The appointment of Nokes for the important public post of Master Cook highlights the problem that Wootton Major is facing: most villagers have no more taste for wonder. Nokes is the embodiment, albeit an extreme one, of the disease affecting the village.

Prior to the upcoming Twenty-four Feast (the Feast of Good Children) Nokes does manage to improve his cookery skills, but he is still worried about the Great Cake. And rightfully so. As it is his custom, he does not bother with becoming better at cooking and learning to make new dishes. The Great Cake must be as special as the Feast is, so Master Cook has to use all his art to bake something truly spectacular.

This is certainly a problem for Nokes as, though his baking is referred to as “passable”, it is clearly not enough for the Great Cake. He has a notion that it must be very sweet, covered in icing, and thus look fairylike, but that seems to be the end of his expertise in festive pastry. It is in the process of looking for some spices for the Cake that Nokes finds a small star in a box. Alf appears suddenly at the precise moment of its emergence from the box and with all seriousness says that it is a fay star from Faery. Nokes finds this tremendously funny but still promises to bake the star into the Cake.

This discovery and the subsequent conversation with Alf, alongside his views of the Cake and fairies, tell a lot about Nokes and what he thinks about children, their tastes and Faery as the realm. His beliefs mirror accurately some stereotypes that are present not only in Wootton Major, but even in our world today. Tolkien covered them in On Fairy-Stories, and they include the stereotypical view of Faery as a pretty, lovely place inhabited by tiny elves and the popular opinion that fairy-tales are specifically children’s literature.

Nokes’ sweet cake covered in icing and with a Fairy Queen carrying a wand at the top of the cake is too reminiscent of what Faery looks like in many modern people’s eyes. This picture of a sugary world with diminutive beings living in flowers arose Tolkien’s intense dislike. According to the Professor, it is not clear where the notion stemmed from, but he felt it to be the case of rationalisation:

Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalisation’, which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.

(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 318)

This rationalisation, aimed at explaining how fairies can share the world with humans and why we never seem to see them, persisted in literary tradition making it more wide-spread. Tolkien’s view was contrary to that of the masses: he saw Faery as a perilous realm with its own laws, rules and tradition and certainly not diminutive inhabitants — the view which is reflected in his own tales.

Just as Nokes sees Faery as sweet so he also finds it childish. It is with a tint of dismissal and snobbery that he thinks: one grows out of fairies. Nokes readily equals Faery and funny: for him they indeed seem one and the same thing. Alongside his stereotypical view of fairies, Nokes wants to seem so serious and pragmatic, so outrageously grown-up and sensible that he tries to eliminate all connections between Faery and grown-up people.

Here we have come to another persisting stereotype that fairy-stories are directed at children only. Tolkien does not agree with it in On Fairy-Stories. In his opinion, this belief stems from the times when well-off families employed old nurses to look after their children. Those nurses were familiar with ancient tales and folklore, so they told those stories to children. Thus the tradition to tell fairy-stories to small ones stuck and with it — the stereotype. Tolkien argues that not all children have a natural taste for fairy-stories but just listen and read such tales because they are presented with them. In order to properly enjoy them, one should have an inner taste for such literature at any age:

But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.

(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 348-349)

In Tolkien’s case, his interest in fairy-stories “was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (ibid., p. 357). He was able to appreciate and understand myths or tales of old at a deeper level and, above all, find true fascination in them — something that the Professor engraved deeply into his own mythology. So, what exactly are the benefits of fairy-stories for people, especially adults? Tolkien had something to say about it either.

In the same essay On Fairy-Stories the Professor wrote that fairy-stories offer Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation — the things that are necessary for our lives and are more the need of adults than children. These are the things well-written fairy-tales provide for grown-ups so that they could nurture the sense of wonder, preserve it in their hearts even among daily routines and troubles. Writing about Faery in Smith of Wootton Major essay Tolkien furthered the argument:

Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar, still more from the adamantine ring of belief that it is known, possessed, controlled, and so (ultimately) all that is worth being considered – a constant awareness of a world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: that is, a love and respect for all things, ‘inanimate’ and ‘animate’, an unpossessive love of them as ‘other’.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 144)

 

Tolkien goes on to equal Faery with Imagination, capital I, and to explain that it, in the combination of all the aspects mentioned above, is “as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life” (ibid. p. 145).

The inhabitants of Wootton Major seem to be losing this vital sense of wonder: their world has grown too small and familiar that they are failing miserably at seeing beauty in everyday things, losing the ability to marvel at their surroundings. They even start neglecting different aspects of beauty as completely unnecessary, like the Great Hall adornment or the adornment of feasts with dancing and singing. In this they are very much like the characters of the poem The Dragon’s Visit. In its early version the verse was published in 1937 in The Oxford Magazine and forms part of the collection Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay. Though humorous, the poem touches upon a very similar, serious topic: most modern people can no longer stomach wonder, so that their reaction to the living dragon lying in a cherry tree in the garden is to poke a rather peaceful and friendly creature and try to get rid of him, which brings a disaster upon the inhabitants. After causing destruction, the dragon departs, and his words sum up the entire situation:

“They have not got the wit to admire

a dragon’s song or colour,

nor heart to kill him brave and quick—

the world is getting duller!”

And the moon shone through his green wings,

the night winds beating,

and he flew back over the dappled sea

to a green dragons’ meeting.

(Annotated Hobbit, p. 311)

Duller indeed! It seems that the inhabitants of Wootton Major would do a similar thing should a dragon walk into their village. They have no time for Faery or its inhabitants, which even Tolkien’s choice of the spelling for Faery highlights. As Verlyn Flieger notes, the modern variant Fairy which is used in association with Nokes has clear connections with the stereotypical diminutiveness of the realm and its dwellers as seen by most modern people. On the other hand, the older variant Faery, used in association with Alf, hints at the darker connotations which existed in relation to the realm in the past [1]. I will discuss this etymology in more details in later instalments.

In his rather rude and patronising tones used in the conversation with Alf, Nokes shows his narrow-mindedness and disregard of other people, especially with what seems to him silly, impractical ideas. He finds Faery funny and childish, totally undeserving adults’ attention. The Twenty-four Feast is just round the corner, though, and soon we will see what it brings.

Find the whole read-along here

Further reading:

Escape to the book: J. R. R. Tolkien’s view on escapism from the realia of the Robot Age.

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] J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson – The Hobbit or there and back again: revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2003.

6 thoughts on “Reading Smith of Wootton Major /// Part II.

  1. “The world is getting duller”: for some reason this reminds me of Prince Charles’s book on architecture. He spent a whole chapter on Decoration. Lamenting how boring and square everything has become is a traditional pastime of Englishmen of a certain age, I suppose.

  2. Fantastic essey, Olga!
    What edition of Smith of Wooton Major are you quoting for Tolkien’s Essey? I’m not familiar with it. And fascinating the difference between Fairy and Faery. I’ve only read this story in Italian translation, and unfortunately that nouance faded in translation. So, since I need to buy an English edition, might as well get a good one 😉

    I really like the way you see Tolkien’s ideas about Faery and about modern people’s relationship with ‘fantasy’ and the ‘imagination’. I’m certainly a follower of his ideas. As a life-long reader of fantasy, I do think there’s a lot more about these stories than just amusement. They tell about us and our world. They are indeed – as you pointed out – an expansion of our world, at least as we perceive it.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. And sorry for being late in reading. It appears this year is a total mess for me! But I mean to catch up!

    1. Thank you so much!
      Here’s the edition I’m using: https://www.amazon.com/Smith-Wootton-Major-J-Tolkien-ebook/dp/B00O0FTOU8/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?keywords=smith+of+wootton+major&qid=1561205081&s=gateway&sr=8-1 It’s a really fantastic edition with Pauline Baynes’ illustrations and commentaries by Verlyn Flieger. It also includes Tolkien’s essay, his drafts and earlier versions of the tale.
      Indeed, I also agree with Tolkien’s view on fantasy and the outlook of modern people. I guess he’s very spot-on here that many people have become too practical to use their imagination to the full, and it’s certainly very sad.
      This year seems to be hard on many people. Hope it all looks up for you soon!

  3. I’ve appreciated Tolkien’s view of faery when trying to raise my own daughter. She is allowed her Tinkerbells, of course. But she is also made aware of faery and its inhabitants. (Indeed, she loves this particular tale.)

    1. It’s great! I think children should be presented with various options, not only one view of Faery they encounter from specifically children’s tales. It’s essential for their better understanding and appreciation of this fascinating realm.

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