A hobgoblin is a household spirit, appearing in English folklore, once considered helpful, but which since the spread of Christianity has often been considered mischievous.(p320) Shakespeare identifies the character of Puck in his A Midsummer Night's Dream as a hobgoblin.
The term "hobgoblin" comes from "hob" ("elf").[a][b] The earliest known use of the word can be traced to about 1530, although it was likely in use for some time prior to that.
Hobgoblins seem to be small, hairy little men who, like their close relatives the brownies, are often found within human dwellings, doing odd jobs around the house while the family is asleep. Such chores are typically small tasks like dusting and ironing. Often, the only compensation necessary in return for these is food.
While brownies are more peaceful creatures, hobgoblins are more fond of practical jokes. They also seem to be able to shapeshift, as seen in one of Puck's monologues in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Robin Goodfellow is perhaps the most mischievous and most infamous of all his kind, but many are less antagonizing. Like other fairy folk, hobgoblins are easily annoyed. They can be mischievous, frightening, and even dangerous.(p100) Attempts to give them clothing will often banish them forever, though whether they are offended by such gifts or are simply too proud to work in new clothes differs from teller to teller.
The bauchan is a Scottish domestic hobgoblin that is mischievous and belligerent but also very helpful when the need arises.
The bwbach (or boobach, plural bwbachod) is a Welsh domestic hobgoblin that will perform household chores in return for bowls of cream. They are good-natured but mischievous and have a dislike of clergymen and teetotalers, upon whom they will play relentless pranks.
In the poem "L'Allegro" (1645) by John Milton a domestic hobgoblin or brownie, known as a Lubbar Fend (or lubber fiend) and described as strong and hairy, threshes the corn then lays by the fireplace enjoying his bowl of cream that he earns as payment. In the earlier play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) by Francis Beaumont, a similar being is known as Lob-Lie-by-the-Fire, described as a giant and the son of a witch. Folklorist K.M. Briggs stated that the two creatures are generally equated.(p270) Briggs' own fantasy novel, Hobberdy Dick (1955), is about a hobgoblin that lives in the home of a 17th century Puritan family.
In a 1684 hymn Bunyan couples the hobgoblin with "a foul fiend", as two monstrous beings who try (and fail) to "daunt the Pilgrim's spirit".
The term "hobgoblin" is used sometimes to mean a superficial object that is a source of (often imagined) fear or trouble. The best-known example of this usage is probably Ralph Waldo Emerson's line, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", from the essay Self-Reliance.
Hobgoblins exist in the works of Tolkien as a larger kind of orc, though they are not prominently featured. In the preface of The Hobbit, he states that "Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds)".
In The Spiderwick Chronicles, a hobgoblin[c] is portrayed as a selfish character, always hungry, insulting to others, and annoyed with always being confused for a goblin.