Mortals’ attitude to Faërie and being there defines the nature of their experience in the Otherworld. Arrogance, impudence, importunity or inner evil, though unwitting at times, can lead to various degrees of disaster. What is the best way to approach Faërie then? There is a character in Tolkien’s writings who shows how mortals can visit the world of Elves happily, enjoy the experience and become enlightened by it. It is Smith from Wootton Major.Smith is very different from the haughty narrator of The Sea-Bell, mistrustful Boromir and starved into impudence Dwarves. Their behaviour, whether they are aware of it or not, is not tolerated in Faërie, so the realm turns its dark and ominous face to those who lack belief or show disregard to its laws.
Though Smith is not the character who stumbles into Faërie by accident but visits it consciously and intentionally, the right to do so came to him without his knowledge: at The Twenty-four Feast he swallows a fay-star that belonged to his grandfather Rob Rider. The star becomes Smith’s lawful passport into the realm of Elves. The choice of this boy, who in his youth was called Smithson before he mastered the skill and when his father was alive, was not pure coincidence, though. Apart from the ancestry in the face of the grandfather who was a Faërie walker (which is likely to equal being an Elf-friend in the world of Middle-earth) and instrumental in bringing the King of Faërie to Wootton Major for a special purpose of awakening the village, he possesses several qualities and the right attitude necessary to make his own visits to Faërie good and safe — something which the Sea-Bell narrator, Boromir and the Dwarves lacked. It is humility, kindness, broad-mindedness, love and respect to Faërie.
First of all, Smith was a very kind and generous boy even before he received the star. It shows at the Feast when on finding a silver coin in his piece of cake, he gives it to the girl next to him who is upset at not finding anything in her own cake. He does not know about his own swallowing the star — though he does know about the star itself from the Master Cook Nokes’s introductory speech — and there is only one coin in his cake. Still he does not mind being left with nothing at all in order to make another person happy. He demonstrates how perfectly the principle “the more you give, the more you receive” works: when done sincerely, giving can bring more joy and happiness in the longer run.
This generosity and selflessness of Smith become even more evident when many years later and already a grown man with his own family, he has to surrender the star for it to be passed on to the next child. He calls it bereavement, and bereavement it is. Losing the star means he will not be able to visit Faërie, or at least its deeper regions, any more: without the star it will be dangerous and unwise. It clearly pains Smith to part with the world that has given him so much knowledge, wisdom and so many wonderful journeys, but Alf’s words are enough for him to subdue his pain for the better cause:
They [gifts] cannot belong to a man for ever, nor be treasured as heirlooms. They are lent. You have not thought, perhaps, that someone else may need this thing.
(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 267)
This is enough for Smith to part with the star easier as he becomes acutely aware of the honour granted to him and feels grateful for everything the star brought to him. Thus he is ready to pass it on for some other person to have similar experiences in Faërie. His generosity, kindness and goodwill are bigger than his ego.
This virtue of generosity is very closely connected with Smith’s humility. When in Faërie, he does not wish to be the master of it, or change it for himself, or force his own rules into the land. He merely explores the realm guarded and guided by the star, and, thus, by the King and Queen of Faërie. It is with great respect that he approaches the place where he is merely a guest. Smith is not willing to appropriate anything from Faërie or use his acquired knowledge and experience for his own gain. He is merely a learner:
…he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.
(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 257)
Smith is not after earning renown or glory, but merely enjoys the privilege granted to him, learns from it. When in Faërie, Smith is fearless but not reckless. Though the journeys sometimes take him to dangerous places where he encounters strange things, most of his adventures teach Smith lessons that he remembers and that give him valuable understanding of the land he is exploring. Terrified by the Elvish mariners he sees near the Sea, he does not go to seek that region again. Chased by the wind and escaping its destructive force by holding on to a birch tree, which remains leafless after the encounter, Smith is sad and sorry. He is willing to make amends but there is barely anything to be done. The birch’s agony is enough for him to stay away from Faërie for a long while, but eventually Smith returns: he knows that he does not belong there but cannot yet forsake Faërie.
Smith’s experience in Faërie makes him very different from most villagers. He creates beautiful things and even those for everyday use have beauty and grace about them as his perception of beauty becomes sharp and deep. His journeys in that land make Smith a wiser and a better person. He was chosen by the Elves as a connecting link to bring beauty back to the village that was becoming smug and self-content. Doubtless, Smith initially had some of the qualities necessary for the great task, like his humility or kindness: otherwise he might not have been chosen at all. He possessed the inclinations of someone who could become a successful chosen mortal to blend in Faërie into the villagers’ everyday routines. The star and Faërie only increase and intensify the good in him.
Smith is a direct blow at “the adamantine ring” of familiar the village became encircled with. The main problem of Wootton Major is that most villagers turned into smug, self-content lazybones and began to forget about their roots, forgetting that most of their almost former prosperity was due to contact with Faërie. Feasts are mostly about eating or drinking, and there are no tales told, no singing and no dancing. People are losing their taste, sense of beauty and forget old legends. Nokes is the embodiment of the main malady: becoming too used to trite, familiar and, all the worse, being content with it. His disregard and even contempt for anything fairy is exactly what ails many others in Wootton Major and in our world, too: there is very little sense of wonder left in people.
Through the chosen villagers and by placing the King of Faërie in disguise into Wootton Major, it became possible to re-introduce the beauty and to start waking the villagers up. Tolkien wrote in the accompanying essay on The Smith of Wootton Major, that Faërie is necessary for the normal functioning of a human being as it gives one a sense of wonder and teaches unpossessive love for other people or things. Or, as the Professor put it in On Fairy-Stories “we need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 373).
1. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008
2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Smith of Wootton Major; Extended Edition; edited by Verlyn Flieger; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2005.
Featured image: ‘Landscape River and Forest’ by Thomas Corwin Lindsay (Wikimedia Commons)