Creative processes can often be unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is especially true when applied to writing. Planning to create a piece, a writer might end up somewhere totally different from his initial intention, but by doing so to open a new door offering a fascinating path to take. It is very likely that when J. R. R. Tolkien put pen to paper following a request to write an introduction to George MacDonald’s Golden Key, little did he know where it would take him.

It was September, the year 1964, and Michael di Capua of Pantheon Books in New York approached Tolkien asking him to write an introduction to a separate new edition of George MacDonald’s Golden Key. Tolkien agreed to do it, though he expressed a grain of doubt that he would be able to fulfil the task, partly due to lack of time and partly due to his dislike of moral or mystical allegory abundant in MacDonald’s work. This uncertainty proved true in the end because Tolkien did not write the introduction. He did, however, create something totally different.

In a note to Clyde Kilby (1) Tolkien admits that re-reading MacDonald critically filled him with distaste. His main positive recollection from the early reading of the tale, which even survived the Professor’s newly found dislike for the story itself, centred around the description of the valley circled by mountains with shadows playing on its floor [1]. Thus the task of writing the introduction for Pantheon Books appeared distasteful to Tolkien and, according to his own words, he might have written a very critical essay or even an anti-essay on MacDonald had not his imagination been diverted elsewhere and had not the project collapsed due to Michael di Capua’s moving to another publishing house [1].

Tolkien did start that Golden Key introduction, though. Even unfinished, it casts a light on some of his literary preferences and beliefs, namely his dislike of introductions placed before a tale, thus interfering with a reader’s own perception of a story, or Tolkien’s special attention to properly presenting and explaining the notion of Faery. Apart from some very early poems, Tolkien made an incredible effort in both his academic and literary works to accurately show Faery as a very perilous land with its own rules and dangers for any intruders, contrary to the popular belief that it was a pretty place with diminutive inhabitants. In the abandoned introduction he wrote:

The truth is – I only mention this bit of history because it is impossible to understand the meaning of ‘fairy’ without knowing it – the truth is that fairy did not originally mean a ‘creature’ at all, small or large. It meant enchantment or magic, and the enchanted world or country in which marvellous people lived, great and small, with strange powers of mind and will for good and evil.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 95)

This concept is critical to proper understanding of Tolkien’s view of Faery. In his attempt to get his point across the best he could Tolkien started to invent a short story. That is exactly where The Golden Key introduction was abandoned for good and what would later be known as Tolkien’s own tale Smith of Wootton Major was born. By writing Smith Tolkien did indeed illustrate the world of Faery as he saw it and it made a perfect explanation of his outlook on that realm so often misunderstood and misinterpreted in other literature and in public opinion.

There was once a cook, and he thought of making a cake for a children’s party. His chief notion was that it must be very sweet, and he meant to cover it all over with sugar-icing… (Smith of Wotton Major, p. 96). That is how the tale of Smith started back in 1964. Originally called The Great Cake, it was later renamed and, followed by several revisions, by 1966 the story had been completed. Tolkien first read it at the Blackfriars event at Oxford. It was organised jointly by the Prior of Blackfriars, Fr. Bede Bailey, and the Principal of Pusey House, Fr. Hugh Maycock, to cover the topic of “Faith and Literature” in a series of lectures (2). In fact, Tolkien was supposed to give a talk, but read his newly finished tale instead, explaining that it “contains elements that are relevant to the consideration of Poetry, with a capital P, or that some may find it so” (Smith of Wootton Major, p. 186). A year after the story was read, in November 1967, Smith of Wootton Major was published by George Allen & Unwin. That first publication was a hardcover of a small format and contained illustrations by Pauline Baynes [1].

In a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green, who reviewed Smith of Wotton Major after its publication, Tolkien thanked him for the review and wrote that it was “an old man’s book, already weighted with the presage of ‘bereavement’” (Letter № 299). Tolkien was especially concerned with pointing out that the tale was not specifically intended for children — the belief that he also held on most fairy-stories. In Smith of Wootton Major we see the tale written by a man with tremendous life experience and formed views on many aspects of life. It is a tale of the wonderful and the mundane. It shows Faery at its beautiful and perilous, wonderful and terrible. Above all, it shows that chosen mortals can enter Faery and have adventures there, but their lips become sealed and sooner or later they have to say goodbye to Faery. The memory never fades, though.

This is the first installment of the Smith of Wootton Major read-along. In the upcoming reflections I am going to consider the main topics of the tale, look at the names and themes in the tale and how Tolkien’s view of Faery was depicted in it.


(1) Clyde Kilby was Professor of Wheaton College, IL, and studied the Inklings’ works.

(2) Blackfriars is a Permanent Private Hall at the University of Oxford for those studying Roman Catholic theology. Pusey House is an Anglican religious institution in Oxford.

Works consulted:

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien – Smith of Wootton Major; Extended Edition; edited by Verlyn Flieger; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2005.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.

[3] H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

6 thoughts on “Reading Smith of Wootton Major /// Introduction.

  1. I read this story with my Tolkien Reading Group last year and really really enjoyed it. It’s poetic, and melancholy and there is that sense of impending end, or rather of fading away, that is very typical of all Tolkien’s fiction, what makes it so very unique.
    I can’t wait to read your next reflection 🙂

    1. I can’t agree more! It’s a wonderful tale, and I absolutely love how spontaneously it came to life.
      Thank you for joining in the read-along!

  2. A nice intro! A meta-thought, based on the list of tags: Standardized spelling is one of those things that came along with the Industrial Revolution. It might be another symptom of the loss of mystery and wonder in Modernity. But Faërie has obstinately resisted the tyranny of standardization. It now has four spellings on this page alone. I imagine it might please JRRT to know that Faery is still a bastion of the medieval in our auto-corrected century.

    1. Thank you, Joe!
      That’s so true! It’s good to know that even in our age of standard things Fairy (or however you spell it) is far from being standard.

  3. Been meaning to get to this weeks (gosh, MONTHS now), Olga. I even re-read Smith weeks ago for the purpose. But as a fat inkeeper once observed, ‘one thing drives out another’.
    Great intro. As you say, “By writing Smith Tolkien did indeed illustrate the world of Faery as he saw it and it made a perfect explanation of his outlook on that realm so often misunderstood and misinterpreted in other literature and in public opinion.”
    Indeed. ‘Smith’ goes hand-in-hand with ‘On Fairy-Stories’. And while I would encourage people to read the latter (and do encourage this regularly), if a reader cannot be inclined to read an essay they could do a lot worse than reading the former as an alternative. Both offer wonderful illustrations of how, exactly, Tolkien envisioned Faery, Faerie, Faërie, or Fairy (with a nod to Joviator’s wonderful observation).

    1. Omnia tempus habent 🙂
      Thank you so much for joining in the read-along, Jerry! This little tale is offering more and more on re-reads, and even more on a deeper analysis. Tolkien’s ability to put so much into such a short tale deserves only admiration. And I can’t agree more: it should be read together with On Fairy-Stories. It’s like a proper companion essay offering insights on many aspects of the Smith tale.

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