New Fantasy Reads: The Little Grey Men

This is the first in a new monthly series of recommendations from Fantasy Reads. As many people are currently stuck at home trying to keep bored children stimulated and amused, I thought I’d begin with an almost forgotten children’s classic – The Little Grey Men by the English author known as BB. It was first published in 1942 and won the Carnegie Medal for that year. You can read this as an ebook but to get the full benefit of the author’s subtle black and white illustrations you need a printed copy. Oxford University Press do nice paperback versions of both The Little Grey Men and its sequel Down the Bright Stream (1948).

The Little Grey Men is set in rural Warwickshire during World War II and is the story of the last gnomes left in England. Three brothers – Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort – have a snug home inside an oak tree beside a stream called the Folly with a pair of owls as their upstairs neighbours. They get on well with most of the animals and birds who live in or beside the Folly. Their only enemies are stoats, wood-dogs (foxes) and people. The gnomes are grieving for their adventurous brother Cloudberry. He set off many months before to find the source of the Folly but has never returned.

Baldmoney and Sneezewort decide to build a boat to travel up the Folly in search of their lost brother. Dodder, the oldest and wisest gnome, refuses to have any part in this expedition. He thinks the journey is too risky, especially as the gnomes will have to pass through the sinister Crow Wood, haunt of the legendary Giant Grum. Baldmoney and Sneezewort decide to go anyway. In spite of much help from friendly birds and animals, their fragile craft soon comes to grief. Fleeing from a predator, they enter Crow Wood. The two gnomes are given refuge by a lonely squirrel but they soon discover how cruel and deadly Giant Grum can be. When Dodder catches up with his brothers, a desperate plan is made to help the animals of Crow Wood.

Even after they escape the wood, the gnomes face many dangers including an encounter with a human child. Hunted on land and in the water, and at risk of injury or starvation, their journey seems doomed. Can Pan, the God of Wild Things, help the last of the gnomes and will they ever find their lost brother?

A story about gnomes and talking animals may sound rather twee but the tone of this novel is surprisingly dark and it doesn’t shrink from showing the brutality of life in the natural world. The gnomes themselves may have rather comical names but they are far from being jolly or sweet. The brothers bicker and sulk and surly Dodder, who has lost one leg to a fox bite and stumps around on a fishbone, is a grim and almost tragic figure. The gnomes don’t kill their fellow warm-blooded creatures but they do what they must to survive, which includes fishing and stealing birds’ eggs. They are constantly in danger of being eaten by larger predators, which leads to some very scary scenes, and they live in fear of being discovered by people. There are brief reminders in the novel that the human world is also in the midst of a terrible conflict. When the little boy encountered by the gnomes plays with his toy boat he imagines it as a convoy ship at risk of being sunk by enemy submarines.

This may not be the ideal story for sensitive little ones. I loved this book as a child but I was frightened by some of the perils the gnomes go through, such as having a huge, sharp-toothed pike come up under their frail craft. I also remember being very upset by a scene in which the gnomes come across the bodies of Giant Grum’s victims hanging on a gibbet. It becomes clear to the reader, that the giant is a gamekeeper, shooting birds and animals to protect the pheasants owned by his wealthy master. In the story, the pheasants are characterized as arrogant foreigners who regard the native wood-dwellers as vermin. The very English gnomes aren’t against all outsiders, since they adopt a grey squirrel with ancestral memories of America, but they do condemn human interference with the natural world. The increasing threat to nature is one of the themes of the story and this becomes even clearer in the sequel Down the Bright Stream in which the gnomes’ entire habitat is destroyed by human greed.

BB was the pen name of D.J.Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990), an art-teacher, illustrator and amateur naturalist. He was a countryman of his era who enjoyed some types of shooting and fishing – though you would never guess this from the empathic way he writes about hunted creatures – but his fears for the natural world have a contemporary feel. I think he is an author whose time has come again. He is also the ideal author to read if you are currently missing being able to go for country walks. Very few people have described the English countryside and its flora and fauna in such loving detail. He makes you see the flowers and hear the birdsong and his memorable range of non-human characters are all true to their animal-natures. The journey up the Folly with the brave and resourceful gnomes is still one that is well worth taking. Until next month….

Geraldine Harris Pinch

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Geraldine Pinch