Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Tolkien’s vision of Faery

 If it wasn’t for the Lord of the Rings, I doubt I would have ever heard of J. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major. That said, the novella is an interesting, thoughtful read.

According to Wikipedia, a source that can and should be questioned, the novella started life as a preface for George McDonald’s The Golden Key. I might be a coward but an entire novella for a preface feels like a lot to me. Also, I’m pretty sure the finished Smith is longer than the Golden Key.

Set in the not-too-far past, it is the story of how the titular Smith is given a magic star that lets him explore the world of Faery. Tolkien wrote it to describe Faery as a concept and a setting but there’s a character arc in there as well.






As a child, Smith is gifted with a Faery star that ends up affixed to his forehead. It gives him the ability to travel far from the fields he knows and into Faery. But Smith doesn’t have any grand quest or goal. Really, for all intents and purposes, he is a tourist in Faery. Which makes perfect sense if the story is more about world building than plot. 

In fact, when Smith is given a task by the Queen of Faery, it’s simply to find his successor in wearing the star and traveling through the Faery lands. While it is never said, rereading the story makes me wonder if the real purpose of the star bearer is to keep humanity’s wonder and connection to Faery alive.

Which would tie in to one of the reoccurring motifs of Smith of Wootton Major, the contrast between the Victorian cute fairies and the older, more dangerous beliefs. Nokes, a shallow and arrogant villager in Wootton Major, who gets a hefty chunk of the entire dialogue, is there to represent the Victorian side of the equation. 

And the vision of Faery in Smith of Wootton Major is one of mystery and wonder and danger. It is the most Lord Dunsany of anything I’ve read by Tolkien and Tolkien’s letters make it clear Dunsany was an influence on his overall work. The fantastic but unexplained world of Faery is definitely one of the stories strengths.

Still, Smith is not a static character. We see him grow wiser as the story goes on. At the end, when he has given up the star for the next generation, Smith is clearly prepared to bring the insight he has gained from his wanderings into the mortal world.

The Lord of the Rings was possibly the biggest event in the fantasy genre. It changed the genre forever. Smith of Wootton Major is an itty bitty blip compared to it. However, it also shows Tolkien’s love of world building and history.

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