It would be absurd in the extreme to consider anything by J.R.R. Tolkien “forgotten.” This is a man whose every note, fragment, and grocery list has been published and developed into a movie trilogy or TV series. Nevertheless, I think the novelette “Smith of Wootton Major” deserves more recognition from us lovers of cozy fantasy. Check it out:
Focus on community and family? Check.
Small, personal stakes? Check.
Sense of wonder? Check.
Happy ending? Check.
Detailed descriptions of baked goods? Check, check, and check!
“Smith of Wootton Major” tells the tale of a blacksmith who finds a star that allows him to travel to Faery. Like a proper fairy tale, though, it starts much earlier.
The town of Wootton Major always has a Master Cook who prepares food for all the town events. The biggest event of all is the Twenty-Four Feast, held once every twenty-four years for all the children in town. For the Twenty-Four Feast, the Master Cook must prepare an incredible cake, and it is this cake that will be his legacy.
One day the Master Cook goes on holiday and comes home with an apprentice named Alf. Not long after, the Master Cook retires. Alf is considered too young to take over the role, so a sullen, unimaginative man named Nokes becomes Master Cook. Alf serves Nokes well—in fact he does most of the work—and when the Twenty-Four Feast comes around, and Nokes finds a little star in the storage room, Alf suggests Nokes put the star in his great cake as a treat for whichever child gets the right slice.
But at the party the star is never found, for the Smith’s Son swallows it whole. On his tenth birthday, the Smith’s Son coughs up the star and attaches it to his forehead (shades of Eärendil!) and thus begins his relationship with the fairy realm, which lasts as he grows up to become a great smith, has various adventures, and eventually retires.
In proper cozy fashion, while “Smith of Wootton Major” deals with some heavy themes, they’re never overpowering or overly dark. Smith often wanders into Faery, and this strains his relationship with his wife and children. He also often returns changed from his travels, or bearing strange treasures. But unlike so many “man becomes obsessed with the fairy realm” stories, Smith is honest with his family, who love and trust him, and his gifts are cherished.
Tolkien also takes pains to establish that Smith never uses his gifts for dark purposes. While he’s known far and wide as a great smith, “among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”
Despite Tolkien’s famous aversion to allegory, “Smith of Wootton Major” bears a few metaphorical readings. Smith’s fairy star might represent an openness to the wondrous things in life, with the dour Nokes carrying the flag for the forces of anti-imagination. By accepting Faery in himself, Smith is blessed with wisdom, talent, and happiness. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has also suggested that Nokes represents the modern critical approach to literature, which strips it of the wonder that stories held for our ancestors.
“Smith of Wootton Major” is a short read, and can easily be found for free online. I consider it a must-read for lovers of cozy fantasy, both as a founding document and a lovely experience in its own right. Tolkien was 75 when “Smith of Wootton Major” saw publication, and he referred to it as “an old man’s book.” I’m not sure I agree—it’s full of delight and doesn’t turn to defeat or despair, even once Smith is himself an old man and his gift is gone. Or perhaps it’s just that Tolkien saw a continuity between the old and the young that too often goes ignored. I found the ending quite hopeful—even, dare I say it, cozy.
— Nathaniel Webb