It’s no surprise to
many most any of you that I’m a huge Tolkien fan. Last year, when I was reading all of the NEW TO ME things, I was so caught up in boosting my page count early on that I neglected to do my annual reading of some of his shorter works for his birthday, which was January 3rd. I wasn’t about to let the same thing happen two years in a row, though.
In my oh-so-very-humble opinion, these tiny little books are the perfect thing to read to honour one of my favourite authors on his birthday.
First up was Farmer Giles of Ham, which pretty much epitomizes everything I love about Tolkien. We get a winking narrator, similar to the narrator of The Hobbit; there’s a hand-drawn map; it’s full of humour and little philological jokes and asides; best of all, it does what he set out to do with The Silmarillion, in creating a new mythology for England.
Farmer Giles of Ham is not an entirely new story. If you’ve read The Valiant/Brave Little Tailor (or, heck, even seen the 1938 cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse) you’ll find the basic premise of this fable exceedingly familiar, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a good time.
Tolkien sets up this fantastical version of medieval England immediately, letting you know that it’s almost (but not quite) entirely like the England we know today/knew of then.
Ægidius de Hammo was a man who lived in the midmost parts of the Island of Britain. In full his name was Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo; for people were richly endowed with names in those days, now long ago, when this island was still happily divided into many kingdoms. There was more time then, and folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished. However, those days are now over, so I will in what follows give the man his name shortly, and in the vulgar form: he was Farmer Giles of Ham, and he had a red beard.
I remember first picking this book up off the school library shelf when I was in the 6th grade, and marveling that I was the first person to check it out in more than 15 years (we had those cards in the books that you signed and stamped). I fell in love with it from that first paragraph up there, and was shocked that no one else seemed to be interested in it.
Even now, checking out the goodreads page for it shows me that it’s still relatively unknown/unread, which is a shame. Yes, it’s short and it’s not set in Middle-Earth, but if you’re at all a fan of Tolkien’s style (especially if you loved The Hobbit) I think you owe it to yourself to spend an hour or two with this book.
Oh, and I said there was a map, didn’t I?
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is even shorter than Farmer Giles of Ham, but instead of prose it’s a slim little book of poetry. The first two poems are indeed about our old pal Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo. In the first we learn a bit of his history with Old Man Willow and in the second, he attends a party with our other old friend Farmer Maggot.
Also included are a silly little poem about the man in the moon coming down for an evening of drunken revelry, the poem about oliphaunts that Samwise recited for Gollum in The Two Towers, and a heartbreaking little poem about Firiel the elf declining a spot on the last ship to the Grey Havens.
There are (obviously) others, as well, but these are the few that have always remained firmly in my mind when I think of this book.
If you weren’t into the poems and songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, you probably won’t enjoy this book either. If you loved them, though, you’ll love this too.
My final stop on the Tolkien Short Fiction Birthday Extravaganza was Smith of Wootton Major. This faerie tale (which is exactly what it is) is best if read in conjunction with the essay On Fairy Stories. It doesn’t really matter what order you read them in, but if you read the story first, you might be tempted to go back and read it again once you’re done with the essay…just so you can see that Tolkien hit every single note mentioned when he talks about the elements necessary for a good/real faerie tale.
(Amy, this is one I think you’d like especially.)
It is very short, to tell you much about it would spoil it for you and I only spoil things I think you shouldn’t have to read, remember?
In the manner of all good faerie stories, the prose is spare and the plot is swift. It doesn’t take long for you to love some characters and shake your fist at others. There is a little surprise at the end that is both beautiful and wrenching at the same time. Every time I read it, something new strikes me as being particularly lovely or memorable. This time, it was this:
He stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm where the blue waves like snow-clad hills roll silently out of Unlight to the long strand, bearing the white ships that return from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing.
I have each of these as individual volumes, but they’re also collected (along with a few others, and the mentioned On Fairy Stories) in Tales from the Perilous Realm. If you can’t find them on their own (there’s just something about having each of them separately), I’d recommend finding yourself a copy of this – it includes the illustrations for each of the stories/novellas…and they’re just not the same without the pictures.
If you’re not already familiar with these, I hope you feel encouraged to give them a shot. If you DO already know them, which is your favourite?