To Gnome is to Love 'Em

Gnomes by Wil Huygen Abrams Artbooks; 212 pp.; $14.95

THE SUCCESS of Randy Newman's "Short People," a musical litany of the faults and failings of shorter folk, reminds us that our country is still overly concerned with physical appearance and height. Sales of platform shoes suggest there are many people out there who wish they were taller. The short man is a popular staple of circus freak shows. Crowds flock to basketball arenas partly to gawk at the scantily-clad seven-foot behemoths lumbering around the court.

Despite the public's curiosity, very few scientific studies of either very short or very tall people have been done. Gnomes, a delightful and wonderfully illustrated treatise on the six-inch people who inhabit forest and field, may help fill that gap.

As the author explains at the book's outset, gnomes are now nearly forgotten beings. Although a few do find their way into the public eye, like MIT's innovative linguist, Gnome Chomsky, or the tiny people who scraped together their life savings to open Gnomon Copy, or the hardy pioneers who founded Gnome, Alaska, most gnomes prefer the quiet life, in tune with Nature and all her creatures. This is why many people have never seen gnomes, and why some people go so far as to doubt the very existence of the little creatures. You might as well ask if Santa is a media myth or if hobbits are for real.

For the uninitiated, a gnome stands a half-foot high, and weighs two-thirds of a pound. He is a nocturnal person who wears a long, pointed cap on his head at all times. Gnomes mostly inhabit Europe, Siberia, and North America, and a few have even been sighted in the Harvard College Government Department. They are most assuredly not to be confused with trolls, dwarves, elves, goblins, gremlins or wood nymphs.

Gnomes, translated from its original Dutch and marketed in the U.S. in time for the lucrative pre-Christmas gift-book-buying season, is the culmination of almost twenty years of field study and interviews of gnomes by author Huygen and illustrator Rien Poortvliet. Gnomes is written in the manner of an Audubon book about a newly-discovered bird species, and it describes in detail the physiology, folkways, legends, industries and daily routines of the wee folk. Although the book concentrates mostly on the red-capped woodland variety of gnome, other gnome species, like the barn, dune, and Siberian gnomes, find their way into the text.

Besides their stature, gnomes have several other qualities that set them apart from their larger cousins, human beings. They live to the ripe old age of 400 years, and they have never even heard of Dannon yogurt. They also see and hear better, run faster, and are smarter than humans. It is clear Huygen wishes he were born a gnome instead of a Dutchman.

After a century or so of life, the young male gnome begins dreaming of finding a gnome just like the gnome who married dear old dad. After building a home for his family-to-be in the roots of a large tree, the male asks the father of the blushing, young and preferably plump maiden for his daughter's hand in marriage. Gnomes enjoy a stable home life, with twin baby gnomes soon coming to the young couple. There are no problems of women's liberation for the gnomes--mother, father and the little gnomes all have their roles to play and they play them without question or rebellion. While the head of the household goes out to bring home the bacon (only figuratively so, because gnomes are strict vegetarians), his wife stays home and does housework.

But Gnomes, for all its early promise and despite the nearly universal "Gee, aren't they cute" feeling it engenders in the hearts of bookstore browsers, begins to grow dull. The humorous and whimsical passages begin to get lost in the voluminous survey of gnomelife. Does anybody really care how gnomes make candles or what they fill their little stomachs with at breakfast? Alas, like the book's subjects, attention span is short, and the reader begins to grow weary of Gnomes.

But fear not, for author Huygen seems to have calculated his readers' tolerancelevels for triviata, and before all is lost he serves up the good stuff--how gnomes get along with animals and with other little people.

Gnomes, it seems, have mastered medical techniques that equal or surpass' Western medicine. Gnomes feed and care for wounded or abandoned small animals, and in return for these small favors rabbits and birds and even elk will help gnomes when they are in trouble.

Not all creatures are so amiable. Goblins, those foot-high fiends of the forest, and house ghosts are obnoxious and troublesome. But the real threat to gnomes comes from the troll--a disgusting, hairy and unkempt Northern European dolt who gets his jollies by keeping his gnomes to the grindstones and by lighting a gnome on fire and then playing hot potato with him. Gnomes are for whom the troll yells, so to speak.

If Gnomes, this sort of short people's Roots, ended here it would leave the reader wondering what all the fuss is about. Sure, little bearded men gamboling through the glades are cute, (bordering on the too-cute), but why would a grown man spend all that time and effort writing about not-so-full-grown people, especially when Tolkien and his hobbit horde seem to have preempted the field? Ignoring possible monetary reasons, it seems Huygen is trying to tell us something here. By attributing to gnomes a host of qualities he sees as lacking in human beings, like peacefulness and non-competitiveness, Huygen is holding the wee folk up to us as a moral example.

But Huygen is not content to rest on subtlety and understatement, so he adds a final chapter to Gnomes that explicitly makes his point. In so doing he bludgeons us over the head with a simplistic sermon on "What We Should Learn From Gnomes." After reciting the familiar litany of human failings--wars, pollution, exploitation, violence, the gnome narrator concludes:

You can, of course, pretend to be lords and masters of creation, but that is no reason to carry on like beasts--though a beast would behave less callously. Our relation with the earth rests on harmony, yours rests on abuse--abuse of living and dead matter.

It sounds like an unabashed promo for E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, and it is annoying and irrelevant. Gnomes is fun to glance through in a bookstore, and has great pictures, but the story itself is short on substance. In fact, Poortvliet's wonderful illustrations (the dust-jacket informs us that he is Holland's most popular illustrator) dwarf the text. Gnomes might be a great gift book when Easter rolls around, but unless you have $15 to burn, sit tight and wait for the paperback version. Gnomes has great promise, but simply comes up short.