Smith of Wootton Major is a short tale, but despite being so it is filled up to the brim with ideas, beliefs and concepts that J. R. R. Tolkien held on the realm of Faery and fairy-stories.

The tale begins in a fairly common village called Wootton Major. It is situated in the English, albeit imaginary, countryside. As the name suggests, the village is located near a forest bordering Wootton Major on its western edge, and it is bigger than the neighbouring Wootton Minor in the clearing deeper into the trees. The word wootton means “a place by or near a wood”. It is derived from the Old English wudu (wood) + tun (town). Wudu used to be spelt widu at some point, and the word meant “trees, trees collectively, forest, grove”. Tun was initially applied to “homestead, manor, field, garden” and later it began to mean “village, farm, group of houses”. After the Norman conquest of XI century the concept of tun changed, and it began to mean a “habitation larger than a village” similar to the French ville [3]. Today the element wootton can be seen in many English place names.

Wootton Major is famous for its crafts. They are passed from older generations to the younger ones, and thus most people bear names identifying the crafts they are proficient at. However, there is another thing Wootton Major is especially good at: cooking. Master Cook is an important person and he is supposed to prepare rich feasts for special occasions and festivals. The most important of them was The Feast of Good Children that took place only once in 24 years. Master Cook has to do his absolute best for this feast and, alongside many other dishes, to prepare the Great Cake which is the culinary crown of the Feast.

At first sight everything seems perfect in Wootton Major. However, it is not the case. The signs of disease are beginning to show in the very heart of the village:

The Cook’s House and the Kitchen adjoined the Great Hall, the largest and oldest building in the place and the most beautiful. It was built of good stone and good oak and was well tended, though it was no longer painted or gilded as it had been once upon a time.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 3-4)

 

The Great Hall is a solid building where all public feasts are held, but the lack of adornment is not a good sign: the villagers are beginning to forget that beauty should be preserved to be enjoyed and to give pleasure to the inhabitants, that it should be an integral part of any culture and tradition. Thus with the negligence to the former adornment on the Great Hall the disease has struck the village into its very heart.

The whole wheel of the story is set in motion when the then Master Cook announces that he needs a holiday and goes away for a few months. It is something that has never happened and thus presents a certain problem for the Council. In his essay on Smith of Wootton Major, Tolkien provides some background information about the Master Cook that starts it all. His name is Rider and, contrary to the craftsmen of the village, his family dealt with tending horses and working as messengers. This sets him apart from the rest of the villagers straight away. Since his childhood Rider has been used to travelling a lot. It is on those travels that he finds himself a wife in the village of Walton and returns with her to Wootton Major at the age of about 35.

So travelling and going away for a long time was not something unusual for the young Rider, whereas going on holiday in the position of Master Cook is an outrageous thing to do. During Rider’s absence his daughter Ella manages the cooking with the help of her friends. When Rider returns, he is a different man: he used to be sad and quiet, due to the untimely death of his wife, but after his holiday he becomes merry and starts to sing songs at feasts (something which Master Cook is not supposed to do) to the great surprise of the villagers. Besides, he brings an Apprentice with him.

The Apprentice looks very young and is referred to as Alf by Rider. To an attentive observer this name gives a clue about his identity straight away. Alf is derived from the Old English Ælf and means “elf”. This element was present in some other Old English names, such as Ælfræd “Elf-counsel” (Alfred), Ælfwine “Elf-friend” (Alvin), Ælfric “Elf-ruler” (Eldridge) or Ælfflæd “Elf-beauty” [3]. Lithe and polite Alf is, of course, very different from the evil, small goblins of the Germanic folklore, and he is also very different from the villagers of Wootton Major. The clue in his name is clearly lost upon most of them, and they call him simply Prentice.

Several years after his holiday Master Cook Rider decides to leave for good:

The next surprise came only three years later. One spring morning the Master Cook took off his tall white hat, folded up his clean aprons, hung up his white coat, took a stout ash stick and a small bag, and departed. He said goodbye to the apprentice. No one else was about.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 6)

 

It comes as a great blow to the Council and the villagers. Nothing like this has ever happened, so Rider’s story is altogether significant. In his wanderings and behaviour Rider is reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins in his ways. Having returned from his first adventure with the Dwarves, Bilbo became a very different Hobbit. He took to poetry, began walking in the woods and visiting strange folks. He is an Elf-friend in his ways, which Rider can also be classified as. He likes beautiful things and long walks, is kind to people, enjoys singing and dancing. It was he who re-introduced singing and dancing as part of feasts in Wotton Major on becoming Master Cook, thus tackling another symptom of the disease that was beginning to affect the village. Such people as Bilbo and Rider come across as outrageous, and are generally frowned on in rural communities like the Shire or Wootton Major for being too different from the common folk.  With their love of beautiful things, nature, long walks, tales, songs, dancing and poetry they come across as terribly weird to the stagnating, stale, prosaic inhabitants of such places.

After Rider departs, Nokes is chosen to be Master Cook. He made some attempts to become an Apprentice to Rider in the past, but he did not like Nokes, and it was for a reason. Lazy and unwilling to improve his skills, Nokes does not seem a particularly suitable person for cooking. It seems that he is chosen by the Council not because of his culinary talents, which he has none, but because he is a predictable person, who will not run away into the blue without notice. He is referred to as a solid man, careful with money, and that is exactly the type the Council needs not to get any more unpleasant surprises from such an important public figure as Master Cook.

With his name Nokes is different from others with craft names. It means “living by or near an oak tree”. He is obviously provided with money and cannot do much with his hands to make his living. Nor does he need to. Another meaning of Nokes’ name is less flattering and means “fool, ignorant person”. Verlyn Flieger draws parallels between the Nokes of Smith of Wootton Major and Old Noakes of Bywater from The Lord of the Rings [1]. Having the same names, albeit with different spellings, both characters are ignorant, narrow-minded types representing the most stagnate part of their communities.

Thus the wheels of the story are set in motion. The Feast of Good Children is approaching, Wootton Major has a new Master Cook, Nokes, who still has some time to learn to cook eatable food.

 

Find the whole read-along here

 

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] Etymonline.com

 

4 thoughts on “Reading Smith of Wootton Major /// Part I.

  1. This is so interesting! When I read this tory last year, I thought it contained in a nutshel everything Tolkien had ever created. Rider’s personality, so similar to Bilbo’s, is one excample.

    1. Indeed! It does come across as a collection of Tolkien’s thoughts, ideas and beliefs expressed in his writings. What makes this impression even stronger is that it was the last tale he completed in his lifetime.

  2. Wonderful insights, Olga. Each time I read this, I’m fascinated by the idea of this almost “generational” feast. The Feast of Good Children seems to be aimed at each subsequent generation of children of the village. Once the children from this year’s feast have grown and had children of their own, it will be time for the next feast. But of course life doesn’t work out perfectly at all times. Not every child will be the right age at the right time for the next feast. Some will miss a feast altogether, just as some will not find a trinket in their slice of cake.

    It is also interesting that Nokes’ surname seems to have a potential meaning so similar to that of the town itself (by a wood / by an oak tree). In a town where people’s names generally signify their importance to the community by way of their trade, Nokes ought to be a person of great importance. He might as well be called Old Wootton. Yet he falls short of his potential, just like the Great Hall at the beginning of the tale.

    1. Thank you! And that’s a great one from you about generations! The timing is a tricky thing indeed, though. Not everyone is lucky to attend such a feast. It’s curious how luck goes.
      So spot-on about Nokes! Once you think about, he should be a perfect dweller of the town, the quintessence of its best traits. Ironically, he’s absolutely the opposite.

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