Cake or Death: Tolkien’s Non-Middle-earth Stories
Believe it or not, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories that aren’t actually set within his vast legendarium. They’re not even truly obscure – they’re still in print, and chances are your local library has copies. They’re not even bad. It’s just that they get nothing like the popular attention of Middle-earth. People just don’t cosplay Farmer Giles of Ham or Mr Bliss, for some reason, while I cannot imagine a big budget television adaptation of Leaf By Niggle.
Hence today’s post. I thought I would give a run-down of these stories. Give them a bit of time in the light of the Trees, so to speak. For clarification, I am sticking to completed original prose fiction here. No essays, retellings, translations, plays or poetry, since those are altogether a different kettle of fish, and involve wading through editorial notes and commentary. Plus there’s an element of pragmatism: as much as I would like to cover The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, I do not have access to an available copy for re-reading, and neither does my local library. In short, I am sticking to the accessible, in both senses of the word.
Leaf By Niggle (1945)
For an author who famously decried allegory, Leaf By Niggle is a pretty effective example of the form. At once poignantly semi-autobiographical, and a quiet musing on the relationship between Creation and Sub-Creation, it is a fascinating and self-critical meta-commentary on Tolkien, by Tolkien.
The story features an ordinary little man named Niggle, who paints for a hobby, in much the same way as Tolkien wrote. Specifically, he has an ambitious project of painting a Tree. Niggle can picture this Tree in his own mind, but when he tries to paint it, he gets bogged down by wanting to get each leaf exactly right (recall that Tolkien’s creative process fixated on details). Also, he procrastinates, and is easily distracted by the minutiae and duties of day-to-day life (recall that Tolkien had a day job). Worse, he knows that time is ticking, since one of these days he must start on a long journey (Death).
Where the story gets most interesting is how Niggle’s strange little desire to paint this Tree gets incorporated into Tolkien’s own notions of faith. It is no accident that Tolkien later published Leaf By Niggle alongside his famous essay, On Fairy Stories (1939) in the volume Tree and Leaf. The essay famously defends imaginative creation:
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
Niggle’s painting of the Tree is eventually given full-form in allegorical Paradise – our protagonist does not merely see it complete, but actually encounters it for real. His artistic efforts are really an expression of a greater spiritual longing, a small reflection of (and a hunger for) a much greater Creation. There is a point to Niggle’s endeavours, however flawed they may be in this world, and somewhere the ghost of Plato is smiling.
Of course, after Niggle
dies goes on his journey, a number of small men (literally: their names all have the suffix -kins) discuss his work. One of them (Tompkins) just does not get it at all… insisting that Niggle’s talents would have been better spent on Informative Modern Posters than silly little things like enjoying beauty for its own sake. Another (Atkins), however, finds that a remnant of Niggle’s painting evokes a strange longing for beauty in himself, so he has it framed and put in a Museum. We as fantasy readers are following in Atkins’ footsteps – we feel a little bit of what Tolkien was trying to achieve, and are moved by it, so we keep the art around and look at it from time to time.
(And then the Museum burns down… because all derivative human art is but temporary. One day, each and every one of us – even J.R.R. Tolkien himself – will be forgotten. But the Real Beauty that inspired the art will endure, at least in Tolkien’s view).
Farmer Giles of Ham (1949)
This one also came out in Tolkien’s own lifetime. A short (all these stories are fairly short) tale, featuring one Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo, aka Farmer Giles of Ham, and his rise to fame and glory. I first read this book as a child, and have only just returned to it. Reading it now… for an ostensible fairy tale, it is incredibly cynical. In fact, it might be the most cynical story Tolkien ever produced – Farmer Giles, notwithstanding his shenanigans with dragon and giant, is no Frodo Baggins as a character. He’s gruff and boorish, occasionally evasive and full of himself, and (most disturbingly) prone to mistreating his farm-dog, Garm. He is very much a salt-of-the-earth creature, in both a good and bad sense – a grimdark Gaffer Gamgee, if such a thing were imaginable, with a blunderbuss and magic sword. There is more than a whiff of lowbrow Chaucer about proceedings too, minus the sex.
You see, if Farmer Giles himself is not exactly lovable, none of the other characters are either (with the possible exception of the Blacksmith, who is basically A.A. Milne’s Eeyore in human form, and the Parson, who sees into the future because he’s a grammarian. Haha). Giles has two major adversaries – the dragon, Chrysophylax, and the King, Augustus Bonifacius. Chrysophylax is actually the more sympathetic of the two, since, dragon though he is, he already has his wealth, and just wants some food (preferably low-risk). He’s actually quite co-operative, in a strange way – almost as though he’s a dragon who has actually read The Hobbit, or something. The King, by contrast, is an elitist money-grubber, with a tendency to push the lower-orders around. Farmer Giles, boor that he is, pushes back.
In fact, it’s Tolkien’s treatment of Augustus Bonifacius that is one of the most interesting things about the book. This King (like Chrysophylax, actually) comes from a noble lineage – he is, unquestionably, the legitimate monarch. Farmer Giles, by contrast, is common as muck. However, Augustus Bonifacius has clearly lost faith in the foundations of his authority. He does not know about Tailbiter, the magic sword, and just gives it away without a second thought. He has a Fake Dragon’s Tail served as Christmas dessert, to pay lip-service to ancient custom. His knights spend all their time in showy tournaments, rather than actual battles, and are completely useless against an actual dragon. And all the King cares about is treasure. Imagine if Aragorn’s great-great-great-great-grandson were the Old Master of Lake-Town from The Hobbit, and you would not be far wrong.
(By contrast, Tailbiter itself – an ancient blade that actually does fight dragons – is extremely effective. As is an old song mentioned at one point – noted to be effective because it came from the days when knights fought in battles, not tournaments. This is a setting where Old Things can have real power… but are prone to being forgotten, because no-one actually believes any more, including the people who actually owe their power to those Old Things).
But yes, it’s Farmer Giles’ treatment of Garm that is the major icky part of the book. To be fair, Giles is not an admirable man, and I do not think we as readers are supposed to condone his actions. Garm himself is a talking, sentient creature, with his own anti-heroic tendencies… and, as mentioned, there is a Chaucerian crudity about these characters. It’s just that kicking a dog is kicking a dog. It’s enough to make you cheer for Chrysophylax.
Smith of Wootton Major (1967)
There is nothing cynical about Smith of Wootton Major. Idealistic and occasionally haunting, it is a Fairy Tale in an extremely literal sense – a story of folklore Elves. These Elves aren’t malicious, though they are serious. If not quite the Eldar of Middle-earth, they are still grand, otherworldly, figures who interact with medieval village tradition in strange ways, keeping alive the link between our world and Faerie. For Faerie is a place, not a thing, and the story as a whole is an argument that Fairy Tales are appropriate for all ages, not merely to be left behind with childhood.
The framing premise is vaguely reminiscent of A Long Expected Party: the Master Cook of a village (tasked with preparing the Great Cake for a once-in-twenty-four years festival) disappears suddenly. The Great Cake is accordingly prepared by stand-ins – Nokes, the curmudgeonly, vain, and rather pompous replacement Cook, and Alf, a strange and lithe apprentice from out of town. No prizes for guessing the identity of Alf. Nokes meanwhile thinks of fairies in the Victorian/Shakespearean sense – as fluffy childish silliness to be grown out of, but fundamentally harmless.
Then a Faerie star gets into the cake slice of a young boy. Smith.
Smith – through the power granted by the star – is able to experience Faerie for himself. His experience is along the lines of Tuor, a general ennoblement of a slice of humanity via interactions with the Elves. All very pretty… though eventually he must pass the star on to someone else. As I have said, there is the sense that this specific tradition keeps the ennoblement going, within a wider customary festival of human celebration. The nostalgia in this story rather goes with the cake icing.
As for Nokes, the most memorable character in the piece (and someone whose name was, of course, reused in The Lord of the Rings), he is not a bad man. Foolish, yes, and rather prone to taking credit for the work of others, but his great sin is his lack of imagination. He never does appreciate Faerie, and dismisses it all as a bit silly. The text invites us to feel sorry for him. I do wonder if this was Tolkien having a small dig at people who look down on fantasy.
Mr. Bliss (1982)
A picture book Tolkien wrote (and illustrated), but which was only published after his death, and which showcases Tolkien’s love-hate relationship with automobiles. The main character, a Mr. Bliss, has an eccentric fondness for tall hats (oh, the missed cosplay opportunities), and one day decides to buy himself a motor car. For five shillings. With red wheels, which is another sixpence. But no headlights, which he comes to regret. Mr. Bliss winds up having a very… expensive adventure.
There is an absurd suburban playfulness about Mr. Bliss – more Shire than the Shire, in a sense. The main character is generally the straight man to proceedings, apart from his hats. And his strange taste in pets (the girabbit) and friends (the grotesque Dorkinses). Everyone also likes to keep sending him financial bills, though he gets his own back in the end. It’s a very gentle sort of humour, that celebrates life and good cheer… while also reminding us that good cheer is rarely free, or devoid of consequences. Unless one is a bear, that is, in which case one is allowed to cause as much entertaining chaos as one pleases. Tolkien’s children apparently had a thing for bears.
(As a side-note, there are minor characters called Gaffer Gamgee and Sergeant Boffin. And another, more prominent, character nicknamed Fattie. It’s almost as though Tolkien liked to cannibalise his unpublished stories…).
Another posthumous publication, Roverandom grew out of a story Tolkien told his children about a lost toy… and into something more. Roverandom is Tolkien’s take on the sort of basic idea found in The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams (1922), and in style is the sort of playful material you encounter in the early chapters of The Hobbit. Much like The Hobbit – and unlike Mr. Bliss, which remains resolutely suburban – Roverandom also has darker stuff peering over the edges.
There are multiple grumpy wizards, of undoubted power, but with noted shortness of temper. There are large and fearsome dragons (one on the Moon, the other in the Sea – the latter being a reference to Jormungand the Migard Serpent). There are malicious spiders, and strange and alien landscapes inhabited by weird creatures. There is copious mythological referencing, both to real-world myths (Greek, Norse, Atlantis, and Arabian Nights), and to Tolkien’s own legendarium (Roverandom sees Tol Eressea atop the back of a whale). Rather like The Hobbit, it’s a tale that outgrows its suburban origins, but unlike The Hobbit, the protagonist does not grow to fit this weightier story. He’s just a magic dog, touring fantastical worlds of Tolkien’s imagination… and one feels that Tolkien’s imagination simply gets too big for him.
There is also an adultness to the under-the-Sea episode with Artaxerxes, in that this is Tolkien’s jocular commentary on bumbling politicians. Despite his wizard power, Artaxerxes is no Saruman (he’s not even a Lotho Sackville-Baggins)… he’s pompous, self-important, but also a victim of circumstances beyond his control. We’re supposed to feel a mixture of contempt and pity for the poor fellow, who is a bit foolish, but certainly not evil. It might actually be Tolkien’s most realistic and least vicious portrayal of a political figure, even using a nickname for a nineteenth century British Prime Minister (Pam = Lord Palmerston). All rather strange and serious for a book ostensibly about a lost children’s toy.
(Tolkien himself addresses this growing adult tone when he notes that the things under the Sea are much darker in potential than the stuff on the Moon. At one point he even alludes to certain nightmarish creatures in the Deep, and whereas the Man-in-the-Moon can manage the White Dragon, no-one can truly manage the Serpent. Much like its source in Norse myth, it is something for the gods to deal with…).
Letters from Father Christmas (2004)
Not actually a story per se, but something that amounts to its own little epistolary mythos, and a delightful one at that. I had read the older, 1976, edition of the Father Christmas Letters previously, but I’m not sure I’d read the expanded 2004 version before.
As a background, these letters were annual missives from J.R.R. Tolkien to his children. Dating from 1920 (when John was three) to 1943 (when Priscilla was fourteen), they are ostensibly from Father Christmas, and his chaotic assistant, the North Polar Bear. As the years progress, ‘Father Christmas’ discusses happenings at the North Pole, filling out a cast of minor characters – the Polar Bear’s nephew, Paksu and Valkotukka, Father Christmas’ Elvish Secretary, Ilbereth, the ‘good’ Red Gnomes/Elves, and the evil Goblins. He also sends various bits of art, by way of illustration.
It really is delightful to see Tolkien having fun here. The three bears are all given Finnish names – the North Polar Bear, whose real name Karhu is just Finnish for ‘Bear’, while Paksu and Valkotukka are ‘Fat’ and ‘White-hair’. At one point the Polar Bear calls Ilbereth ‘thinuous’, since ‘fatuous’ wouldn’t work for a thin Elf. And the stories do actually darken as time goes on, with major battles against the Goblins, to reflect real-world strife. Note that these aren’t standard Tolkien Elves and Goblins, but rather diminutive playful analogies in a Christmas setting. It’s all good fun – and note that unlike Mr Bliss, who liked himself an automobile, Father Christmas is not a fan of such machinery.
I will confess, however: the Father Christmas Letters contains one of the more unintentionally hilarious Tolkien lines:
Not as good as well spanked and fried elf.
(the North Polar Bear, mocking Ilbereth in 1937)
Oh dear. Just imagine the fanfiction.
That concludes this look at Tolkien’s various prose fictions outside Middle-earth. They are quite a varied bunch – from the playfulness of Mr Bliss and the Father Christmas Letters, to a mixture of playful and darker (Roverandom), to something bordering on cynical parody (Farmer Giles), to a serious and heartfelt paean to Faerie and the Fantastic (Smith of Wootton Major). My personal favourite, however, would be Leaf By Niggle – a comment on the artistic process itself, by an artist, that is at once humorously self-critical, and yet hopeful. Along with On Fairy Stories, it is Tolkien’s answer to the question of why we, as human beings, create. It is definitely worth checking out, if you haven’t read it already.
Addendum: For completeness, here is a review of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2021/12/27/review-the-homecoming-of-beorhtnoth-beorhthelms-son-1953/