A spectre begins by coming back. A frightful hobgoblin appears apropos nothing. Thanks to the Samuel Moore translation of 1888, the former is what most English readers will remember haunting those famous opening lines of The Communist Manifesto (1848). But the spectre is a late arrival in England, too late for the first English translation produced by Chartist writer Helen Macfarlane and published by the journal Red Republican in 1850. Das Gespenst des Kommunismus: the thing expected will not appear. Instead — Ein Wechselbalg! — “A frightful Hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe.” And this might or might not be the spirit that follows: “We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism. All the Powers of the Past have joined in a holy crusade to lay this ghost to rest.”
Derided ever since as a comically inadequate rendering of the German original, Macfarlane’s frightful Hobgoblin should not, I suggest, be so simply dismissed. Proceeding from the assumption that her “Hobgoblin” really is the English equivalent to Das Gespenst, this poem interrogates the pattern Marx perceived in history, as this appears, or is complicated by, three generations of working-class struggle in the West Midlands. Using material relating to Hobgoblins or “Orcs” in the writing of local author J.R.R. Tolkien, this poem subverts the dominant (conservative) mythology of the area, in order to realise an epic for those who resent the roles they have been compelled to play in the stories that have defined this region.
“David Ashford’s book takes us into a realisation that these beings called Orcs might be a symptom of how history has been taken away from us, in other words that it can’t be written except with the aid of imaginary beings of this type: ‘written history pathogens . . . Time is a ghost.’ Ashford’s prose, which is also poetry, is a probe into the particular (human) energies that animate these non-humans and in the process radically interferes with the language of Tolkien’s nasty anti-modernism, getting help from Blake, Benjamin and others. Of course Orcs are mainstream popular, given their presence in gaming and film. Ashford exposes their link with the entropy of England. Enjoyable and necessary work.”
— William Rowe