Following the meeting with the Queen of Faery, Smith is walking back home to Wootton Major. It is his last walk ever from Faery, and it has a lot of revelations in store for him.

On Smith’s homeward journey a man, who is clearly a dweller of Faery, catches up with him. The mysterious traveller refers to Smith as Starbrow — the name only the inhabitants of Faery use for him. At first Smith does not recognise the man, but he, troubled that he will not be returning to Faery, still asks him to pass the mysterious message “The time has come. Let him choose” from the Queen to the King, should the man see him. The man agrees, and a few paces later he stops and reveals himself as Alf. Quite surprisingly for Smith Alf tells him that it is time for him to part with the star for it to be baked into the next Great Cake (the second one Alf is to make as Master Cook) for the upcoming Twenty-four Feast. It is a very difficult idea for Smith to grasp at this point because parting with the star means parting with Faery. Alf is inexorable, though:

They [such things as the star] 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. But it is so. Time is pressing.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 38)

These words have the necessary effect on Smith. Even being a generous man as he is, Smith shows a glimpse of possessive unwillingness to part with the star, but Alf’s words sober him up: smith’s generosity outweighs the kindling possessiveness. Smith is grateful for his experiences in Faery, and he is a kind man. This quality of his shows even much more prominently later when, already back to the Great Hall with Alf, Smith has to put the star back into the box. He gives it away freely and with dignity, though not without pain. However, such generosity and unselfishness are going to do him good.

Possessiveness is something that Tolkien warns against on numerous occasions in his works: possessive attitude has not led a single character to anything good. It is a gnawing feeling that corrupts and leads to hoarding, misuse, lust for power and domination. In his essay on Smith of Wootton Major Tolkien wrote:

The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship towards all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect, and removes or modifies the spirit of possession and domination. Without it even plain ‘Utility’ will in fact become less useful; or will turn to ruthlessness and lead only to mere power, ultimately destructive.

(Smith of Wootton Major, p. 131)


Tolkien went on to explain that this is exactly the reason why Elves do not give any heirlooms that mortals label as magical to them: people are very much likely to misuse them and turn them to gaining power and dominion. Some gifts, like the Living Flower the Queen presented Smith with, are fine, because they are a memory of Faery which do not give any special powers. Things like the star working as a passport to Faery are a different matter altogether, though. That is why Smith cannot keep it forever. Generous though he is, nobody knows how the smith might use the star should he have it in his ultimate possession.

Smith understands as much. As a reward for his free parting with the star Alf allows him to name the child who will receive it at the Feast. Smith chooses Nokes’ great-grandson Tim, and his choice coincides with Alf’s: Tim is totally different from his rude, narrow-minded great-grandfather. It is also the moment when Alf reveals himself as the King of Faery, to Smith’s great astonishment and reverence. Everything falls together as parts of a big puzzle: Queen’s message, Smith’s passing it onto Alf and thus unwittingly delivering the message right to the King himself and the revelation of Alf’s true identity to Smith.

So how did it come to be that the King of Faery himself entered the service of Master Cook and served as Apprentice for quite a while? It is time for us to remember Master Cook Rider who went away without notice all those years ago. On the walk back from Faery Alf tells Smith that Rider was his grandfather. He was a walker in Faery, and it was through him that the King’s apprenticeship was arranged. The ever deteriorating situation in Wootton Major, with craftspeople turning their crafts into commerce, losing fine taste and forgetting legends, tales, songs and dances, raised the concern of Faery. According to Tolkien’s own explanation, this concern is rather natural. First of all, Elves are bound by kinship to mortals, so it could have been done out of pure love. Besides, the mortal world and Faery overlap and are interdependent of each other. Thus the two depend on each other for their mutual well-being. As a result, the worsening situation in Wootton Major, especially with the village being so close to Faery, could start influencing Elves, too [1].

Putting the King of Faery into the Great Hall as Apprentice to Master Cook was a direct strike into the heart of Wootton Major and its deterioration. The cure was to be begun with the centre: Alf refined the cooking, painted and gilded the Great Hall again and took on the musical Harper as Apprentice. Besides, there was another front where the attack on vulgarity was launched. Rider began it all: apart from bringing Alf, he re-introduced singing and dancing at feasts before disappearing. Smith was to continue what his grandfather had started. Having become acquainted with Faery, he was to spread the love for beautiful things, everyday though they might be, made with fine taste; facilitate the return of craftspeople from commercialisation to art, from tasteless to tasteful again. Smith’s influence was going to continue through his son: after his visits to Faery cease, he can go on teaching the younger all the specialities of the craft he has himself mastered.

The star is to be passed on, and the King is about to return back to Faery. However, before doing that he has the Twenty-four Feast and a conversation to hold. Before departing from Wootton Major, Alf goes to talk to Nokes. Their conversation, initiated out of Alf’s good will, reveals that Nokes still has not changed a bit. Old, fat and lazy now, Nokes is rude and impolite as much as Alf is courteous and polite. Faery is still Fairy for him: Nokes has not stopped seeing the realm as childish nonsense. Tolkien is consistent in using different spellings for the word to indicate different attitudes of characters. It is Faery for Smith, King and Queen, but Fairy for Nokes. It is done so to distinguish between the older, darker use and its real sense (Faery) and the sweetened, modern meaning (Fairy). Verlyn Flieger explains the etymology to show the difference: “The modern word fairy comes from Middle English faerie from Old French faerie/ faierie, “enchantment”, from fae, “fairy”, which in turn was developed from Latin fāta, “the Fates”, plural of fātum, “Fate”, the neuter past participle of fāri, “to speak”. Thus Fate was “spoken; that which has been said”, as for example a curse, or a blessing; and its derivation fairy had implications considerably darker than those the traditional phrase “fairy tale” carries today” (Smith of Wootton Major, p. 197).

Nokes has not seen the point, and he is still the same narrow-minded, rude person he was at the beginning. Alf tries to put some sense into him, but it is all in vain: Nokes seems to be beyond the curing point. Everything connected with Alf, the star or Faery seems pure trickery to him. At this point it is good to know that with little Tim’s pre-arranged swallowing the star at the upcoming Twenty-four Feast, Faery will enter Nokes’ family whether he wishes that or not.

The next Twenty-four Feast takes place in Wootton Major in the winter, and it is the point when Alf says goodbye to the villagers. Some are going to miss him, and the Great Hall is going to be painted and gilded by Smith and Harper in his honour from then on. The King’s work has been successful: Faery has re-entered Wootton Major and set the village on the road to recovery.

Tolkien wrote that Faery is vital for humans’ well-being. It combines love for the world, breaking out from the trite and the familiar, re-opening our eyes and re-discovering some things anew. I would like to conclude this read-along with Tolkien’s words on Faery in the Smith of Wootton Major essay which sum up the whole tale perfectly: “This compound – of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and a desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived – this ‘Faery’ is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life: sunlight as distinguished from the soil, say, though it in fact permeates and modifies even that.” (Smith of Wootton Major, p. 144-145).

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.

7 thoughts on “Reading Smith of Wootton Major /// Part V.

  1. Loved it!
    Thanks so much for writing this readalong, I thoroghly enjoyed it.
    There’s probably no surprise that I’ve been a Tolkien fan since I was a kid, since I totally agree with him: imagination and fantasy is so essential to the well-being of people because it let us see what might be besied waht it actually is now. It’s the possibility to see a different wrold and so it’s the nurishment of hope.
    Quite possibly, this is why I’m a fantasy writer 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing this. It was fantastic!

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Sarah! I’m glad you liked it!
      Fantasy is indeed essential to our well-being. There was even some research (whose authors I don’t remember) that claimed that fantasy readers were better at dealing with everyday stuff than non-readers of fantasy. I’m not surprised if it’s really true 😄

  2. Wonderful series, Olga. Thanks for sharing it, and taking the time to write it all up. ‘Smith’ is truly an underappreciated gem among casual Tolkien readers, and I will absolutely be recommending it even more than I already do.

    1. Thank you, Jerry! I appreciate your reading it! It was a great pleasure to research, and I hope I managed to get at least a few more people to get acquainted with the tale 🙂

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