Sunday, 3 December 2017

Tolkien's Last Story

When  "The Lord of the Rings" was finally published in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien was already sixty-three years old. With the help of enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, the enormous work was an immediate success, and really took off when Ace Books put out an unauthorised paperback edition in the U.S.A. in 1965. Tolkien, who had always been worried about money, unexpectedly found himself a rich man, and was able to retire from his Oxford professorship in 1959.
    His publishers, Allen and Unwin, were naturally eager for more books from him; partcularly the "Simarillion", which recounted the earlier history of Middle Earth, which Tolkien had been working on spasmodically ever since the First World War; but this was to prove elusive. Tolkien had always been a productive but disorganised writer: he would begin a story or a long poem only to become dissatisfied with it and start again, perhaps several times. His papers therefore included many different drafts of the same story, often with the names of the characters changed. Two of the central stories in the "Silmarillion" cycle, "The Lay of the Children of Hurin" and "The Lay of Leithian" (about Beren and Luthien) were even recast as poems; the first in Saxon-style alliterative verse, the second as rhymed couplets, and neither had been completed! One suspects that "The Lord of the Rings" would have fared no better without the encouragement of C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings: certainly early drafts of the book are very different from what eventually emerged. 
   Reducing the mass of "Silmarillion" drafts into a single coherent story would clearly take a great deal of work, and for the moment his publishers had to be content with two minor works: "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" (1962), an anthology of poems, and "Tree and Leaf" (1964), a combination of the text of a lecture on fairy stories, and a short story, "Leaf by Niggle". Most of the material in these had originally been written much earlier.
   Meanwhile Tolkien was subject to all manner of distractions. He began to receive enormous quantities of letters from fans, and for a while tried to reply to them all, often at considerable length. He worked on his translation of the great mediaeval poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", which was only published after his death. He was badly shaken by the death of C. S. Lewis in 1963, and increasingly worried by the deteriorating health of his wife, Edith. They celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1966, in an occasion made memorable by the performance of "The Road Goes Ever On", a setting to music of Tolkien's poems, with the composer Donald Swann at the piano. Then in 1968 they left Oxford and retired to Bournemouth, where Tolkien felt increasingly lonely and cut off from his intellectual roots. He commented, "Find it impossible to work - beginning to feel old and the fire dying down". Edith died in 1971.

Unexpectedly in early 1965 he was asked by an American publisher to write a preface to a reissue of a story by the late-Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald. Tolkien did not share Lewis's enthusiasm for MacDonald's writings, but he took up the offer, and began by explaining the notion of Fairy; not as a twee little lady with wings and a diaphonous dress, but as something strange and powerful, which may perhaps be glimpsed in a tale. To illustrate the point, he would tell the following story.... The story grew until it became "Smith of Wootton Major", the last story he ever wrote, which was published in 1967. The preface to George MacDonald's book was never completed.

"Smith of Wootton Major" is a very short book. Even with the full-page illustrations it runs to just over 60 pages. The setting, as with Tolkien's earlier work, "Farmer Giles of Ham", is a vaguely-defined mediaeval England. The gist of the story is how the central figure, who is never given any name other than Smith, was as a boy given a token, a star, which enables him to visit the land of Faery (Tolkien's preferred spelling). He travels there many times, and sees a variety of strange, wonderful and sometimes terrifying things, most of which he fails to understand. Eventually after almost fifty years he is obliged to give up the star so it can be passed on, and has to settle down to a mundane life as the village blacksmith.
   Tolkien always maintained that he disliked allegory in stories, but he acknowledged an allegorical element here, with religious obsevation in Wootton Major being reduced to just regular feasting. It is also clearly an autobiographical tale, by an old man who knows his creative powers are waning (Smith can no longer visit Faery once he has given back the star). It also illustrates Tolkien's fundamentally pessimistic attitude towards the modern world: the only other significant character in the story is Noakes, the village cook, who is vain, greedy, ignorant and refuses to believe in Faery at all.

After Edith's death, Tolkien retuned to Oxford, but was unable to make much progress in sorting out the "Silmarillion". He died in 1973, and it was left to his son, Christopher, to publish his own selection of the "Silmarillion" stories in 1977. 


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