Walking into the Distance: A review of Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R.Tolkien
Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1983 (78pp).
Tolkien is most famous for one very long book that was published as three very long books and then made into three very long movies. His most well known average-sized book was then, in an act of either bravery or avarice but probably both, made into three very long movies. The book I am looking at is a fraction of the length of The Hobbit, and not as long as the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it will become a pentalogy of films, I don’t know. It gets to 78 pages by dint of illustrations and generous type size and leading (very nice, by the way; it even has the grace to tell us on the title page that it is set in 12 on 14 pt Bembo).
The book contains two stories, the title story and ‘Leaf by Niggle’. The former is a true fairy story, with characters who venture into fairy land (well, `faery’, anyway) and meet its queen and bring back a little bit of magic. The illustrations by Pauline Baynes are extremely apposite in style and really add to the book.
The second story is my favourite, and frankly I think says more in 27 pages than the The Lord of the Rings says in orders of magnitude more. There are shades of Kafka (!) in the way Niggle is taken away for a reason he can’t recall to a place he doesn’t know and made to do work that has no context. In the end it becomes a little preachy, but I think it illuminates Tolkien’s (perhaps defensive) feelings about working in fantasy or ‘faery’, and in doing so creates a couple of his best-drawn characters. And it leaves room for the reader.
My favourite line in the book is in this piece, a story apparently not even worth naming on the front cover:
“He had never before been able to walk into the distance without turning it into mere surroundings.”
Both stories take the fairy story seriously. Both have the resonance that Tolkien captured in his longer work — they ‘feel’ like age-old folk tales, ratified and hewn into shape by time and tradition.
‘Leaf By Niggle’ is not just a good fantasy, it is a fine story by any measure, and does much to make Tolkien’s point that categories do not matter if the work is good.