J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings burst on the consciousness of the United States in 1967, and occasioned an obsession that has never died. Its predecessor, The Hobbit, had been known in the U.S. for years, although not well. (It was one of my favorite library books. I read it every year, and mourned that the mysterious author had never written anything else.) But in the aftermath of the hysteria over LOTR, U.S. readers clamored for anything and everything the Professor had ever written, and so in 1969 Ballantine Books brought out a combined edition of two of his short stories: Smith of Wooten Major and Farmer Giles of Ham.
I grabbed the book at once, of course, and loved it — I am, in fact, reviewing the ancient copy I got when I was thirteen. My impression over the years, though, has been that these exquisitely crafted little tales disappointed most Tolkien fans. They aren’t epic, or sweeping, and there are no elves, hobbits or dwarves in them. That’s been a problem with a lot of Tolkien’s non-LOTR over the years, and not even the elf-centric Silmarillion pleased most of his audience. But dismissing Smith and Farmer Giles is as much a loss to a reader as is ignoring the appendices of LOTR itself.
These are splendid stories. To anchor aficionados a bit more securely, one may consider Smith of Wooten Major to be a more elvish story, while Farmer Giles of Ham is stoutly hobbit-ish.
Smith takes place in Wooten Major, a little village whose charming custom it is to revere both Bakers and children. The Chief Baker is an important officer of the village, each man taking years to carefully choose and train an Apprentice. Once every 24 years the Baker prepares a sumptuous Cake to celebrate the local children, with special tokens and prizes baked into it for the most fortunate to find. No Baker has every managed to prepare two Twenty-Four Cakes in his lifetime, and so the Twenty-Four Cake is the highlight of each man’s career.
Enter Alf, a quiet young stranger to the village, who nonetheless becomes Apprentice to the rather unpleasant current Baker. His arrival coincides with the preparation of the Twenty-Four Cake, in which he hides a particularly special token — a Star. The recipient of the Star, Smith, falls under its shining and eldritch influence for the rest of his life, and, along with the rest of Wooten Major, is eventually profoundly changed.
This is a quiet and intensely spiritual book, filled with unexpected pilgrimages and transformations, the patronage of the King and Queen of Faeries, the succession of small but vital powers in a tight-knit village. It treats of love, devotion, honor, faith and their costs. Despite the themes of cake and children, it is rather solemn, and very lovely in a quiet, introspective way.
Farmer Giles of Ham is quite the opposite, being a hilariously rowdy tale of a rustic hero. Farmer Giles is a clever, solid, shrewd fellow, clearly cut from the same cloth as the most resourceful hobbits elsewhere in Tolkien’s most famous universe. The story recounts the heroic past of a renowned king (who turns out to be Giles) as well explaining well-known but misunderstood local place names. No, really, it does, and even though this is apparently a linguist’s private academic joke, the delightful narrative actually makes it all very entertaining.
Giles defeats a Giant to win his initial fame, then subdues a stubbornly non-martial dragon, binding it to his service, fights and replaces an unworthy King and struggles with the problems of place and proper nouns in the conflicting disciplines of both Latin and the Vulgate speech. In all his adventures, he is accompanied by his faithful hound, Garm, who is a fine fellow even if he can speak only in the Vulgate and knows not a word of dog-Latin: more linguist-jokes.
I strongly suspect the point of this story may actually be the appropriately appalling pun on the name of the River Thames at the end. But it’s a fine and funny little story nonetheless.
Professor Tolkien had a sharp talent for smaller stories. He wrote them like works of lapidary, and often refined them over and over to achieve the shining perfection he wanted. Dozens of them are imbedded in his longer works, and the majority of the posthumous work released by Christopher Tolkien has been collections of the self-contained fables the Professor wrote. One must keep in mind that one of Tolkien’s ongoing goals was to write a mythology in a specifically British style; not that Britain lacked native mythologies, but that there were so many and so varied a mass of legends that there was no overlying “master myth.” Most of the posthumously published stories are his continuing experiments in attaining that essentially British voice of fantasy.
Smith and Farmer Giles have the advantage of being completed by Tolkien himself, and are lovely, polished tales. They have the blunter, more forthright style characterized by The Hobbit and at first read can be just as easily — and erroneously — dismissed as children’s stories. However, although framed as fairy tales, they are actually mythology and are aimed at mature readers: they can be successfully presented to children, but the voice of legend is meant to be just as meaningful to adults. The Pauline Baines illustrations work perfectly with this, being in a wonderful, self-consciously medieval style and so enhancing the feeling that these are old, old stories. They’re not, of course. They are the work of a very modern and well-educated scholar — but like all Professor Tolkien’s work, they feel like an echo of the sunlit fields and shadowed woods of the British mythic landscape that he so loved.