Slow and heart-wrenching romances meet thrilling mythology all in present-day Seoul in “Goblin: The Lonely And Great God.” The 16-episode drama stole South Korea’s heart with its release in 2017, and with every new person to watch it, steals a few more. Sometimes known as “Guardian” to North American viewers, “Goblin” follows the destiny of a Korean general granted an immortal goblin life and the determined Korean girl fate chooses as his deliverer.
The 16th and final episode held the attention of 20.5% of South Korea on the day it aired, becoming the first show to pass the 20% mark. Through the rampant popularity, “Goblin” hasn’t skirted controversy, with some Korean outlets claiming that the show only goes to further the tropes appearing in modern Korean television — namely, that of a flawless male lead and a hapless young love interest. The controversy only fuels the show’s popularity as the debate grows its visibility both nationally and abroad.
In Korean mythology, a “dokkaebi,” also known as a Korean goblin, are the souls of deceased heroes, sometimes depicted as godlike figures, and other times, as ghosts. At different points in Korean history, they have been worshipped or cast out with cleansing rituals, and now are largely regarded as mythological. In “Goblin,” the dokkaebi is created as God’s punishment for killing as well as reward for dying honorably, and his immortal life can only be ended by the Goblin’s bride.
Another character in Korean mythology is the “Joseung Saja,” also known as grim reapers. While many cultures picture grim reapers as malevolent, Koreans portray them as faithfully diligent messengers for the god of death, simply acting on their orders. In most modern Korean media, grim reapers are depicted as workaholic office workers. “Goblin” adds backstory for these mythological figures by making the role of grim reaper a punishment for the worst sinners. Grim reapers have no memory of their previous lives and are part of neither the living nor the dead, knowing only that they once did something unforgivable.
Thanks to several key scenes shot in Quebec, Canada, thousands of South Korean tourists have flocked there to visit the beautiful province and the filming locations it boasts. “Goblin” takes place in breathtakingly beautiful locations, and the many wide shots of Quebec could make anyone look up the cost of a plane ticket. For these emphatic fans, the temptation has become a money-making opportunity, with “Goblin tours” taking tourists to every filming site and landmark. Even a particular theater’s emergency exit door has found fame through association. For those wishing for travel but without the means to do so, “Goblin” offers the beauty and wonder of exotic locations, even going so far as to follow one character as she travels abroad for the first time herself.
The show isn’t just filled with Korean mythology and beautiful filming locations. The leading romance between the goblin and the goblin’s bride leaves each character unsure of the other’s commitment while being continually drawn to each other, wondering what will become of them both when the Goblin’s spell is lifted. When the grim reaper falls in love with the Goblin’s bride’s boss, their destinies grow even more entwined, and the two struggle to maintain a relationship in the present without the ability to bury the past. These two romances fill every episode with emotional highs and lows, and both become vital to the Goblin’s freedom and the bride’s survival.
Throughout the complicated and heart-wrenching romances, unlikely friendships form as past tragedies give way to present-day forgiveness and bonds. When a grim reaper unknowingly rents a room in the goblin’s house, the two are forced to bear each other and quickly realize that fate has bigger plans for their acquaintanceship than a renter’s contract. They might start out squabbling over condiments and taking offense at each other’s cooking, but shared experience brings them closer. As the show progresses, the pair join forces in defense of the humans they love, and on their off days, share a few beers too.
Even after everything the cast endures with each other, forgiveness doesn’t come easily. In fact, the ability to forgive and the reality of consequences even in the face of repentance are all wrapped up in the stories of every character. “Goblin” doesn’t shy away from consequences and never undervalues the strength it takes to forgive. As each complex and flawed character struggles with different relationships, they all learn how to put love ahead of hurt and forgive themselves and those who have hurt them.
The instability of memories complicates every character’s ability to seek and find forgiveness. Reincarnated spirits don’t remember their past lives — unless the memories are given back. Grim reapers allow the newly-deceased to drink a tea that removes memories of their previous lives for their own peace of mind. Through it all, the goblin lives, his memories fully intact, still grieving every death and raging against every injustice.
Love comes in many forms, and “Goblin” works in nearly all of them through the interlocking web the characters find themselves in. A story of epic scope becomes deeply relatable to an audience of non-magical, working-class citizens through the personal ties each character makes and each one’s attempts to save what they love, even in the most dangerous of circumstances. The fragile tenacity of young love comes up again and again, along with the slow but steady blossoming of friendship. Even sibling relationships are explored, as well as abusive family members and the difficult path to growing past the scars they leave.
“Goblin: The Lonely And Great God” wraps Korean mythology and death-defying love, unlikely bonds and the messiness of forgiveness all within a visually stunning, 16-episode drama. Each episode lasts a little over an hour, making the show perfect for a last binge before the summer ends. “Goblin” has jumped around several South Korean streaming sites, but a good place to find the series now is Rakuten Viki.