Alterpedia: Brownies

In the Alters’ World (and the series of books found here), creatures of legend reveal themselves to the world. Born through genetic abnormalities, defects and mutations, the Alters have lived for centuries as outcasts of human society, hiding their true nature from the world while colorful stories have been written by many to describe what they’ve seen. How are these creatures different from what was described in the stories? What relationship do they have with humanity? Every entry of the Alterpedia will delve into a new creature from around the world. This week we cover:



Going by many names but always sharing similar traits, North Europe is covered in stories of tiny people living in attics and crawlspaces, emerging at night to do minor tasks in exchange for food. Though they are known as Hobs, Hobgoblins, and many other names, the term Brownie takes the forefront in no small part due to the fact it makes them sound like a delicious baked good.


But despite these many names and confusion for fudge, there are details that are almost universal. First, they are always incredibly small in stature but still good with menial labor. Second, they avoid human contact as much as possible and tend to move only in the dead of night. Third, they tend to live in the homes of humans and will accept compensation for their work under strict rules. If these rules are broken, however, they will disappear and never return again.

But could there really be an entire race of Alters living in our walls and attics?



brownie pencil

The race known as Brownies is often divided up into many separate races depending on region. While these all have similar behaviors, they often come with unique names and descriptions tied into the local culture. The most common of these depictions is shared by the Hob and Brownie, which are small human-like spirits which live among humans and share appearances with them. Often they are depicted as tiny, round little people with child-like features who wear pointed hats – much in the same vein as modern day Christmas Elves which share many other traits today. In fact, the Tomte, the Norwegian variation of these creatures, is particularly associated with gift giving and the Christmas season, lending to the notion that Christmas Elves are, in fact, Brownies of the North Pole.


However, when aggravated, it is implied that Brownies and Hobs may become more mischievous or even malevolent spirits. During this time, the Hobgoblins and Boggarts, as they are known, take on more bestial traits such as fur, sharper features and more aggressive posture. In effect, while the Brownies and Hobs are more like small children, their more aggressive kin are essentially seen as tiny were-creatures with clammy hands, matted fur and complete lack of grooming.


All of these creatures, regardless of their current disposition, are known to wear older clothing, often dirty from the work they do.  These clothes tend to be in brighter colors, especially their hats, but are not of a quality that would classify them as “nice”. In essence their typical wardrobe consists of decent but expendable clothes. Though they may actually have newer clothes available, none are seen to be wearing these newer garments in public and it is often believed that if they did receive newer clothes they would cease to be seen.

However, the lack of seeing them may not be due to the Brownies in question having left, as some Scottish tales tell of a creature with similar stature and skill known as the Urisk. The Urisk was actually capable of becoming invisible to humans, only to be seen by those gifted with second sight, and could willingly reveal himself to those he wished. This trait, combined with other mystical depictions of related creatures, implies that Brownies could become invisible when necessary.

For somewhat obvious reasons
For somewhat obvious reasons

If this is the case, we could not be entirely sure what they look like at all times, and they may be wearing those new clothes after all.


As a member of the Gnome Sub-group of the Alter race, Brownies are indeed almost as diminutive as the stories say. Averaging only 34 to 38 inches in height, most adult Brownies appear like exceptionally intelligent toddlers to the outside world. Their features are predominantly youthful with very few having any sign of being something other than the child they appear. And, while it is possible for them to grow facial hair, it is rare for them to do so as it is difficult to blend in with humans in such a case.


Distinguishing the different races within the Gnome Sub-group can be tricky to the untrained eye. The shared traits within the group can be overwhelmingly obvious while the smaller details can be seen as variations which humans would naturally assume to be a matter of age, culture, or choice. The result is that many creatures labeled as separate races were actually the same while others which were considered the same were different. This confusion has not often bothered the Brownies, however, as part of it means humans tend to be nicer to them in general when they do encounter each other from fear they could become “mischievous”.

However, despite the Brownies being willing to accept responsibility, the majority of mischief in their stories is not carried out by them. Stories of more feral versions of the race are actually due to the racial confusion. While the Brownies, Hobs, Silkies and Tomtes are all descriptions of the same race with exaggerations from their local cultures; Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Boggarts actually describe another race of close but less civilized relatives. These others often live in the same general regions as Brownies but are known to be less sociable and far less concerned with grooming, resulting in a more fearsome appearance if desired.


The description of their clothes is also a bit of a misunderstanding. While it is true that those labeled as “Brownies” or “Hobs” are less likely to appear in nicer clothes, this is primarily due to the fact that those who wear nicer clothes were given a different name in older cultures. Silkies, described as being small, feminine spirits wearing silk clothing but doing essentially the same chores that a Brownie or Hob would do, are in fact the same race. In essence, lack of understanding of their culture resulted in different classes of people being labeled as wholly different races by ancient writers.


As for their supposed invisibility, it has been found that many Brownies that live outside of human homes will be eager to wear clothes which blend in with their environment. While this camouflage is not actually invisibility, it is close enough for the old stories to make the mistake.



brownie sock

Brownies were exceptionally skilled in doing anything that may be required around a household, farm, or shop. They were supposed to complete many tasks in the period of a single night and without ever being noticed. This could range anywhere from milking cows to cobbling shoes. These tasks were completed quickly, quietly, and with a high quality. Though not necessarily magical tasks in and of themselves, this is likely something that could be attributed to magic as it becomes clear their less reputable cousins are capable of affecting their environment in mystical fashion.

Hobgoblins, Boggarts and other mischievous variations of these creatures could do things such as haunt the people within a home, track them where ever they go, and act like curses on their household. These mischievous acts included supernatural events such as spoiling milk instantly, causing physical injury to animals without touching them, or causing things to disappear at will much in the same way Urisk could make himself visible or invisible to those he encountered.



Like most Alters in the Gnome Sub-group, the Brownie race is exceptionally gifted mentally. This is in part due to most of their body’s natural resources going towards mental development rather than physical ability. Their diminutive size is a direct result of using much of their metabolism to power higher brain functions rather than growth. This results in them having slightly larger heads in proportion to their bodies, much like a child, and also grants them a near constant energetic  state. Because of this, Brownies are particularly noteworthy in the Alter community for their intelligence.

Though not as dedicated to academics as Elves or as intuitive with their hands as Dwarves, Brownies are incredibly insightful for solving problems. Their ability to learn new skills and successfully carry them out in short order is notorious and it is believed that Brownies and Goblins may be the two Alter races with the highest IQs. These claims are difficult to prove, however, as Brownies are not known to be willing to settle long enough for testing.

This inability to focus for long periods of time makes them incredibly busy workers who complete tasks in short periods of time. However, this same lack of focus makes them unable to tackle more complex problems as they are likely to get bored. Combined with a natural ability to move about quietly and their excellent night vision, Brownies can actually complete whatever task they are inclined to work on in the space between the occupants of a house falling asleep and waking up the next morning. It is believed, with proper motivation, some gamification to stave off boredom, and proper supervision, Brownies could even solve complex issues other Alters could not provided they are properly stimulated long enough.



brownie drinking

Brownies are incredibly helpful creatures who live within the extra space inside someone’s house. These dwellings are usually in the attics, crawlspaces, or simple holes in the wall, and they only emerge from them at night. This nocturnal behavior seems to be to purposefully avoid contact with humans as they are known to also live in the wilderness away from human settlements. When encountering a human, they are rarely known to speak, but have been heard chatting with each other quite frequently. Their sense of community is great and often entire Brownie groups will relocate at once.

Brownies tend to work in the dead of night on whatever tasks are left undone in the household. They do this for minimal compensation, usually only food (particularly honey), and only if these offerings are left as gifts. If someone were to claim them as payment rather than gifts, Brownies are known to uproot themselves quickly and never return. Similarly, if given something of exceptional value, such as new clothing, they are known to leave as well.

According to some legends this is because they feel like they would be disrespectful to the clothes by working in them. In others, however, they seem to take offense to the gift at all. Modern day variations of this notion seem to rely heavily on the idea that it may be contractual in nature.


However, not all creatures in this category will leave when given such a gift. Malevolent individuals, particularly hobgoblins, are known to sometimes stay to spite the person who leaves them clothes. During this time they become particularly aggressive and known to cause injury or loss of livelihood. The reasons for this aggression are unknown, but if a Hobgoblin refuses the gift of clothes, it is believed that not even moving is enough to escape their wrath.



Brownies are exceptionally helpful as a result of their origins. Having originated from below ground like most Gnome relatives, the Brownie race spends a great deal of its time living in confined spaces that they do not necessarily have to build themselves. This lack of building is, in part, related to their aforementioned hatred of long tasks, as living in a house already constructed is a faster solution than trying to build one themselves.

Brownies are not freeloaders by far and are incredibly dedicated to providing services for those around them. It was quickly found that tasks they were good for overlapped with the Scottish tinkers, nomadic tinsmiths who would travel from place to place and work on metal objects such as utensils. Given their squatter lifestyle but need to repay their de facto landlords, Brownies quickly adopted the tinker lifestyle themselves and began to fix whatever they would find.


However, the arrangement was silently agreed to be only room and board and any attempt to pay them was seen as a sign that the landlord wished for more from them. This, in part, is due to their natural distrust of humans as they have seen a great deal of human nature from the crawlspaces they are so often to live in. These issues would be easily resolved, but their distrust of humans is so profound that Brownies often avoid even speaking to the humans they live with as much as possible. For some, this means they never even make face to face contact at all.

The Brownie diet is, unfortunately, not very healthy thanks to this relationship and some quirks of their physical nature. With a high metabolism and somewhat addictive personalities, Brownies are especially fond of sweets. This helps them maintain their constant energetic state and allows them to be up at all hours of the night. Unfortunately, humans were quick to notice and began to leave honey for them often. After generations, most Brownies are now quite hooked on sugary goods.


In fact, at one point author Roald Dahl found there were small, shy creatures with a sugar addiction living in his walls. These creatures were chatty, but disliked making direct contact with him. Paying them with sugary goods, he went on to be inspired by these creatures.

What he created wasn’t far from the truth.

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