Know Your Gnomes

I’ve been looking into the portrayal of various mythical peoples in works of fiction, and it seems to me that some are much better defined than others. I asked earlier today on Twitter and Facebook what people thought of when they heard the names of fantastic beings, and while I don’t think I phrased the question very well, I did notice certain sources cropping up quite frequently. For instance, so much fantasy these days has obvious inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien, and his Elves and Dwarves have become fairly standard.

Dungeons & Dragons was also a major influence on fantasy, and much of its mythology was taken almost wholesale from Tolkien, although there were certainly plenty of other sources consulted as well. The basic idea of the dwarf as a bearded miner or craftsman is attested to by Tolkien, D&D, Disney, and collections of classic fairy tales, among others. With other sorts of beings, though, not only are there different conflicting versions of what one looks and acts like, but the terms are often used very loosely anyway. I’ve mentioned before that elves and fairies were basically seen as the same thing by some prominent English writers, and both have been portrayed at various times as human-sized and tiny, serious and flighty, noble and malicious.

Fairies play a major role in L. Frank Baum’s fiction, although none appeared in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and that’s the only Baum story that the general population tends to know. I find it interesting that Baum wrote around the same time as J.M. Barrie, and their fairies are pretty much complete opposites.

Barrie’s fairies (hey, I’m a poet and wasn’t aware of the fact), as exemplified by Tinker Bell, are tiny, only capable of one extreme emotion at a time, and short-lived.

Baum’s are immortal, the same size as humans, and generally powerful and intelligent. Even Polychrome, who spends her first appearance in The Road to Oz primarily just dancing around, displays her wisdom and magical power in later books.

In some ways, they’re sort of like Tolkien’s Elves, if somewhat more humorous. The thing is, both authors were drawing on earlier traditions; it’s just that these traditions were often vague and contradictory. From what I understand, Tolkien never liked the tiny winged fairies, but he was known to occasionally use the term “Faerie” to refer to magical beings in general.

Goblins are another group that aren’t defined all that well, although there seems to be a general consensus that they’re not going to win any beauty contests. Well, some people might think differently of David Bowie’s Goblin King in Labyrinth, but you’ll notice that he didn’t look anything like his subjects.

In the Xanth books, male goblins are ugly and nasty, but females can actually be attractive and kindly. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin makes the goblin antagonists the descendants of humans who lived underground, who became deformed over the generations.

Picture by P.J. Lynch
Tolkien has said that his goblins, which he more frequently called Orcs, were largely based on MacDonald’s. For that matter, the goblins’ habit of kidnapping surface dwellers might have been influential on Baum’s Nomes.


Despite the spelling, which was allegedly to make the word easier for children to pronounce, Baum’s Nomes were traditional in many ways. The term “gnome” is much newer than some of these others, known to date back only as far as the sixteenth century. Paracelsus coined the term and introduced them as earth elementals. In nineteenth-century lore, they came to be known for their particular fondness for gems and treasure, much as dwarves are in Germanic tales. Baum kept this characterization for his work, although it’s not entirely clear what the Nomes actually do. We know them to be miners and metal-workers, but Ozma suggests that they MAKE metal and precious stones, while other books just show them digging these things out of the ground and working with them. The description in Rinkitink identifies the Nomes as “constantly digging up gold in one place and taking it to another place, where they secretly bury it.” What is consistent is that the Nome King is driven to anger whenever the surface dwellers dig up jewels and precious metals for their own use, considering them his property. This is despite the fact that such things are so common in the Nome Kingdom that chairs can be made out of enormous rubies and diamonds.

The Nomes would have seen the Arkenstone from The Hobbit as a tiny, practically worthless bauble. Baum describes the Nomes in Emerald City as “rather round and not very tall,” but doesn’t specify an average height as far as I can remember. In Kabumpo, Ruth Plumly Thompson describes the former Nome King as small enough to sit in a doll’s rocker and dwarfed by a doll that had grown to four feet tall, but in Pirates he’s four feet tall himself. In fact, Thompson gives a bit of a quiet retcon to Ruggedo’s cave beneath Ozma’s palace in Wishing Horse, with Matiah finding full-size furniture down there. Sherwood Smith’s Oz books tell us that Nomes are capable of rearranging rock, probably a reference to how Paracelsus said gnomes could move through earth as we do through air. They also contain references to female Nomes, who never appeared in the Famous Forty.


Gnomes also play a role in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, which describes them as follows: “They were of all sizes, from little gnomes barely a foot high to stately figures taller than men. All carried three-pronged spears in their hands, and all were dreadfully pale, and all stood as still as statues. Apart from that, they were very different; some had tails and others not, some wore great beards and others had very round, smooth faces, big as pumpkins. There were long, pointed noses, and long, soft noses like small trunks, and great blobby noses. Several had single horns in the middle of their foreheads.” They come from Bism, the Really Deep Land below the Narnian world, where gems are alive and can be eaten. There’s also a river of fire in which eloquent salamanders live. Tolkien originally referred to his Noldor, or Deep-Elves, as Gnomes, although he later dropped the association.

Still, since they were known for making crafts with metals and gems, including the Silmarils, there’s a definite similarity to these other gnomes. D&D appears to have kept some of the traditional traits of gnomes and added new ones, with their representatives of this group being about three feet tall and masters of gem-working, but also known for their skills in the arts and illusions.

As for garden gnomes, they seem to date back as far as the seventeenth century, but nobody actually CALLED them gnomes until the 1930s. That’s what Wikipedia says, anyway. When you think about it, why would underground dwellers hang out in gardens?

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This entry was posted in Authors, British, C.S. Lewis, Characters, Chronicles of Narnia, Fairy Tales, Games, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Monsters, Mythology, Norse, Oz, Oz Authors, Piers Anthony, Ruth Plumly Thompson, Xanth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Know Your Gnomes

  1. Joe says:

    Good article! From an in-universe perspective, in terms of my work combining the various fantasy works, I personally dismiss any story that portrays fairies in their Victorian incarnation (as diminutive tinkerbell types), particularly if they’re silly and childish, though some of them can be said to be one of many kinds of fairies. With the (G)nomes, there appears to be far more congruity (not counting garden gnomes), though it seems to me that they’re different branches that became isolated over time and distinct from one another.

    • Nathan says:

      I do think some fairies might be capable of changing size. We know from one of Baum’s short stories that Ryls are capable of this, anyway.

      • Joe says:

        Good point, and thiscould account for the smaller variety. (Sadly, too many Victorian-era stories about diminutive fairies have little to recommend them in terms of plot.)

  2. Pingback: Fairy Families | VoVatia

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