As Smith becomes bolder during his visits to Faery, he sees more things, both dangerous and beautiful, and experiences more. He does err from time to time, but out of curiosity, not out of malice or arrogance. However, everything good comes to an end sooner or later.

Smith travels far and wide in Faery to discover more new places in this vast realm. On one of such journeys he encounters a very unusual lake with light coming from it:

From a low cliff that overhung it he looked down, and it seemed that he could see to an immeasurable depth; and there he beheld strange shapes of flame bending and branching and wavering like great weeds in a sea-dingle, and fiery creatures went to and fro among them.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 24-25)

The lake turns out to have a very hard surface, and Smith commits a mistake of stepping onto it. A gentle breeze turns into a wild Wind, capital W. The capitalisation personifies the Wind, emphasises its malicious intention to hunt or even hurt Smith. So as not to be swept away, the poor traveller clings to a birch that is stripped of its leaves in the Wind’s fury. He is eager to make amends, but the birch accepts no excuses: “You do not belong here. Go away and never return!” (ibid. p. 25). This unfortunate accident stops Smith from visiting Faery for a long time, before he goes back. It is also a reminder, albeit a harsh one, that Faery “is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold” (Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 315).

Smith’s reaction to this unfortunate incident is quite telling of his character. He is a humble and respectable person who does not take his lucky chance to visit Faery for granted, nor does he feel superior there. Even though some mistakes on his behalf occur, Smith remembers his place and such errors are made out of ignorance or mere curiosity. Faery can be perilous for mortals, and there are many places there where they should not venture.

Another instance of Smith’s overboldness is his intrusion into the Elven maids’ dance. Enchanted and interested, Smith means no harm, but such interruptions can end badly. In The Hobbit Thorin and his company of Dwarves with Bilbo Baggins step into the Elven feasts several times for devastating consequences: the Elves disappear, the lights of their fires go off and the Dwarves get lost in the darkness to later get trapped by the spiders of Mirkwood while Thorin becomes enchanted and imprisoned by the Elves. The Elvenking bears no disturbance into his people’s merrymaking, so the intruders have to pay dearly for that: what is an attempt to ask for help for the Dwarves looks like a downright attack for the Elves. Though the Dwarves intend no such thing, they breach the unspoken code of behaviour in Faery: be humble and respectful towards the inhabitants of the realm, especially if you have been warned.

Tolkien’s poem The Sea-Bell shows much tougher consequences of what such a breach can lead to in Faery. The narrator travels to the realm of Faery, and once there, he is willing to see the inhabitants. But they are nowhere to be seen. In his desperate attempts to see somebody, the narrator proclaims himself the king of the place, i.e. Faery, but the dwellers hide themselves and do not show their faces, though their presence is clearly and notably felt. It is not the worst part, though. As soon as the narrator proclaims his kingship, something happens:

Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.

Like a dark mole groping I went,

to the ground falling, on my hands crawling

with eyes blind and my back bent.

(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 235)

The unfortunate visitor spends a year and a day more in Faery, which now looks dreary and unwelcoming to him, after which he returns home disenchanted, devastated and broken. Arrogance is not the attitude to be had and tolerated in Faery.

Smith has a different attitude, so his intrusion into the ring of the dancing maids does not lead to dramatic consequences: he gets to dance with the maid who welcomes him instead. Apart from the deeply engraved memory of the fabulous dance, his reminder of the event is the Living Flower given to him by the maid. The Flower does not fade for many more years to come and is handed down from generation to generation in Smith’s family.

Soon Smith is to discover that the maid he danced with is the Queen of Faery. Following the summons, he travels to Faery and meets the Queen face to face. The conversation between them is held mostly in thought without many words uttered. This desire for communication with beings other than of our own kind is old, as Tolkien wrote in On Fairy-Stories, thus accounting for the ability and ease with which such conversations happen in most fairy-tales, even when the interlocutors supposedly speak different languages.

It is in Smith’s thought that the majestic Queen of Faery reads about a small figure on the top of the Great Cake. The real Queen is nothing like the tiny figurine with a wand: she is grand, tall and beautiful. Smith is ashamed of the figure on the Cake, but the Queen takes it easy. She is sure that a small figure is better than no memory of Faery at all. “For some the only glimpse. For some the awaking” (Smith of Wootton Major, p. 32). These words of the Queen echo the ones that Tolkien wrote in his abandoned introduction to The Golden Key. Talking about well and badly written fairy-tales the Professor stated:

But Fairy is very powerful. Even the bad guide cannot escape it. He probably makes up his tale out of bits of older tales, or things he half remembers, and they may be too strong for him to spoil or disenchant. Some one may meet them for the first time in his silly tale, and catch a glimpse of Fairy and go on to better things.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 96)

 

The Queen’s attitude can also be read in relation to the stereotypical view of Faery as of a sweet, small realm, held in modern societies: even such a wrong view of Faery is better than nothing at all. Those who are interested in Faery always have the freedom to discover what it is really like. When people encounter this realm in literature, there are two ways to go: either to catch a few glimpses of it and soon forget about them or go on to discover more about Faery, become enriched, enchanted by it, learn to see something worthy even in a pile of unworthy.

This meeting between the Queen and Smith is no ordinary one:  it signifies the end of Smith’s visits to Faery. When he takes his leave of the Queen, his way back home leads to bereavement of Faery, though his memories, wisdom and knowledge gained there will stay with Smith forever. 

While Smith is busy visiting Faery, things are changing in Wootton Major, too. Another Twenty-Four Feast is approaching; Alf has become Master Cook and has chosen an apprentice: somebody called Harper. The new apprentice’s name shows that things are indeed improving in the village. Harper is a musical name signifying his belonging to the musical profession. Musicians have been neglected in Wootton Major for a long time with music becoming forgotten and considered unnecessary during the time of the village decay. But with Harper’s being taken on as the new apprentice, the interest and the necessity of this profession are made prominent again.

Find the whole read-along here

Further reading:

On the perils of Faërie.

Feasts interrupted

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.

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

  1. Loved it 🙂
    You know, the journy to something worthy through something less so sounds a bit like my journy to fantasy. I becaem a fan in my teens. In the 1980s I read a lot of fun fantasy which wasn’t really the kind of fantasy I most appreciate now, but would I ever come to where I am hadn’t I started elsewhere?

  2. *The Sea-Bell* as an showing of what happens with unwelcome visitors in Faery is a new reading to me! I always read it as an exploration of Frodo’s trauma he suffered on his adventure. The subtitle of it was “Frodo’s dreme” and I tought it showed us the nightmare Frodo sometimes got when trying to settle, back in Hobbiton.
    Interesting!

    That arrogance is not tolerated in Faery is remarkable, because the Faeries also don’t seem to be humble. Maybe it has something to do with possession? It is like trying to catch a rainbow, for the desperate chaser, it will keep retreating further and further to the horizon.

    Thanks for your read-along, by the way! I enjoy it, and I look forward for each next part.

    1. Thank you so much for reading!
      I love the poem: there’s so much in it that it deserves a separate blog post 🙂
      It might as well do with possession. I see it as the case of “when in Rome do as Romans do” to avoid trouble. There are so many things in Faery that are not for mortals to have, and they should remember that. The same works in the opposite direction, I believe.

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