When I was writing about the history of gnomes I got a bit hung up on the question of what a gnome actually was, specifically ‘Is the gnome of myth and legend, on which the garden gnome is based, a creature or a subset of creatures?’ I have given the matter some thought and I currently lean to the view that it is a subset of creatures that can include goblins, elves, brownies and the like. Let us not lose sight of the fact that gnomes are fictional so if you hold a different view it is just as valid but let me explain why I think as I do.
If you look up gnome in Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature (or just do a search for ‘Gob king of the gnomes’) you will find snippets of a legend of Gob, king of the gnomes who ruled his ‘people’ with a magic sword. These gnome subjects of Gob were also known as goblins for that very reason. Before Gob the word goblin didn’t exist and they were just called gnomes.
To most people brownies are either the female equivalent of the cub scouts or a sort of biscuit, generally containing chocolate, or both. Those of us that are old enough to remember Noddy and Big Ears may possibly remember that Big Ears was also described as a brownie. He was short (roughly the same size as the monkey that would occasionally turn up and cause trouble)and plump and had a white beard and a pointy red hat. If that’s not a gnome I would like to know what is.
Surely I cannot fail to spot the difference between elves (the tall, blond, pointy eared types that were so good at shooting with bows and arrows in lord of the rings and gnomes? Clearly they are not the same thing at all but if you look at the Scandinavian myths of the nisse (in Wikipedia) and the tomte, which later became Santa’s elves, you will see that they looked a good deal more like the gnome we know today. I suspect that the only reason they are not generally depicted sporting white beards and red hats is that Santa claimed first dibs on them.
The ‘what is a gnome’ question is made even messier since the German word for garden gnome is Gartenzwerg and zwerg is generally translated as dwarf.
It is not an issue to get worked up about. If it looks vaguely like a gnome I would be happy to have it in the gnomery and if that includes a few refugees from Santa’s grotto, the odd leprechaun or even Papa Smurf then I’m more than happy to turn a blind eye. If you take a more purest view then obviously that is entirely up to you and you will get no arguments from me.