To his lasting fame, BB wrote the greatest book about gnomes in the English language.
Its stature was recognised by the award of the Carnegie Medal in 1942 and it is the very best and the most well known of all his children’s books. It was probably inspired by his own childhood sighting of one of the little people in his bedroom. As ever, the book is full of BB’s superb scraperboard and colour illustrations. The exciting adventure captures the imagination using detailed descriptions of English fields, streams, and woodland which beguile the reader into thinking that under the root of any tree in the dappled shade beside a running brook there might well be a whole other world.
The story recounts the epic adventure of the brothers Dodder, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Cloudberry, the last four gnomes in England. They live in a cosy burrow beneath the gnarled roots of an aged oak tree on the bankside of the Folly Brook in Warwickshire, their lives happy and tranquil until Cloudberry becomes obsessed with a desire to explore the wider world.
Heedless of his brothers’ dire warnings of unknown dangers ahead, he departs on his journey. Two years later and Cloudberry has not returned. Nothing is known of his whereabouts. Despite Dodder’s stern resistance the other two gnomes build a boat and set out to find him. The story unfolds with a succession of hair-raising adventures, including murder most foul, shipwreck and a magic encounter with the ‘Great God Pan’, and it reaches an exciting and totally unpredictable climax.
The book was published in 1942, in the dark days of the Second World War. BB’s warm-hearted fairytale lightened the wartime gloom. Such is the book’s appeal to young and old alike that it has stood the test of time and it is still in print. Its sequel ‘Down The Bright Stream’ (1948) continued the gnomes’ adventures in similar grand style.
Perhaps BB’s own introduction to ‘The Little Grey Men’ best sets the scene for those readers about to set out on this unforgettable adventure with the little people:
“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain. They are honest-to-goodness gnomes, none of your baby, fairy-book tinsel stuff, and they live by hunting and fishing, like the animals and birds, which is only proper and right. ---- You may not believe in the Little People, but that is because most fairy books portray miniature men and women with ridiculous tinsel wings, doing all sorts of impossible things with flowers and cobwebs. That sort of make-believe is all right for some people, but it won’t do for you and me. --------In telling this story I must ask the reader’s indulgence for one flight of fancy. I have found it necessary to allow my gnomes and animals the power of speech. As this book is for young people no doubt they will forgive me, for it makes the story easier to follow. In other respects it does not often go beyond the realms of possibility.”
And this surely is the real strength of the story!