means I’m more cynical than I thought? Anyway. Give it a shot, especially if you’re interested in science fiction as the realm of the Big, Old, and Weird.