J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major (Houghton Mifflin, 1967; Presse Pocket, 1999)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

I love Smith of Wooton Major so much that I would never dare review it, for fear of being reduced to wordless tears. I am fortunate that Asher Black has reviewed it, saying many things I would have said, and other things I would have kept in my heart. Thank you, Asher. — Grey Walker, for The Green Man Review

This is a fairy tale in two respects: it is written largely in traditional fairy tale form, and it is a tale of faery. Oh, it is a sad and beautiful tale, too!

Wootton Major, a village larger than Wootton Minor, has a regional tradition: The Feast of Good Children – also called The Twenty-Four Feast, because each twenty-four years, twenty-four presumably good children are invited. The greatness of the Master Cook is staked upon the feast’s Great Cake, prepared usually only once during his tenure. In this story something happened to the young Smith Smithson, whose slice of the glorious confection contained more than the usual trinkets. He swallowed a star — a star which would adorn his brow and allow him to walk into another world.

One hears the story quite clearly suggesting that Starbrow is perhaps any one of the odd but seemingly ordinary people we may meet — people who seem to have a touch of the fay. Don’t some people just seem to have a special mark, even if we don’t always know what we’re seeing? “Few people in the village noticed it though it was not invisible to attentive eyes; but became part of his face …”

For reasons difficult to explain, one is drawn to such persons, to the glint in an eye or the song in a voice. “People liked to hear him speak, even if it was no more than a ‘good morning.'”

Those who have been to the other worlds seem rarely to comment upon it, though. If anyone were to ask what it is that makes a person this way — what such a one has seen — not all of it could be clearly or adequately described: “… he had seen things of both beauty and terror that he could not clearly remember nor report to his friends, though he knew that they dwelt deep in his heart.” Too, what good would it do to call attention to it? So many people, as Starbrow realizes, “have become like Nokes” — a curmudgeon who can’t see faery even when it is right in front of him — even if, as he will discover, faery sees him.

Tolkien’s treatment of faery, land of elves, is as a radiant expanse of splendour, but it is not all harmless and innocent beauty. There is also terrible beauty — even danger — for mortals such as Starbrow and the reader who, though we may be friends of its enchantment, have neither made nor compassed that world. There one finds elven warriors marching and singing on “the dark marches of which men know nothing,” and there is a tree with countless leaves — each one unlike any other.

With the glamour there is always the sadness — sadness that is the line between men and Eald. Remember the oft-present theme in Tolkien’s books of the Elves sailing out of the world of men? It is here, too. The king of that country is not always wanted, or not wanted enough, in the villages of ordinary men. There is a place where a boy who understands, another starbrow, can only take the hand of the elven king in his own and quietly say, “I’m sorry.” Even those who go to faery can bring sadness to it. To quote a part of the most poignant paragraph:

“He put his arms around the stem of a young birch and clung to it, and the Wind wrestled fiercely with them, trying to tear him away; but the birch bent down to the ground by the blast and enclosed him in its branches. When at last the Wind passed on he rose and saw that the birch was naked. It was stripped of every leaf, and it wept, and tears fell from its branches like rain. He set his hand upon its white bark, saying: `Blessed be the birch! What can I do to make amends or give thanks?’. He felt the answer of the tree pass up from his hand: `nothing’, it said. `Go away! The Wind is hunting you. You do not belong here…’

Sadness is here, the kind of “cool, profound sadness indistinguishable from a warm, profound hilarity,” as Ursula Le Guin put it. This story calls out from behind the veil that even in lasting sadness there can be openness, determination, willingness to hear even if it hurts. “Then he knelt, and she stooped and laid her hand on his head, and 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.” Even in lasting sadness, paradoxically, joy can be that much more joyful.

Another salient aspect of the tale, which is not surprising when one has seen the stories the author wrote for his son Michael, is the clarity and sentience of the voice of the protagonist’s son. His first words ever spoken were “You look like a giant, Dad.” Tolkien made me fall in love with the boy. The son’s voice in the dialogue with his father, who must lay down the star from his brow, is as clear as a perfectly struck bell. Here is a boy too young even to attend the Twenty-Four Feast: “Do you know, Master Smith, there is much you can teach me yet, if you have the time. And I do not mean only the working of iron.”

Don’t be surprised if, reading this book, you too feel as though you’ve swallowed a star. If you find it there, just upon the brow, it means you have been privileged to walk in one of Tolkien’s magical worlds for at least the stretch of an evening, privileged to walk slowly, sometimes, and run so hard that breathing hurts at others. It is also a passport to return whenever you may wish. Speak to the elven queen for this writer and, when I visit, I’ll have her tale of it as a sign that you too were there.

One final note: This is one of those reading experiences in which I hate to separate the text from the visceral qualities of the physical book. The one I own is a little (approx. 11cm x 17cm) light green hardcover edition with gold lettering on the spine, blocked in tree green, and on the front cover in green is a little illustration by Pauline Baynes. The page numbers are flanked by little outline tildes, and Baynes’s pen and ink drawings among the pages succeed in creating a genuine and mature fairy tale feel. The gift inscription for the previous owner (Christmas 1971) is apropos: “Gather around the fire, and read this to the boys; If you haven’t a fireplace, just kindle the dining table…” The smallness of the book fits the hand and the story delightfully. Of course, the story is still one to be enjoyed in paperback. It’s just that if one loves books, one would love finding such a fine edition as this. In fact, the treasured volume in my care is about to be passed on as a birthday gift.

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