Completed 3/3/28/2015, Reviewed 3/30/2015
It seems like I’m handing 5 stars out of 5 for all of Tolkien’s works these days. In my defense, I think I’m just in “Tolkien Mode”. Everything I’m reading by him seems magical and alive. The pieces in this diverse collection of his works simply feed into that. This book contains an essay, a play, a novella, a short story, and a collection of poems. Let’s start with the fiction.
“Leaf by Niggle” is an allegory about art and death. Tolkien regularly professed his dislike of allegory. He faults it with diverting the reader from the art of the story itself, causing them to focus on what it represents what instead. So it’s interesting that he would write one himself. Niggle is a painter who spends too much time on his art rather than on helping his neighbors. He’s distracted by responsibility and details. Suddenly, he has to go on a journey, leaving his art behind, and disgraced by the authorities for not using his masterpiece’s canvas for his neighbor’s leaky roof. Besides the obvious death allegory, it seems to me that Tolkien is describing his artistic process as well. Niggle starts his “masterpiece” with one leaf, then more leaves, then the tree, its roots, the birds, the forest, and the mountains. This piece consumes him. He even patches other paintings onto this piece even though they didn’t start out as being a part of it. And he’s never finished with it. Besides being distracted by neighbors, he’s distracted by the details of the paintings. Looking at the whole of Tolkien’s work on Middle-Earth, knowing that he left lots of fragments of the stories from it and grafted unrelated stories he had already written onto it, it was easy for me to conclude that this was autobiographical. It’s a wonderfully charming story in itself, and Niggle conjures the personality of Bilbo. When you get to the end, you simply feel like you read something very personal about the author.
“Farmer Giles of Ham” is a wonderful little story about a non-descript farmer who is thrust into the limelight by accidently fending off a giant wrecking the village. Praised by his neighbors and even the king, he ends up conscripted to fight a dragon who also comes a-rampaging. It’s another story about unexpected bravery and growth against overwhelming odds, a la “The Hobbit”.
“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” is a collection of poems about Tom Bombadil and other Middle-Earth lore. I’m not much of a poetry appreciator and initially had trouble comprehending the poems. I decided to read them aloud, and it made a big difference. I got the point of the poems, the humor, the horror, the gallantry, the irony. “Cat” was one of my favorites. It was simply fun. “The Sea Bell” and “The Last Ship” nearly made me cry. They made a great end to the whole book.
“The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorththelm’s Son” is play and a poem based on an old epic poem of an English battle. The two characters are searching the dead from a battle for the body of Beorhtnoth. It’s very short. At first, I didn’t know what to think of it. Again, me + poetry = I don’t get it. But upon reflection, it seemed to be a statement of war and heroism in a macabre little package. Then I realized it left me quite uncomfortable and quite aware of the tragedy that war is.
The last piece to mention is the essay “On Fairy Stories”. It’s a wonderful discussion of Tolkien’s view of fantasy. He shows that the fairy story is art, answering his detractors, and should be valued as a very high form of it. He discusses the difference between fantasy and the stories about the world of Faerie, and the transformative power of it. It’s a bit long, and sometimes academic papers can be a bit dry, but it is also often amusing, and provides a glimpse into his mind. It made me more interested in reading his collection of letters.
I have to say I didn’t think I would enjoy this collection, as I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in anything outside Middle-Earth. This book showed me that I really appreciate his writing in general. It’s very warm and welcoming, even his essay. I’m hoping that when I get to the rest of Tolkien’s posthumous work, I’ll rate something below a five, just to demonstrate that I haven’t lost all my critical edge and just simply worship him.