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Yesterday I stumbled across a reference to Christina Rossetti's poem "Goblin Market" (1862) and was reminded that it is about fruit sold by goblins and the effect that it has on humans, much as Mirrlees' novel Lud-in-the Mist (1926) is about fairy fruit and the effect it has on humans.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?


Rossetti's poem is much more overtly sexual than Mirrlees' novel, but to the extent that Mirrlees does make the connection to sexual passion and potential debauchery, she also does so in the form of the effect of the fruit on adolescent girls. Both writers also compare the effect of the fruit to drugs and addiction, depicting symptoms of withdrawal in the aftermath of ingesting the fruit.

"The Goblin Market" is amazingly ambivalent about its subject matter. It has something of a Hollywood ending in which normalcy is restored and the events of the poem are said to be a warning to children, but which leaves us feeling that the images of sexual arousal and dangerously unconventional behavior (well, otherworldly and lesbian at least) are much more vivid than the conventional conclusion. (Rossetti apparently did tell her publisher that the poem was not actually intended for children.)

She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore,
She sucked until her lips were sore


I see that Neil Gaiman made the connection between "The Goblin Market" and Lud-in-the-Mist in an article for the Guardian, "Happily ever after". I don't know much about Rossetti except that she's connected with the Pre-Raphaelites. My sense is that both she and Mirrlees are associating Faerie here with bohemianism. Sex and drugs and the horns of Elfland, baby!

20 Nov. Update: Eventually, she manages to save her sister by running home and asking Laura to "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you," explaining that "For your sake I have braved the glen / And had to do with goblin merchant men." Laura's cure, implemented by her sucking the juices from Lizzie's face, is somewhat baffling; the reader is left confused as to what actually cured her, the residual juices or her sister's love.

So what we are left with is this: a woman performed a heroic, self-sacrificing action (certainly related to Christ's sacrifice of himself) to save her sister. Good. However, it seems apparent that there are problems with the framework for feminine heroism constructed by Rossetti. It remains a passive kind of heroism. Lizzie does not attack the goblin men, demanding the antidote for their fruit, or weave a spell of benign magic over her sister. She is forced to offer herself up to goblin abuse (physical, sexual goblin abuse) to perform a positive action. It is possible to account for the passive nature of Lizzie's act by putting it into the context of Rossetti's Christian beliefs, but that does not seem enough. The ambiguities at the end of "Goblin Market" and the almost out of place, strangely irrelevant feel of the last few lines (caused by their sanitized, formulaic tone at the end of a poem so rich in erotic and violent detail) indicate that Rossetti herself had not reached a satisfactory conclusion on the subject of female heroism.


-- W. Glasgow Phillips, "Theme in Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'"
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