The Little Grey Men, the first fantasy title to appear as a Carnegie Medal winner, was written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the pseudonym “BB” and illustrated by him under his real name. It was first published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1942 and has been reissued several times since – the latest is in an utterly covetable edition by Slightly Foxed Editions. My edition is the reprint from Oxford University Press with cover artwork by Edward Ardizzone and the author’s own scraperboard illustrations throughout. Watkins-Pitchford wrote more than 60 books for children and adults showcasing his enduring love and passion for the English countryside. He has a loyal and faithful readership; there’s even a BB society.
In The Little Grey Men, Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry are the last four gnomes in Great Britain. They live on the banks of the Folly Brook. They are perfectly happy with their quiet life, except, that is, for Cloudberry. Restless and longing for adventure, Cloudberry sets off to follow his dream. But when he does not return, the others build a boat and set out to find him. The book follows the gnomes’ epic journey up the Folly through the English countryside, beginning in spring, continuing through summer, and concluding in autumn, when the first frosts are starting to arrive.
If this reminds you of The Wind in the Willows, you would be right. There are many similarities; an encounter with the god Pan depicted as the protector of small animals, the central role of the waterways and messing about in boats, the loving description of homely details and the wonders of nature, and the absolute absence of females. In contrast to the episodic structure of The Wind in the Willows, The Little Grey Men is a more coherent narrative of a voyage out and a return. In this sense, the obvious comparison is with The Hobbit but lacking the fantasy universe to give it richness and interest. There are echoes of other stories too. The Borrowers later picked up the same ideas of using seemingly disparate items to fashion miniature ‘human’ requirements and both Tarka the Otter and Watership Down also utilise the concept of ‘real’ animals having speech and thought without anthropomorphising them. Overall, The Little Grey Men feels faintly derivative in its storyline, but what sets it apart is the lyrical reflections on nature. It is clear that BB knew the countryside intimately and the book is a love-letter to a vanishing landscape. The detail is both beautifully observed and scientifically correct in every aspect. As a reader, you learn about the animals, habitats and the countryside through the story.
I do think The Little Grey Men is the kind of book that would have appealed to me as a child – I would have loved the little domestic details describing how the gnomes live and use the land around them. I was always attracted to books about animals and would have appreciated the descriptions of nature, minutely observed and detailed. Probably, I would have overlooked the fact that the characters are two-dimensional misogynists, the fantasy sedate. As an adult, I can’t, but I can still enjoy the descriptions of the natural world. Clearly, The Little Grey Men and Watkins-Pitchford himself has a loyal following. For adults, it would represent a return to a nostalgic Acadia, younger, less-worldly children would enjoy it too. For me, it was a 4/10, but then I didn’t grow up with it.