Smith of Wootton Major
Smith of Wootton Major, first published in 1967, is a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The book grew out of an attempt to explain the meaning of Faery by means of a brief story about a cook and his cake. This would have been part of a preface by Tolkien to George MacDonald's famous faerie story The Golden Key. But the story grew from there and became a tale in its own right.
The most recent (2005) edition, edited by Verlyn Flieger, includes a previously unpublished essay by Tolkien, explaining the background and just why the elf-king spent so long in Wootton Major. It also explains how the story grew from this first idea into the published version.
The book was originally called "The Great Cake", but the title was changed to "Smith of Wootton Major" in an attempt to suggest an early work by P.G. Wodehouse.
The story was first published in the Christmas edition of Redbook magazine, New York on # 23 November 1967 but without the illustrations by Pauline Baynes that appeared in the published book.
It is not definitely connected to the Middle-earth legendarium. Both Faery and Valinor are lands outside of the normal world, but Valinor cannot normally be visited by mortals. There are lesser elven kingdoms that humans can visit and return: Faramir mentions visitors to Lorien.
It is sometimes published in an omnibus edition with "Farmer Giles of Ham", another Tolkien novella with illustrations by Pauline Baynes. The two stories are not obviously linked, though an ingenious person could devise a common framework.
The village of Wootton Major is well-known around the countryside for its annual festivals, which are particularly famous for their culinary delights. The biggest festival of them all is the Feast of Good Children. This festival is celebrated only once every twenty-four years, and the celebrations take the form of a party to which twenty-four children of the village are invited. The highpoint of the party is the Great Cake, which is remarkable for its hidden magical ingredients. Whoever swallows one of these is given the rare gift of an entry into the Land of Faery.
This year the magic star hidden inside the Great Cake was eaten by a blacksmith’s son. The boy did not feel any of its magical properties at once but on the morning of his tenth birthday the star fixed itself on his forehead and marked him as one intimate with the Faeryfolk. This boy grew up to be a blacksmith like his father, but in his free time he roamed into the Land of Faery. The star on his forehead protected him from the evils threatening mortals in that land, and the Folk called him Starbrow and told him about their land and its hidden beauties and dangers.
The years passed and it was now time for another Feast of Good Children. Smith had had his precious gift for most of his life now and the time had come for it to be passed on to some other child. So he gave up the star, and the mysterious new Master Cook baked it into the festive cake once more.
Funny, frightening and always fascinating, the book is in part dominated by the character of the earlier Master Cook, a shallow, sly and lazy man called Nokes. He is the foremost among the non-believers, and dismisses all things magical as mere dreams and fancies. In the end it is he who meets the King of Faery and who is told off by him for his greed and indolence.
There is a surprising amount of genealogical information in the story.
Master Cook Rider | Smith = <:> __________________ | | | Smith Smithson = Nell <:> = Master Cook Nokes __________________________|________ | | | |
Tom = Nan Ned Smithson Nokes of Townsend
| | Tomling Tim of Townsend