Smith of Wootton Major by JRR Tolkien
Reviewed by Mike Foster
This 57-page novella, Tolkien’s last complete work, gleams with the cold yet comforting beauty of the setting sun on drifted winter snow. This fable of the getting and giving up of the full life of creative imagination, the realm of Faery, is, in the writer’s words, “an old man’s story, filled with the presage of bereavement.”
The grain of sand around which the irritated Tolkien spun this final pearl of a tale was George D. MacDonald’s The Golden Key. Offered $200 to write an introduction to the book, Tolkien instead rediscovered his sincere dislike of MacDonald, not least for his sentimental moralistic allegory.
So instead of the requested preface, Tolkien composed his own allegory: “As usual, there is no ‘religion’ in the story; but plainly enough the Master Cook and the Great Hall are a (somewhat satirical) allegory of the village-church, and village parson: its functions steadily decaying …into mere eating and drinking.”
He wrote the first part on a typewriter, the last by hand. It began:
“There was once a cook, and he thought of making a cake for a children’s party. His chief notion was that it must be very sweet.”
He was 73; his once-close friend C.S. Lewis, a great MacDonald enthusiast, had died a year earlier.
Biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes:
“Like Smith, the village lad who swallows a magic star and so obtains a passport to Faery, Tolkien had, in his imagination, wandered for a long while through mysterious lands; but now he felt the approach of the end, and he knew he would have to surrender his own star, his imagination.”
Clearly Smith is Tolkien, as Niggle was in Tolkien’s earlier parable of creativity. As to the rest of the allegorical equation, part of the delight of the book—and for all its grave roots, the story is tart and sweet as wild cherries—lies in each reader’s interpretation. Tolkien treasured Roger Lancelyn Green’s December, 1967, review: “To seek for the meaning is to cut open the ball in search of the bounce.”
Smith’s imaginative quest begins at age 9 when he eats the Fay Star, baked into The Great Cake served at the Twenty-Four Feast for two dozen good children. The Master Cook Nokes (MacDonald?) had added it only at the insistence of Alf, his apprentice, whose name reveals his nature. Later, when Smith sings, the star falls out, “bright silver now.” He claps it to his brow and begins his journeys.
Smith, of course, becomes a blacksmith, both of useful tools and beautiful ironwork, “light and delicate as a spray of leaves and blossom.” But he forays away from his village and ventures into Faery from time to time, and what he sees suggests the earliest visions of Tolkien’s prodigious subcreation.
Above all, Smith has a good ending. He is 57 when he chooses to pass the star—a ring, in the earliest drafts—on to another boy, rather than cling to it selfishly. In Tolkien’s last work, Smith does what Frodo could not.
Smith of Wootton Major was recently republished in an extended edition by Verlyn Flieger. Her 91 pages of notes include a look at the boggling pre-history Tolkien constructed beneath this seemingly simple work, including a timeline that begins 63 years before Smith’s birth. Pauline Baynes’ wonderfully medieval illustrations reveal hitherto unnoticed detail in the larger format here. Reproductions of manuscript pages and Tolkien’s scrupulous notes couple with Flieger’s valuable insights to make this HarperCollins edition worth seeking out.