Les Gobelins



The goblins of Paris have been here for centuries. Once upon a time, they were hired to make tapestries. This seems incongruous to you, I can see.  You are thinking of their clumsy looks, their knobbly hands and bulging eyes and fingers with joints that go the wrong way. But you haven’t thought it through. Their eyesight is excellent, especially for close, fine work, and while their hands may look large and clumsy, they are excellently adapted to working with fine threads. And they are very strong, and have an affinity for metal.

Goblin women spin gold and other precious metals into thread finer than straw, and use it to embellish the richest tapestries with glimmering embroidery. You have seen some of their tapestries, of course. The Musée de Cluny has a few. Yes, that really is metal. The goblin women pass the knowledge of their best threads and best stitches down to their nieces, and her store of family threads makes a goblin woman’s dowry.

What do the goblin men do? What do men ever do? Exactly. They think they manage things of course, but you’ll find it’s the goblin women who really run the show. The men like it that way. You’ll understand when you are older.

Oh, I see. Well, they make the dyes for the embroidery threads. But any human man could do that. It’s the women who do the real work. It’s always the women who do the real work. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Where was I? Ah yes, the goblins. They mostly live on the Left Bank, not far from the Latin Quarter and the Jardin des Plantes. All the disreputable types lived there, you know. The students. The immigrants. The Jews. The goblins got on well with the Jews. Two sets of outcasts living and working side by side. The Jews helped the goblins by hiding their children, when the locals came up the hill to persecute them for looking strange and being wealthy. If you ever plan to be wealthy, make sure you don’t look strange. Humans don’t like people who look strange, especially if they are successful. They like to think that successful people are just like them. Which isn’t too bright, if you think about it. One generally has to do something a bit different to be successful. Anyway, if you are boggle-eyed and knobble-fingered and speak with a goblin accent, well, clearly you got your wealth by ill means.

Sometimes, even being poor doesn’t help if you are different. You remember that.

Did the goblins help the Jews too? Yes, of course they did. Goblins take their bargains very seriously. They hid the Jewish children when the locals suddenly decided that the Jews were Christ-Killers or child-murderers or plague-bringers or whatever the slander was that season. Oh, and wealthy, though they always pretended that it wasn’t about that.

No, of course, the Jews didn’t look like goblins, but different is different. And the thing is, people were a bit scared of the goblins, even when they were drunk. They were often drunk. (So were the goblins. It didn’t help.) But having people be a bit scared of you can be a good thing, so long as it isn’t too much. Too much, and they try to get rid of you. The right amount, and they leave you alone.

There was one girl. Esther, her name was. Beautifully ugly, that girl, though you’d never take her for a goblin. A sweet child, and she did lovely embroidery, too. Her father, though, he was a good-for-nothing. A wastrel and a scoundrel and a thorough waste of good Parisian air. Wanted to find her a rich husband so that he’d never have to work, but with that face…

No, she couldn’t marry a goblin. Goblins don’t marry humans. They smell wrong. It doesn’t work.

Wrong how? It doesn’t matter how. Just wrong.

Well, like food, if you must know.

No, of course goblins don’t eat humans.  For goodness sake. This is why we don’t have these conversations.

Are you going to calm down now?


Now, where was I? Ah yes. Esther’s father. So one Friday evening he came home, and after the candles were lit and the blessings had been said he turned to her and said “Daughter, I have good news! I have found you a husband!”

Now, Esther was not a stupid girl, and she knew that her father was seeking a husband for her.  But she also knew what she looked like, for she had seen her face reflected in the copper pans, and even if she had not, children are neither kind nor tactful, whatever their race. So while she smiled and thanked her father dutifully, she had her doubts. “And who is this husband, father?” she asked.

Her father patted her hand. “His name is Tobias Simon, and he is handsome and rich and will give you fine children.”

Esther blushed as a young woman should, but she shook her head and said bluntly, “Father, if he is handsome and rich, what does he want with me? For you know we are poor and I know very well that I am not pretty.”

“My dear, you are a good girl, clever and hardworking, and the image of your mother, God rest her, who was the loveliest woman alive.”

And he was not lying, for Esther’s father had one virtue and one virtue only as a parent – he genuinely thought his ugly daughter was beautiful.

But Esther sighed and shook her head. “Even so, father, rich men marry rich wives, and I have no dowry to speak of.”

What’s a dowry? Ah, well, in those days, you see, a woman was expected to buy her husband, too.   So she had to have money for the purchase, even though she never got to keep her earnings. Women always have to do the work, and generally they get nothing for it. It’s an unjust world we live in, my dear.

Anyway, as I’ve said, Esther was no fool, even if her father was, and so she looked at her father sternly as he blustered and prevaricated, and at last he confessed what coin he had used to buy her this handsome and rich Tobias.  And when he did tell her, she almost wished she hadn’t asked.  You see, her father had told Tobias that Esther could spin straw into gold.

Oh, you’ve heard this story before have you? Well then. I suppose it’s time to switch off the light and say goodnight… No?

Of course. An honest mistake. I will continue, then.

Esther was appalled when she heard what her father had told Tobias.

“But father,” she pointed out, “I cannot spin straw into gold! Nobody can! What if he asks me to do so? He will cast me out, and I shall be shamed. And homeless,” she added, because she was a practical girl.

Her father simply shrugged. “Your embroidery is as beautiful as gold, and what is thread but straw? Simon knows it was hyperbole. Once he sees your sweet face, he will never mind that I exaggerated your skills a trifle.”

No, of course thread isn’t made of straw.

I never said it was. Pay attention to the story, and don’t believe everything Esther’s father says. He is not a reliable man.

Esther made much the same argument you did, but to no avail. Her father was convinced that he had arranged a brilliant marriage and that all would be well, and nothing Esther could say would change his mind.

The next day was the Sabbath, which meant no work could be done, and Esther used the time to think about what she might do.  And so on Sunday morning, while her father was still asleep, Esther left the house, and walked up the hill to the sound of church bells until she reached the street where the goblins lived. The goblin aunties had been kind to her in the past – such an ugly girl! – and she hoped they would teach her the secret of making gold thread, as the thread and the tapestries it embellished were more valuable than the gold itself.


The aunties were sympathetic, but Esther’s hands, though hardened and leathery with work as hands should be, were still softer than goblin hands, and though she tried until her hands bled and her face was tight with pain, she could not spin gold into thread.

So she thanked the aunties – you should always thank the aunties – and went home, to salve her hands and try to think what to do next.

She should have spoken to Tobias? Most likely she should, yes, but it would have been very improper for a young girl to approach her betrothed, or even to speak to him without family present, and Esther had no family but her father. And he was not going to take her to tell Tobias that he was a liar.

She should have run away? To where, pray? And dressed as a man?

Well, it sounds like you would rather tell this story yourself. I shall wish you a good night then, and leave you to it.

Oh, you want to hear it after all? Very well then. If you are quite sure. I would hate to bore you.

On Monday, while Esther was making the week’s bread and her father was busy drinking the week’s income at the local public house, a messenger arrived from her betrothed. He bore a spinning wheel made of varnished cherry wood, a small bale of straw and a note.

“For my dearest Esther, that I may see her in cloth of gold on our wedding day. Tobias.”

This did not bode well. “I don’t think he thought it was hyperbole,” Esther told her father when he came in later that day.

Her father laughed uneasily. “Of course he did. Nobody can spin straw into gold. He is just going along with the joke. All will be well, little star.”

(He liked to call her little star because Estelle means star, and Estelle sounds a little like Esther.)

Esther did not think that all would be well, but there was nothing to be said to her father in this mood, so she held her peace.

She went to the goblins again on Tuesday, after the marketing was done, but her hands were still too tender for the gold work, even when the aunties helped with the stretching and rolling. Her hands bled again, and the blood mixed with the warm gold and turned it a gleaming ruby red.

It was beautiful, everyone agreed, but not helpful.

Oh, you think it would have been orange, do you? Have you ever spun gold into thread until your hands bled?


Gold changes in the spinning, and many things can happen when blood is involved.

On Wednesday, as Esther was hanging out the week’s washing, wincing at the cold clamminess of the bandages against her sore hands, a knock came at the front door.

Yes, it was Tobias. Obviously you know this story already and don’t need me to tell you what happened next. I’ll just say goodnight, then.

Oh, you don’t? Are you quite certain of that?

Quite. Hush then.

Yes, it was Tobias. And he looked at Esther, in her worst clothes for doing the washing and wet to boot, with her bandaged hands and her ugly face (such a wide mouth! and such round eyes!), and his own handsome face fell.

For her part, Esther looked at him, and frown or no frown, she had to admit that he was everything her father had promised – handsome, young, and, if his clothes were any indication, richer than any man she had ever met.

Of course, he spoiled it all when he opened his mouth. A lot of men are handsome until they open their mouths. You bear that in mind, if you ever grow to be handsome.

“Your father tells me you can spin straw into gold,” he said.

No, he didn’t say hello and how are you first. Yes, that was very rude. Yes, you are better brought up than that. Though really well-brought-up children don’t interrupt their goblin aunties when they are telling bedtime stories.

Apology accepted.

Well, Esther was an honest girl, so she looked her betrothed right in his handsome, rude face and said. “I’m sorry, sir, I cannot.”

Tobias frowned. He was much less handsome when he frowned.  He looked at her hands in their bandages. “Of course, you have injured your hands. May I summon a physician for you?”

Esther shook her head. “You are kind sir,” she said, though she suspected he was not. “But it would not help. Even if my hands were whole, I could not spin straw into gold. Nobody can spin straw into gold – that is a fairy tale. The goblin aunties taught me to embroider with their gold thread, but that is not the same thing at all.”

Tobias’s frown grew.

“Your father promised me you could spin straw into gold,” he repeated. “I gave him a thousand gold louis to have you to wife. Do you know where he is now?”

Esther began to feel afraid. She had her suspicions of her father’s whereabouts, and she very much doubted Tobias would see his money again. She stalled for time.

“Sir, I am not sure where my father is, and I very much fear that you must have misunderstood him, or he you.”

Her suitor’s face darkened. “One thousand louis d’or is not a misunderstanding,” he said, and Esther stepped back a pace, into the shelter of her doorway.

Esther thought quickly.  She did not like to lie, but she was alone in the house, and was not sure what Tobias would do if she continued to tell the truth.  She lifted her bandaged hands, placatingly.  “Alright.  You have found me out.  But as you see, my hands are too injured for fine work. Give me a week for them to heal, and I will spin you a thousand louis of gold thread. But when you have your gold thread you must swear to me that you will leave, and that my father and I will owe you nothing.”

Tobias ignored the second half of that sentence, being wholly focused on the gold. “So you can do it!”

No, he wasn’t very bright, was he? But then, if he had been, he never would have believed Esther’s father in the first place. People get stupid when there is gold involved. Men and women both – even goblins sometimes. You remember that, and don’t be stupid.

Tobias, for his part, felt very excited at the idea of marrying a woman who could spin straw into gold. He even began to think that he could learn to like Esther’s pale hair that made her eyebrows nearly disappear, and her wide mouth. But Esther was not so impressed. She hadn’t liked the way he had looked at her when he first arrived – she knew she was ugly, but he could have at least tried to pretend otherwise – she hadn’t liked his anger, and she definitely did not like his focus on gold.

Though, to do Tobias justice, he was rich through his own making, and one does not become rich on one’s own without thinking a lot about gold.

So Esther looked at Tobias severely and she said, “I will spin your gold for you, but I will do it alone, with nobody watching me, not even you. And when I am done, I will walk away, and you will not follow me. You will not marry me, and neither I, nor my father, will owe you anything. Is that understood? If you try to pursue me, the gold will return to straw and nothing you or I can do will restore it.”

No, of course the gold wouldn’t have turned to straw. There wasn’t any gold, remember? Esther had Tobias’s number, that’s all. She knew he would do anything to keep what he had, and she was right.

Tobias’s face was a picture. On the one hand, he had no desire to marry a girl who was very nearly as ugly as a goblin – but on the other hand, a wife who could spin straw into gold was an asset worth keeping. Gold won out, though – it always did, with him – and so he smiled sweetly and turned tender and wooing, in the hope of enticing Esther to change her mind.

Never mind what he said, it was all lies anyway, and Esther was smart enough to see straight through him. And so, at the end, they had their bargain: Esther would spin the gold, and in return, she would gain her freedom. And her father’s safety, because she was still soft-hearted enough to care about that.

The next day was Thursday, and after she had ironed and pressed all the clothes, Esther went back to the goblin aunties to make her bargain.

No, of course it wasn’t a baby. What would goblins want with a human baby? We are more than capable of making our own babies when we want them.

I beg your pardon.

If we did eat babies, we would start with the rude ones.

Yes, you should apologise. Your mother would be ashamed of you, and so am I.


No, Esther was a practical girl, and a brave one, and sharp as a tack. She had seen the way the goblin aunties looked at each other when her blood turned the gold thread to ruby red, and she thought that she might, after all, have something to offer them. So she went to the goblin aunties and she bargained all the afternoon and half of the night, and in the end, she had an agreement: the goblin aunties would give her the gold thread she needed to appease Tobias, and in return, she would spin gold for them until they had an equal weight of ruby gold.

Yes, it hurt.

For three days and two nights, Sunday morning until Tuesday evening, since the Sabbath must still be kept, no matter how foolish one’s father was, Esther unbound her hands from their bandages, and threaded gold until her hands bled, and she wept with the pain of it. The goblin aunties sat by her, singing in their harsh voices to comfort her, and wiping away her tears so that the salt water would not mar the rich colour.

The goblin uncles delivered the gold to Tobias on the fourth day. I don’t know what they said to him, but he left Paris that very afternoon and was never seen again. Meanwhile, the goblin aunties bandaged Esther’s poor hands, what was left of them, and nursed her through the fever that followed.

Between the new lines of pain on her face and her ruined hands, Esther was uglier than ever. Really very like a goblin. The aunties started to think of her almost as a daughter – a too-delicate, too-pretty daughter, but one of us, nonetheless.

No, I don’t know what she thought of the aunties. Mixed feelings, I’d say. She had her freedom, but I don’t think she realised beforehand how much it would cost her. Her hands were so badly damaged. She could hardly close them over the scars. She could not embroider, or spin, or even make bread or do the laundry at first.

What could she do? Well, she could speak, and read, and tell stories. Goblin children need bedtime tales too, you know. She could sing, too, though nobody ever asked her to do so twice. She couldn’t change nappies, but goblin children don’t need much of that sort of thing.

Did Esther live with the goblins forever? No, she didn’t want to do that. She stayed with the goblins for a year and a day after she got better, helping with the children and slowly learning to use her hands again. She could never use them for delicate work, for sewing or for writing, but she could look after herself and keep house. And at the end of a year, the goblin aunties saw that she wanted to go, and so they gave her half of the red gold that she had spun as her wages, and Esther walked out of Paris in the early morning as the Matin bells rang from the cathedral, and she never came back.

The goblin aunties say that Esther went to Provence, where she built a house in a valley full of roses and lived a life of luxury with servants to wait on her and nobody to tell her what to do.

The goblin uncles say that her father went to stay with her, that he found her a good husband and that she married and had children and lived long and happily in a house among the lavender fields.

The uncles mean well, but they don’t really understand.

She had bought her independence with her own blood, after all. I can’t imagine walking back from that. Can you?

No, dear, I’m a goblin born and bred. My hands have always looked like this.



Les Gobelins is a station on in the 13th arrondissement.  It opened in 1930, so it’s one of the slightly later stations.  Les Gobelins gets its name from the Gobelins manufactory, which in turn is named for the Gobelin family, who manufactured first dyes, and then tapestries on the site from the 16th century onwards.  The manufactory is now essentially a museum, though it does still produce a small number of tapestries each year for the French Government.

While Gobelins does translate to goblins in English, there were, in fact, no goblins involved in the business that I have been able to find out about (though one can only speculate on how the Gobelin family got its name).  However, the tapestries made by the Gobelin manufactory were very fine, and some sources claim that they used gold and silver thread, so that bit is true.  The Gobelin manufactury was right next to the Jewish quarter, so that part is true, too. Everything else is made up from whole cloth, so to speak.

The picture I have used in this story is an illustration by Walter Crane (1845-1915) from The Sleeping Beauty Picture Book.


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