The truth about Harry Potter’s ‘anti-Semitic’ goblins

So how did a writer utterly opposed to anti-Semitism wind up seemingly trojan-horsing an anti-Semitic caricature into her work? Some have argued, persuasively, that it probably wasn’t intentional. In constructing the vast, detailed wizarding world, Rowling drew on and adapted many ideas and tropes from myth, folklore, and fairy tale. The Harry Potter books depiction of goblins as malign, sharp-featured, even gold-obsessed was not her invention.

Goblins, a kind of malignant fairy species, have been popping up in folk tales everywhere from Sweden to Japan since the early medieval period (the modern English word itself probably derives from the French gobelin). They vary across centuries and continents, but one characteristic they share is a propensity for wickedness. 

Some, such as the hairy hobgoblins of English folklore, are more mischievous than menacing, specialising in domestic ruses, but some, such as the Japanese mountain tengu, have long noses and a fondness for kidnapping and eating children – in an intriguing mirror of another anti-Semitic trope, the so-called “blood libel”. 

The exaggeratedly Semitic appearance of the Harry Potter goblins is also far from original. Kobolde, the German word for goblins, appear in some nineteenth-century illustrations as child-sized creatures with large bulbous noses and pointed chins. Meanwhile, Arthur Rackham’s famous 1933 illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market show the goblins with strikingly long, snout-like noses. Moreover, some critics have read Rosetti’s poem, which recounts the pseudo-Lapsarian temptation of two young women by a pack of fruit-wielding goblins, as an anti-Semitic parable about the testing of Christian virgins. 

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