January 7, 2014

Tolkien - Less and More

        January 3 was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday, and I was going to use it as the opportunity to write my review of Part II of “The Hobbit” movie.  But I find that all I can say about that movie is, “What in the name of all the Ainur is Peter Jackson playing at?”  Another critic apparently called it Jackson’s fan fic, and I think that sums it up.  It’s excellent fan fiction - quite enjoyable, and with some elements that appeal to me very much - but it’s really not Tolkien’s story any more.  Like much fan fiction, it’s got some bits that I think a lot of fans will get a kick out of contemplating, but, like much fan fiction, it ranges in places from the slightly silly to the wildly ridiculous.  Fan authors seldom work as hard as the original author at logic, cohesive narrative, plausibility, or laws of science and nature.  Jackson certainly hasn’t.
        So enough of that.  Instead I’ll write today about a lesser-known story by Tolkien.  It’s not really a children’s story.  Indeed, Tolkien called Smith of Wootton Major “an old man’s book.”  Tolkien started writing it as an explanation of Faery which he intended to use in a preface to George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key.”  However, it grew into an entire story, first published in 1967, not only about the awe of Fairyland, but also with themes of imagination vs self-centeredness, and of the cycle of growing up, gaining wisdom, and eventually passing gifts on to the next generation.  The plot is simple, but embroidered out with many evocative little incidents and much description.  It’s not directly connected with Middle Earth, but shares with it some important qualities:
             It illustrates the same sort of attitude toward the wonders of Faery that Sam Gamgee feels toward the elves.
             It emphasizes the perilous power of Faery, as opposed to mere prettiness.
             It posits the dichotomy between those of open-eyed, open-hearted creative vision and those who want power and prestige without having to master hard work or true knowledge.  (Think of Gandalf vs Saruman and his orcs.)
             It’s about the cost of true knowledge, as opposed to blissful ignorance.  (Think of Strider and the Hobbits of the Shire.)
        I’m not crazy about the illustrations, which somehow manage to look very 60’s despite their medieval style, but I like this one of Smith and his family.
        In any case, Smith of Wootton Major is an interesting read reflecting a more traditional (as in medieval) view of Faery, tempered through a more modern romanticism.

[Picture: Smith and family, illustration by Pauline Baynes from Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1967.]

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