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Old 07-17-2021, 10:38 AM   #1
Estelyn Telcontar
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Silmaril Minor Works -- 3 - Smith of Wootton Major

Like "Leaf", this tale definitely has autobiographical aspects, "translated" into a story of Faery. It was, however, written late in Tolkien's life, and has a completely different focus. It was published, with Pauline Baynes' delightful illustrations, in 1967.

The story of a human who received a star as his "passport" to the land of Faery was the last story that JRRT wrote and the last work to be published during his lifetime. I have two different editions: in Tales from the Perilous Realm, and a hardback, extended edition volume, edited and commented by Verlyn Flieger. I am using the latter as my primary reference for this introduction to the discussion.

The tale had an unexpected origin, typical for Tolkien! He was writing an introduction for a story by George MacDonald, explaining the true meaning of "fairy" by illustrating it with the outline of a story. Soon the story itself interested him more than the introduction (which was never finished or published).

Flieger very aptly calls this tale "the imaginal realization of the theoretical concept he put forward in his 1939 lecture-essay "On Fairy-Stories"." He shows the realm of Faery to be a perilous place for mortals.

The opening lines of the story are wonderful: "There was a village once, not very long ago for those with long memories, nor very far away for those with long legs."

What does this story evoke in you when you read it? Which are your favourite characters? Which aspects are, in Tolkien's terms, "applicable", not "allegorical"? Do you see any personal applicability to your own life? I look forward to your contributions to the discussion!
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Old 07-17-2021, 11:15 AM   #2
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I love Smith, but have a possibly quite basic question: is there an origin for Tolkien's infatuation with stars on people's brows? Earendil, Elendil, Aragorn, technically Morgoth, Smith... it's a definite theme, and I have no idea whether it comes from anything, or he just came up with the idea and really liked it.

(And is there any connection to Marc Bolan? )

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Old 07-18-2021, 07:01 PM   #3
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Smith is my favorite of everything written by Tolkien, and that's saying something because I love so much of what he wrote.

I remember when I was younger, identifying with 'one of the boys,' who in eating his slice of cake had taken in the Star and it stayed with him without him noticing it. And he gave a coin to the girl sitting next to him who was so disappointed that nothing lucky was in her slice.

One of the great treasures of this story is that there is such an economy in the story telling: everything that is included drives the story home, whether through plot, character, theme, or milieu.

And the evocation is so utterly real. It brings it home, to a place inside of me that I can only fail to describe with any accuracy. This story makes whatever it is that Tolkien evokes, call to me like nothing ever could. Have you ever wanted to laugh and cry at once, not knowing which you would rather do, or could do? This is that story for me.
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Old 07-18-2021, 08:16 PM   #4
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Boots Stars, Smiths and dancing in the woods

Huinesoron— Nimrodel !
“A star was bound upon her brow
A light was on her hair”

Smith of WM reminds me of LMP’s old thread “it feels different near the Shire.” The elf Queen reminds me more of Goldberry than Galadriel. Less remote, more near to the heart—until she is revealed as the elf queen.
Dancing in the woods always sang to me. Music in the forest. Stars through the trees.
But over all the story strikes me as well past Fourth Age— as Sharon would say, seventh age— and the elves are too remote: so sad. Give me first age Beleriand. Or, at least Rivendell.

But back to the Shire. Finding the elf queen dancing in the woods is like finding Gildor in Woody end. Having to surrender the star at the end of the Smith’s tenure— I don’t know. Too sad.
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Old 07-19-2021, 03:57 AM   #5
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Palantir-Green The Baggins of Wootton Major

Quote:
Originally Posted by Estelyn Telcontar View Post
The tale had an unexpected origin, typical for Tolkien! He was writing an introduction for a story by George MacDonald, explaining the true meaning of "fairy" by illustrating it with the outline of a story. Soon the story itself interested him more than the introduction (which was never finished or published).
This development does not surprise me at the least. Also, I have not read that much of MacDonald, but even with that the Smith was one of the first associations I had when I stumbled upon his writings, it very clearly belongs into the same "box".

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The opening lines of the story are wonderful: "There was a village once, not very long ago for those with long memories, nor very far away for those with long legs."
I very much like this as a variant, or elaboration, on the typical fairytale opening phrases.


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Originally Posted by Huinesoron View Post
I love Smith, but have a possibly quite basic question: is there an origin for Tolkien's infatuation with stars on people's brows? Earendil, Elendil, Aragorn, technically Morgoth, Smith... it's a definite theme, and I have no idea whether it comes from anything, or he just came up with the idea and really liked it.
It is definitely a traceable theme, and I, too, would be interested in a study on its origins. Tolkien paper-writers, here's a prompt for you.

Otherwise: just from the opening couple of paraghraphs, there is a barrage of similarities to other Tolkien's works. There are minor associations this induces, such as the village's position within the landscabe reminding me of Bree and its neighbouring villages (one village on the edge of the wood, another smaller one already in - just like Bree vs. Combe, Archet and Staddle). This may be a minor matter, but as a writer, I know that often images of places in one's imagination overlap and are "reused" - not consciously - and this might very well be the same case.

But there are also bigger similarities. I recall having first read it with "Giles" back-to-back and no wonder some of it has blurred in my mind: both stories start with the description of a local custom of a feast where the Cook makes their Great Project (be it the dragon's tail or the cake) always at a given time, basically around Christmas. There is also the generic setting, the village with its set of characters with their flaws and sort of obliviousness to the magic that is in their midst - that is more similar to the Shire and the Hobbits' attitude towards Bilbo and Frodo. Or to all the pragmatic but awful people in Niggle. The new cook has, to me, some vague resemblance to Mr. Parish.

The most striking in the opening paraghraphs is probably the old Cook's departure, which is without reservation comparable to Bilbo's. "Tell them that I am taking a longer holiday and that I am not coming back" - does this even need to be elaborated on in any way? And I am pretty sure the parallels don't end there. I recall, for one, the scene where Alf intimidates the cook in the same manner as Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.

I have had only time to read a part of the story now and I will have to finish it later. But when I do, especially once I get to the Queen, I am sure that I will still have quite a bit to say. I am actually very curious how I am going to perceive the story now - I must have last read it nearly two decades ago.
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Old 07-22-2021, 04:34 AM   #6
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I have read an article somewhere (Mythlore magazine, or a book?) in which it was speculated that the Great Kitchen and its Master Cook stood in for the Church and its Priest. I don't think I agree, because many villages and towns in real life, like Wootton Major in this story, have some aspect that is expanded and elaborated.

One town in Michigan is 'Christmas all year.' Another has its Oktoberfest with real trebuchets that throw pumpkins in the bay. And those are just two examples within a few hours' drive from where I live.

I think that it's better to view this as a creation for the sake of this story, with plot, characters, theme, and miliue, all of a piece.
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Old 07-23-2021, 02:26 AM   #7
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I have read an article somewhere (Mythlore magazine, or a book?) in which it was speculated that the Great Kitchen and its Master Cook stood in for the Church and its Priest. I don't think I agree, because many villages and towns in real life, like Wootton Major in this story, have some aspect that is expanded and elaborated.
Generally agreed that it sounds like one of the generic speculations that sometimes come up, along the lines of "it has four legs, therefore it has to be a dog". However I must say that there is one interesting aspect that makes me wonder whether it may not be at least partly on the right track. In the story, there is the somewhat peculiar description of the Hall once Alf had subtly influenced it to be renewed to the old style, with gargoyles and other decorative elements.

This is first obviously meant to be "a cultural influence of Faery" and perhaps a sort of metaphore for "restoring the old and forgotten, the mythology to its right place", but still, can it be more? Can it be, in broad terms, somehow connected to Tolkien's love for the "old-fashioned look" of churches, perhaps even in the forms of liturgy and so on? (Is anybody aware of Tolkien's view of older forms of Roman Catholic mass as opposed to more modern ones? However I am not aware of there being any "modern" or, contrarily, "restoration" movements at least as far as liturgy is concerned around that time yet, that would fall only towards 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, but perhaps someone specifically well-versed in Roman Catholic history would know whether there had been some minor attempts at changes already back when the Smith was written).
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Old 07-23-2021, 12:51 PM   #8
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This is first obviously meant to be "a cultural influence of Faery" and perhaps a sort of metaphore for "restoring the old and forgotten, the mythology to its right place", but still, can it be more? Can it be, in broad terms, somehow connected to Tolkien's love for the "old-fashioned look" of churches, perhaps even in the forms of liturgy and so on? (Is anybody aware of Tolkien's view of older forms of Roman Catholic mass as opposed to more modern ones? However I am not aware of there being any "modern" or, contrarily, "restoration" movements at least as far as liturgy is concerned around that time yet, that would fall only towards 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, but perhaps someone specifically well-versed in Roman Catholic history would know whether there had been some minor attempts at changes already back when the Smith was written).
There was nothing to the same level as the post-Vatican II change of liturgy, but the tinkering started already during the 1960s (traditionalists have had to fix a date of "nothing after which" and 1962 is as close to a consensus for pre/post Old Mass/New Mass changes) so it was already ongoing when Smith was written. Tolkien, though not noted anywhere as a liturgist, would have seen some of the experimentation as a regular Mass-goer (particuarly experimenting with more vernacular) if any of it was going on locally, and would certainly have been read up enough on the news to have heard more in the offing. Certainly, a few years later, when the "Agatha Christie Petition" was circulating, he was vocal about disliking the changes. Smith was published in 1967 and my memory of The Letters--without looking them up!--is that it went from idea to bound paper quickly, so it was definitely written during the welter of Catholic life that was the 1960s.

But it's something Tolkien could have picked up on earlier. Though not the same degree as the 1960s, there was a lot of liturgical tinkering in the 1950s that someone who spoke fluent Latin as an active Catholic might have noticed, such as the revised Holy Week rites.

It was also a time of architectural change--at least on this side of the ocean, the 1950s was already a time of designing "ugly" rather than "timeless" Churches, and if that was true in a cultural backwater like western Canada, I imagine Catholic churches being erected in the same postwar period in England would have had examples of the same.

At the very least, as something very much in Tolkien's world at the time he was writing Smith, changes in ritual--and the lack of necessity in his view for the same--are eminently plausible as the intellectual backdrop of his thinking here, regardless of whether they may be intentional themes or parallels.
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Old 07-23-2021, 03:46 PM   #9
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... I am not aware of there being any "modern" or, contrarily, "restoration" movements at least as far as liturgy is concerned around that time yet, that would fall only towards 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, but perhaps someone specifically well-versed in Roman Catholic history would know whether there had been some minor attempts at changes already back when the Smith was written).
Smith was written in the late 60s, so Tolkien was no doubt aware of Vatican II.

I still hold with my general approach that the plot, them, and characters, and milieu are all of a piece, and this story, like most of Tolkien's writings, steers clear of overt religion.

As you mention, Legate, the gargoyles and such are a cultural element and need not be a religious one.
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Old 07-22-2021, 11:19 AM   #10
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Do you see any personal applicability to your own life? I look forward to your contributions to the discussion!
Well, when I was on trek to discover/recover some of my maternal grandmother's past, I went to Iron Acton, Glocestershire, where her family was supposed to have lived at Hill House. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover that there was a Wootton Road leading out of it. I was tempted to follow that road ....


Yes, yes, I know there is a village of Wootton just outside Oxford, which is probably Tolkien's Wootton. But that's not "my" Wootton.
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Old 07-23-2021, 04:32 AM   #11
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Alf Prentice should have been Master Cook, and had to wait for old Nokes to retire, even though he was the one prepared for the role, and no doubt would have performed it even better than his own Master.

The people knew Alf was there, and was the one the Master Cook had chosen, but they seemed completely oblivious to the fact, and they also seemed completely oblivious to the fact that they had no business making the decision that they did. And Alf stood by, and let it happen. I suspect that he could have forced the issue had he chosen, but then perhaps that would have made him no better than the people of Wootton.

Tolkien always does this. The trope is that things were supposed to go this way, but due to people being people, it did not; this happened instead. It happens in Giles, Leaf by Niggle, Wootton, The Hobbit, every story he ever told. Repeatedly.

Every time it happens, I recoil and protest and become angry (there are personal reasons), and wonder what if, pointlessly. Because reality is like this. Always. And Tolkien knew it, and apparently was compelled to mirror this fact of human nature back to us.
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