The Legend of the Garden Gnome

Arthur, meet my great readers.

Arthur, meet my great readers.

Dear Readers,

I'd like to introduce you to Arthur, the latest addition to our family. Naturally, I'm delighted to have him: he joins a host of other critters who've turned up on our tiny patio since I've started growing herbs in pots this summer. So far, I've spotted black & yellow mud dauber wasps, a toad, numerous spiders, and a lizard in my little garden.

Are gnomes just friendly plastic figurines...or could there be more to the story?  According to one source I found,  

The gnome is a class of legendary creatures throughout Europe and, by cultural transfer, in the United States that has taken on many different meanings, but most generally refers to very small people, often men, that live in dark places, especially underground, in the depths of forests, or more recently in gardens.
— New World Encyclopedia

Gnomes, whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning "earth-dweller," have made appearances in literature throughout the centuries.  They show up as early as the 16th century in the essay A Book On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies,and Salamanders by surgeon and Renaissance man Paracelsus, a Swiss contemporary of Martin Luther.  Paracelsus basically did for modern medicine what Luther did for religion: he is quoted as once saying,

I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.

Paracelsus was one of the first of his day to present his medical lectures in German, instead of the traditional Latin, arguing that this made it more accessible to the people.  (Anyone who's ever studied Latin may well agree--aggravating language, that.)  His pioneering work in medicine and philosophy later served as a great inspiration to his fellow Swiss, Carl Jung.  That such a thoroughly scientific man would contemplate belief in pygmies, or gnomes, is astounding in and of itself, even in an age of profound superstition.  

In 1837, gnomes pop up in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (the title of which borrows from Shakespeare's line, "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man"), when he writes of one "ugly enough to be king of the gnomes."  

By 1900, gnomes (also called "nomes" by the author) were starring in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as in his subsequent works.  By 1927, continuing the work of Baum, Ruth Plumly Thompson had given them their own book, The Gnome King of Oz.  You'll notice from a glance at the original cover art of this book that my dear little Arthur looks nothing like his grizzled, scary-looking predecessor.  

Gnomes get to lend a hand helping Santa in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Father Christmas Letters, penned between 1920 and 1942 for the author's children. Unlike what you'd expect, however, these gnomes help out in the fight against goblins (as opposed to handing out presents.)  Pretty good, for little guys.

More recently, gnomes have made waves in the disturbing book How To Survive A Garden Gnome Attack:

Shown above are some implements an attacking garden gnome might use.

Not really the good-guy gnomes of J.R.R. Tolkien now, are they?  Let's hope Arthur doesn't join the dark side one day.  

In the meantime, I'm keeping him out of the kitchen.  Fortunately, Arthur seems to have more of a literary bent: he's been lobbying (on an almost daily basis) to contribute to the blog.  He has even suggested a new name: Four Gnomes In The Kitchen (no WAY am I letting him near the kitchen, not after reading the book shown above).  I've relented enough to allow him to contribute guest posts about gardening to my every-other-Saturday-morning newsletters, which you can sign up for here.

We'll see if he knows his garden stuff.  Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go lock up the knives.

Yours Truly,

Sarah