Like a couple of people probably, I wasn’t altogether on board with Peter Jackson’s characterization of the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure he did his homework, mind you, and the abominable lip-smacking hellions that resulted will almost certainly inhabit the nightmares of many an unsuspecting toddler, still the goblins I grew up imagining kept an altogether lower sort of profile: now you saw them, now you didn’t, not now they were eating you alive.
I’ve often returned in these pixels to the dozen or picture books which constituted my entire selection as a preschool-age child – Miss Suzy, In the Forest, Pondus the Penguin, some other untraceable oddities – and which, whatever their obvious deficits, still rang a bell for me several years later when I had children of my own. In between, I’d probably never laid eyes on these titles, in fact I think I hardly registered the existence of children in general not long after I’d stopped being one, and so I sometimes wonder now if my entire moral universe was directed by these fateful early stories, and I have suddenly awakened like Rip Van Winkle on the bluffs overlooking my biases and convictions and nagging, inescapable fears.
Possibly are you are familiar with Little Bear by the Danish–born Else Holmelund Minarik, possibly because the illustrations were furnished by the great and recently deceased Maurice Sendak, possibly because it is located in the “I Can Read” section of your nearest superstore, and possibly because somebody needed to get cracking on their literacy skills. Possibly this is a misconception. If you are already five years old and beginning to connect your ABC’s, then I’m not sure how much you’re going to buy into Little Bear putting a box on his head and trying to fly to the moon, and dreaming of Viking ships and Chinese bears with chopsticks and princesses bearing cake. Okay, maybe princesses. Maybe cake. Still, here is a book of four stories better suited to runaway imaginations than suspended disbelief – here’s a whole library, if you are three.
Alas, we must have skipped right over it when I was that age, because my only familiarity came from Little Bear’s Visit, published four years after, in 1961. And it isn’t Little Bear whom I especially remember from this random acquisition, nor Grandmother Bear and Grandfather Bear whom he is visiting in the country, but a baby robin which Grandmother Bear tells of rescuing when she was young, and nurturing and worrying over and inevitably releasing – “My heart is sad,” says the robin, echoing every inexplicable melancholy I have ever known.
But the goblin! Grandfather Bear tells a story, after summoning his pipe and nodding off in the garden, about what I now imagine an elfish sort of fellow not anyway inclined to eat you alive, who’s one day strolling unabominably through the woods when he suddenly hears a bump coming out of a cave – “It was old, it was cold, it was dark. Hoo-ooh - ” cries the goblin, jumping right out of his shoes, and making a break for it through the trees.
“Pit-pat-pit-pat-pit-pat,” something comes chasing him, “pit-pat-pit-pat,” before the goblin takes his chances and jumps inside a hole of his own.
“Eeeeeh - !”
Never mind I always know how this is going to end. Usually I do. Sometimes I wonder if something else entirely isn’t going to be waiting for me outside of the hole. But it’s safe in here, right? Do I really want to risk a look around?