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Verlyn Flieger, ‘Smith of Wootton Major’

‘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.’

Verlyn Flieger, editor of the extended edition of Smith of Wootton Major (2005), explores Tolkien’s conception of Faery and uncovers the detailed background notes compiled to authenticate the story.

Origin of the story

Smith of Wootton Major was the unplanned by-product of J.R.R. Tolkien’s attempt to write an introduction for a new edition of the Scottish writer George MacDonald’s short story, The Golden Key. Re-reading the story however, he found himself out of sympathy with what he felt was MacDonald’s preachy treatment of fairies and fairy story.

Trying to illustrate what he felt was the popular misconception of fairy stories as saccharine and for children, he began an allegory about a cook who baked an over-sweet cake for a children’s party. The allegory overpowered the introduction, and Tolkien abandoned the latter to turn the allegory into a story about a boy whose slice of cake at a village children’s feast contains the magical, ‘fay’ star that is a passport into Fairyland.

In this story, the fay star has been baked into the cake by Nokes, the ignorant and insensitive Master Cook of the village of Wootton Major, who thinks the star is a mere trinket, and has no understanding of its power.

The boy (called Smithson while his father lives, and afterward simply Smith) swallows the star without realizing it. On his tenth birthday it magically reappears on his forehead, invisible to all but a few in the village. When Smith grows to manhood, he follows his father’s trade as a blacksmith, but the presence of the star lifts his craft to the level of art, so that the things he makes, while strong and useful, are also shapely and beautiful in themselves.

The fay-star in Smith of Wootton Major allowed its wearer to enter Faery. Eärendil’s device, featuring a Silmaril as a shining star, was painted by Tolkien around the same time.

Possession of the star also enables Smith to make journeys into Fairyland in a magically suspended time-warp that does not count as the ‘real’ time of the village. Only his family is aware of his absences, and even they do not know where he has wandered. In the perilous land that Tolkien called Faery, Smith sees events transpire to which he has no key, sees wonders unfold that he does not understand, and stumbles into dangers of which he is unaware. Trespassing on the dangerous Lake of Tears, he arouses the Wild Wind, but is sheltered from its wrath by a weeping birch. The tree warns him to go away, telling him outright that the Wind is hunting him and that he does not belong in the Faery land.

The point of the story is that one can see and experience enchantment without needing to understand its reason for being, or else go too far in a realm where there are ‘pitfalls for the unwary’ and ‘dungeons for the overbold’.

The nature of Faery

Although the author himself called Smith of Wootton Major ‘an old man’s book, already weighted with the presage of bereavement’, the story has much more to offer its readers than J.R.R. Tolkien’s farewell to his art. It follows admirably the criteria he established for fairy tales in his important essay On Fairy-stories, perhaps his clearest statement of the principles that informed his creativity. Here he reminded readers that while fairy stories are stories about ‘the realm or state in which fairies have their being’, they are not primarily concerned with fairies, but with ‘the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches’.

This is the Realm that Tolkien called variously Fayery or Faërie or Faery – the spelling varied, but not the meaning – and which, he maintained, holds within it: ‘the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and … mortal men, when [they] are enchanted’. He might have been describing his own last story, which is not about the Faery realm, but about Smith’s experiences while he is there. He is precisely a ‘mortal man’ who is ‘enchanted’ by the power of the fay star on his forehead.

‘In Faery at first he walked for the most part quietly among the lesser folk and the gentler creatures in the woods and meads of fair valleys, and by the bright waters in which at night strange stars shone’.

The word itself in all its spellings comes from Old French fay or fae, meaning ‘fairy’, but the older spelling carries darker, more powerful connotations than the present-day Disney version of sprites with wands and gossamer wings. Tolkien wanted the older resonance, and applied the term both to the realm itself and to the state of enchantment it fosters in the reader for whom Smith is a surrogate, a state of being which for the author represented the workings — for both the tale-teller and the audience — of the creative imagination.

The back-story

There is more to the story than meets the eye, and this is intentional on J.R.R. Tolkien’s part. He backed up this severe and uncompromising story of the wages of enchantment with an earthy and solidly-grounded history going back three generations before the narrative begins and taking in both the village of Wootton Major and its principle inhabitants. In addition he laid out a meticulous timeline chronicling events leading up to the story as well as during its unfolding, and went to great lengths to provide a description and give the ages of all the characters both in and behind the tale. He also companioned the story with a long essay on the nature of Faery and its relationship to the real world and that world’s mortal inhabitants.

Publication history

First published in 1967, Smith of Wootton Major was the last of Tolkien’s stories to appear in his lifetime, and is of all his shorter works the most difficult to categorize. It is neither a story for ‘children’ nor ‘adults’, but rather for any reader of any age who enjoys fairy tales and can surrender to enchantment, since of all his works Smith comes closest to the spirit of a traditional fairy story. Smith of Wootton Major has been republished many times since 1967, and included in several anthologies of Tolkien’s shorter works.

The book was published by HarperCollins in 2005 in an extended edition edited by Verlyn Flieger and including for the first time all the background material: Tolkien’s long essay, the time scheme and the character description, as well as a facsimile of the earliest draft of the story.