Are gnomes the new vampires and fairies the new witches? And where do zombies fit in? For the most part, I accept with resignation the abundant presence of supernatural creatures in the worlds of literature and pop culture. Personally, I’d rather be entertained by more-or-less real people doing more-or-less real things. But there is no question that the Harry Potter, Twilight, Wicked and LOTR franchises are huge, and drag a flotilla of lesser-known fantastic inventions behind them.

Read the last Garden Rant on Cooking with Madhur Jaffrey at Kirkus.

The gnome phenomenon is part of a strange assortment of otherworldly creations that have intermittently caught the public’s fancy over the past few decades (remember troll dolls?). Normally, I wouldn’t think too much about them; that is, if not for their longstanding connection with the world of garden decor, and the recent release of several gnome-related books.

Although Chuck Sambuchino’s How to Survive a Gnome Attack (Ten Speed Press, 2010) has probably gotten the most attention, especially now that it is soon to be—yes—an R-rated movie, a classier option might be Gnomes, from Abrams. The artbook publishing house has just released this as the ultimate gnome coffee table tome. Packaged with eight frameable prints, it is actually a rerelease of a 1976 Dutch book with text by Wil Huygen and illustrations by Rein Poortvliet. 

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Both Huygen and Poortvliet have since died, which adds to the heirloom quality of the gnome lore, legends and tall tales here, pulled together beautifully by Poortvliet’s drawings and paintings. The Dutch artist was a masterful wildlife painter, and the best illustrations in the book show gnomes interacting with other woodland creatures like foxes, birds and rabbits. As for the text, the nine legends that close the book are probably the most rewarding reading, with the rest of Gnomes largely devoted to illustrated descriptive matter like the following:

The gnome’s life-span is around 400 years. They lead healthy lives. They don’t eat too much, have few emotional problems, and get plenty of exercise. They do indulge in pipe-smoking and do not shun mildly alcoholic drinks!

If you know someone with a yen for gnomes—and I am sure you do—this would be the book to give them, especially with the prints as a bonus. It’s not nearly as silly as the gnome survival book and would certainly take longer to read. However, talk of the merits of gnome books sidesteps the real issue. A book can be shelved, a movie can be watched and forgotten, but the very real presence of plaster, resin or plastic gnomes as semi-permanent features in gardens is another matter altogether.

For decades, gnomes have been a very common feature in British gardens, so much so that many should really be called gnome enclosures, as they contain very little in the way of plant life (see example above). The more I hear about gnome books and movies Stateside, the more I wonder if scenes like this will become as common in the U.S. as they are in the U.K. (There is already a gnome liberation movement—freethegnomes.com—which, ironically if unsurprisingly, has Google ads offering gnomes for sale on its front page.) While I appreciate that gnome lore has centuries behind it, its contemporary manifestation ultimately takes an all-too-common form—boatloads of mass-produced crap that can’t be composted and is seldom reused. Garden objects like gnomes all too often offered by garden centers as “focal points” that take the place of real design.

It’s an interesting paradox: the most fanciful products of the human imagination are marketed to consumers as a way to replace imagination. Next month: fairies.

Photograph by Elizabeth Licata.

Elizabeth Licata has been working as a professional journalist for over 20 years and is one of four bloggers at Garden Rant now contributing regularly to Kirkus. Her writing on the arts has been published in the Village Voice, the Buffalo News, Art in America, Art & Antiques and many other publications. Her writing on gardening has been published in Horticulture magazine and her blogs, the award-winning Garden Rant and her own blog Gardening While Intoxicated. Licata is the author of the book Garden Walk Buffalo and is the editor-in-chief of Buffalo Spree, Buffalo’s city/regional glossy.