Josh S Hill reviews Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, three acclaimed modern classic fairie tales included in the collection entitled Tales from the Perilous Realm.
Leaf by Niggle
Ascribing the word ‘allegory’ to anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien comes with a slight measure of risk. Everyone knows that Tolkien “dislikes allegory” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131), but sometimes one really has to sit back and ask the question; is this an allegory?
Leaf by Niggle is probably the most famous of the “not an allegory” stories written by Tolkien. In separate letters he wrote regarding Niggle that “it is not really or properly an ‘allegory’ so much as ‘mythical’” as well as “I tried to show allegorically how [sub creation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf by Niggle.”
This story is, in so many ways, a brilliant representation of all that Tolkien was: brilliant but tricky.
The story focuses on a “little man” named Niggle, who is a painter. He isn’t necessarily very good, but in time a “Leaf by Niggle” is thought to be something worth having. His life is a mix of odd-jobs that need doing, interruptions and his painting. But one day his life is thrown upside down when he is forced on the long awaited but oft-hated long journey. His massive painting is used to patch up somebodies roof, and he is left to go away.
Tolkien writes with such care for his sentences that you can barely put the book down. The story itself is compelling as well, in two ways: firstly, one is simply enchanted by the story, wondering where it will go next, and feeling for Niggle; but secondly, and maybe most importantly, the reader is left wondering just what this story is representing.
Allegory is the feature of this story: there is basically no way in which you can read this story and not see it as an allegory for something. Just what that something is, is a mystery really, as it could be several different things (check this Wikipedia article for more - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf_by_Niggle#Analysis).
But the allegorical aspect of the story does not take away from the majesty of the story, Tolkien’s craft as a writer and imaginator, and a personal attachment to the story, no matter what Tolkien’s original aim may or may not have been.
Leaf by Niggle is a story that every self-respecting Tolkien fan should read, but also one that anyone who likes a good story, should read.
Smith of Wootton Major
Of all the short stories that J.R.R. Tolkien has ever written (that I have had the chance to read so far, which is most), Smith of Wootton Major is without a doubt my favourite. It has all the charm of a short story, allowing you to read through it quickly and, despite its brevity, enjoying it immensely.
However, as with much of Tolkien’s work, there is so much more to it than just another story.
The story tells the story of Wootton Major, a well-known town, larger than Wootton Minor, and one that is particularly famous for its cooking (which is never a bad thing). But despite feeling at first as if this story is set in the nursery-rhyme version of England that so many of us know so well, it starts to take on a few more “faery” qualities as it goes along.
I hesitate to summarise much of the story for fear of ruining any of it. There are several aspects to this story that left me feeling joyous, not the least because they came as a surprise, or because it was something unlooked for. I do not want to rob anyone of the same joy that found me as I read this story. (If you’re looking for a summary, there are enough out there already.)
Once again with much of Tolkien’s work, there is more to this story than the story itself. In fact, the story came to life as Tolkien attempted to write an explanation for the meaning of “Faery” for an introduction to George MacDonald’s famous ‘The Golden Key’. But as Tolkien kept writing, it grew beyond the length of an introduction and into a story of its own. Therefore, straight away, Smith of Wootton Major is a story about Faery.
But more than that, there are beautiful characterisations that are absolutely Tolkienesque in nature. Characters that seem simple to begin with actually exhibit and explore larger personality stereotypes, all the while making it very clear what Tolkien thinks on the subject. There is nothing quite like reading Tolkien as he makes it very clear what he thinks of those who disparage the world of Faery and fantasy. His writing is so smart and clever, that the characters who portray this condescension and narrow point of view are often left looking very silly without ever knowing it, leaving the reader smiling in happy contempt.
Smith of Wootton Major is, if you had only the opportunity to read one of them, the Tolkien short story that you simply must read.
Farmer Giles of Ham
Much of what Tolkien wrote has been studied since the moment it was published. His work is special, in that way, because most authors simply do not have the prowess to write something worthy of study by future generations, let alone those of the authors own generation. But Tolkien did, on several levels; linguistically, philologically, historically, literarily, and more.
Farmer Giles of Ham is, as I understand it, a wonderful story for philologists and those who like some good linguistic humour. I’ll grant you, that may not be many, but Tolkien was never in the mood to write for the popular masses; he wrote for himself first and foremost, I think.
The story follows Farmer Giles of the county Ham, or, by his full name, Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo. Farmer Giles has several adventures, is seen by his town as a bit of a hero after he defends them from a blundering deaf giant, and is then called upon by the king to deal with a marauding dragon.
The story is all sort of ingenious. Even a linguistic virgin like me can tell that Tolkien is having fun with his tale, playing off his own deep and wealthy knowledge of the etymology behind the place names in England, and the past roots in Latin. In fact, the story does a lot for making the reader want to study further, to partake in the fun that Tolkien is obviously having.
Narrowing our sight to the story alone is not a bad thing, either, but probably a detriment to the whole. The story is light-hearted, fun, and absolutely brilliant. It is another example of a story that you simply cannot put down until it is finished, and given its size, this is an easy and quick read, but one that will leave you wanting more.
That being said, the story does feel as if it has roots in Earth’s history – our past – and thus, sort of leaves you feeling content at the same time as wanting more of Tolkien’s writing.
People will note that this story “parodies” certain stereotypes in stories, but I think that parody is the wrong word; it suggests a lesser form of storytelling. Rather, this story is in the same vein as Terry Pratchett, as it tells a wonderful story that stands entirely on its own, but is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the authors depth of knowledge.
All in all, Farmer Giles of Hams a worthy addition to the Tolkien library, and well worth a read no matter your tastes in genre.
Review by Joshua S Hill
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