on 8 October 2012
Smith of Wootton Major, written between 1964 and 1966* and published in 1967, is a meditation on the gift of fantasy. It originally was to be a very short story to be included to a preface of George MacDonald's famous faerie story The Golden Key. The story soon began a life of its own, and though altogether brief gives an insightful view into Tolkien's life.
The story is about Smith, who is a normal boy of all accounts. In his village are great feasts, and the Feast of Twenty Four is held. A star, little more than thought a Trinket by the Master Cook, is placed within tie cake, and he eats it unknowing. Then beauty comes upon him, and after he grows up begins to wonder in Faery. This is much the life of Tolkien. Born in South Africa in 1892, he was a little British boy that came to live in England. He became immersed in two things: mythology and language. Soon, so in love with language, he began inventing his own. In the end, he wished to have people speak his languages, to have a history behind it: thus arose Middle-earth. Then, as time went on, just as Smith, Tolkien explored the fantastic worlds, and was accustomed to strange lands.
In the story it is stated he spoke little of it to anyone OUTSIDE of his family. This is also true of Tolkien. Although his (deeply loved) wife was not real involved in his writing, he shared his stories with his family, and it is not to far to say that had it not been for his four children The Lord of the Rings would never have been written. (To understand this statement, one must first realise who The Hobbit was written for. It was written for his children. This, along with Farmer Giles, Roverandom (newly published), the Father Christmas Letters, and Mr. Bliss, his children's picture book personally illustarted by him. Unwin, his publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit, so he began The Lord of the Rings, a much less serious work in the beginning than at last evolved too. So without these we would not have gotten his adult masterpiece).
Then old age approached. Although his mind was not dimmed, time had worked its decay on his body, and much of his strength was sapped. He realised that he was a mortal, and even though he had had a passport to Faery, it did not grant him eternal physical life. Tolkien was sad about this, and wished to finish The Silmarillion. But life is life, and Tolkien knew his life was drawing to an end. Just like his beautiful little people who also knew morality, the hobbits, he died in 1973, 2 September, just shy of dying ten years after his friend C. S. Lewis (who died the same day as Auldous Huxley and JFK). Tolkien, just as Frodo and Bilbo, went on the great ships into Paradise, Heaven. He took sick with a gastric ulcer, and developed a chest infection, dying.
Tolkien was of melancholy temperament, and they are notorious for being prone to depression. Tolkien was of the great artistic class, and he knew depression well. It was depression that this story was borne of. In the very last letter in LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN, he tells his daughter as something of a P. S. "It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy at present - but forecasts are more. favourable". As far as my knowledge goes, that is the last thing he wrote, being four days before his death. There is much hope in that statement, even though Tolkien had no way of knowing how much relevance that to that moment in his life.
This is the closest thing of autobiography he has written. This, along with his marvelous short story Leaf by Niggle, are essential of you want to read and understand this Godly man's life. Tree and Leaf, a small book containing the short story aforementioned and his classic essay On Faerie Stories, along with this, will enlighten you greatly on his views of Faerie. These three are essential to understand this man. Leaf By Niggle is him venting his frustration, and then him expressing great hope for his work. It also reflects his Catholicism, as Niggle goes thru purgatory.
*This is deduced from LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN. In letter 262, Tolkien accepts the invitation to write a preface to The Golden Key, the short story by MacDonald. It was here, in that abandoned preface, that he began Smith, of what was to be a very short story. It had a life of its own, and grew to present length. In letter 270, dated 20 May 1965, Tolkien is talking to Rayner Unwin, his publisher (and as a child reviewed THE HOBBIT for publication, who received, if my memory serves me correctly, ten shillings for reading and writing a little report over it for his father Stanley.) The typescript of this story had been submitted for publication
[This Review of "Leaf By Niggle" was written in early 2000, and has never been published before now]
Leaf By Niggle
J. R. R. Tolkien, in his short story "Leaf By Niggle", expressed his frustrations of writing his mythology. J. R. R. Tolkien showed how his dreams were being frustrated. The story concerns a painter named Niggle. Like most short stories, this name is of importance. Niggle is defined as "". This is Niggle to the bone. He is a painter, and begins to paint a leaf that soon grows to a large tree, and then a grand landscape. But he wants the entire landscape to have the detail of the original leaf. Soon, it grows so big that all of his painting is concerned with this, and what is not is tacted on and made to be a part of the painting. Tolkien described himself well in this story. Just like Niggle, he brooded excessively over the smallest details. Yet his dream is to have a world as complex as Niggle's painting. Tolkien found all sorts of distractions to keep him from continuing on with his main work, which was his mythology. This was how he worshiped God. He called it "sub-creation". The journey that the story speaks of is death and purgatory. Tolkien/Niggle wants to have his work completed before he has to leave the world, but feels that distractions will keep him from it. In the story, Niggle cannot say no to people, particulary his neighbor Parish. Niggle feels it is his duty and obligation to the law. In the end, however, death comes upon Niggle, and he is taken to Purgatory. Tolkien was a Catholic, and this represents his religous side.
Tolkien was, first and foremost, a religious writer. This needs to be understood before one can fully realize the meaning of this last story. His basic concept was that, in the act of "sub-creation", which he was doing with his mythology, and which people in artistic endeavors do in general, he was praising God. He was imitating his father, taking on the role of God in his own private universe. After completing purgatory, he is taken to his country. When Niggle realizes he is in the place that had only previously been imagined by him, he rejoices. He is later reconciled to Parish, and who was once a hindrance is now a help. Tolkien, with his dear friend C. S. Lewis, make a very balanced pair of Christian writers. In one, a person has access to fiery intellect and reasoning, the other grand imagination and a fully detailed universe. In this, Tolkien and Lewis make a very good balance of each other. In a way, Lewis could be represented by Parish, although in a very limited way.
Ultimately, this story is an expression of hope and faith by Tolkien. This is the closest thing to an autobiography to ever come fro his pen. Even if he does not finish his great painting, he will be rewarded for his toils. This story could not have come from an unreligous man. It reflects Tolkien's strong personal belief in God, and his grand purpose in such works and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This story, basically, is a summation of his life work.