Those who read Tolkien deeply and wish to discover more about his Legendarium could have noticed the word Gnomes in the early versions of the tales that the Professor used to refer to the Elves known as the Noldor. Later, though, he abandoned the term opting only for the Quenya word Noldor instead. This change has a history.
When Tolkien only began shaping his mythology, he applied the word Gnomes as an English translation to the Elves who possessed great knowledge of the world and wished for more of it. Being a philologist, Tolkien opted for gnomes for the reasons with deep philological roots. The word gnome belongs to late XVI century and is derived from the Greek word gnōmē (from the Proto-Indo-European root *gno– ‘to know’) meaning ‘intelligence, thought’. In modern-day English the word still retains this knowledge implication, although is very rarely used, in the sense of ‘short truth, saying’. However, there are other meanings of this word which cause confusion, wrong associations and are the reason why Tolkien ceased using it for his Elves.
In XVI century the concept of gnomes was introduced by the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in his book Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus, etc. He applied the word to small dwarfish creatures living underground, guarding the treasures of the earth and possessing the ability to move through ground with great ease. It is not known exactly why Paracelsus chose this particular term for those creatures. This gnome came into English through French from Latin gnomus (which Paracelsus used in his book) which might have come from Greek genomos meaning ‘earth-dweller’. According to another opinion, Paracelsus invented the word himself (3). In any case, the term stuck and became closely associated with those earthly creatures. Later the notion of gnome entered folklore and fairy-tales, began to be used by other writers and authors — even in modern days — to refer to the same or very similar kind of underground dwellers. Another association, stemming from later years and very much alive in present days is the one with the plastic garden gnomes that people place around their gardens for decoration.
Neither of these two associations comes even remotely close to the majestic race of Tolkien’s Elves. Tall, fair and valiant, they were the First Children of Ilúvatar and possessed great wisdom, skills, talents. In his drafts Tolkien stated the following:
The name Gnomes is sometimes used for the Noldor, and Gnomish for Noldorin. This has been done, because whatever Paracelsus may have thought (if indeed he invented the name), to some Gnome will still suggest Knowledge. Now the High-elven name of this folk, Noldor, signifies Those who Know; for of the Three Kindreds of the Elves from their beginning the Noldor were ever distinguished both by their knowledge of things that are and were in this world and by their desire to know more. Yet they were not in any way like to the gnomes of learned theory, or of literary and popular fancy.
(Peoples of Middle-earth, pp. 76-77)
All the wrong associations forced Tolkien to abandon the term Gnomes as the translation for the Noldor because the number of those readers who would have thought of knowledge on seeing it would have most likely been regrettably small.
Interestingly, at some point in his life Tolkien did use the word gnome as a synonym for a small creature in his 1915 poem Goblin Feet:
The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!
Later, though, Tolkien came to regret writing this poem because for him it began to symbolise the world of Faërie through a Victorian prism as he had grown to dislike it — with the very transparent, tiny elves, leprechauns and fairies that he did not wish his realm of Arda to be associated with. Anyway, it was an early step in Tolkien’s creative development, which is also shown in some other poems from the same or approximately the same period, including You and Me / and the Cottage of Lost Play (1915) and Wood-sunshine (1910).
Tolkien’s philological usage of words and deep knowledge of them sometimes led him to making word-choices that would not have been properly understood by the general public. If in some cases, when the meaning discrepancy was not too confusing, he kept an English variant of an Elvish word. In other cases, however, as it was in the case of Gnomes he had to rid of the misleading term at all so as not to conjure up wrong images in his readers’ minds.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
Featured image: Claude Monet – View of Vetheuil sur Seine