Walking with Tolkien and Macfarlane

Walking with Tolkien and MacfarlaneThis will be almost the last Tolkien-related post for a while, for which I am sure we are all grateful. However, in amidst all the hoo-ha about The Hobbit, I wanted to say a little something about Smith of Wootton Major, my favourite story by Tolkien. It was originally published as a tiny hardback, almost a board book, which turned up in my classroom library when I was ten or eleven, and which fascinated me, for its size and for the Pauline Diana Baynes illustrations, I think, rather than for the story, which I did not especially remember. It was only some years later, when my interest in Tolkien was already well alight, that I rediscovered the story, made the connection, and finally got my own copy of the little hardback. I reread it over Christmas, in the midst of the new Tolkienfest, and though it has perhaps lost some of the charm it had when I was younger, or more accurately, I am older, more critical and probably more cynical too, I still rather like it.

The setting is quasi-medieval, with a dash of Norse saga. The village of Wootton Major (which is, of course, bigger than Wootton Minor) is famous for its craft workers, in particular, its cooking. There is a Kitchen which belongs to the Village Council, and the Master Cook is an important personage within the village. His House and the Kitchen are adjacent to the Great Hall, used by the village for its meetings and celebrations, for which the Master Cook caters.

Doubtless, William Morris would have approved of Wootton Major. Quite apart from its seeming to be driven by an annual round of festivals, it is in every way the perfect medieval fantasy. With a Village Council to keep it running smoothly and no visible feudal lord, Wootton Major’s workers are able to get on with being good at what they do. There is commerce, clearly; Smith, who is at the heart of this story, travels regularly to buy raw materials, and the finished goods go somewhere other than the village, but the ugly details of capitalism are not foregrounded. Instead, everyone is happy and well-fed, warm and well-clothed, not least because this is an allegory rather than an attempt at fantasy realism. The emphasis on artisanship and creativity are clear indicators that we are in familiar Tolkien territory, theorising about the nature, significance and formation of fairy stories. As ever, art and good workmanship go hand in hand.

We first meet the Smith of the title when he is a child, an attendee at the  Twenty-Four Feast, a festival which comes about only once every twenty-four years, to which twenty-four children are invited, and which is marked by the creation of a Great Cake, the production of which is considered to be the Master Cook’s finest moment. At the story’s opening, the village is in turmoil, first because the Master Cook had gone off for a holiday, something that had never happened before, and then because he had brought home an apprentice from outside the village. Not of course that there is anything wrong with the Cook having an apprentice, or with his coming from outside the village, but one immediately scents village disapproval. When, a few years later, the Master Cook suddenly retires and leaves, it does not occur to the village to appoint Alf, the apprentice, to the post of Master Cook. Instead, they appoint a mediocre local man, whom Alf assists, and indeed does most of the work for.

Nokes’ lack of imagination is specifically reflected in his Great Cake: ‘Fairies and sweets were two of the very few notions he had about the tastes of children. Fairies he thought one grew out of; but of sweets he remained very fond’. And so, Alf makes a cake with delicate mountain peaks, and a delicate fairy queen  on a pinnacle, and Nokes takes the credit. In the cake are twenty-four little trinkets, but also a mysterious silver star that Nokes found in an old box. Alf identifies it as a ‘fay-star’ and disapproves strongly of Nokes’s dismissal of fairy things but approves putting the star into the cake.

The star is swallowed by a small boy, unaware of what has happened, but on his tenth birthday something happens:

He looked out of the window, and the world seemed quiet and expectant. A little breeze, cool and fragrant, stirred the waking trees. Then the dawn came, and far away he heard the dawn-song of the birds beginning, growing as it came towards him, until it rushed over him, filling all the land round the house, and passed on like a wave of music into the West, as the sun rose above the rim of the world.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how this sort of thing works that Smithson, later Smith, becomes a famous worker of metal. The goods he makes, although primarily ‘plain and useful’, are ‘strong and lasting, but they also had a grace about them, being shapely in their kinds, good to handle and to look at’. Pure William Morris, though unlike Morris, Smith doesn’t have a factory behind him.

But Smith is not simply a skilled and inspired worker of metal. ‘For Smith became acquainted with Faery, and some regions of it he knew as well as any mortal can: though since too many had become like Nokes, he spoke of this to few people, except his wife and his children.’

And thus we reach the section of the story that currently interests me most, not for what now seems like rather heavy-handed allegorising of the creative process (although Tolkien suggested that this was not intended to be an allegory) but for the fact of the journeys themselves, the explorations of this mysterious country of Faery to which Smith has access.

For Christmas, I received a copy of Robert Macfarlane’s much-acclaimed The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Macfarlane’s intention is to explore the ancient tracks that cross the British landscape and the surrounding seas, and establish a connection with the world beyond Britain. It’s a fascinating enterprise and Macfarlane writes well. One might, I suppose, seek to invoke the word ‘psychogeography’ but if one does, one needs to reach for a meaning other than Iain Sinclair inscribing increasingly frivolous lines across London and south-east England. One might think of Alfred Watkins’ work on ley lines, and his perception of them as marked tracks across the landscape rather than their subsequent reinvention as lines of mystical energy. One might think of Watkins as an artisanal mapper of trackways and it’s possible to think of Macfarlane in the same way, although he does also have a taste for the mystical, which is more pronounced in this book, perhaps, than The Wild Places, to which it forms a loose, a very loose, sequel. But having said that, Macfarlane seems to know when to pull back from the absurd while maintaining a sense of wonder about the world.

Smith, we are told, travels under the aegis of the fay-star, and ‘was as safe as a mortal can be in that perilous country’. He is favoured, if you like, but after several strange encounters, ‘he understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger’. Nonetheless, ‘his desire was still stronger to go deep into the land’. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable and yet I confess to a sense of unease when confronted with this deliberate attempt to penetrate all the mysteries of Faery. Of course, one might argue that it is the work of the artist to keep going despite obstacles and obstructions but I can’t help thinking there is an art, too, in knowing when not to go on, and this is something that Smith, for all his gentle and unassuming ways, does not grasp. He is rebuked by the young maiden with whom he dances – we already know her to be the Faery Queen but he will recognise her only years later when summoned to the Queen’s presence.

She wore no crown and had no throne. She stood there in her majesty and her glory, and all about her was a great host shimmering and glittering like the stars above; but she was taller than the points of their great spears, and upon her head there burned a white flame.

She is as far as can possibly be from the doll on the Great Cake, but dismisses this as being better than ‘no memory of Faery at all’. Though in truth, I see Tolkien’s Faery Queen as being closer to the Catholic perception of Mary as Queen of Heaven. After this final meeting, having achieved his heart’s desire, ‘he knew that his way now led back to bereavement’. In fact, although Smith will travel no more to Faery, we are led to understand that his desire to create will continue to be satisfied with hammer and tongs, the understanding being that he has seen his fill and can now distil the life of experience.

And yet, this seems to me to contradict the philosophy at work in The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings. In LOTR Frodo recalls how Bilbo used to say ‘that there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.”It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”’ These are journeys fashioned by chance and happenstance but Smith, for all that he is a learner and explorer, is driven by a goal, to penetrate as far into the land of Faery as he can, and he assumes this as by right.

Macfarlane also has a goal of sorts, as expressed in his Author’s Note, ‘of walking a thousand miles or more along old ways in search of a route into the past, only to find myself delivered again and again to the contemporary’. ‘Delivered’, passive, rather like a parcel, subject to the whims of others. Macfarlane goes on to describe his book as being ‘about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move’. There is in turn a subtle distinction, I think, between ‘reconnoitre’ and ‘explore’, a hesitancy that Smith’s perambulations through Faery seem to lack. Macfarlane’s landscapes are real rather than allegorical but it occurred to me as I read on that his landscapes are as inaccessible to me as are the landscapes of Smith’s Faery. I can trace his perambulations much as Macfarlane himself is inspired by the journeys made by the poet, Edward Thomas, but does this bring me any closer to what Macfarlane himself is doing?

And the answer is ‘no’, but it is a complicated no. I can follow Macfarlane’s walks in the belief that this somehow enriches and transforms me by proxy, but it would be a mistaken belief and a foolish enterprise. Alternatively, I can be inspired to walk in my own way, shaped by what I encounter, but to do that I must needs put down Macfarlane’s book and walk away from it, finding my own path. I can follow hints to an extent, maybe sampling some of the texts he’s read over the years (and it turns out that I have been familiar with a number of them over many years) but my discovery must be mine. And it is a surprisingly vague and unmappable enterprise.

But the distinction between Smith and Macfarlane is, I think, an assumption on Smith’s part, or Tolkien’s, that walking is a mapping, a marking out of territory, whereas Macfarlane sees it as a rediscovery of the mappings of others.

Which is where I pause for now, but I anticipate returning to Macfarlane in 2013.

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