Gnomes – Review

GNOMES by Wil Huygen. Illus. by Rien Poortvliet (Harry N. Abrams, NY, $17.50)

Locus, Issue 210, Vol. 11, No. 3, April 1978, p. 13.

[Titles are capitalized as Locus was produced on a typewriter; italics were unavailable.]

Strange things have been happening in the world of fantasy. Tolkien’s SILMARILLION and T.H. White’s BOOK OF MERLYN have established themselves on the nation’s best-seller lists. Some lists have also noted a dramatic resurgence of interest in Tolkien’s HOBBIT, stirred by new and excellent illustrated editions. Three fantasy best-sellers must be some kind of record, right?

Well, what about four? GNOMES, an inspired piece of genius assembled by two Dutchmen with unpronounceable names, has been listed as a bestseller on both fiction and non-fiction lists. The recent Christmas blitz saw books being bought in record numbers as gifts, and one of the most popular gifts was GNOMES. This reviewer attempted to purchase a copy as a gift (for himself) ·without success in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Less civilized cities in the US probably faced similar shortages as demand far outstripped supply.

Illustrations are the heart of this work. Poortvliet has filled every page with color portraits, diagrams, and scenes of great beauty, charm, and wit. Gnomes are seen as they work, play, eat, bathe, and sleep. Drawings as vivid as those of Rembrandt (a gnome was once a friend of Rembrandt) or as dreamy as –well , as a dream– are used, each matched exactly to the needs of that particular section. Tiny whimsical details reward the reader with new delights each time he views a picture. The jacket blurb compares the illustrations to those of Audubon, but Audubon was never so much fun.

The written text, though somewhat uneven, is every bit as fascinating as the illustrations. Translation difficulties are apparent in occasional overly-complex sentences, but most of the prose is clear and precise. Huygen, noted only as a “scientist,” has an obvious expertise in biological studies. The casual reader will find himself gently educated on such matters as the fact that a German Shepherd has 220 million ‘sensory smell cells” in its nose. Other subjects, such as gnome use of acupuncture and ‘natural energy”, are treated somewhat vaguely, though only the most callous critic would complain.

One “serious” fault with GNOMES is the lack of any extensive political history of its subject. The authors state that the gnomes they talked to were reluctant to speak of their past, yet the numerous references to the Great People and the Great People’s Migration cry out for amplification. Scholarly readers may also find fault with the lack of a table of contents, index, or bibliography. As there are no page numbers, an index, it is true, would be less than useful.

Another problem, though not really a problem with the book itself, is the manner is which GNOMES is marketed . Some stores carry it (when available) in the children’s section (I’ll bash the first child that touches my copy), and others have it stocked with fiction, humor, and art books. Adding to the confusion is the book jacket, claiming that GNOMES is a “piece of made-up reality.”

Don’t believe it! GNOMES is a reference work, and every gnome I have met refers to it. GNOMES is also a work of art and, though the title page suggests that a large-format paperback may eventually be printed (by Peacock Press/Bantam Books), the hard-cover edition is, even at $17.50, the copy of choice. — Lawrence I. Charters


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