Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Travel and Adventure. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring some guest posts!
I first came across “Smith of Wootton Major” in high school, in A Tolkien Miscellany, one of the few Tolkien books my library had outside of the most famous, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It was during the time when I was clinging to any Tolkien I could get my grubby claws on after saying goodbye to Frodo and Company, because of how much I’d loved it, how little I wanted it to end.
You can imagine how I felt when I found he had written other books. I ran into The Children of Húrin that way. But that, as everyone knows, is a very different story.
The Miscellany is orange. Paperback. Has a dragon on the front. This is all you need in design to ensure it will stop bookmarkedone dead in the middle of the library.
It is only recently I’ve claimed a copy of my own, swiped from a stack in an antique shop, much the same way I found my battered copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Only this time, I knew exactly what jewels lay hidden inside.
I have read “Smith of Wootton Major” only twice. That first time, the Pauline Baynes illustrations greeting me like friends from my childhood, as cheerful and simple as before, untouched by age or passing time. The second, curled up by the garrett window in spring, white petals falling from the blooming trees to the rooftops below me like unmelting snow.
It’s funny. Even though I think I remember everything and it feels like only last summer I was sitting in the sun slanting through the glass windows of the DMV, outdoors on splintery wood bleachers, in mostly empty waiting rooms with blaring TV sets that no one wants to watch but no one ever can find a way to turn off, meeting the Shadow Bride and Farmer Giles, struggling through the archaic language of Gawain until my head ached but my eyes shone as if I too had seen the light of a Faery star—it has been a long time.
The Smith’s story was only a small part of it all.
It’s small of itself, too. The wordcount falls just shy of the 10,000-word novella minimum, making it too short for publication alone. Instead, it is often paired with “Farmer Giles of Ham,” despite the fact that Giles and Smithson would perhaps not have been the happiest of neighbors.
It’s a fairytale. A bedtime story. Short and sweet and simple.
It’s as delightful as I remember it. In some ways, better.
A word of caution, if you’ve read this far and still, despite all odds, are expecting some sort of refined, literary analysis.
Bookmarkedone is a creature of chaos. You’re going to get a ramble. Consider it neither the forest nor the trees, but a stroll through the woods, arm in arm with only the most eccentric of reading companions.
Besides. The story does not want that.
It’s true that you can only read a story for the first time once. After that, you know how it goes. You remember. You won’t have the same hope, the same fear, the wondering what comes next.
It’s the same story. The smith’s son and the fairy cake. A silver star, the way luck goes, and the land of Faery. Like a melody. I remembered almost everything.
And after I had finished it, I sat there, in the garrett, wondering exactly where I’d been.
It’s a good story if it can do that. If it can take you somewhere so that the world in front of your eyes is not invisible, but utterly inconsequential. So when you look again, it has taken a different shape.
My college English department had a soft spot for Ursula K. Le Guin, even if they begrudged a disapproval for genre work in general. That was the first place I heard the story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I remember my professor (one of the nice ones. She wore sneakers and jeans to class every day and let us read The Lightning Thief and watch a version of Macbeth set in feudal Japan for course credit) talking about that story. It wasn’t so much what she said as the way she tilted her head, as if after that story, the rest of the world was slightly askew.
Tolkien, Le Guin, and Michael Moorcock are alike in that for me, although their writing is in all other matters very different, and the three writers themselves would probably repel one another like magnets should they ever meet at one of those unlikely, courtesy of time travel “If you could invite…” formal dinners.
“In a fog,” is the right term, I guess, if you understand that it’s the sort of white fog with the sun shining through it, and that I like fog, as a type of weather, any day of the week. Happy, confused, and a little lost.
It’s like breaking the surface after swimming in deep water. Like breathing for the first time, suddenly realizing air has a taste. The morning you wake up and know before you open your eyes, by the sound of the birds singing, that spring has come while you were asleep.
It is spring now. White flowers outside my window, petals falling even as they open. Not a Faery spring, for the sky is too grey and the grass is still burrowed deep under the mud.
Perhaps Smithson’s words are the best way to describe his own story.
…a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery, and also outside them and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and in ownership, and in peace. When after a while the stillness passed he raised his head and stood up. The dawn was in the sky and the stars were pale…The high field where he stood was silent and empty; and he knew that his way now led back…(Tolkien, “Smith” 38).
The world is the same. It’s you who have changed.
The story is the same as when I read it before. Smithson and Alf and Nokes, they’re all there. The little town of Wootton Major, the smith’s shop, the strange Faery star.
I’m the one who’s different. It’s all the same, but my perspective has changed, as if the world has tilted, just a little to the left.
When I was reading The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was Tolkien. J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy genius, master of languages, university professor, best friends with C.S. Lewis—a man who wrote one story and wrote it well.
Now Tolkien is affectionately Master Tolkien, the man who wrote a speech shortly before presenting it (complete with misspellings), nearly failed his exams because he was learning Finnish instead of studying, was a terrifying driver, arrived late to class (he was teaching) for the sake of throwing the doors open while chanting Beowulf in Old English, moved from house to house instead of settling down, still was besties with Jack Lewis, but in a sort of impossible way, as one was loud and cheerful and the other a quiet prankster, and who loved his wife as much as if she had been a Faery queen.
There are, of course, the stylistic notes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in “Smith of Wootton Major” that any careful reader will notice—the fondness for food, especially cakes, and describing it well; the story centering around “un-heroes,” ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; and the idea of a gift given freely.
But I wonder who else recognizes the Hylestad Stave Church in Norway when Smithson stands dazzled before the newly glazed and painted Great Hall. The one with the carvings of the hero Sigurd slaying Fafnir the dragon that appear on the 2009 edition of Tolkien’s The Tale of Sigurd and Gudrún, a story complete with dragon, treasure, sleeping beauty, Attila the Hun, Vikings, Odin popping around every corner in his blue cloak, and enough bloodshed to fill a small ocean. It’s the same story that fueled Richard Wagner’s operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Ring Cycle—although these are very different from Tolkien’s One Ring.
Then there is the Twelfth Night tradition of baking a coin into an Epiphany cake for good luck, transformed into the “Twenty-four Feast,” at which twenty-four children are presented a masterful confection with twenty-five trinkets baked inside—twenty-four simple coins and baubles, and one Faery star.
And anyone who remembers the Four Farthings of the Shire will smile at the idea of “Wootton Major it was called because it was larger than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees; but it was not very large,” simply because of all the places called Tor and Avon (hill and hill, respectively. Yes, really)—because that really is how we humans name things (Tolkien, “Smith” 9). We name them simply, plainly, truthfully.
This is my hill, my river, my home. And that makes them better and different from all others in the world.
It’s idle speculation about Hylestad. There could have been any number of buildings Tolkien had in mind when writing about “the Great Hall, the largest and oldest building in the place and the most beautiful…built of good stone and good oak and…well tended, though it was no longer painted or gilded as it had been once upon a time” (Tolkien, “Smith” 9-10).
As I said, this isn’t a calculated, researched analysis. I’m not a Tolkien scholar. I’m a no-name blogger who happens to be a little fanatic in regards to his work.
More importantly, I’m a writer. And there’s one thing in “Smith of Wootton Major” that my skills and knowledge can attest to.
It’s “once upon a time.”
Tolkien doesn’t open his story with these words. Certainly he knew them, being not only a professor of English literature, but an avid scholar of myth and folklore, a reader of Grimms’ and Lang’s fairytales, and a father of four children (the first audience of our beloved Hobbit).
Everyone knows “once upon a time.”
The Hobbit doesn’t start this way, either. Instead, we have “In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 3). Words which, in addition to being so iconic as to reshape the world of English literature, do not fail, when they pop up in conversation, to leave me grinning like an idiot.
It’s a clear choice. To abandon a convention, to thwart the reader’s expectations. Tolkien—even in his most casual storytelling, sending Bilbo off with dwarves styled to mimic those in Grimms’ fairytales for his children’s entertainment—refuses to do anything but tell a good story, full of seed cakes and green doors and smoke-rings and caps with silver tassels.
I believe the proper phrase is he “has no chill.” It’s one of the things I admire most about his writing.
It’s a good way to do things, not to leave them as they are, but constantly reshape them, reinvent them, like the waves washing over the shore until even broken glass is smooth. We forget, sometimes, locked in our own cultures, our everyday lives, our walks to work, our grocery shopping, that this is not always and everywhere, how things are.
“Once upon a time” isn’t universal. Ask Wikipedia if you don’t believe me. It’s there. One of my favorites is the Czech tradition, “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…” More common, it seems, is the lilting, laughing riddle, “There was, and there was not,” strange and sensible enough as if carried to us by the very voices of the Fair Folk. The variant best known to me, the sort of terror who reads every single fairytale from the thick Grimms’ collection, is the German version, “Back in the days when it was still of help to wish for a thing…” (Wikipedia)
Everyone knows why we do it. At some vague point in time, something wonderous happened, but it was somewhere very, very, far away, so put your wooden sword down and eat your porridge, because if you don’t know where the dragon lives, you can’t go off to fight it.
You’re safe here, in this place that is familiar and ordinary.
Tolkien doesn’t do that.
THERE was a village once, not very long ago for those with long memories, nor
very far away for those with long legs. Wootton Major it was called because it was larger
than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees; but it was not very large, though
it was at that time prosperous, and a fair number of folk lived in it, good, bad, and mixed,
as is usual (Tolkien, “Smith” 9).
That is how Tolkien begins “Smith of Wootton Major.” Yes, it happened in the past, but not in some forgotten age! This is the sort of storyteller who would say, “If you don’t believe me, go ask your granny if she saw dragons flying overhead when she was young.” And beyond that, Wootton Major isn’t far. If one could walk there, just imagine Tolkien piling his Merton College students into the back of his car on a summer day and taking them there.
Long memories and long legs—well, both can be stretched if there’s something you want to find.
What Tolkien really says?
There is a place called Wootton Major. I am going to tell you about some magic that happened there. And, if you want, you might find your way to it.
Remember that line I quoted when I was off rambling about a Norwegian church? “…the Great Hall, the largest and oldest building in the place and the most beautiful. It was built of good stone and good oak and was well tended, though it was no longer painted or gilded as it had been once upon a time” (Tolkien, “Smith” 9-10, emphasis mine).
Ha! There! “Once upon a time!”
But it isn’t a now “once upon a time,” even in the story, which has so clearly taken place sometime in the past. It’s a then “once upon a time.” It’s the far past.
It changes things.
“Smith of Wootton Major” isn’t set in the era of “once upon a time,” that specific age in which wishing still did one some good.
It falls after that, in a world where people are already forgetting what living in a world with magic was like. Fairytales have not yet been relegated to the Victorian nursery, their inhabitants bizarrely shrinking in size and their (often startling and violent) stories becoming the exclusive property of children. But from the snide comments of Nokes, referring to the Fairy Queen as a “tricky little creature,” a pretty ornament to sparkle atop a cake, and not a being of immense beauty, wisdom, and power, that the shadow of such sad days is already looming.
It is a lost age. The child has woken from the dream, is rubbing its eyes and trying to remember if whatever it is already forgetting could really be both frightening and beautiful, about the delicate line between dream and nightmare. Soon enough, eyes will close and sleep will return. But the memory, the memory lingers.
Like something familiar which has never had a name.
Why does he do this? Tolkien could place Wootton Major anywhen he chooses, and yet, he chooses a lost age. It isn’t like the frame narrative, “And see, I heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend who heard it from a cousin who was eavesdropping in a bar, and therefore, it’s incontrovertible proof that Shangri-La is real.” It isn’t that assurance he gives us that he is but a translator of the “found” stories of Middle-Earth.
What then, is the purpose?
You’ve humored me this far. Allow me to present a theory.
Being a novella, the trappings of a frame narrative would be too great a thing for this little story. And yet, the “long memories” serves a similar purpose.
The common names like Wootton Major and Wootton Minor; the familiar culture (well, to those of us who are historically nerdy enough to recognize it) of the Twelfth Night/Twenty-four cake; the oak and stone Great Hall; the very ordinariness of a little village in the woods, minding its own business, filled with craftspeople like bakers and smiths (good and bad, not all good and peaceable and happy as you might find in many another more patronizing and placating fairy story); a place where luck is what luck always is, not a fair thing, but a real one—all of this, taken together, to make a place that really might well have existed sometime, someplace, somewhere over there.
Maybe it seemed too much a thing to expect people to believe in dragons in 1967. I imagine the same people at college who snubbed genre writing would blink at me stupidly if I casually said something about Fafnir’s hoard, still lost under the waters of the Rhine. It’s easier to believe in something fabulous happening a long time ago, in some other place—just not here. There they have wars and queens and dragons and blue fruit that tastes like ice cream. Here we have stinky cars and nine-to-fives and people who settle down and buy houses. Even lions seem like a dream.
But that’s not what Tolkien is after, that “Sure, sure, I guess it’s possible it could have happened somewhere once.” No, this is different.
If we admit that Wootton Major was possible, that the story is true, then so is the entire realm of Faery.
There is no explanation for how one reaches the country of Faery in the story. Believe me. I have looked.
There is no magic wardrobe or special set of words or glittering key set in a shining door. According to my best understanding, you get there the way you would get to any other country. In Smithson’s case, you walk.
Of course it isn’t that simple. Not just anyone can walk into the realm of Faery.
An exception, then. You can find your way there—if you are invited.
To voracious readers of fairy stories, this is not exactly news. Changeling children, Powell the Prince of Dyfed—even in Middle Earth, if one wants to enter the Far West (not the realm of Faery but the Valar), one must have an Elf as a guide—someone who comes from there and there means to return.
When I first read “Smith of Wootton Major,” I thought it was a solitary adventure. So much of it is about where Smithson goes, not who he goes with. The green fields, the trees and flowers, lakes as clear as glass.
It seemed a lonely thing. Starbrow, walking in this perfect world, empty of anyone to share it with.
While the Faery star is his invitation, it is some time before “he first began to walk far without a guide…” (Tolkien, “Smith” 26). There are Faery warriors returning in ships across the sea. There are Faery maidens who dance in the green glens. The very trees have voices and speak and know deep secrets.
He reminds me of Tolkien this time, Starbrow. “Some of his briefer visits he spent looking only at one tree or one flower; but later in longer journeys he had seen things of both beauty and terror…” (Tolkien, “Smith” 26)
I don’t recall where I first heard of Tolkien doing this, going for walks only to stare at a single plant in endless happiness. But that is not the only thing about Starbrow that reminds me of him.
For the longest time, Tolkien wrote, unknown. The Silmarillion, his masterwork, his history of Middle-Earth, was never published during his lifetime. But he knew. He knew the stories of the very stars themselves.
And so when I read of Smith, crafting ordinary things for ordinary people, but trying to make them beautiful, going for long walks and learning things he cannot share, I think of Tolkien, university professor, slogging through endless papers, teaching lectures, and going home to tell strange, lovely stories to his children.
A baker, a smith, a boy who cannot dance. Each passed a Faery star and all that comes with it.
I think of what Tolkien wrote about that Twenty-four Feast, “No doubt some who deserved to be asked were overlooked, and some who did not were invited by mistake; for that is the way of things, however careful those who arrange such matters may try to be” (Tolkien, “Smith” 10). And if it is important enough that we hear it once, he writes it twice, “Some found one, and some found two, and several found none; for that is the way luck goes, whether there is a doll with a wand on the cake or not” (Tolkien, “Smith” 20).
Nokes calls the Fairy Queen “a tricky little creature” because of luck. Someone who cheats, makes some take more and others take less. As if in a game, she has already decided who will lose.
The old folktales, romances, lays, they agree with Nokes. Fairies are trouble. Once upon some other time and place, remember. No tricks here.
The land of Faery is beautiful. Terrible, dangerous, and strange, but beautiful. So are its people. They aren’t human, they aren’t like us. Luck isn’t just.
But is that any reason to want a world in which it does not exist?
When luck is in play, there is no way to be certain. So often I hear people talk about it, safety, security, stay, dependable, reliable, same.
I’d much rather run away to the faire for a day, make a friend playing fiddle and see if the road ever leads us back to the same place.
There is a charm in not knowing.
Tolkien tells us that Wootton Major might be real, and all of Faery with it. We don’t know where. We don’t know how.
But there is hope in it.
Hope. That’s what it makes me feel, this story. That somewhere, somehow, beautiful things are there. And if you keep hoping, keep looking, if you are lucky, someday, you might see them.
I’m not about to turn into an indulgent Victorian parent and plaster a moral on the story. But I do wonder if that, like so much of Tolkien’s writing, is the point.
To look at every tree and flower, listen to the voices in the breeze, laugh as the autumn leaves fall into your hair, feel the silent knowing in cool stone, see the colors in the sunset, orange and pink and red, glorious in a way no camera has ever been able to capture. To know that beauty exists, even if we cannot see it. To let the world be wild and free and strange, lucky and unlucky.
Some things are beyond us. Simpler and sweeter and better than we could make them.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a story about a cake and a Faery star. Maybe it’s as Nokes says, “a silly dream, when you come to think of it. King o’ Fairy! Why, he hadn’t no wand…That’s natural. Stands to reason. There ain’t no magic in it” (Tolkien, “Smith” 56-57).
You can imagine what I think of that.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Smith of Wootton Major.” Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham, Del Ray, 1986.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Mariner Books, 2012.
Wikipedia, “Once upon a time.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Once_upon_a_time. Accessed 12 March 2023.
Photo credits in order:
Miroshnichenko, Tima. “Gray Metal Tools on Gray Concrete Surface.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-metal-tools-on-gray-concrete-surface-5846086/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Cover of A Tolkien Miscellany, taken from an illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien. Quality Paperback Bookclub, 2002. Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/23611. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Kaiyv, Zhang. “Trees on Forest at Daytime.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/trees-on-forest-at-daytime-1083515/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Mendes, Isabella. “Round Bread.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/round-bread-940842/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Cover of The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, by J.R.R. Tolkien. HarperCollins, 2009. Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6352248-the-legend-of-sigurd-gudr-n. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Koppens, Ylanite. “Clear Glass Bottle on Gray Concrete Surface.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/clear-glass-bottle-on-gray-concrete-surface-10288906/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Cats Coming. “Person Holding Chopping Board With Sponge Cake.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-chopping-board-with-sponge-cake-1359330/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Pixabay, “Directly Above Shot of Dried Decoration.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/directly-above-shot-of-dried-decoration-247113/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Shuraeva, Anastasia. “A Wooden Door.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-wooden-door-6015516/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Koppens, Ylanite. “Gray-metallic Star-shaped Decor.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-metallic-star-shaped-decor-744973/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Branco, Marta. “Lighted Christmas Stars.” Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/lighted-christmas-stars-1653688/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
About the Author
Bookmarkedone is a writer and musician, capable of devouring most types of fiction, but especially fantasy. Perhaps more relevant, she is the force of chaos behind the bookmarkedone blog, authoring 200 posts and counting. Most days she can be found in the garrett (reading), sitting under a tree (more reading), halfway up said tree, or running away with her violin to a Renaissance festival. You can read more of her work online at https://bookmarkedone.home.blog/, or chat anytime about neomedieval music, tea, and faerie rings on Twitter @bookmarkedone.
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