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Archive for the ‘Silmarillion’ Category

Disarmingly delightful, Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien packs about as much literary punch as his more widely known Hobbit-based works. Smith is as dense with symbolism and interwoven with Tolkien’s deep seated convictions about faerie, craft, the metaphysical, as it is with his uneasiness about where one fits into a world limited by belief and, uncomfortably, luck. Perhaps fate fits better than luck though, and one wonders how much applicability can be found in such a personal (even, in some ways, exclusivistic) work.

I personally find Smith beautiful for a number of reasons, some of which we brought up in our discussion of the work this week:

1. The family dynamic resonates most powerfully with me. How is the reader to understand the relationship Smith has with his family? When Smith returns from his final wanderings in the land of Faerie, he expresses regret, explicitly and implicitly, at being absent from his wife and children for so long. It is striking to observe that his son, a young man at this point (old enough to oversee the work of his father’s smithy), holds no animosity at his father; indeed the family appears charitably to understand Smith’s long absences. What are we to make of this?

2. Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” employs the figure of the artist to explore the tension between creative genius and intersocial responsibility (as I read it)–a fitting choice. Smith, on the other hand, elevates the profession of cooking to a priviledged position: It is through the cook’s baking that the gift of creativity is passed to Smith (and others). Certainly, in light of Tolkien’s devout Catholicism, there are eucharistic undertones in this, but how many facets of it does the narrative display?

3. (And I wasn’t aware of this until we compared editions of Smith with each other during the discussion) There may some interpretive difficulties which invite codicological (?) scrutiny: Does Smith encounter “eleven” (Del Rey edition) or “elven” (from Tales from Perilous Realms) mariners, before whom he collapses and who pass over his fallen body?

In the Fall of 2010 I taught Smith in my Introduction to Short Fiction course, and my students had very strong reactions (positively and negatively) to the story; so I include here the discussion points I used for the three days we spent studying and discussing it (page numbers are from the Del Rey edition, which includes Farmer Giles of Ham).

  • How do you think we’re to relate to the town of Wootton Major (cf. 9)?
  • Why kitchen?
  • What about mention of invitation mistakes (10)?
  • What of the change of the Master Cook after his holiday, or his up and leaving in general (11-12)?
  • What about Nokes’ lack of knowledge concerning children’s tastes (14)?
  • What is the significance of memory (15, 26)?
  • How should we understand Nokes’ interactions with Alf Prentice?
  • How do you read the star coming to the boy, Smithson, and its ultimate unveiling and coming to rest on his forehead (21-22)?
  • What about the extra quality of beauty added to the usefulness of Smith’s creations, or hi desire to create simply for delight (23)?
  • Why is Faery called a “perilous country” (24)?
  • How does the tone change, and what of the different episodes in Faery (26-33)?
  • Does the narrative seem deeply personal?
  • What of the proper names in the story?
  • Why a queen without throne or crown (36)?
  • Why is Smith ashamed at the memory of Nokes’ fairy figure on the cake (37-8)?
  • What of the emphasis on sorrow (cf. 38)?
  • Why do you think there is only one star (cf. 41)?
  • What of the idea that Rider had arranged for Alf to give Smith the star, but that Nokes thwarted their carrying it out (44)?
  • What do you think of the theme of not-knowing (44-45)?
  • Edith Tolkien is the dancing woman!
  • What about the oldness of the “new” or the newness of old tradition (45)?
  • What do you make of Smith’s inability to see and Alf’s willingness to help (46)?
  • How are family ties viewed (46)?
  • How about Alf’s willingness to relent (47)?
  • Interesting at how freely precious things are held (cf. 49).
  • Why is the shadow the truth (50)?
  • How should one understand Nokes’ memory (50-53)?
  • With respect to Nokes, Tolkien doesn’t seem to be saying people like that are obstinate, but that those who are obstinate become as Nokes was.
  • What about the disposition of Alf to Nokes and Nokes to Alf (54-57)?
  • Why do you think Tolkien gives Nokes the last word (58-59)?
  • Concerning the matter of “determinism” it is interesting that Tolkien doesn’t present it in a deterministic way; in fact he shows how free will acts of its own accord, and that what is determined isn’t affected by it (cf. Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’ [5]).
  • What about the similarity between the endings of this and LotR? Tolkien doesn’t think that the most wonderful things happen in this world, but he thinks that comfort and consolation are very important.

Please feel at liberty to offer possible answers to these points, or to pose points of your own.

ME

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