Advertising hobgoblins

What is a hobgoblin

A hobgoblin is a mythological or magical sprite (an elf or fairy) that is smaller than a goblin but far more mischievous. (It is a common mistake to think that a hobgoblin is larger than a goblin.) The goblin, apparently, originated in France, as a Gobelin, a particular sprite haunting parts of Normandy. In England the native woodland sprite was known as Robin Goodfellow. The name Robin (and Robert) was often used to denote a country fellow and the familiar form of this was hob. So hobgoblin is a construction that merges the native Robin (hob) Goodfellow sprite with the Norman French goblin to create the British character.

Another contraction of Robin is dobbin or dob, that gave dobbie, which is the name given to household sprites (although only as late as the nineteenth century). There is also a character so named in the Harry Potter series. It appears that a dobbie is the household cousin of the woodland hobgoblin.

The hobgoblin is also related to the more modern gremlin, a term that came into use during the Second World War to describe the sprites responsible for electrical and mechanical faults.

According to Michael Aislabie Denham, a nineteenth century folklorist, every village had its apparition and, among the almost two-hundred he listed, many began with the hob form: hob-and-lanthorns, hob-headlesses, hob-thrushes, hob-thrusts, hobbits, hobby-lanthorns, hobgoblins, and hobhoulards. Denham has recently been attributed with the first use of hobbit from this passage of list (which controversially contradicts the JRR Tolkien estates copyright of the name).

Where I first met the hobgoblin

While I was living in Tewkesbury, a Gloucestershire town in the west country of England, I became acquainted with hobgoblins in rather unusual ways. Firstly I became quite fond of Hobgoblin, a strong, dark ale. It is brewed at the Wychwood Brewery in west Oxfordshire, not far away in the next county. Their branding is very distinctive with colourful labels, to evoke the folklore links with  the medieval Wych Wood Forest, from which the brewery has taken it name.

Tewkesbury has its own Hilton Hotel, Puckrup Hall. It is located between the Avon and Severn Rivers. Puckrup means place of the hobgoblins: puck is another name for a hobgoblin. There are many such place names in England.

Alias Puck

The most famous of all English hobgoblins is Shakespeare’s Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow). Shakespeare was born and schooled at Stratford-upon-Avon, only 35 miles (55 kilometres) north of Puckrup Hall, and it is most likely that his Puck character comes from the same local folklore.

Puck is the mischievous and central character of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is introduced when a fairy recognizes him in the woods:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

Note that Shakespeare’s hobgoblin can make “the drink bear no barm”, that is to take the head from a beer, so Wychwood was brave when it gave its beer this name. The beer does not seem to have suffered from it, though.

Lager’s hobgoblin

In England there is an ongoing campaign to defend traditional English beers against the terrible import, lager. Its members are stereotyped as middle-aged men with beards who go to beer festivals (and lager drinkers as young metrosexuals or soccer hooligans).

Wychwood ran a great advertising campaign at Halloween that featured the hobgoblin saying:

Afraid of the dark, Lagerboy?

These five words conjured up Halloween, the generation gap, the superior dark flavour and challenged you to try the beer. It was wonderful copywriting!

There was an unsuccessful complaint about the ad campaign to the Advertising Standards Authority. The complainant was referred to only as “a lager drinker”.