Joanna Majchrzyk, Tadeusz Budrewicz, Jerzy Axer, Tadeusz Bujnicki. Ludzie i krasnoludki – powinowactwa z wyboru [People and Gnomes – Elective Affinities]. Warszawa: DiG, 2014. 278 S. (paper), ISBN 978-83-7181-840-0.
Reviewed by Jan Surman
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (February, 2016)
Joanna Majchrzyk u.a. (Hrsg.): Ludzie i krasnoludki
Since Maria Konopnicka published “Little Orphan Mary and the Gnomes” in 1896, little men (seldom females) with red caps have been an integral part of Polish tales and legends. Thanks to the underground surrealist movement “Orange Alternative”, they morphed into a symbol of anti-communist opposition in the 1980s. Finally, given the recent popularity of Grimm’s / Disney dwarfs, Tolkien dwarves and garden gnomes, they have become an integral part of popular culture. It was only a matter of time, until gnomes I translate “krasnoludki” as gnomes, although dwarfs appear as their synonyms in this text. , like recently vampires E.g. Ursula Reber (ed.), Vampirglaube und magia posthuma im Diskurs der Habsburgermonarchie, Wien 2011; Thomas Bohn, Der Vampir – Ein europäischer Mythos, Köln (forthcoming). , develop into an object of historians’ and cultural scientists’ interest. The reviewed volume is an outcome of a conference which took place in Warsaw 2009 and intends, as editors state in the introduction, “to recapitulate what human sciences have found out [about gnomes] so far” and in this way approach the question why the gnomes were “unchanging component of European culture” (p. 11). Contributors to the volume come from several disciplines and thus topics range from the history and ethnology of dwarfs, their literary representations to current commercialization. Of particular interest to readers should be the politicization, which I will discuss at the end of this review.
Given the variety of topics, one of the guiding themes of this volume is the idea and representation of dwarfs in history and in contemporary imagination. It only seems reasonable, that children would be the first to be asked. Danuta Waloszek reports on a survey on children aged 5–14 on their imagination of gnomes. Results show that never figures like smurfs, pokémons, and Middle-Earth heroes have replaced the traditional images of gnome (p. 42). The author claims that children today are incapable of defining dwarfs precisely, because they lack functionality and entertainment value. Moreover, children are confronted with an ever more rationalized, technical daily life, which replaces the magic and fantasy. Renata Hołda counters, however, this thesis of growing rationality. The Cracow-based cultural anthropologist analyzing garden dwarf regards them exactly as a counterbalance to what Max Weber called disenchantment of the world, and a realization of “necessity of a fairy tale” (p. 64). In his overview of European dwarfs, which includes Scandinavian Dwergars, British isles Brownies, Urisks, Leprechauns/Clurichauns and Hispanic Dwendes, Andrzej Rataj supports the notion that gnomes facilitate dealing with the unknown and help make sense of the mysterious. Rataj shows here that in most cultures the figure of a gnome enabled “entering and taming strange and mysterious other world” (p. 52). But this does not mean that gnomes are always friendly and helping, as several authors illustrate. Before Konopnicka’s paradigmatic work which made them positive figures and changed their names from kraśniaki to krasnoludki, Polish folklore represented gnomes in a rather negative light. Violetta Wróblewska explains how they were blamed for daily mishaps such as the souring of milk or more magical occurrences such as taking the place of children and behaving badly in their stead (pp. 150–151).
However, there is no coherent understanding of what or who gnomes actually were or how older ideas relate to Konopnicka’s picture of them. Renata Dźwigoł identifies 16 monikers in ancient and contemporary Polish, such as “skrzat” or “karzeł” or more old Polish “piędzimężyk” (the one with an ell-long-beard), Kashubian “undererczk” and “kurpel”. Most of these names are linked with different roles and functions in everyday life. Interestingly, while authors who write about Polish culture lament the disappearance / decline of traditional gnome representations, in his essay about Greek kallikantzaros, Przemysław Kordos argues that in Greece they are still widespread (pp. 65–72). These malignant underground dwellers resurface for every Christmas season (25 December – 6 January) to punish undisciplined housewives; children born during this time may transform into kallikantzaros if not treated with an antidote. Perhaps, one wonders, whether the exclusively positive reevaluation of gnomes has caused their disappearance in Poland?
This disappearance itself is worth scrutinizing. Cultural anthropologist Ryszard Kantor mentions that already in the 19th century vanishing of the gnomes was linked with growing poverty and insecurity. For him, the disappearance – or replacement with garden “pseudo-gnomes” – tells much more about our changing environment because gnomes simply cannot adapt, or be adapted, to the modern urban and industrial life (p. 258). This disappearance might also have something to do with the fact that gnomes were heroes of spoken tales and not always found their way onto the printed pages. Iwona Węgrzyn for instance finds little about gnomes in the printed versions of noble tales (stories told in the evenings by the fireplaces in noble mansions). Nevertheless, she claims that gnomes must have been popular among the Polish nobility, coming to their mansions “together with the women from the fold – wet nurses, nannies, cooks” (p. 163).
What do we learn about the places where gnomes have survived? Wrocław is a good example, a city populated presently by around 300 steel dwarf figurines. Teresa Szostak explores their current popularity (p. 242–249): the city had no significant gnome history until the “Orange Alternative” and then evolved from a gag of tourist office in 2001 to a landmark of Wrocław’s identity. Private and public institutions started creating their own figurines and developed stories for them. An invented tradition resulted thus in invented stories, which now reinforce one another. Jolanta Lugowska and Ryszard Waksmund analyze these stories in more detail. They discuss essays submitted for a competition about Wrocław’s dwarfs in 2009. They argue that the figure of gnome became domesticated and got easily adapted into new social realities – up to stories dealing with erotic and gay topics (p. 239). Also writing techniques differ widely, from conventional etiologic tales to Bulgakov-like grotesques in which an unemployed Wrocław dweller saves a dwarf persecuted by Göring’s spirit (p. 233). Contrary to the larger trend of their disappearance, in Polish Silesia, gnomes did find a homey dwelling.
Another place in Poland where gnomes are omnipresent is Wieliczka Salt Mine, where Józef Markowski (1860–1920) sculpted his first gnome figures already before the World War One, namely gnomes playing soccer (pp. 74–75). Later underground figures were only made in the 1960s and produced for children tourists. In this case, too, tour guides and writers have been developing new legends to suit the sculptures. Eventually, Wieliczka promotion office developed the idea of saline dwarfs (soliludki) to populate a special tour for children called Saltland (Solilandia, pp. 78–79). According to Marek Skubisz, dwarfs prove thus to have a high marketing value but their popularity comes at the expense of the older legends (p. 80).
Last but not least, the political use of gnomes unfortunately earns only little attention in the book which seems disappointing considering their role in political endeavors such as the Dutch Provo-Movement, Polish Orange Alternative, Kurt Gebauer’s “trpaslíci” (Czech) or Othmar Hörl’s “Nazi gnomes” (Germany) to name only few. Tadeusz Budrewicz reminds his readers that gnomes have been figures of popular writing throughout 19th and 20th centuries, which at the time swayed more influence than high literature. He analyzes Józef Chociszewski’s (1837–1914) children and youth stories, claiming that they are in fact clandestine manifestos of the author’s political program. Chociszewicz’s gnomes (karły) popularize the so called organic work: “cult of work, perseverance, thriftiness, […] education for the folk and life in sobriety.” (p. 211) They are also anti-Semitic, exactly as the author. According to Budrewicz, Chociszewski’s gnomes lean evermore toward the ideas of Posen National Democracy, which was founded 1910, “but the base for it was prepared earlier, and gnomes had their part in it” (p. 214). But there is also criticism of such approaches. Janusz Tazbir concentrates on Konopnicka’s “Little Orphan Mary” and figure of chronicler Master Tittle-Tattle. He accepts here views of Budrewicz who wrote 1997 that the chronicler represents Konopnicka’s view on Polish history, but disagrees that by satirist look at a figure of historian, she intended to challenge the late 19th century influential Cracow school and historiography it made. While such attempts to challenge historians’ authority were not uncommon at the time Tazbir quotes here Anatole France’s „L'Île des Pingouins“ (1908) and its protagonist Fulgence Tapir. , Tazbir suggests that in this case, Budrewicz may in fact go too far in his interpretations (p. 182). He agrees, however, that children literature was often carrier of hidden messages, understandable only for the adults.
To summarize, the book makes for an interesting reading, although it is dwarfed by recent vampire-studies. The volume should be particularly of interest to sociologists and cultural anthropologists, who will find some refreshing ideas as to how to look through the prism of gnomes at contemporary (Polish) society. The authors propose, however, no new approaches on how to make gnomes important figures for historical analysis. The last two articles mentioned here are but hints in this direction, without a clearly elaborated program. Regrettably, as Kantor remarks, even among Polish scholars gnomes are less popular then angels (p. 255), a trend that is unlikely to subside in the next years. This book makes a strong case for incorporating gnomes as analytical and interpretative tools in the human sciences. They still have a role to play in contemporary mass culture. Zbigniew Herbert’s words quoted as motto of the volume may be some inspiration for it: „Dwarfs grow in the forest. They have a peculiar smell and white beards. They appear alone. If a cluster of them could be gathered, dried and hung over the door – we might have some peace.“ Herbert Zbigniew, Dwarfs, in: Collected Poems 1956–1998, Tr. Alissa Valles, London, 2007.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/.
Jan Surman. Review of Majchrzyk, Joanna; Budrewicz, Tadeusz; Axer, Jerzy; Bujnicki, Tadeusz, Ludzie i krasnoludki – powinowactwa z wyboru [People and Gnomes – Elective Affinities].
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