on 1 December 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
Notes on the Extended Edition, edited by Verlyn Flieger
The extended edition (which is the definitive version), features a good deal of extra material.
There is brief one page forward by Flieger, where Flieger in accordance to Tolkien's clear wishes as demonstrated in the abandoned Golden Key preface states "Reader, meet SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR".
It includes an Afterword by Tolklien scholar Verlyn Fledger where she examines the SMITH in relation to Tolkien's other short fiction (ROVERANDOM, MR. BLISS, FARMER GILES OF HAM, and LEAF BY NIGGLE).
This is the newly published material by Tolkien himself exclusive to the extended edition
"Genesis of the Story". A note to Clyde S. Kilby (author of the criminally underated minimalist book TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILION) where Tolkien discus his dislike of George MacDonald and how SMITH is his answer to THE GOLDEN KEY and serves as an anti-George MacDonald tract.
"Tolkien's Draft Introduction to The Golden Key": by far one of the most interesting segments in the entire book, as SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR famously began life as a preface to MacDonald's fairy tale THE GOLDEN KEY but was never completed. Tolkien examines fairy tales and then begins a short story in the preface itself, where the work breaks off, forever incomplete and unfinished (as a preface anyway).
"The Great Cake Time Scheme and Characters": originally hte work began as "The Great Cake" and this is just a brief inventory of characters. The characters sheet is about a page and a half. Tolkien, being Tolkien, then gives a chronology by year (think the Tale of Years in LOTR) of the events in the story.
The fourth item is "Suggestions for the ending of the story" where he debates on how to end his new fiction.
"Smith of Wootton Major" is easily the most important piece in the book with the exception of the main work itself. This piece (whose title does not distinguish itself from the main story) is an essay Tolkien wrote about what he meant (and did not mean) by the work and how this relates to his ideas of Faery.
The next piece is "[Hybrid draft and transcription of `The Great Cake']" which is a manuscript/typescript hybrid of the original draft of the story. This has a facsimile of Tolkien's manuscript and type script on the left side and the printed text [transcript] on the right side.
The last piece is "Lake of Tears drafts and transcriptions" which are draft sections of SMITH.
This review was written April 12, 2000, just a few months shy of twelve years ago. (That does not include the notes and information about the extra content in the extended edition, which was written December 14, 2011). I left the review unreleased as it started out as a joint review of the FARMER GILES/SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR combo volume but soon became solely focused on SMITH. I did release this on the Amazon.co.uk site back in 2001, as it hasn't lived a permanently isolated life on my hard drive like some of my other unreleased/unfinished Amazon reviews have done, living a cloistered existence.