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:

"Sneezewort, Baldmoney, Dodder and Cloudberry are the last four Gnomes in England - possibly of the world, though are part of a wider supernatural community that at one time included Leprechauns, "Elves, Goblins and Hobgoblins [a mischievous domestic fairy], Pixies, Nixies, Sprites, Brownies and Jack-o'-Lanterns or the Lantern-men or [goblins bearing lights]; though the distinction seems vague - it's possible that the gnomes regard all of "the Little People" as their own kin - as Gnomes.

The Gnomes are very long-lived; Dodder is older than the Roman Invasions, while the youngest, Sneezewort is still several-hundred years old. They are highly practical and industrious, sharing a Womble-like ability to recycle and re-purpose castaway items natural (nut husks, snail and mussel shells, small animal hides and bones) and artificial (matchboxes, tins, shotgun cartridge brass); there is the promise at the end of the story that Baldmoney could work out how to repair a broken clockwork boat (he fails in this but makes a perfectly serviceable three-foot glider with the help and expert advice of an owl), but otherwise the more recent fantasy iteration of gnomes as quasi-Steampunk tinkers is absent here. In fact, they have far more in common with the gnomes of Wil Huygen's eponymous seventies bible than the new iteration offered by RPGs and MMORPGs.

They are almost all long-bearded (though Sneezewort is clean-faced), have long, pointed silky ears which move to sounds, and the requisite conical hats - though Watkins-Pitchford renders these blunt and floppy, unlike Huygen's. They are described as "hairy little folk" and go barefoot, and Baldmoney's hands are 'dirty.' Their size varies in illustrations - potentially as large as a squirrel, but otherwise small enough to secret themselves on a large toy boat. They are excellent swimmers, and have the best hearing and sense of smell of all the creatures of the Woods.

The Gnomes swear by the name of and worship Pan (Dodder prays to him), who exists and watches over all of the Wood People and River People, and their stories invoke aspects of folklore - Hobgoblins chasing milking cows out of mischief, flocks of geese are called the Heaven Hounds (c.f Gabriel Ratchets.) A notable Heron is named Herne. Halloween and Midsummer are significant nights in their annual calendar (marked as "cuckoo years"), the former observed because it is a night where, due to superstitious humans, they may walk about freely unmolested. Oak leaves have a significance in this story. Dodder postulates on the existence of a Gnome Heaven.

They also appear to have a visual language, with Cloudberry signing his own name and the date of his passing a landmark in pictographs. They can speak with most animals, and have their own names for some (rabbits are 'Bub'ms', hedgehogs are 'wood pigs' and later 'hedge pigs', foxes 'wood dogs' and Badgers 'fern bears'. A great pike is referred to as a 'shark'). Their diet comes from nature: berries and nuts, fish, shellfish and birds' eggs, but their culture appears to forbid them from hunting and eating warm-blooded creatures - even their mole and mouse-skin clothing comes from already-dead animals.  Dodder makes and stores elderberry wine, they often smoke their fish (minnows, for the most part) and they fashion tobacco from nettles, grass (not that kind!) or wild mint, which they smoke in hazel or chestnut-bowled pipes.

B.B. makes the distinction between his Wood People and fairies, of which he is dismissive: "miniature men and women with ridiculous tinsel wings, doing all sorts of impossible things with flowers and cobwebs. That sort of make-believe is all right for some people, but it won't do for you and me." His gnomes are curious, but self-aware, of the earth and deeply tied to it. Adventures are remarkable things, but like Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, a restless wanderlust is viewed by gnomekind as a very odd thing indeed. In short they are human-like in their qualities, and capable of great changes in manner and motivation (a character change in the second book has fatal - and nearly catastrophic, consequences.)"

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