There has been, in more recent years, a push to explain away fantasists like J.R.R Tolkien or C.S. Lewis as part of an older and more obscure literary movement. To that effect some have even aimed to marginalise their work as merely part of 'genre fiction' and fantasy. Of course, Tolkien is not helped by the fact that so many authors have set out to copy his stylistic endeavours with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings without understanding his purpose in creation.
Indeed, Tolkien's aims were more along the lines of sub-creation and creating stories which reflected the world of Faerie, moreso than in creating any long sprawling unimaginative epic (which is what he has been distilled to by many). As mentioned in the foreword to this book, "Tolkien was a self-confessed niggler", meaning that he began with one set idea (the tales of the Silmarillion) and then niggled out other ideas to fill in the gaps and connections to those stories, until his entire world could be better fleshed out. At the same time other little story ideas and fragments that came to him also had to be niggled out into a full idea. This collection contains some of those niggled out stories.
Roverandom - 4 stars
Roverandom is a story I had read before, the story of a dog who bit a wizard's trousers and ended up being turned into a toy dog. As a toy dog, Rover, now named Roverandom, experienced a set of adventures of a magical nature and reminiscent of other children's stories such as Enid Blyton's The Magical Faraway Tree or Edith Nesbit's The Five Children and It.
Notably, Roverandom was written by Tolkien as a story of consolation - which is what many people find irritating or frustrating about Tolkien's stories. For many see fantasy as being about escapism and patronising consolation - which Tolkien did nothing to disprove. In particular, however, Roverandom, was written when his son Christopher lost his toy dog at the beach and the Tolkien family were unable to find it again. So, as a way of soothing his child, Tolkien wrote Roverandom to explain that perhaps there is or was something more magical as to why this toy was lost. Which I view as serving a purpose of fantasy: explaining the world around us.
Farmer Giles of Ham - 5 stars
This was a tale about one fat, crotchety farmer named Giles of Ham, who becomes a hero with the help of his cowardly talking dog. After besting a giant with his blunderbuss, Giles is called upon to take his heroism to defeat a dragon by the name of Chrysophylax.
As far as short stories go, this was very tightly written and with a real sense of humour and irony. There was a distinct moral throughout the story regarding courage and heroism however - that one must go out and face danger in order to reap the rewards, rather than officiously sitting back and sending out other men.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil - 4 Stars
This is a selection of Middle Earth inspired poetry. Most of it is humorous or absurd, but the rest is certainly fantastic and ethereal with some mentions of fairies and trolls. Altogether a nice diversion from the short stories and novellas contained within this volume.
Smith of Wootton Major - 4 stars
Another short story which aims to tackle the concept of Faerie in a more abstract way. In this tale a cook decides to bake a grand cake, inside of which a magical artefact is cooked. This magical artefact leads to the adventures in the world of Faerie and therefore serves to transform this story into a short tale about the wonder and magic of life. It is in many ways also a brief form of bildungsroman in which the main character - Smith - grows from child into adult and learns to let go of things in order to help a child develop.
Leaf by Niggle - 5 stars
Leaf by Niggle may be the best short story ever written by Tolkien, at least so far as I am aware. It is interesting, because Tolkien is not known as a short story author, and certainly not as a literary short story author - despite his prestige in academic circles at the time. I say that Leaf by Niggle is his best short story, because in many ways it is a reflection on Tolkien's role as an artist of fairy-stories and a criticism of those who perceive fairy-stories as frivolous or wasteful.
The story follows one man by the name of Niggle who is an artist. Niggles entire aim as an artist however is to paint leaves, and from those leaves to pain trees. Not just any tree however, but the perfect image of a tree. A tree in the greatest spiritual sense. Much as how Tolkien himself tried to capture a perfect essence of Faerie in his writing and his artistic creation.
In the end, Niggle, the reader is left to believe, dies. However, his spirit lives on in the real spiritual world that he had attempted to create in his paintings. In this way Tolkien can be said to have reflected the idea that all his artwork was only a way of capturing - and sub-creating alongside - the work of God. That when we attempt to paint or write anything we are really only highlighting or capturing part of the eternal form of the painted chair or house or...tree.
On Fairy-Stories - 5 stars
The final piece in this collection is Tolkien's famous essay On Fairy-Stories which is perhaps the greatest essay ever written on fantasy. In it Tolkien addresses many of the criticisms of fairy-stories and many of the flaws in what are commonly known as fairy-stories or fairytales, despite a lack of fairies or even magicality. Yet even a presence of magic does not alone create a fairytale, because fairytales must speak of or about Faerie, the magical world of spirits, elves, dwarves and the like.
Tolkien further addresses the concept of escapism in fantasy. He denies the claim that escapism is by itself a bad idea, nor does he accept that fantasy should not be escapist. Indeed he sees the highest form of fairy-story being about escape - or rather eucatastrophe: "the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn." His definition of escapism is not that one is fleeing from the world entirely, but that one is seeing that life is full of escapes from various circumstances. And indeed it is the purpose of fantasy to show those escapes, to console the reader not by patronising them, but by letting them know how much true joy there is in the world. In essence, Tolkien shows his readers that fantasy is about creating a sense of endless joy and that in many ways Christianity is about the greatest fairy-story of them all.