My choice of book this week has been inspired by last Friday’s wonderfully eccentric opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. Not, as you might expect, by the bit where Cruella de Vil, the Child-Catcher and Lord Voldemort were defeated by massed  Mary Poppinses. No, it was the touching moment when British sporting heroes of the past stood back to let their nominated young athletes light the many-petalled Olympic cauldron. This reminded me of the ending of `Smith of Wootton Major’ by J.R.R.Tolkien. At a mere 62 pages, `Smith of Wootton Major’ is a tiny, delicate soap-bubble of a book. Tiny and delicate aren’t words often associated with Tolkien but he wrote beautifully-crafted short stories as well as thumping great epics. This one features cake, so how could I not love it?

`Smith of Wootton Major’ was one of Tolkien’s last and most personal works. It was first published in 1967 with a cover design and medieval-style illustrations by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator of the Narnia books. Copies of this edition are now very expensive. Your best bet for a cheap paperback may be a second-hand copy of the American Ballantine edition which paired `Smith’ with another of Tolkien’s short works – `Farmer Giles of Ham’. Both these stories are on an audio CD sonorously read by Derek Jacobi. A Kindle edition of `Tree and Leaf’ and `Smith of Wootton Major’ is due out next month but `Smith’ is probably best appreciated in a printed version, complete with the magical illustrations which seem an integral part of the story.

When Tolkien was asked to compose an essay to introduce George MacDonald’s `The Golden Key’ and explore the significance of the Faery Realms to writers and artists, he came up with this story instead. The world would be saved from a lot of tedious stuff if more academics followed his example. The story is set in the fictional English village of Wootton Major `not very long ago for those with long memories’. Don’t expect a complex plot full of heroic  deeds. It’s not that sort of book. The one unusual thing about Wootton Major is that it always has a Master Cook to prepare the feasts held in the ancient village hall. There is a lot of feasting in myth, legend and Heroic Fantasy but we rarely get to hear about the people doing the cooking. In `Smith of Wootton Major’ they are at the heart of the tale.

The Master Cook comes back from a journey with a mysterious apprentice known as Alf. When the Master Cook retires, the villagers think that quiet Alf is too young to succeed him, so they give the job to local man Nokes, even though he is too lazy and arrogant to master his craft. At a feast only held every 24 years, the Master Cook has to prepare a spectacular Great Cake to be shared between 24 children. Amongst the charms baked into the cake for the children to find is a silver star which Alf says comes `from Faery’. Nokes mocks this idea but when the village smith’s little son swallows the star it gives him the power to perceive and enter the Faery Realms. Smith grows up to be a wonderful craftsman who never uses his skill to make weapons – quite a contrast to the smiths of Norse legend. From time to time, Smith leaves his family to go on long journeys into Faery, where he is known as `Starbrow’. He sees many wonders, meets the Faery Queen herself, and eventually discovers the true identity of Alf, who is now Master Cook, but the `fay-star’ is not a gift that should be kept for ever. Can Smith/Starbrow bear to give it up so that a child can take his place?

A summary of the plot probably makes `Smith of Wootton Major’ sound twee but the book contrasts Nokes’  shallow view of fairies, embodied by a pretty fairy doll on top of a sugary white cake, with the eerie and sometimes  terrifying splendours encountered by Starbrow when he enters Faery.  What Starbrow is seeking is beauty worth risking his life and sanity for.  The memory of that beauty, such as the miraculous King’s Tree, glimpsed once and never found again,  transforms the work he does in the ordinary world. The story celebrates the dedication of good makers, whether they’re making cakes,  pots and pans or stories. Tolkien hated neat allegories in which every element has a fixed meaning, so each reader must find their own interpretation of `Smith of Wootton Major’.  When I first read this book, I hated the idea that Smith/Starbrow had to give up the star and would never be able to enter Faery again. Now, I accept that the visionary intensity of youth doesn’t last and there comes a time to concentrate on handing on your experience and skills to the next generation in the hope that they will make something new and better. Until next week.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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