“Trust not in Sprites nor the motivations of a Gnome.” ― Jefferson Smith,
Across the fantasy genre, both in games and in other media, there have always been a number of reliable, if trope-worthy, fantasy staples, especially when it comes to the races and peoples that populate the world and constitute our cast:
- The stalwart dwarves, content in their mountain strongholds, honor their clans and their people through wondrous craftsmanship and stunning treasure. And when danger calls, their hammers and axes are never far from their reach.
- There are the forest-walking, bow-toting elves, sworn enemies of the nebulous Evil Darkness that threatens the world. They make their homes in places as ancient and secluded as their inner thoughts.
- Ambitious humanity, whose young kingdoms sprawl across the world. Humans are full of limitless potential, but they are also as corruptible as they are good. The next age will surely be theirs, but can they be the stewards of their own future?
- The content and peace-loving halflings. Though they may be small, their hearts are large, and when called upon they will leave their idyllic rural lands to show that great things can come in small sizes.
And then there are gnomes, which are sort of related to dwarves, but have more in common with the fey because they can do magic. Except for the ones that are more like dwarves. Also, some of them are inventors? They live underground, mostly. Or in cities? A bunch of them travel, too, I guess, but there are rural communities to account for. If you want a solid identifier for gnomes it’s that they all like pranks and practical jokes. But a lot of them don’t, actually. Listen, stop trying to put gnomes in a box.
The point is that gnomes, although they have been around for a long time, do not have much of a static identity across the different mythologies of the fantasy genre. And while it’s true that variation exists among other fantasy races, such as elves and dwarves, gnomes are by far the most confusing race of contemporary fantasy.
Even so-called iconic depictions of gnomes — from the title-character of Willow, to Scanlan and Pike of Critical Roll — are at odds with one another in terms of culture, attitude, and ability.
Comparing gnomes from two different fantasy universes shows a host of differences in mythology, attitude, and attributes, differences that are irreconcilable with one another at times. These disparities, the lack of a “Gnome Standard” if you will, has made it difficult for me to take gnomes seriously, or to integrate them into my storytelling.
Which is why I set myself to the task, answering a single question:
What the hell is a gnome?
According to the original mythology, gnomes were pest-like, combative, greedy offshoots of dwarves, that dwelled in the earth and shared their cousins’ love of treasure. Little was done in Renaissance writings to change or add to the mythology of the gnome, and instead the name became synonymous with dwarves and domestic spirits of mythology. Presumably, it is this muddling of the term that contributed to the many wild variations of gnomes in contemporary fantasy.
L. Frank Baum’s “Nomes” and J.K. Rowling’s garden gnomes remain the most true to the original mythology. In the Potterverse created by J.K. Rowling, gnomes are pests routinely thrown out of gardens. Baum’s nomes are at least regarded as sapient, though they are mean-spirited and greedy creatures. Arguably, the gnomes of the Shannara world can be put in the same category, as they are relatively short, combative, and easily corruptible in the canon of Terry Brooks’s world.
J.R.R. Tolkien is apparently the first writer to explore the idea of the gnomish-inventor when he created a race of technologically minded elves. No, you read that right, I said “elves,” not “gnomes.” Because, in Tolkien’s world, “gnome” translates to “those with knowledge,” which refers to a certain group of elves otherwise known as the Noldor. The Noldor were proud, inventive, cunning, prone to violence, and lived in subterranean and mountain strongholds. Presumably, the Noldor served as inspiration for the Dwemer of the Elder Scrolls universe, as the two have many parallels.
So far, even with such polar examples as Rowling’s pest-gnomes and Tolkien’s paragon-elf-gnomes, we’re getting some pretty distinct attributes: vain, violent, earth-dwelling, and corruptible creatures, perhaps reminiscent of dwarves. However, we have yet to scratch the surface of gnome depictions in role-playing games.
In Dungeons & Dragons gnomes were introduced as an alternative to other fantasy races, particularly halflings and dwarves, with which they had the most in common. However, halflings and dwarves both already filled the niche gameplay roles of warrior and rogue, and so, in order to make gnomes a viable choice for players, they were given a propensity for magic.
From there gnomes exploded in every possible creative direction, inspired by the different depictions of gnomes in fiction and from their muddled mythology: There were somber, dwarf-like gnomes; reclusive, pacifist halfling-esque gnomes; gnomes with elvish tendencies that communed with nature. Perhaps familiar to most gamers and fantasy lovers are the machine-loving gnomish tinkers of the Dragonlance and later Warcraft worlds. It is insisted that the one consistent quality among all these iterations of gnomes was their boundless sense of humor, their optimism, and love of pranks. However, even that quality feels forced and unnatural when blanketed across all varieties of gnomes, such as the shy, reclusive forest gnomes. The only time this quality really works is with the original Rock or Tinker gnomes as it is consistent with the description of their culture, instead of being liberally painted over an altogether different kind of personality.
Looking at the host of gnome variants from modern RPGs, it is easy to see why incorporating them into one’s game is difficult. On the surface, they have a grab-bag of different qualities: Dwarfish, hardy, tricksome, magical, fey, reclusive, outgoing, inventive, and comedic all rolled into one hodge-podge of very different folks.
But a closer assessment reveals what actually works out of this confused pile: magical, inventive, fun-loving, and passionate. Wildly different than the gnomes before D&D to be sure, more akin to the dwarves and domestic spirits that their name became synonymous with, but certainly a viable new member of most fantasy communities.
So now we have two distinct brands of gnome to choose from:
Vain, violent, dark, and corruptible gnomes, or
Magical, inventive, happy prankster gnomes.
So which one do we choose from? Do we want dark gnomes, or tinker gnomes? And, regardless of which one we choose, how do we integrate their culture and identity into the fantasy world? Where, exactly, is the niche for gnomes, even when they are done right? All of these and more will be addressed in Gnomes, The Odd Cousin Out (Part Two).