Hobberdy Dick

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Hobberdy Dick is obscure, even compared to other fantasy classics:

Woe’s me, woe’s me!
The acorn’s not yet
Fallen from the tree
That’s to make the cradle
That’s to rock the bairn [lad]
That’s to grow to a man
That’s to lay me.

— The Cauld Lad of Hilton’s Song

Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones. For every fantasy novel or series as famous as the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories or Watership Down, there’s another which is little-known, even among aficionados of the genre, like Lud-in-the-Mist or The Night Land. Given the vast amount of fantasy published in the last century and a half, and the scattered nature of it in the century between modern fantasy’s creation by authors like Morris, MacDonald, and Meredith in the 1850s to the flash-point of Tolkien’s publication of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1950s (1954-56) giving the genre shape and definition, it’s not surprising that some books, even those popular in their own day, somehow fell through the cracks. Few of these are so worthy of renewed attention of Katharine Briggs’ Hobberdy Dick (1955).

The story is in many ways a familiar one: A new family moves into an old house, and gradually they begin to realize that something strange is going on. They are sharing their home with something supernatural — something that’s been there a very, very long time. Many stories that follow this pattern are horror (e.g., King’s The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls), while others feature more benign boogiemen (The Canterville Ghost, McKillip’s The House on Parchment Street, Tony DiTerlizzi’s recent Spiderwick Chronicles, etc.). [1] Briggs departs from the pattern by turning it inside out: Her point of view character is not one of the humans newly arrived but the centuries-old creature who has been there all along, the title character Hobberdy Dick himself.

“[Brownies] are generally described as
small men, about three feet in height,
very raggedly dressed in brown clothes,
with brown faces and shaggy heads,
who come out at night and do the work
that has been left undone by the servants.
They make themselves responsible
for the farm or house in which they live…
A brownie will often become attached
to one member of the family…
he has a right to a bowl of cream or best milk
and to a specially good bannock or cake…
Any offer of reward for its services
drove the brownie away…
Where he was well treated, however,
and his whims respected, a brownie
would be wholly committed
to the interests of his master.”

— Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies

Of Hobs, Lobs, and Hobgoblins

Dick is, as his name suggests, a hob — a type of friendly faerie creature variously called a hob, a lob, or a brownie (i.e., little brown man). Hobs, unlike goblins, are solitary, shy, helpful creatures, so long as they are not crossed; a house-hob will mend items, sweep floors, churn butter, and generally help out by completing unfinished chores if treated well (the “elves” in the Brothers Grimm tale “The Shoemaker and the Elves” are clearly hobs). Wise homeowners will reward him with a saucer of milk or small cakes spread with honey left out for him at night. But, like many of “the fair folk”, they have a sinister side; a hob who was offended would either abandon its post or, worse, turn into a boggart or bogle (the English folklore equivalents of a poltergeist), spoiling work instead of completing it. Those who fell between the helpful and the malicious were generally called hobgoblins, like Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck; the Irish pooka (known to American audiences via the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey) is a similar creature, and some have even suggested that the Robin Hood legend began as a hob story (Rob [or Hob] -in-the-Woods). Aside from being the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “hobbit” [2], hobs have largely failed to make the transition from folklore into modern fantasy, unlike other faerie creatures such as elves and dwarves, mythological beings like sphinxes and dragons, fairytale favorites like witches and ogres, or even fellow folktale creatures such as giants and goblins.

“That was our little man,” she said…
“Hobberdy Dick?” said Marion, whispering.
“I don’t know his name,” said Martha. “He’s a
little ragged man that does things about the house.
I see him sometimes.”

Perhaps one reason for their dropping out of sight is that hobs, unlike the aristocratic elves, master-craftsmen dwarves, scheming witches, or huge lumbering giants, were neither the heroes of stories nor the monstrous foes overcome by heroes. Their lot was humbler; they were very much the supernatural helpers of servants, not companions of lords and ladies — and before Tolkien few fantasy authors expressed much sympathy or interest in the “Downstairs” side of the Upstairs/Downstairs equation. [3] Morris’s, Dunsany’s, and Eddison’s heroes tend to be princes and lords, and the same is true of most other fantasies of the times; even the apparently ordinary protagonists of novels like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953) and Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp’s Land of Unreason (1941/42) turn out to be reincarnations of Ogier the Dane and Frederick Barbarossa, respectively. And while working class “proletarian” heroes were a well-established folktale tradition, their stories — Jack the giant killer, the tailor who killed seven with one stroke, etc. — were far more active and dramatic than those who, in Milton’s phrase, “stand and wait”. Briggs achieves what J. K. Rowling more recently tried and failed at with her Dobby and Kreature: take a nearly forgotten class of folklore creature, personalize a single member of that group, and imbue his steadfast attempts to protect his home and adopted family in troubled times with a heroism of its own.

“. . . If there’s a beast more on a farm
than ye can reckon for, pay good heed to it.
Ye never know who put it there.”

Charity looked up at him with large eyes.
“What do you mean, Mr. Batchford?”
she whispered. “Not the fairies?”

“Name no names,” said George Batchford. “There’s
some makes good neighbors if they’re treated right,
and Widford is well known to be a lucky place
and well guided. Least said soonest mended…”

A Time and a Place

The second distinctive feature of Briggs’ book, aside from her choosing an almost forgotten folklore creature as its title character, is the time and place in which she chooses to tell her story — a country house near Oxford in the year 1652, during the upheaval that followed upon England’s Civil War (1642-1651) and the establishment of Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth. Vague, idealized medieval settings have been the default for fantasy since William Morris’s day, with modern-day tales the recognized alternative. Fantasy set in other periods, especially when the author is specific about when and where, were a rarity until quite recently (cf. the Tor “Fairy Tale series” launched the late ’80s, which started a vogue that has continued to the present day). Briggs is not only very specific, having her characters visit many real-world sites (such as the famous Rollright Stones, a neolithic stone circle that also appears briefly in Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham), but grounds her book in the events of the time. The story begins when the traditional owners of Widford Manor leave, ruined by supporting the losing side in the war, and new owners arrive, a family of London merchants from Cheapside who aspire to become landed gentry. Dick almost leaves with the last of the old family at the beginning of the story, but decides to stay behind:

Dick had half a mind to… scramble into the cart
. . . before running water parted them. The Culvers
had been good friends to him, and he would
have liked to share their fortunes a little longer…
But he had been at Widford time out of mind
and had only known the Culvers for a little over
two centuries. He would stay with the old place
a little longer and give it a chance of life;
it would soon fall into ruin if he left it.

The opening chapter, describing the hob in the empty house, conveys vividly how desperately a hob needs people about him and things to take care of (as Briggs puts it, “hobs fare ill without [human company]“), and the touching degree to which he becomes attached to the only living thing left at the desolate house, a little red hen who escaped being rounded up after the auction. When the new family comes, not only are they city folk who know nothing of country ways and customs, they are Puritans who scorn old superstitions as ungodly. Briggs is very good at portraying unsympathetic characters without villainizing them. Mr. Widdison, the father, is a stern man with little use for any point of view but his own, yet he is redeemed for the reader by a fundamental core of decency, a determination to do the right thing as he sees it, and his devotion to his ailing mother-in-law, the mother of his first wife who he makes sure has a comfortable home with him to her dying day. Mrs. Widdison, the second wife, is a selfish and self-important woman, but Briggs always shows how her occasionally cruel treatment of others is partly due to vanity, party to thoughtlessness; she is not a “wicked stepmother” but simply a bad parent and worse employer, something far more believable. [4] The eldest son (and only child from the first marriage) and the young woman who comes to serve as Mrs. Widdison’s lady-maid (the last living member of the deposed family who once lived there), quickly come to be the main human characters, along with some of the servants; it’s hard to deal with a large cast, some of whom play very minor roles in the story, and keep their personalities distinct, but Briggs pulls it off.

Old Ursula scolded as if she were
an eight-day nagging machine
newly wound up.

Most difficult of all, perhaps, is her treatment of the mother-in-law, old Mrs. Dimbleby. Here we have a person so good that she is actually surrounded by a kind of halo that Hobberdy Dick can see, though her fellow humans cannot (“Dick was rather frightened of her because of a luminous cloud in which she often sat, but he was fascinated, and she looked so mild and quiet that he could not think her dangerous”). The difficulty of presenting genuinely good characters who are both likable and believable is well-known, and very few writers of fiction can pull it off — most prefer to create a good villain, which is much easier. Charles Williams tried several times to create such a numinous character and failed, as did C. S. Lewis (cf. Ransom in That Hideous Strength); Tolkien managed it with Faramir and Elrond, but witness those characters’ fates at the hands of Peter Jackson, where all the character traits that make them admirable are stripped away. And every gamer is familiar with paladins who come off as sanctimonious and self-righteous rather than living examples to admire and inspire. That Briggs is able to believably present the story from a whole range of points of view, getting inside of good and bad people alike and showing how events look from their perspective, is one of the greatest strengths of her work, and a fine example for other authors to follow.

“The trouble with we,” [the Taynton Lob] went on sadly,
“is that we’re neither one thing nor t’other.
We’re frittened [frightened] of their holy water and the great
things that come around them when they pray,
but we’re main frittened of their black bugs [bugbears, bogymen]
and their counter-pacings [widdershins] and the deathly things they say
[i.e., witchcraft]. And it seems there’s no place now
for the likes of we.”

The Way of the Hob

A final strength of the book is the degree to which it is specific, not generalized. So much contemporary fantasy of the last three decades derives from synthesized stuff such as the writings of Joseph Campbell, Northrup Frye, or Carl Jung, rather than the actual stories these critics boiled down to construct their theories from. Briggs, by contrast, was probably the leading folklore scholar of her generation (her colleagues recently issued a thirteen-volume set of her Collected Works), and she draws inspiration directly from the original stories and tales collected over the last two centuries or so, many of which she published in collections such as British Folktales (1977), which includes the hob story “The Brownie”. She also wrote several highly respected works on folklore: A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976, also published under the variant title An Encyclopedia of Fairies) is undoubtedly her masterpiece, and probably the definitive work identifying and describing various folklore creatures, often accompanied by brief versions of the original stories in which they occur. Also significant are The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legend (1978), The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Pale Hecate’s Team (1962, a book on Elizabethan beliefs on witchcraft), The Anatomy of Puck (1959, which does the same for Elizabethan fairy lore), and Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies (1979, a sort of Dictionary of Fairies lite).

Out of this expertise, Briggs has focused on a very specific part of all this lore; her plot is new, but the creatures and traditions are all authentic, and all drawn from English folklore of the period in which her story is set. This wealth of actual knowledge gives the tale a distinct flavor and realism more eclectic fantasies often lack. Nor do her self-imposed limitations hinder the story; she includes not just hobs (Long George, the Taynton Lob, Patch of Iccomb, Lull of Kingstanding, Hairy Tib of Bruern, the Shining Boy of Widley Copse, and Hobberdy Dick himself) but ghosts (the evil one in the West Attic and the miser’s ghost haunting the bed from London), witches (Mother Darke) and their familiars, a will-o’-the-wisp (Willy Wisp), the old Grim of Stow churchyard (an ancient spirit that was once a god and is now a Hound of the Baskervilles-ish black dog), an Abbey Lubber (whose presence foretells doom for the house it haunts), and more. In short, she vividly recreates a now-lost folklore and, in a tour-de-force, presents it from inside, from the point of view of the supernatural creatures, with all their fascination of humankind. Nor does she make the mistake of listing off all Dick’s powers at the onset; the reader finds out what he can do only by reading along — a triumph of “show, don’t tell.”

Once, when they were both unawares,
he caught a moment’s glimpse of Dick
and stopped, startled and almost frightened;
but Dick rallied all his powers,
and thought of a clump of ferns
with a rabbit peering out of it
until he looked like one,
and Joel went on, reassured.

In the end, Briggs’ book is as satisfying a fairy tale as any of the ones she draws inspiration from. In the best fairy tale/fantasy tradition, everything works out the way it should. She ends with a particularly poignant final note, with a Eucatastrophe Tolkien could be proud of. In the final chapter, her newly united lovers present Hobberdy Dick with a choice: They lay out three presents for him. If he chooses the green suit they have made for him, he can enter the hollow hills and fairyland, becoming a member of the seely court. If he chooses the red suit, his time on earth is at an end and he can follow the humans he loves into the afterlife. And if he chooses the little broom, he can remain as he has always been, and witness what the next few centuries will bring to his beloved house and its people. I will not reveal his choice here, other than to say that it is both moving and entirely fitting — the culmination of the entire book in its final pages.

Hobberdy Dick and Your Game

Katharine Briggs has long been one of the most influential authors in gaming; her work has been a major resource much-used by RPG designers for years, often uncredited. Anyone wishing to give a fey flavor to an adventure could not find a better source than A Dictionary of Fairies, and simply leafing through its pages should provide a wealth of material that sparks dozens of encounter ideas. Beyond this, her novel is a splendid example of how to take traditional material from old stories and weave it together into a satisfying new tale. Folklore is one of the three or four major sources from which modern fantasy was created (along with medieval romance, mythology, and perhaps adventure stories), and it’s never been put to better use than in Hobberdy Dick.

Finding a Hob of Your Own

Unfortunately, while Briggs’ scholarly works are relatively easy to come across, her novels are scarce in the U.S. Hobberdy Dick appeared in England in 1955 but had to wait until 1977 for an American edition (followed a year later by a paperback); both are long out of print. Relatively few libraries have it on their shelves, meaning that fantasy lovers who want to find the book must either resort to second-hand book services such as www.bookfinder.com or import their own copies from the UK, where it is readily available, having gone through seven or eight editions (cf. www.amazon.co.uk). One reason for this neglect in the U.S. might be due to its being marketed as a children’s or young-adult book; its specific historical setting makes it more difficult for American children — few of whom know England even had a civil war, much less who the sides and stakes were, and who know “Puritans” only as early Massachusetts colonists who followed the Pilgrims — than their English counterparts. In addition, Hobberdy Dick is a book that would greatly benefit from annotation, given its heavy reliance on authentic folklore and customs. For example, readers who do not know what a fetch is may be baffled by the scene midway through the book where Dick sees young Nicholas Culver, a boy he liked who had been the heir of the previous owners, slide down the bannister and run out into the yard, then vanish. In fact, Nicholas has just died of the plague miles away in Bristol, a fact disclosed in passing several chapters later; his spirit’s lifelike appearance at his old haunts is a classic piece of folklore (cf. Defoe’s “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal”). But even without annotations, the story is a masterpiece, and highly recommended. Briggs’ only other novel, Kate Crackernuts (1963), is a fairly straightforward novelization of an old folktale and thus less interesting than her original story.

. . . but for all that
Widford was a lucky place
and well-guided in their time,
and their children’s,
and for many a long year after that.

— The closing lines of the book


[1] So familiar is this motif, in fact, that a movie like The Others can both use it and ultimately invert it.

[2] Briggs herself made the discovery in 1976 that the word “hobbit”, which Tolkien had simply made up, actually once existed in folklore. A mid-19th century collector of folklore, Michael Aislabie. Denham, had once published a list of folklore creatures based on one that had first appeared in Reginald Scot’s famous debunking The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584). Scot’s original list had included “Robin good-fellowe” and “hob gobblin”; among the creatures Denham added were “hobhoulards”, “hob-thrusts”, “hobby-lanthorns” (will-o-wisp), “hob-headlesses”, “brown men” (i.e., brownies), and “hobbits” — this last probably a diminutive of hob. See Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, especially her entry on The Denham Tracts (1892 & 1895)

[3] The degree to which they’ve dropped off the radar can be shown by their near-total absence in urban fantasy; given the modern-day phenomenon of “McJobs” and the vast numbers of the overworked and underpaid, many of whom keep homes going while working two or more part-time jobs, one would think the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a helper who sometimes chipped in and completed chores left undone through sheer exhaustion at the end of a long, hard day would have made a resurgence. The only example of a hob known to me in urban fantasy is in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, where a female hob rescued by the heroine moves in and takes care of her. There are doubtless others, but their rarity underscores the point; the office hob, a fantasy icon ideally suited to the present day has yet to make its debut.

[4] The story does have a wicked stepmother, but she’s relegated to a minor role, having been dead several centuries. She appears as the evil ghost who haunts the West Attic, whose exorcism forms one of the high dramatic points of the novel.

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