Tolkien in Fairyland

Tales from the Perilous Realm

A Review

‘And so it was that the dragon, charging down the line, suddenly saw straight in front of him his old enemy with Tailbiter in his hand.’

This collection of tales and poems does not have the epic grandeur of LOTR. Nor does it have the literary merit of The Hobbit. The stories are unrelated in that they were written during the period from 1925 to 1964. random jottings from the time when Tolkein was already plotting and working on his major projects. As a philologist, he seems to have had a lifelong fascination with fairytales and their origins, and this fascination is reflected in the selection in this book.

Tales from the Perilous Realm comprises four short stories, sixteen poems and an essay, On Fairy-Stories, which skirts round the subject quite a lot – so it seems to me – discussing what fairytales are not as much as what they are. Placed anywhere else but in an appendix, – again, so it seems to me – this somewhat erudite critique might very likely spoil what is an enjoyable and fun collection.

The first tale, Roverandom, is about a small dog called Rover, who has the misfortune to upset a wizard called Antaxerxes. For this transgression he is magicked into an even smaller toy dog and spends the rest of the story trying to get back to his original form. His first big adventure is on the Moon. where the Man-in-the-Moon also has a dog called Rover, thus our Rover has to be renamed. On this fantasy romp back to childhood, there are dragons, and gnomes, and spiders, none of them especially dangerous, and Rover(andom) has a fun time. Meantime, Antaxerxes has married a mermaid and gone to live at the bottom of the sea. So there Rover must go too. Of course, like most fairytales, it all works out well in the end and the tiny dog is restored to his normal size and finds a proper home.

Farmer Giles of Ham is my favourite. The reluctant hero of this tale has a dog, a scaredy-cat dog named Garm. Like Bilbo Baggins, Giles doesn’t go looking for adventure. Rather, the adventures find him: first, armed only with a blunderbuss, he chases off a giant, thereby earning the gratitude of the king as well as that of his neighbours; next, accompanied by a bunch of useless knights and wielding his magic sword Tailbiter, he sets out to battle a dragon named Chrysophylax. Eventually, Giles strikes a bargain with the dragon, gets the better of the useless, greedy king and becomes a popular king himself. Giles’s tale is full of humour and classical references. Moreover, there are hints here of greater things to come in the tale of Bilbo, Smaug and the dragon treasure.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil comprise an assortment of poems which seem to owe much to nursery rhymes. The epic connections, to LOTR in particular, are evident to readers of the book, though perhaps not so much to those who have only seen the movies. Tom Bombadil is a character who appears in The Fellowship of the Ring [in a scene that was not used by Peter Jackson] – ‘a merry fellow; bright blue his jacket was and his boots were yellow, green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather ….’

Two of the poems in this section were, with a bit of editing, included in the novel under the authorship of Bilbo and Sam Gangee. Some of the others are sheer childlike fun, such as this one:

‘The Man in the Moon was drinking deep, and the cat began to wail;

A dish and a spoon on the table danced, the cow in the garden madly pranced,

And the little dog chased his tail.’

This one smacks more of the Mines of Moria:

Ere the pit was dug or Hell yawned, ere dwarf was bred or dragon spawned,

There were Elves of old, and strong spells under green hills in hollow dells ….’

Of the final two stories, Smith of Wootton Major is an old-fashioned fairytale of a cook, a cake and a silver star. It is the only tale in the collection to feature a ‘real’ fairy – and the Queen, no less! I enjoyed this one too and was made somehow to think of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, although the two works have actually very little in common.

In Leaf by Niggle, the real and fantasy worlds again exist side by side and merge in a work of art. Tolkien has great fun with language and the tale is criss-crossed with moral themes in typical fairytale fashion, for example: don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today; big trees from little acorns grow; nothing lasts forever. (With the possible exception of dreams?)

The author paints Niggle as an insignificant little man, a painter with an idea which begins as a leaf, then a tree, then a forest, before turning into a complete enchanted reality. However, this does not happen until he has gone on a rather Kafkaesque and nightmarish journey to who-knows-where. Along the way, he learns hardship and how to come to a friendly understanding with his neighbour, Parish.

‘… Atkins preserved the odd corner [of the painting]. Most of it crumbled; but one beautiful leaf remained intact. Atkins had it framed. Later he left it to the town museum. But eventually the museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.’

Tales from the Perilous Realm isn’t for everyone. But I believe fans of JRR Tolkien’s greater works will find much to enjoy in this easily-read volume.



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