Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Summer Reading: Two from Tolkien

Illustration from Smith of Wootton Major by Pauline Diana Baynes.
Full disclosure: I am by no means a Tolkien scholar, nor have I read much of his fictional work beyond The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. I do, however, have a great appreciation for those novels (and his literary analysis), as well as their cultural and literary impact. I have also recently enjoyed sharing The Hobbit with classes I teach. While on my recent trip to California, my high school friend and I visited a number of small,independent books stores and it was at one that I came across a slender volume containing two of Tolkien's long shorts stories or short novels (novellas), depending on how you look at these things.

Cover by the
Brothers Hildebrandt.
This particular edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham was published by Ballantine Books in 1988, and features beautifully delicate illustrations by Pauline Diana Baynes.  I was also glad to note that this edition has a fantastic cover by The Brothers Hildebrandt, perhaps most well-known by modern fans from their recognizable Smaug-on-mountains-of-gold illustration (a poster of which has hung in our classroom during the study of The Hobbit). The two stories are organized out of chronological order of their publication, and other than both being set in fantastic, medieval settings, Smith (1967) and Farmer Giles (1949) seem to have little in common either thematically or in terms of sharing characters.

Of the two, Farmer Giles of Ham is by far the most accessible. Whereas Smith of Wootton Major's narrative introduces a number of characters, and progresses in such a way that it seems intended to serve as an allegory (despite my online reading revealed that Tolkien insisted that it not be read as such), Farmer Giles is much more straight forward. Smith is a difficult story to properly summarize in a line or two, so I won't make the attempt According to Wikipedia, it began as an attempt on Tolkien's part to explain the meaning  of "Faery," both a central location and idea in this tale of cooks and a magic cake as seen in the image at the top of the post.While I suspect both were written for an audience similar to The Hobbit; for my tastes, Smith meanders too much from idea to idea to be read purely as an enjoyment, though I'm confident there is something here that I may not be clever enough to appreciate.
Illustration by
Pauline Diana Baynes.

While disguised as a fairly traditional heroic narrative, Farmer Giles of Ham is anything but, and it is this juxtaposition of expectations on the part of the reader, that, along with Tolkien's conversational storytelling style, make the tale particularly engaging. Due perhaps in part to the story's subject, Farmer Giles style and language is much more reminiscent of Tolkien's Hobbit than the Rings trilogy.

With the unlikely Giles as its balding, overweight, de facto protagonist, Tolkien uses a number of common fantasy archetypes such as the giant who doesn't realize his own defeat, a cunning dragon, Chrysophylax, who (unlike Smaug) uses his cunning in an effort to survive, and a deus ex machina, the magical sword Caudimordax or, in the vulgar tongue, "Tailbiter." Throughout, the Tolkien's narrator reinforces a strong cultural setting by including descriptions in the formal tongue of the time and the more common, or vulgar, language of regular folk.

Stopping by Barnes and Noble today, I noticed that this double-shot of Tolkien is still available for purchase, though with a slightly less-cool cover. For those who, like I , haven't previously read beyond Tolkien's more popular works, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham seems to me a great way to gain access to his other fictional writings.

Our new kitten Black Beard warms up the novel for me.

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