Smith of Wootton Major


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
As with Farmer Giles of Ham, it seemed appropriate to have a thread devoted to this tale. We are happy in that Pauline Baynes was there to illustrate this tale copiously, as she had done many years before for Giles and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Incidentally, though in all three books it's clear that the same artist was at work, the three books differ in style, too, so that in each the pictures are perfect complements for each book in its own right.

Leaf by Niggle seems inarguably to be an allegory, though it may be enjoyed by many readers as a simple tale; that, I assume, was my own experience when I first read it as a boy. Smith lends itself to interpretation as an allegory about the gift of artistic imagination and the responsibilities of those who receive it, but this never imperils the artistic integrity of the story as a true fairy tale.

Smith was published in the States as a small clothbound book 55 years ago. There is a separate thread here at Chrons about fantasy paperbacks available in 1967.

The Houghton Mifflin clothbound edition of Smith was priced at $1.95, the price at the time of three or four paperbacks. I wonder if Smith wasn't the first hardcover book many Tolkien fans bought for themselves, or one of the first. (It was issued in paperback, with Farmer Giles of Ham, by Ballantine in March 1969.)

Quite a bit of the fantasy available in 1967 was sword and sorcery. It's easy to see why sword and sorcery generally does not really satisfy someone who desires Tolkienian fantasy.* In a draft introduction to an edition of George MacDonald's The Golden Key that was never published -- Tolkien wrote Smith instead -- Tolkien wrote about the concept of "fairy tale."

"...the truth is that fairy did not originally mean a 'creature' at all, small or large. It meant enchantment or magic [not occult magic], and the enchanted world or country in which marvellous people lived, great and small, with strange powers of mind and will for good and evil. There all things were wonderful: earth, water, air, and fire, and all living and growing things, beasts and birds, and trees and herbs were strange and dangerous, for they had hidden powers and were more than they seemed to be to mortal eyes. ...A fairy tale is a tale about that world, a glimpse of it," etc.

There's more to the quotation than that, but what I've just copied helps us to see why Tolkienian fantasy and sword and sorcery are mostly so far apart. Sword and sorcery is generally escape from the world of man and beast in which we live, into something more akin to wargames and the like, while Tolkienian fantasy, and Tolkien's fantasy especially, deal often with things like walking, trees, birds, bread, speech and song, in a way that renews them for us, gives them to us again after we have come to take them for granted and inattentive and ungrateful, while being occupied, too often, with shoddy things.

*The oft-mentioned excellence of Tolkien's "world-building" I think largely misses the point.

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