Everybody's a Critic

Gnomes!

Here is what I posted on the Kirkus Books blog last week and click here to read Susan's review of Tomorrow's Garden. —Eliz.

9780810998469

Are gnomes the new vampires and fairies the new witches? And where do zombies fit in? For the most part, I accept with resignation the abundant presence of supernatural creatures in the worlds of literature and pop culture. Personally, I’d rather be entertained by more-or-less real people doing more-or-less real things. But there is no question that the Harry Potter, Twilight, Wicked, and LOTR franchises are huge, and drag a flotilla of lesser-known fantastic inventions behind them.

The gnome phenomenon is part of a strange assortment of otherworldly creations that have intermittently caught the public’s fancy over the past few decades (remember troll dolls?). Normally, I wouldn’t think too much about them; that is, if not for their longstanding connection with the world of garden decor, and the recent release of several gnome-related books.

Although Chuck Sambuchino’s How to Survive a Gnome Attack (Ten Speed Press, 2010) has probably gotten the most attention, especially now that it is soon to be—yes—an R-rated movie, a classier option might be Gnomes, from Abrams. The artbook publishing house has just released this as the ultimate gnome coffee table tome. Packaged with 8 frameable prints, it is actually a re-release of a 1976 Dutch book with text by Wil Huygen and illustrations by Rein Poortvliet. 

Both Huygen and Poortvliet have since died, which adds to the heirloom quality of the gnome lore, legends, and tall tales here, pulled together nicely by Poortvliet’s drawings and paintings. The Dutch artist was a masterful wildlife painter, and the best illustrations in the book show gnomes interacting with other woodland creatures like foxes, birds, and rabbits. As for the text, the nine legends that close the book are probably the most rewarding reading, with the rest of Gnomes largely devoted to illustrated descriptive matter like the following:

The gnome’s life-span is around 400 years. They lead healthy lives. They don’t eat too much, have few emotional problems, and get plenty of exercise.

They do indulge in pipe-smoking and do not shun mildly alcoholic drinks!

If you know someone with a yen for gnomes—and I am sure you do—this would be the book to give them, especially with the prints as a bonus. It’s not nearly as silly as the gnome survival book, and would certainly take longer to read.  However, talk of the merits of gnome books sidesteps the real issue. A book can be shelved, a movie can be watched and forgotten, but the very real presence of plaster, resin, or plastic gnomes as semi-permanent features in gardens is another matter altogether.

GnomesinDunster

For decades, gnomes have been a very common feature in British gardens, so much so that many should really be called gnome enclosures, as they contain very little in the way of plant life (see example above).  The more I hear about gnome books and movies Stateside, the more I wonder if scenes like this will become as common in the U.S. as they are in the U.K.  (There is already a gnome liberation movement—freethegnomes.com—which, ironically if unsurprisingly, has Google ads offering gnomes for sale on its front page.) While I appreciate that gnome lore has centuries behind it, its contemporary manifestation ultimately takes an all-too-common form—boatloads of mass-produced crap that can’t be composted and is seldom reused. Garden objects like gnomes are all too often offered by garden centers as “focal points” that take the place of real design.

It’s an interesting paradox: the most fanciful products of the human imagination are marketed to consumers as a way to replace imagination.

Do I dare to discuss fairies? Maybe next time.

Posted by on May 19, 2011 at 5:00 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
Comments are off for this post

22 Responses to “Gnomes!”

  1. lifeshighway says:

    I have the original Huygen and Poortvliet art book. It is lovely for its own genre. When the book came out, fantasy art was very popular. There were similar lovely books concerning dragons and unicorns.

    So even though I had an embarrassing fantasy fan, I probably would not get this particular book as I feel gnomes have gotten a little too much attention and I prefer the delight of the random gnome collector as opposed to pop culture trend followers.

    Except trolls, I used to collect trolls… but I was a kid.

  2. We had the original book in my household when I was a kid. I loved it so much that my parents got a Christmas ornament version in the early 80s that I now put on my tree each year. And tracked down one of those activity books so I could color the pictures and solve the puzzles. You brought back one of my happiest childhood memories today.

  3. Woo says:

    We had this book growing up! The artwork and in depth descriptions of different gnomes is great, especially for children. And it definitely encourages creative garden and nature play!

  4. Sandra Knauf says:

    Trolls are way cooler than gnomes.

    “They lead healthy lives. They don’t eat too much, have few emotional problems, and get plenty of exercise…”

    How boring!

    I’d have to disagree with the statement about replacing imagination, though. Although I may be wrong, I think those with a yard full of gnomes or whatever are living smack-dab in the middle of an extremely active fantasy life.

  5. Chellie says:

    Products of imagination used to replace imagination ~ brilliant insight and quite a thought provoker. I think a gnome, or anything for that matter, can be a delightful accent to a garden though. I suppose if gnomes or plant design ignites passion in their owners then it shoild have a place in this world. Just don’t settle!

  6. Paul Riddell says:

    Too many gnomes, not enough Daleks in a typical British garden. This needs to be rectified.

  7. Jen. says:

    I remember this book and purchased it when I found out I was pregnant with my oldest, just to have it lying about when the time came. (I also used to giggle at the naked pictures, but I was young…)

  8. Lisa, Ontario says:

    I received that book for Christmas when I was young. I still have it, it is a favourite. Currently I have some fairie doors to attach outside somewhere, not conspicuous, somewhat hidden. It is unfortunate that I can’t find a really tasteful gnome, a terracotta one would be nice poking out from under a huge hosta leaf.

  9. Deirdre says:

    You know how these things go. You get one of something because it was particularly interesting in some way or reminded you of a place you’d visited. The next thing you know, people have decided you collect the thing, and start giving them to you at every opportunity. Before it’s over, you have a gnome, or fairy, or owl, or chicken enclosure. Wait. Those are real chickens in that enclosure.

  10. Angie says:

    Gardens are should be magical places! They should delight, enchant and yes even put a smile on someones face. Walk the paths of my gardens, find a faerie house tucked beneath the hosta leaves, find a faerie peeking out from above on the branch of the birch. Take a stroll along another path to find a flying pig peeking from under the lemon balm or an elf door behind the rose bush and yes, in my magical, mystical, whimsy filled garden, you’ll even find a spot for gnomes, a couple trying to climb a tree and one peeking out a window! Have fun, don’t take gardening to seriously!!

  11. Erica says:

    Love reading these reviews!

    Best gnome video ever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0foMKAxCww (Utah State Extension’s Gnome Management in the Garden)

  12. Eliz says:

    Sandra, though I find gnome collection fascinating, as many obsessions are, I am not sure that it denotes creativity on the part of the collector (who might be very creative in other ways). I tend toward using found objects or original sculpture rather than mass-produced objects. OTOH, having 100s or better of any one thing in your garden is a compelling sight.

  13. Kaveh says:

    I had the book when I was kid too. I loved it back then but I am anti gnome now. I’m a firm believer that garden gnomes should be stomped before they multiply or invite other rif raff into your yard like flamingos, yard jockeys and fat ladies bending over.

  14. Laura says:

    I’ve never owned the book, but I am half Dutch so maybe gnomes are in the genes? Plus I lived in Holland in 1976.

    While I don’t have a gnome to speak of, my 28 y/o daughter insisted she wanted an African American gnome for Christmas two years ago. Do you know how hard it is to find one of these?

    Fortunately, a woman on Etsy will paint a gnome any way you want, so that’s where I purchased my daughter’s African American gnome. She was thrilled with it.

  15. Ali M says:

    As a young child, family friends returned from a trip to Germany and they brought me a gnome with a fishing pole to sit near my goldfish pond. It has been almost 60 years and many different homes but I still treasure the gnome and he has “gone fishing” in many different goldfish ponds along the way.

  16. Jean says:

    Oh gosh, someone gave me that book back in the 70s. I have no idea where it is now. At the time I couldn’t really figure out what the deal was with gnomes. Actually, I still can’t.

  17. yolana says:

    I still have this book from back in the day and since watching Gnomeo and Juliet my children have taken to as well. Part of my wants the new one.

  18. I did not realized just how big this whole gnome thing has gotten. This explains why I heard someone lamenting the fact that some ne’er do well had relieved them of their’s. I love to play detective when it comes to crimes of this magnitude, but it’s so hard to control you face when gathering the facts. I also understand that other crime fighters have lost their wits while trying to get inside the mind of a serial gnome thief. Sends chills down my spine just thinking about it.

  19. Sheila says:

    I have the original Huygen and Poortvliet book, too! As a kid, I spent hours studying it and wondering if I’d ever see a gnome in our woods. The book is beautifully (and in some cases, graphically) illustrated and provides wonderful fodder for the imagination.

  20. I want a book on gnomenclature…or is that gnomenculture?

  21. greentail says:

    According to Chuck Sambuchino, “Why do garden gnomes hate us?” is the million-dollar question. I think it is why do people hate garden gnomes. It is kind of like hating Santa Claus. They almost look the same albeit a bit shorter, more likely to be seen when the weather is warmer, and wear different color T shirts.I am not a fan of tacky yard art but I will say it. It is morally wrong to hate a gnome. Don’t put one in your yard if it is not your thing but let them be their jolly little selves.

  22. Pat says:

    Wow those closing lines of your essay – to paraphrase -about the best fruit of human imagination gets mass marketed to replace imagination – is the most beautifully succinct expression of that dilema I’ve ever encountered.

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS