Book Review: Smith of Wootton Major, Extended Edition by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (Five Stars)
“He had returned sooner than was expected, but none too soon for those that awaited him. ‘Daddy!’ she cried. ‘Where have you been? Your star is shining bright!’”
A visit to Faery.* Beware. It may touch your soul.
“Tolkien himself called it “an old man’s book, already weighted with the presage of bereavement”, and taking their cue from him, many have read Smith’s surrender of the star as Tolkien’s farewell to his art.”
Unlike The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien labored over for decades, Smith came to him in a flash, and he dashed it off whole. It has a rough quality which betrays both that inspiration and that lack of refining. Nonetheless, it should entertain and enrich any reader who appreciates “Farmer Giles of Ham” or “Leaf by Niggle”. It was the last story he wrote and the last published in his lifetime.
“He stood before her, and he did not kneel in courtesy, for he was dismayed and felt that for one so lowly all gestures were in vain.”
This expanded edition includes the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes as well as notes concerning the writing and revisions of the original. An excellent companion for “On Fairy Stories”* from The Tolkien Reader, since Smith of Wootton Major is just such a fairy story.
‘Yet you have given up the star. I hope it may go to someone as worthy. The child should be grateful.’ ‘The child won’t know,’ said the smith. ‘That’s the way with such gifts.’
BTW, it is only on the second or third reading that the wonder grew upon me. The first time through, I read it like any story–and of that it was quick and crude. Subsequent readings, the Faery grows upon you.
“Roger Lancelyn Green, who noted in the Sunday Telegraph for 3 December 1967 that, “To seek for the meaning is to cut open the ball in search of its bounce.” Tolkien treasured the comment, and wrote Green to thank him.”
After my sixth reading, it still grabs me as (usually) only real fairy tales do. Most modern fantasy seems so contrived. Tolkien had a grasp for what really works.
“When wisdom comes the mind though enriched by imagination, having learned or seen distantly truths only perceptible in this way, must prepare to leave the world of Men and of Fayery.”* JRRT
*Tolkien was notorious for his various spellings of this word.