Sunday, August 9, 2015

A review of three works by J.R.R. Tolkien (not part of my Quest)

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

For reasons I won’t go into, I took a brief break from my quest, and decided to read these three works by Tolkien: Mr. Bliss, Smith of Wooten Major and Farmer Giles of Ham (two short stories combined in one book), and Tree and Leaf (three distinct works, under one title).

Mr. Bliss: I’m a big Tolkien fan, but I only recently learned he wrote and illustrated this delightful children’s book. Mr. Bliss is an only slightly eccentric English gentleman who loves to wear tall hats. His other eccentricity is keeping (secretly) a Girabbit (cross between a giraffe and a rabbit). The story is all about Mr. Bliss’ mishaps the day he decides to buy a motorcar. I’ll leave it at that. I hope to add guest reviews by one or more of my Grandsons, but those must wait until after Christmas, when they receive their editions of Mr. Bliss.

Smith of Wooten Major is a fairy story (see Tree and Leaf for more on this topic), about a smith, I’ll leave you to infer where he was from. As a child, the smith, truly only the smith’s son at the time, unknowingly swallows a small magic star that was baked into a festive cake, along with coins intended as prizes for the children. When he is a bit older, the boy coughs up the star and it attaches to his forehead, though barely visible unless you know to look. The star is his passport to Faërie or Fae (see Tree and Leaf for more on this topic). The smith, leads a charmed but sometimes disquieted life until he meets both the Queen and King of Fae and learns that he must pass the star on to a worthy heir.

Farmer Giles of Ham is easily summarized by the full title: The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and King of the Little Kingdom. If you have not had your coffee yet, and are having difficulty I’ll help you; It is the story of a farmer who becomes King.

Both are short stories, and will likely leave you disappointed if you are expecting anything like The Lord of the Rings, or even The Hobbit. They are charming, and excellent examples of fairy stories, a topic that Tolkien discusses in detail in Tree and Leaf.

Tree and Leaf is actually three different works. First, there is an essay Professor Tolkien wrote On Fairy-Stories. The second is a fairy story: Leaf by Niggle and third is a poem: Mythopeia that he wrote for his friend C.S. Lewis.

On Fairy-Stories is a scholarly essay. Honestly, much was over my head. Tolkien attempts to answer three questions: What are fairy-stories? What are their origins, and what is the use of them.

If I try to summarize any of his answers, I will do them terrible disservice. A few salient points though: They are not exclusively or even primarily children’s tales, though children may enjoy them. Neither are they about diminutive sprites. In the closest thing to a simple definition, Professor Tolkien writes: that fairy-stories are…stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth , and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

Leaf by Niggle is another fairy story. It is about an unremarkable artist, Niggle, who becomes obsessed with a single painting of an immense tree. Although Niggle spends nearly every spare moment on the painting it never seems near completion. It is growing. Niggle by the way, was rather good at painting a leaf, but not nearly so accomplished at painting an entire tree, let alone a landscape. Niggle’s work is hindered by a bothersome neighbor and an impending journey he must soon make. The nature and destination is always quite vague to the reader, and even a bit mysterious to Niggle. He does not even know when he must begin the journey, but he knows the day is fast approaching. The day of course comes, Niggle must abandon the tree and the mysterious journey begins. There is a fantastic account of the journey, rather dismal in the beginning, but taking an unexpected and satisfying turn in the end. The part of the story that I loved though, takes place back in Niggle’s town. Long after he is gone, a fragment of Niggle’s painting, a single leaf, hangs in the local museum over the caption Leaf by Niggle.

Finally, Tree and Leaf concludes with a poem: Mythopeia. Tolkien wrote this poem for his friend C.S. Lewis. **sigh** I cannot begin to tell you how poignant this poem was to me. I do not know the half of the famed friendship between Tolkien and Lewis. It is clear, at one point Lewis had at the very least disdain, and more likely contempt for fantasy, or fairy-story, or myth. In fact, Tolkien dedicates the poem to Lewis: To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’. The poem serves as Tolkien’s retort, certainly to Lewis’ disdain for fairy-story, but also for Lewis’ agnosticism. It would appear, that over the years, and by his friendship, Tolkien was able to dissuade Lewis from both these errors.

Excerpt from Mythopeia

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,

man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,

and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,

his world-dominion by creative act:

not his to worship the great Artefact,

man, sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White


  1. I'd like to read On Fairy-Stories to see what Tolkien has to say. I usually like essays on fairytales and myths. And I'll look out for your grandsons' reviews. I wonder what they'll say. :)


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