Claustrophobia! – A Short History of Gnomes

Two weeks ago I released Claustrophobia!, the game of gnomish insanity that’s currently in play testing until the end of July 2012. Since writing the game I’ve been thinking back on how gnomes became a part of my life, and indeed Western culture. Gnomes have enjoyed different levels of popularity throughout the ages. Nowadays gnomes even embrace elements of geek culture, as last week’s collection of gnomes illustrates. But what exactly are gnomes, and just how did they become so popular?

Gnomes and The Garden Variety

Gnomes have been a part of Western mythology since at least the Renaissance, possibly longer. A dude named Paracelsus is credited with coining the term “gnome”, as well as  the origin of the word “bombastic”, according to Wikipedia. He described gnomes as a type of earth elemental, which is quite interesting to me since Claustrophobia! features both gnomes and elementals – talk about keeping it in the family. Over time the description of gnomes changed too, according to the needs of different writers. Thus gnomes have at times been synonymous with elves, goblins, dwarves, fairies and kobolds, to name but a few. Generally speaking, gnomes are attached to the earth in some form, either living underground or as forest folk. Gnomes are usually small in size and generally range from being awfully ugly to childlike in appearance, or more commonly as little old men and women.

Garden gnomes are, in a sense, one breed of gnome. Garden gnomes, it seems, also appeared during the Renaissance, which should at least refute claims that gnomes are kitsch. And while I’m sure Leo da Vinci owned his own collection of little pointy hatted folk, it appears there was more to gnomes than simply adding to a garden’s aesthetic. Garden gnomes were said to protect gardens from evil sorcery and gnomes with red hats supposedly helped out in the garden at night.

Gnomes have truly enjoyed a corner of Popular Culture, including supporting roles on Invader Zim, the gnome movie Gnomeo & Juliet and in that staple of geek culture: Dungeons and Dragons. Many other role playing games feature gnomes including Warhammer and Shadowrun.

Gnome Hat by ~CptPhoenix on deviantART

Err, excuse me…popular?

Okay, okay. When it first got out that the First Players Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition would not include gnomes there was a general cheer of, “We don’t care about gnomes anyway, give us the book.” Gnomes are probably less popular than hobbits when it comes to player characters, but I find that, when looking for comedic value, gnomes shine brightest amongst all other races. They may never be as popular as Elves or Drow, and I think that’s fine. Gnomes have their place, and that’s all that counts.

I think gnomes are great for a number of reasons, such as their connection with nature, their magical affinity and their mystique. That’s why I love gnomes, almost as much as I love dwarves. From the first time I watched David the Gnome and read Gnomes, I’ve loved the idea of little creatures running around in the garden. It’s the very stuff of fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling all feature gnomes in their works; Rowling particularly garden gnomes. Games like D&D and World of Warcraft have also traditionally held a place for the little guys. Gnomes are as much a part of fantasy as elves and goblins.

Garden gnomes have recently been making waves in South America, as this YouTube video clearly, distinctly, undeniably and unmistakably demonstrates.

Actually, I don’t think it’s a gnome at all, but rather Cthulhu himself come to destroy us all.


Gnomes of the future

D&D Next is currently in play testing, so we’ll soon see if gnomes make it into PH1 this time around. Of course, writers like me will probably continue our fascination with the diminutive race and produce all kinds of adventures and stories linked to them. I suppose you could say “Small things, small mind”, just don’t forget about Leo and his collection.

You can grab your copy of Claustrophobia! right here on the blog. Don’t forget that if you help with play testing you’ll get a free PDF of the commercial version when it comes out. Let us know what you think of gnomes, if you’ve ever played a gnome or, if you’ve ever participated in gnoming. Share your adventures.