Of Early Morning in Wootton Major

There is a special pleasure that comes from riding in the predawn darkness, quietly collecting a book and warm clothes, and secreting oneself to a dark room of the house to read until daybreak. The still world is broken only by the occasional call of a forlorn owl in the woods behind the house, and the periodic cycling of the water filter in the fridge.

This morning’s reading was the short fiction from Tolkien, “Smith of Wootton Major.” I’ve known of this book for as long as I can remember – as a little boy growing up in our yellow aluminum house in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I used to look at the rows and rows of books on the black shelves filling the corner of our modest living room. Quite the random collection of works were fostered there! Thin paperbacks like “The Ox-Bow Incident” stood quietly beside the many works of such modern Christian writers as Bonhoeffer and Packer, or a thick copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or little known books on discipleship, or family, or psychology. I think the lack of fiction on these bricks and boards always gave the rate example an especial fascination to me. And one such book, long looked at but never read, was this “Smith.” I still marvel that somehow this book came to be among the chosen texts, while “The Hobbit” and Lord of the Rings did not.

What prompted the reading selection this morning was, some might say, just as random as the family library of my youth. Yesterday (for we are at early hours now) the New York pastor Timothy Keller passed away. Asking the many kinds and generous comments posted online in remember of his life and service, one included a brief reflection of Keller’s on Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” – referencing how Niggle imagines a large and lovely tree but in his lifetime is only able to, by art and craftsmanship, produce the replica of a single lead of this tree in all his living years. Yet when he dies, Niggle finds the whole Tree of his imagination already exists in the heavenly places, full and lush and beautiful and grand. Keller exalted this image of life and afterlife.

Having read this quote, I was inclined to read “Leaf” in full, thinking I had a copy of it somewhere here in my own library. But looking through the Lewis-Chesterton-Macdonald-Tolkien stacks, I realised that I don’t have a copy of “Leaf” after all: only the major works from Tolkien, along with the small, pretty hardcover copy of “Mr Bliss” given me for my birthday by Will Dragoo (founder of our Dufflepud cohort) and, yes, the old paperback copy of “Smith” pilfered from my parents’ collection now many years ago.

Perhaps sometime I will share my own reflections on this other work of Tolkien’s, and how the land of fairy to him was something which defied the simple, saccharine connotations so many others give to fairies – being instead a place of great peril for the common, mortal man, full of fayery (fay connoting magical activity) that Matty terrorise and transform without explanation or logic. But now the bird song increases, the outlines of the windows begin to glow faintly, and dawn is approaching. The fairyland wandering of early rising recedes into the familiar morning light.

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