Home sweet gnome

The Skeptic, 7.2

If I were a garden gnome, I am not sure I would like to be referred to as `an item of garden furniture'. But this is, it appears, the correct police terminology. Detective Inspector Gordon Mutch of Didsbury CID, Manchester, recently appealed to the local community to keep a keen eye on their `garden furniture' in the wake of a startling increase in gnome-napping. As a local newspaper put it: `Gnomes roam from homes'. Apparently, someone, or something, is prowling around the streets of Manchester stealing garden gnomes. Trying to fathom the motive for such activity is hard, but certainly no harder than worrying about why people have them in their gardens in the first place.

Gnomes, elves, fairies, goblins - collectively `The little people' - have an important place in European folklore. Not so long ago, it was common in some districts for people to leave saucers of milk outside their doors for the fairy people. Consider the vast number of people who wished to believe in the ridiculous Cottingley Fairies hoax. But if there is a direct link from the suburban garden gnome to the folklore of the little people, then we have an interesting reversal here; traditionally, it is the little people that do the kidnapping.

Folktales tell of the little people and fairies abducting a human child, leaving a fairy child in its place. And adults too: Robert Cook, a 17th century Scottish clergyman and author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies was commonly believed not to have died a natural death, but to have been abducted by the little people and held under a fairy hill. There are stories of the little people abducting human midwives, to assist at the birth of fairy-human hybrids. If a human entered a fairy hill, or an underground lair, their sense of time would be distorted. These are, of course, exactly the same ideas as we see in the reports of modern UFO abductions. I don't believe in either as physical reality, but I do believe in both as genuine folk beliefs worth investigation.

To discover the basis for these motifs is hard. We might ask whether there were at some point in our history real `little people', perhaps a result of tribal in-breeding. There is some historical evidence for believing that such groups did exist. One example is the `trows', the fairy people from the Shetland Islands, who are said to have been forced by a preacher to flee to the Faroes. Indeed, one of the islands off the Shetlands is called The Little Isle of Pygmies. Perhaps we are seeing in the abduction of the garden gnomes a kind of `folk revenge' for the long history of fairy abductions!

More likely is that the phenomenon has a lot in common with crop-circle hoaxing. As Robin Allen makes clear elsewhere in this issue, it is now widely accepted that the vast majority of crop circles are the work of intelligences which are firmly terrestrial in nature. Still, the question of who is responsible, and what their personal motives are, remains largely unanswered. I favour two parallel explanations: serious conceptual artists, who discuss the matter gravely over their cappuccinos, and others who simply do it for fun after a few beers. I would guess that the latter far outweigh the former (physically, as well as numerically).

My guess is that it is the Booze `n' Roller brigade who are terrorising gnomeowners. Rather like an extended April Fool's joke, the gnomes disappear, and in subsequent weeks the owners receive postcards from the little people, postmarked from all over the world. Sometimes, the gnome comes home, usually altered in some way, such as the aquisition of a sun tan achieved with a liberal application of boot polish, or holding a little suitcase. The logistics involved are obviously not straightforward. Who has the freedom to carry a gnome around the world, visiting exotic spots and sending postcards back? One serious suggestion is oil-rig workers, who freelance around the world's rigs and have time on their hands. Maybe. Some people do have strange hobbies. I certainly do.

My favourite gnome abduction story is told by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his most recent collection of urban folklore Curses! Broiled again! (Norton, 1990). In Australia, garden gnomes started disappearing from one particular neighbourhood on a large scale. They were found in a clearing in the bush months later, where they were all gathered around the largest gnome, having a meeting. A committee meeting of the Gnome Office, no doubt. (Sorry.)


©Toby Howard 1995

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