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The Weight of Enchantment
On the natives of Faery.
“For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.”
I missed the window for essays commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Tolkien’s death. But that’s all right. Amateurs like me can sound off about JRRT whenever we want. These benchmarks only matter to the pros. It gives the illusion of “newsiness” so they can stop writing about the news and dork out over their favorite authors, usually with glorious results. (I highly recommend Ross Douthat’s contribution to the genre.)
So instead of an appreciation or criticism, I’m going to give this PSA. (1) If you’ve only seen the film version of Lord of the Rings, read the books. They’re better. (2) If you’ve only read LOTR, read The Hobbit. It’s even better. (3) And if you’ve read both LOTR and The Hobbit, get yourself a copy of Tales from the Perilous Realm and read “Smith of Wootton Major.” I love everything Tolkien—even the Peter Jackson films; don’t @ me—but “Smith” is by far the best thing he ever wrote. It’s one of the best things anyone has ever written, ever.
“Smith” is Tolkien’s most fully realized attempt to write a traditional fairy tale. It’s about the village of Wootton Major, “a remarkable village in its way, being well known in the country round about for the skill of its workers in various crafts, but most of all for its cooking.”
Every twenty-four years, the village council would throw a party called the Feast of the Good Children. “For that occasion,” writes Tolkien, “the Master Cook was expected to do his best, and in addition to many other good things it was the custom for him to make the Great Cake. By the excellence (or otherwise) of this his name was chiefly remembered, for a Master Cook seldom if ever lasted long enough in office to make a second Great Cake.”
It was customary for the Master Cook to bake twenty-four prizes into the Great Cake—“trinkets and little coins and whatnot.” (I can’t help but imagine myself as a small, fat boy shoveling this cake into my mouth with a soup spoon and choking to death on a toy soldier.)
One year, while preparing the Great Cake, the reigning Master Cook finds “a small star, hardly as big as one of our sixpences, black-looking as if it were made of silver but was tarnished.” Into the cake it goes, only to be swallowed by the blacksmith’s son—who, in good Anglo-Saxon fashion, is surnamed Smith.
Young Smith is totally oblivious to the fact that he ingested the bauble until, one day, he coughs it up. The star begins to fly away; “without thinking,” Smith claps it to his forehead. And there it will stay for years to come.
The star, as it happens, is fay in origin, and becomes for Smith a passport to the land of Faery. Whenever he leaves Wootton Major, he crosses out of “the World” and into the Enchanted. This he does often, despite having a wife and children and a successful trade. Now, bear in mind: Smith isn’t a bad father. He’s a very good father. But he doesn’t belong to “the World.” His heart is always in Faery.
The middle part of the story is given over to descriptions of Smith’s travels in Faery. And it’s pure Tolkienian goodness:
He stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm where the blue waves like snow-dad hills roll silently out of Unlight to the long strand, bearing the white ships that return from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing. He saw a great ship cast high upon the land, and the waters fell back in foam without a sound. The eleven mariners were tall and terrible; their swords shone and their spears glinted and a piercing light was in their eyes. Suddenly they lifted up their voices in a song of triumph, and his heart was shaken with fear, and he fell upon his face, and they passed over him and went away into the echoing hills.
In time, however, Smith begins to realize that his “passport” is no longer valid. It’s not his fault; he doesn’t do anything wrong. The Enchanted simply turns against him. Faery itself spits him out. And this is the most beautiful, the most terrible part of the story:
At once the breeze rose to a wild Wind, roaring like a great beast, and it swept him up and Hung him on the shore, and it drove him up the slopes whirling and falling like a dead leaf. He put his arms about the stem of a young birch and clung to it, and the Wind wrestled fiercely with them, trying to tear him away; but the birch was bent down to the ground by the blast and enclosed him in its branches. When at last the Wind passed on he rose and saw that the birch was naked. It was stripped of every leaf, and it wept, and tears fell from its branches like rain. He set his hand upon its white bark, saying: “Blessed be the birch! What can I do to make amends or give thanks?” He felt the answer of the tree pass up from his hand: “Nothing,” it said. “Go away! The Wind is hunting you. You do not belong here. Go away and never return!”
The time has come to give up the star. He hands it over to the new Master Cook, who bakes it into a new cake, so it can be eaten by a new boy. Meanwhile, Smith makes his peace with the World and teaches family trade to his own son.
Tolkien scholars are divided on what “Smith of Wootton Major” means. I’m of the opinion that, if a story means something, it’s a bad story. Tolkien himself furiously denied that his writings were allegorical, and he was right. That’s why he was such a terrific writer.
Still, even great writers are human beings. Their work can’t (and shouldn’t) be severed from reality. And I think “Smith” is probably Tolkien’s most clearly autobiographical work. It tells us more about JRRT than any other story. Honestly, I think it tells us more than his essays, his letters, and his biography. In many ways, Tolkien is Smith.
Like Smith, he was a precocious child who grew into a doting husband and a loving father. Both were quite successful career-wise: in Smith’s case, smithing; in Tolkien’s, academia. Yet neither felt quite at home in the World. Both lived the better part of their lives in Faery.
And here’s the thing: Tolkien was an odd duck. Anyone who devotes their lives to crafting a perfectly self-contained cosmos—complete with its own mythology, history, geography, and philology—isn’t “all there.” Of course, it’s not healthy to be “all there,” because there (i.e., here) isn’t our final destination. Still, the fantasist, like the mystic, is a resident alien. He has to choose between the World and Faery, though he wishes with all his heart that he didn’t.
I think anyone who studies Tolkien will agree that, like Smith, he it found it painful trying to live a double life—or, rather, a single life in two worlds. Maybe you, dear reader, can sympathize.
To be clear, I’m not terribly interested in the correspondence between an author’s work and his biography. I’m interested in the correspondence between an author’s work and the human condition, what makes his story feel like our story.
And that, I think, is the reason why “Smith of Wootton Major” isn’t better known. It isn’t a story for those who feel “disenchanted,” as today’s conservatives use the word. On the contrary. It’s a story for those who feel painfully enchanted, who feel more at home in Faery than in the World.
For those who don’t know, the sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) was the first to diagnose this ultra-modern malaise called Disenchantment. It’s worth noting that Weber belonged to the last generation of Westerners who professed to believe in fairies, openly and unapologetically: men like George MacDonald (1824–1905) and W. B. Yeats (1865–1939).
Tolkien was born in 1892, one generation later. He tended to pooh-pooh the one (“I am not as warm an admirer of George MacDonald as C. S. Lewis was”) and seemed to ignore the other (as one scholar put it, there’s a conspicuous “lack of any reference to Yeats in Tolkien’s writings, letters, and notes”). Yet “Smith of Wootton Major” is the one perfect fairy tale written since MacDonald’s death. It’s also a virtual prose analog of Yeats’s most heart-rending poem, “The Stolen Child.” In fact, “Smith” began its life as a prequel to MacDonald’s The Golden Key.
So, what gives?
I think Tolkien recognized that modern fairy tales are, in a way, a product of Disenchantment. He wouldn’t have said that MacDonald and Yeats were themselves disenchanted. Just the opposite. But they were swimming against the disenchanted tide. Both were, at bottom, Romantics—literary reactionaries who, necessarily defined themselves against the Enlightenment. For Yeats, this Counter-Enlightenment tendency was intentional; for MacDonald, less so. Nevertheless, this is the context in which their stories were written. It remains so today for anyone who flirts with Faery.
Anyway. Under the Romantics, Faery becomes a kind of counter-culture, which means it’s outside of the culture, the cultus: the “mainstream” system of belief. Tolkien, meanwhile, was a conservative in the very best sense. He didn’t want to belong to a counter-culture, even a reactionary counter-culture. He wasn’t happy with the idea of belonging to a small, beleaguered minority.
I think this is why he tended to hold his natural allies at arm’s length. And that goes not only for his predecessors, like MacDonald and Yeats. It also goes for his contemporaries, like C. S. Lewis, whose Narnia stories Tolkien despised. He preferred the mythology, true mythology: grand narratives that brought metaphysical order both to individuals and to whole societies.
I think this is also why he became so obsessed with mythopoeia, the art of myth-making. As he grew older, and as the deterioration of Western civilization (i.e., Christendom) continued to accelerate, he increasingly desired to share that sense of metaphysical order with his fellow Westerners. That’s not to say we should read The Silmarillion as a political tract. He certainly wasn’t trying to revive or contribute to a literal mythology, as Yeats and his allies were.
Still, it’s clear that, like Yeats (and MacDonald, Lewis, Williams…), Tolkien had a strong “social consciousness.” They were heirs to the old bards: men of intense spiritual power—for whom the veil between nature and supernature appeared vanishingly thin—who felt called to teach their less Enchanted neighbors about this higher reality.
To be clear, I’m all for mythopoeia, or world-building, or whatever you want to call it. But I don’t think it’s what makes Tolkien great. At times, I think it distracts from his real genius. That’s why, again, his best works are The Hobbit and “Smith of Wootton Major.” (This is just my humble opinion, of course… though I will die on this hill.) They possess more of the essential quality of Faery, or fantasy: a sense of play.
I’m disappointed that Tolkien never talks about this in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Again, I think that’s partly because, by the time his career reached its apex, Tolkien had begun to take his own work too seriously. And, as Chesterton points out, work is the very last thing we should take seriously:
There is only one reason why all grown-up people do not play with toys: and it is a fair reason. The reason is that playing with toys takes so very much more time and trouble than anything else. Playing, as children mean playing, is the most serious thing in the world. And as soon as we have small duties or small sorrows we have to abandon to some extent so enormous and ambitious a plan of life. We have enough strength for politics and commerce and art and philosophy: we do not have enough strength for play. This is the truth which everyone will recognize who, as a child, has ever played with anything at all; anyone who has played with bricks, anyone who has played with dolls, anyone who has played with tin soldiers. My journalistic work, which earns money, is not pursued with such awful persistency as that work which earned nothing.
I know that’s a long quote, dear reader, and you might be tempted to skip it. Please don’t. Because this is the crux of all our debates and dissensions—in politics, religion, art…
If Enchantment means anything, it means a recognition that the world is good. In fact, it’s not only good: it’s better than we possibly imagine. But we have to try to imagine, because we can’t always see that goodness with our sin-stained eyes. And that’s where the bard comes in. He sees the beautiful, thrilling, tragic, heartbreaking drama of reality. He sees that God made Creation for His delight; the bard shares in that delight, and infects others with it.
Of course, the whole point of Modernity is to innoculate us against this delight. Tolkien makes this point excellently:
Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.
I think this brings us to the last and most important point, which is so obvious that hardly anyone thinks to make it. The more disenchanted we become—the more allergic we grow to this strangeness—the more desperately we need our fantasists. Now more than ever, we need folks who will shoo us out of the house, to make us go outside and play.
Chesterton wasn’t pulling a random example when he contrasted his journalism with his fiction. Journalism—polemics—is the medium of Disenchantment; poetry and prose are the media of Enchantment. Tolkien and MacDonald and Yeats were right to feel that their art had a social dimension. As every traditional culture has recognized the vocation of the bard as something sacred, hardly less sacred than that of the priest.
It’s the bards—and the painters, illustrators, sculptors, architects, and craftsmen (as well as the priests, of course)—who will re-enchant the West. And it’s only through Re-Enchantment that we can be whole. I think that’s what Dostoyevsky meant when he said, “Beauty will save the world.”
Friends, a couple of quick updates before I sign off.
Firstly, I’ve just handed in the first draft of my next book, After Christendom. That means my schedule is going to open up considerably, and I’ll be able to write this newsletter more often. Thank you for bearing with me.
Secondly, I was recently hired to serve as director of communications for the Melkite Church in the United States. I can’t tell you how honored I am, or how grateful I am to our good and holy bishop, François. I’m still working full-time at Sophia Institute Press as well.
Thirdly, after much prayerful discernment, I’ve decided to pivot away from nonfiction and pursue my real passion: fiction, especially fairy tales. (I guess this essay serves as a kind of apologia.) I stumbled into a career in journalism about ten years ago when I was an undergrad—and, frankly, I’ve always hated it. Now that I have a second job, I don’t have to worry as much about making money from my writing. So, I’m going to give this thing a whack.
As I said, I’ll keep writing this Substack, and gladly. I’ve been sitting on a few different ideas for stories and books for years. But I’m starting a second newsletter called “Far Islands” where I’ll be posting fairy tales, ghost stories, etc.—as well as essays on, and reviews of, the same.
Like The Common Man, it will be 100% free for anyone to read. But, also like The Common Man, readers will have the option of buying a paid subscription if they’d like to support my work. To subscribe, please click here.
Thank you all for your friendship and support. Be assured of my prayers, always.