If you ask the ordinary fantasy fan to think outside the box when it comes to Tolkien, most would return with answers such as The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin. When imagining Tales from the Perilous Realm, one must command the fan to imagine themselves standing outside the room which holds our original box. In short, it wouldn’t be the first on anybody’s list, but having read it, I feel it shouldn’t be anybody’s last.
This novel features five unique short stories as written by Tolkien, each based around the world of Faerie, a land we commonly associate with The Brothers Grimm etc. In stark contrast to this land of pixies and toadstools, Tolkien presents a meticulous essay outlining concretely what Fairy stories actually are, and how we should consider them as literary pieces.
The first tale presented is that of Roverandom. Featuring a dog named Rover, the story revolves around the animal becoming caught up in wizard dealings and being whisked away from his normal country lifestyle. What Tolkien succeeds in here unsurprisingly (if one reads The Hobbit) is perfectly building a world for a child’s imagination. Rather than soaking the piece in meticulous detail or filling every corner with aspects of his higher writing, Tolkien maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, and manages to turn a very average plot into a memorable story suitable for all ages. Though not my favourite form the book, the piece deserves praise nonetheless.
Farmer Giles of Ham definitely feels far more like the Tolkien we are used to, with its slightly dark undertone and a plot brimming with swords, kings and dragons. Similar to a world of Frodos and Bilbos, the tale focuses on how the ordinary man gets caught up in a world of valour and higher powers, simply based on how much love even the smallest man can show for their own homeland. Farmer Giles is Bilbo-like showing quick wit and a good humour, while his exchanges with Chrysophylax the dragon are hauntingly familiar if one has read The Hobbit to the finish. Suspense was maintained throughout which kept the tale moving and so the whole thing felt far shorter than Roverandom itself. Perhaps for those who enjoyed The Hobbit this would be a welcome read.
The Smith of Wooton Major dabbled most in what Tolkien considered the faery world to be. Based around a master cook living in a small town, the plot takes us into a parallel world of Faery, all accomplished through the magical ingredients of a special cake! The further the story progressed, the more the tale stood out as thematically impressive and not just a easy read. If Tolkien had delved more into the adventures that did occur in the world of Faery, the story would have benefited undoubtedly. However,given it was intended as a short piece (in which connection to the early paragraphs seems essential to grasp the overall feel), he might have chosen correctly in keeping the length short.
The literature then shifts to poet format, with a series of nearly twenty short stories being fed to the reader on a verse by verse basis. Some of these tales seem by themselves interesting, while others leave much to the imagination but succeed from a poetic point of view. Of all the pieces in this book, this would probably appeal least to the everyday reader. However, for those Tolkien fans who understand deeply that this man valued language far more than he did archers and cavalry, the section is a valuable insight into Tolkien’s ability.
The final piece presented is that of ‘Leaf by Niggle’. Tolkien was always quoted as saying he hated allegory; that is the intentional pursuit by a story etc to give the reader some sort of message (and in many cases the value of the story lies solely in this message). That being said, it is often argued this tale is a highly allegorical one, with its entire plot echoing the recesses of an aging Tolkien’s mind. Tolkien did once quote that for many pieces allegory is itself not presented, and any meaning found in the piece by the reader is purely coincidental, and evidently down to personal interpretation (as given in a note to fans in later LOTR publications). This is reasonable, but one would be hard pushed to read Leaf by Niggle and not come away feeling the whole tale circles around a painter who mirrors Tolkien himself; a man who was awash with worry, unhappiness and regret with not having finished his epic Silmarillion before his death (with this book being if anything the primary part of his legendarium). Just like Niggle, Tolkien continues to tack pieces onto his original work, filling in details here and there as he goes, never really settling on a defined picture/image and always looking to expand when he should consolidate and finish. The ending is too good to spoil, if one really wants value for reading.
Overall, anyone who shows a good interest in Tolkien’s writing will enjoy this quick read, with Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham standing out as a top three in my eyes. Next time I’ll be reviewing The City, a fantasy tale by Stella Gemmell, wife of the late writer David Gemmell.