Last week, I blogged about the tendency of gnomes to get swallowed up by the other demi-human races and to fail to achieve a strong and distinct identity as a fantasy race. This happens in realms other than the fantasy role-playing game by the way: for example, halfings (as hobbits) are gardeners, and our Huygenian/Poortvlietian gnomes are gardeners. But before the Huygen/Poortvliet revolution in gnomes, my grandmother had garden gnomes -- which were Disney's seven dwarfs! Some campaign setting designers have dealt with this by playing up the gnomes as fey creatures, but there they are in danger of getting lost in a sea of little people, such as brownies, sprites, pixies, leprechauns, and so forth. In response, I proposed a new direction for gnomes, so here it is.
Gnomes are an elemental race.
Now, I didn't invent this, I picked it up from Paracelsus, who conceives of an elemental spirit for each of the four elements, with the genomoi or earth-dwellers for the element of earth.* Re-conceiving of the gnome as a creature in my gaming bestiary begins here. Paracelsus speaks of gnomes passing through earth like a bird passes through the air or a fish through water. Make the gnome a burrower , and now you are on the path of a creature that would rarely be encountered above ground. Naturally, the gnome can communicate with burrowing animals. A natural candidate for its native language would be Terran. Artists attempting to tweak the appearance of gnomes should think about how small humanoids should look if they are elemental creatures living in the earth and develop their appearance in ways that will help give them a distinctive look that goes with this proposed distinctive character. From this basic premise, I will proceed by doing some word association.
Beginning from Paracelsus' apparent derivation of the word gnome and its place in his scheme of the classical elements, let's follow his lead and look for the identity of gnome in our language. False etymologies in the real world can be true in your mythopoesis.
The Gnome Knows
The gnome calls to mind the Greek word of knowledge, gnosis, and its English verbal cognate, know. This is a creature to be associated with knowledge. Happily, the word itself is used for "short, pithy statement expressing a general truth; a maxim, an aphorism." One of its strongest attributes would naturally be Intelligence. What does the gnome know? Things pertaining to the earth and to the subterranean realms, and, to continue to draw on Paracelsus, in particular the alchemical properties of the earth's contents. Alchemists would greatly desire a gnome servant, familiar, or mentor, and like other intelligent elemental races, would be among the greatest alchemists themselves.
The Gnomic Gnome
The use of maxim and aphorisms is the provenance of the wise. We are struck by such utterances, but we struggle to grasp their depths. The gnome is a deep dweller, both physically and spiritually. The race should be as marked by Wisdom as by Intelligence. Gnomes can be a great source of sage advice for questing characters. The heroes on their journey may meet a gnome as one of their mentors or guides. Work on your profound and opaque sayings, or find a fund of them in some source material that you can adapt so you can give your players something to ponder as they adventure.
The Gnome is a Creature of Law (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 111 & 112)
The gnome also calls to mind the Greek word for law, nomos. For that matter, the race's name could just as easily be derived from Earth Law. It's a nice confluence with the earlier D&D tradition, by the way, in which gnomes were usually law-aligned creatures. They know the laws of the earth and they follow them. They would be enemies of anything threatening the order of earth, which would, by the way, allow them to keep their traditional antipathy for kobolds.
The Gnomon -or- The Nose Knows
Here's another interesting word: the gnomon is the rod on a sundial for indicating the time. The presence of a gnome could itself indicate something about the area where they occur, like frogs in wetland and canaries in a mine. A single gnome could indicate an area is healthy and safe for an individual to venture, while concentrations of gnomes could indicate an area under threat where they are gathering to protect Earth Law. No gnomes could indicate an inhospitable area, and dead gnomes could indicate a hostile one. The nose was also humorously referred to in the past as a gnomon, which suggests that the tradition of gnomes having a prominent nose is a good one to continue. Burrowing creatures generally have poor to no eyesight, so perhaps the nose is the gnome's dominant sense organ. A superhuman sense of smell could be the source of a great deal of gnomish knowledge of the subterranean conditions.
This basic premise and the four associations cluster naturally around the name of the creature itself form a basis for a reimagined identity that is stronger than "the other dwarf" or yet another small fey race. I will continue to take gnomes in this direction, and will be curious to see what my ideas might spark among you, mythopoeic Mondayers.