Friday, March 18, 2016


I have a guilty secret. I think my favourite season might be Autumn. This, I suspect, would not go down well chez Simian, as my wife is an avowed lover of the summer and dislikes winter with a pathological enthusiasm. Similarly Jet Jr will happily bask in the sun on our back deck when the weathers good.

Winter's fine by me - I have a July birthday and for me the season is all about hearty meals, open fires, grey outdoors and indoor comfort; a modern sentiment based on primal needs. But Autumn - ahh, now that's different because it's al about the anticipation of winter, and like spring it's a miraculous season being a transitional one. Our alleged control over daylight hours slips and the mornings and evenings draw in, shadows grow long and lean as the sun sits low on the horizon, and sunlight acquires a watery aspect, as though filtered through smoky glass. Sure, the washing takes longer to dry on the clothes line, but this year has enjoyed a prolonged Indian summer - a period of clement, even quite hot weather that is long-staying but not quite endless, broken by hints of cooler days to come. I've given this time of the year 'Sortumn' - sort of summer, sort of Autumn.

The other great thing about this time of the year is the discovery that like Halloween we've actually got the good deal with regards to Easter in the Southern Hemisphere. If you ignore the near-certainty of crap weather over the long weekend and of course the northern Spring associations of new chicks and rabbit eggs and what have you, there's really no better time of the year to enjoy a good buttery spicy  hot crossed bun than Autumn.

Autumn gets a bad rap. It's a season of promise for the prepared, the self-sufficient, a tap on the shoulder for DIY and outdoor house maintenance. In the weeks to come the lead mountain within the Monkeyhouse will be eyed up for winter modelling and painting, and a new indoor ascent will be planned up its precipitous slopes. Outside the town belt is turning a golden amber, and branches are fingering their way into the fading light. Sure, there's a bit of work to tame the garden and patch up some weatherboards before winter arrives - but who wants to think that far ahead? Autumn's here to be enjoyed!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Gnome Country - the novels of 'B.B.'

For a number of years I carried the memory of a show I watched as a young Simian after school. One was about three boys who went bush in the English countryside and had a distinctive piping theme tune. The other was a words and pictures tale of some little folk who went looking for one of their number called Cloudberry. Both eluded me for ages until I recently did the sensible thing and turned to Google. As it turned out, both series - respectively Brendan Chase and Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry were connected through their author/illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the nom de plume 'B.B' (after the air rifle pellet and not an abbreviation of Bilbo Baggins.) No wonder I'd had difficult searching them out.

B.B. seems to have belonged to a specific generation of British writers who, affected by the changing landscape of post Industrial Revolution England turned their concern for the disappearing landscape into children's writing. If it's possible to draw a line from Tolkien to Richard Adams then that same line must pass through BB, whose stories are imbued with woodlands nostalgia.

In The Little Grey Men (1942) and its sequel Down the Bright Stream (1948) B.B. uses his gnome protagonists as vessels of concern as in both stories they traverse the waterways and woodlands of a changing countryside in search of their brother and, later, a new home  (the second tale has some kinship with Adams' Watership Down) these gnomes - Dodder, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Cloudberry are the last of their kind, dwellers in a world of talking animals and where man is at best a blundering fool, at worst a monster. It's written well in a naive style akin to Tolkien's Hobbit, but with some of the attendant sexism and xenophobia of the age. Nevertheless, for the most part the gnomes are well characterised, with Dodder in particular developing between the books in an arc worthy of a Baggins.

I found the books affecting - not quite as epic in scope or dour as Watership Down, but very charming and highly readable. Watkins-Pitchford effectively captures a world in macrocosm, with a population and sense of community, but devoid of politics or human concerns. Don't be fooled though - there's a darkness in these books including treachery, cruelty and murder. Cast members die in natural and unnatural ways, and though the face of God isn't present in B.B.'s woodland, the great god Pan is, in a striking and surreal chapter which precipitates some remarkable character turns among the gnomes. Similarly in Bright Stream the growing sinister truth about one of their number leads to a genuinely tense chapter of skullduggery and truly natural justice. All the while Watkins-Pitchford's  distinctive writing elegises the loss of the gnomes world, a quiet voice in the wilderness. And his illustrations are gorgeous.

The takeaway for me, as mentioned in my earlier post, is in the nature of the gnomes themselves. Here B.B imbues them as spokemen of a vanishing natural world, dodging beasts and men, habitat destruction, and even after the fires and noises of the Blitz are heard but not entirely fathomed by them on their last great journey, ultimately abandoning England for a home of older myth and safer refuge. There's much in keeping with the Seventies version of Huygen's text - and in fact, given that B.B's works concern themselves chiefly with the last gnomes of England,  they needn't be mutually exclusive. I believe there's a place for this version of the Gnome in a modern RPG - and in fact, there already is, in the independent RPG Tales from the Wood, and it's in my next post that I'll turn to this.

In the mean-time, I made some notes based on the gnomes and their world for anyone interested below:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Gnome Maintenance

Recently I've been thinking about Gnomes. I confess, I've been feeling a little guilty about them.

 For a number of years I've thought on and off about the place of these little guys in the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and why in its Basic form they never distiguished themselves enough to be Player Characters. Sure, they're there among the Monsters in Mentzer's red box, and in the Moldvay Expert Set a floorplan of a Gnome lair appears, but by and large I suspect that early players just treated them as I and my friends did when we played - easy Experience Points. Kill them all!!! After I stopped playing of course the Companion module Earthshaker! came out, and then the supplement Top Ballista!, but these were, to my mind, mid-edition AD&D Gnomes retro-fitted in.

In D&D's Basic rules, Gnomes are NPC characters at best. They have an entry among the other 'Monsters' in the red box DM's Guide - and that's pretty much it. Cross over to the various versions of AD&D however, and it's a different story. For whatever reason the Gnome was abandoned in the Moldvaying and Mentzerising of the core game (fellow casualty races of course include the Half-Orc and Half-Elf), the race gets something of an on-going revision within the various iterations of the 'Advanced' game. First edition casts them as Halfling-sized Dwarf variants with similar attributes and an enmity with Kobolds (this is the version translated over to Moldvay/Mentzer); and as the game gets older the Gnome derives its own variants - Rock, Deep, Forest, and so forth. Originally given the option of an Illusionist specialty, Gnomes are later cast as Bards (another unloved and un-developed character class) and by 4th and 5th edition Gnomes really come into their own as tinkerers and tricksters - crazy inventors with a love of mischief.

I can't say I'm mad about the idea of Gnomes being cast so much along personality, particularly a personality almost purpose-built to irritate the hell out of fellow players or unbalance your campaign world with quasi high-tech. Indeed, I've heard of some groups who mutually have decided to just not include Gnomes for that reason.

Back in Basic-land I guess for purists the temptation in bringing the Gnome in as a Player Character is to adopt the D&D version - but even that has its critics. The popular argument goes: why use a Gnome when you could use a Dwarf? They generally live in the same areas, have similar cultures and a weakness of underground treasures. Or why not just use a Halfling, if you're after a diminutive Thief? There is of course the Illusionist class type to be imported - but a combination of magic and fighting ability in Basic is the domain of Elves; and a potentially weak fighter with a less-offensive array of spells may not have much going for it for players. So what then?

I believe the problem with the shifting niche of Gnomes is that they apparently lack a clear literary or mythological archetype. Gnomes in culture go only as far back as Paracelsus and the 16th century, and have no mythological or folklore precedent, which may be why they are often switched for Dwarfs (or dwarfs) in stories. The original Gnome is a theoretical earth elemental, but with more description becomes... a Dwarf with the registration number filed off. But what about in literature?

Ask anyone who lived through the Seventies about books with Gnomes in them and they may well recall Will Huygen's Gnomes(1974), the twentieth-century imprimatur that put the Gnome - pointed hat, jolly face, fulsome beard, well and truly in the public consciousness. If your common or garden Gnome wasn't already, well, a garden gnome, then this book would do little to change that.

But there is another literary precedent to the Gnome, and one that pre-dates Huygen's field guide by nearly three decades. 'B.B.''s The Little Grey Men and its sequel Down the Bright Stream* posits the adventures of the last four Gnomes in Britain, and places the race firmly in the woods as one of Pan's people (don't laugh). For all of that, however, 'B.B.' and Huygen seem to have seized on the Gnome in a smiliar fashion - they are guardians of the earth, forest-dwellers, and immensely practical, without recourse to tinkering with large-scale machinery (there are exceptions, but they are clearly not the rule).

The up-shot of this is that I think I've found a decent niche for the Gnome in a Basic D&D setting, and one which is rigid enough to avoid the overlap with the game's two other dimunitive PC races. Having read both Huygen's book and B.B.'s two novels, I considered the woodland guardian element of these texts and thought that with a brace of Druid spells one could effectively accommodate the race without too much hard work. That did do for my other idea of swapping Magic User spell sets for Elves with Druid spells, though. And in the end, I didn't want to do that. So my Gnomes are not especially magical - just like the literary ones, but they retain their woodland expertise, loyalties and preternatural identity. Rather than making them Druids I seem to be casting the Gnome as a Race-As-Class Ranger. And I think I'm pretty happy with that!

[Insert obligatory video. NO, no that one**]
[* Blogger's note: 'B.B' was the nom de plume of D. J Watkins-Pitchford, who also provided the wonderful illustrations - painting, etchings and line art, in both volumes. The name was apparently taken from the ball-bearing gun pellet and wasn't, as my thirteen-year-old self assumed, a cash-in on the name Bilbo Baggins]

[** This song's nomination is more apposite than you may think, as Syd Barrett was a huge fan of the books and the writer, a quote from the first book was read at Barrett's funeral]