Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Book that Inspired Tolkien?

It's got to be the most fundamental question in the entire field of the creative arts.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  A variation of it goes as follows: "Where do the stories come from?"  Most artists tend to answer that a lot of it just popped into their imaginations out of the clear blue.  For instance, here's how the creator of Middle Earth said it all got started, at least when it came to writing the book that first placed him on the map.  "All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting school certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.  On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'  I did not and do not know why (Collected Letters, 125)".

To be fair, perhaps it is just possible to understand why it happened when it did with a little bit of psychology and hindsight.  Tolkien seems to be conforming to a pattern when those words occurred to him.  He was placing his signature on a number of "red tape" papers.  This was a process his job required him to complete, over, time, and again, ad infinitum.  In another interview, Tolkien described the job as "laborious, and unfortunately, also boring (web)".  In other words, it was just one big, make-work detail,  The task itself might have been a dull, dry run.  However, it seems to have been the very repetitive nature of the task, its inherent monotony, that allowed the surface level of the writer's mind to not so much fall asleep, as go into a kind of holding pattern necessary for the lower levels of his mental activity to stir and awaken.  Once this happened, his imagination took the opportunity to send up a flare.  The result was a character with a funny name in a peculiar dwelling.  

It's a pattern that a lot of other writers have fallen into.  More than that, some authors out there are self-conscious enough to realize they rely on such processes to bring out their best work.  I can remember hearing second hand about a correspondence from a young author who claimed she had difficulty getting stuck on a work while cooped up in a hotel room.  She wished more than anything that she had her vacuum cleaner.  If she had just a bit of cleaning around the house to do, then the ideas just began to flow naturally for some reason.  That reason appears to be the same one at work in Tolkien's case.  Both writers needed to lull their minds into a sort of passive state in order for the imagination to do its thing.

This examination may have given us some insight, however it doesn't answer the full question.  What's been explained to us is just the process of having an idea, rather than the actual art of the craft.  We're no closer to learning about the actual content, or creative idea that makes The Hobbit the kind of story it is, and why the book remains such a perennial favorite down the years.  That's a more involved form of the question, one that takes a longer format than can be provided in just the span of a single article.  What makes a book line The Hobbit so rewarding from the perspective of the average bookworm is that it's the sort of text where several lifetimes have to be spent unpacking all of its narrative and thematic riches.  It's a strange enthusiasm to have for blots of ink on a page.  It's also one a lot of us can offer no apologies for.  It's just happens to be the kind of hobby that can have its own importance on occasion.

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are perhaps best thought of as a giant cauldron of story.  Each book tells its own self-contained narrative.  However both stories are a feast made up of several differing, yet often interrelated ingredients.  Discovering and tracing down the roots of these inspiration elements has been a pastime in Tolkien fandom for a while now.  It's one particular ingredient that I'm interested in for the moment.  If places like Middle Earth are made up from the various strands of folktale and legend, then another legitimate, yet oft-neglected source of inspiration sometimes came to Tolkien from the popular literature of his own timeline.  We like to picture Tolkien as this semi-reclusive old hermit who liked to shut himself away from the world.  If that was the case, then it's a wonder LOTR even exists.  Books like that are never the work of shut-ins.  It takes a great deal of life experience to conjure up the the level of humanism contained within its pages.  Looked at from that perspective, there is a sense in which Tolkien can be described as a Renaissance man.

His tastes were not confined to the medieval or its preceding ages.  It's a basic enough fact that the Professor also liked to dabble in the fantastic scribblings of both the Victorians and the more mythical oriented Modernists of the early 20th century.  Some of the modern authors that Tolkien admired hinted that his tastes were often more eclectic than even the most fervent admirers will allow. The best name that signals this out might have to belong to Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.  Indeed, the latter raises interesting possibilities about how Tolkien might have viewed his most famous creation.  Another one of these modern names was called Edward Augustine (E.A.) Wyke-Smith, and its his work that  concerns us here.  Perhaps the best way to describe him is to say that he is one of (though by no means the sole) inspiration for the name that cropped into Tolkien's mind one day.  

Wyke-Smith had never heard of Hobbits in his whole life however, and the book we are looking at today doesn't even bother to mention them.  At the same time, it's almost like neither author could avoid creating the subject.  Wyke-Smith and Tolkien shared at least two things in common.  Both were writers who discovered they were pretty good at it.  The second was that they are the creators of a certain type of secondary world character with a remarkable number of physical similarities.  Perhaps that's not all that each of their books share in common.  It's a story that's well worth telling, so there's no better time to start.  

The Story.

"Good evening!  What're you doin' here?  Didn't expect to run into no one way out here; not at this time of night.  You wouldn't happen to have seen a pair of kids come through these parts, did ya?  One of them's sort of a tow-headed young'n, and he's got a nice, brave lass along with him.  They both might look kind of grubby and underfed, what with being stuck on the road for so long.  Know anyone who matches that description?  No?  Well, um, I thought not; I guess.  It'd be a shame if anything was to happen to them, on account of it's sort of my job to look after both.  At least, it was my job.

"There names are Sylvia and Joe, you see.  They come all the way from Watkyns Bay.  That's the settlement the ladies have set up on our shores.  They call themselves the S.R.S.C (Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children).  No need to get alarmed, it ain't what it sounds like.  Them ladies has done an awful lot for those tykes.  Going about, finding if one of them is unwanted by their kin, whether they are abused, or ignored to the point of there being danger afoot.  When that happens, Miss Watkyns and her friends, why, they step in and pretty soon the young'ns find themselves here, with us.  It's a load of sight better than living in the gutter, or going home to a black eye, I can tell you that.  Still, it's a real shame when you're own flesh and blood can't stand the sight of ya, and that's a fact.  Still, the good thing is the children of Watkyns Bay have flourished.  They got a school, village, and everything where they're all looked after right good and proper.  That's where Sylvia and Joe came from.  Ain't no reason for no one to want to run away from a place like that.

"Joe and Sylvie never even wanted to leave in the first place, so they tells me.  They was afraid they'd done something bad enough to be sent away.  Poor tykes.  How was they to know all ol' Miss Watkyns had in store for them was a few make up chores, and then maybe an extra helping at dinner for good behavior?  She may be a battle axe, but she's no ogre at heart.  For that, you have to turn to sorts like that Golithos who lives in these woods, not far from here.  Oh we've all had our fair share of run-ins with him, believe me.  Mark my words, steer clear of that oaf as best you can.  'He'll lead ya to know good end.  I just hope he hasn't done the same for them kids.  I don't think I even know what made them run away from home now.  Maybe it was something to do with a prank, and maybe it was Joe, Sylvia, or both that threw something at one the men of the Flying Dutchmen that's anchored in these harbors.  It was either a piece of mud off the ground, or it might've been a stone.  I don't think even they can recollect it anymore.  Seems all stupid now.

"Anyway, both of them got a notion in their heads they were to be sent away, back where they came from.  They didn't seem to fancy that outcome much, so they took a few provisions and set out for life on the road.  That's how they came to our realm.  When His Majesty found out there were two human children in the kingdom, he proved he was a lot smarter than me, and that's not saying much.  He put on his thinking cap and explained the situation to Miss Watkyns.  Everyone was all smiles after that.  Sylvie and Joe was treated like guests of honor and given the best royal banquet our monarch could afford.  And that's no mean boast for us.  We like our meals regularly up these ways, when we can think of a good reason for it, which is often.  Everything was set to get back to normal.  

"If only I hadn't agreed to show the kids around the woods surrounding the kingdom.  Then maybe they'd have been well on their way home with a royal escort and everythin', and I could be enjoying a pint in a pub somewhere.  Instead, we got lost among the thickets, and couldn't see the towers and turrets of the king's castle no more.  Then we discovered that one of the trees was hollow on the inside, containing hidden passages, hallways, and who knows what else.  We decided to explore what has underneath a hidden trapdoor in that tree, and then we found ourselves on the other side of the forest.  You hear all kinds of rumors of a place like this, all of them bad.  There are worse things than an ogre like Golithos.  They say an evil witch inhabits these woods, and the whole land is ruled over by an evil king.  Besides all that, you can tell something ain't right with this forest.  The sounds carry all wrong, for one thing.  And whoever makes the occasional noise in the night, they ain't normal.  Some of them are all glowing eyes and teeth.  So, here we are, trying to find each other and get back home.  It doesn't help that I'm the biggest dunce cap in the land."  

The Forgotten Writer.

History is full of forgotten names.  I'm certain it happens all the time.  Part of the reason for that is because most of us are content to remain anonymous with our lives.  Nor is it the same as saying there is any necessary degree of shame in making such a choice.  It could be argued, in fact, that the smart money is all on anonymity's side.  There can be a certain amount of wisdom in refusing the spotlight.  If this is the standard course for the great majority of the the world, then the one's who do make the history books are often placed there for the ways in which they stand out from their settings and background, while always wearing these same influences on their sleeve.  Tolkien, for instance, is able to live on in the collective memory of audiences through the ages because of his skills with the usage and history of words, along with the scope of his imaginative talents.  If he wasn't as good at it as the record shows, then there's a more than high enough chance no one would be writing a single word about him.

One of the little acknowledged gifts that Tolkien had was the way he utilized his own influences.  He's one of those authors who are well read to such a surprising degree, that one of the benefits of being a fan is that it allows you to hunt down some of the books your favorite author might have enjoyed.  The usual goal of these kinds of searches is the hope that sooner or later you'll get lucky enough to find a work of fiction with the same or similar kind of flavor or literary atmosphere as that found in places like Hobbiton, or Mirkwood.  It is just possible to uncover traces of plot elements, settings, or even themes in some of the old material Tolkien loved to read.  Some examples of this are obvious, such as Beowulf, or the mythologies of the Norse Sagas.  All of these are by now familiar influences that went into the making of Middle Earth.  Then there are those points of inspiration which, for whatever reason, remain unexamined or under-explored, and the critic is left to ask why this should be?

Part of the reason has to do with questions of obscurity and accessibility.  A good rule of thumb in the bookworm world is that the more popular a text is, the better chances you'll have of getting your hands on a copy.  If the book in question isn't as well known, or the last time its fan base was at its height was somewhere between Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and the invention of the Hula-hoop, then odds are even your chances of getting a copy of said book are slim to none.  It's something I can attest to from personal experience.  There's a book out there called Time Alive, written a by Grover Smith, that I'll swear has vanished into the ether, no matter how much I look for it.  Any author who suffers that fate does so for the simple reason that their creative efforts somehow didn't make the necessary grade.  As a result, their name and works are consigned to the memory hole.  If they should ever get rediscovered their chances have as much to do with blind luck as well as a few scattered remnants of enthusiasm.

This is the same fate that has afflicted the career of Edward Wyke-Smith.  The only reason it is now possible to spill a single bit of ink about him is due to the word of the man who created Middle Earth.  "In a letter to W.H. Auden written on June 7th 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien reminisced about his children's enthusiasm for his own story, The Hobbit.  Tolkien wrote that they had liked it well enough, but "not any better I think than The Marvellous Land of Snergs," a children's book by E.A. Wyke-Smith published by Ernest Benn in 1927.  Tolkien added: "Seeing the date, I  should say that this was probably an unconscious source-book! for the Hobbits, not of anything else." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 215)  Yet this statement written about twenty-eight years after Tolkien had first encountered the book, fails to convey the esteem that Tolkien held for it.  His children, particularly his second son, Michael, loved The Marvellous Land of Snergs.  As a young boy, Michael Tolkien even wrote some stories of his own with Snerg-inspired characters (i)".

That bit of history all came from Douglas Anderson's introduction to the 1996, Old Earth Books reprint of Wyke-Smith's book.  As of this writing, it remains the sole repository for all the data available about the author who inspired Tolkien.  The fact that it is now a rare and hard to find item should tell you something about how far under the radar his reputation still is.  The ironic part is that it used to be the other way around.  Edward Augustine Wyke-Smith "was born on 12 April 1871, the fourth child of Edward and Frances (Searle) Smith (iv)".  The family household seems to have been well-to-do enough, based on all the information Anderson gives out.  The father was a member of the Royal Society, and had published a number of books that were considered respectable for their time.  These included biographies of William Cobbet, the Jacobins, and England and America after Independence (ibid).

I've noted elsewhere that it can sometimes be possible for certain author's live to fit or fall into similar types or patterns of behavior and trajectory.  Wyke-Smith is interesting in a very ironic way.  His life story is one that's been done before, yet it's novelty comes from his attempts to subvert it, at least half-way.   "The family lived in a large house near the edge of Epping Forest in Essex, to the northeast of London.  A door in the garden wall around the house opened out into the forest.  The children spent whole days in the forest, and memories of these playful days are found reflected many years later in the forest scenes in three of Wyke-Smith's children's books. The children did not see much of their father, who spent much of his time either in his study or in London - at his club or at the British Museum reading room.  He was a typical Victorian paterfamilias, an authoritarian figure who dominated his gentle wife.  He took strict control over the children's reading - no novels or adventure books were allowed (for they were trash), and even Treasure Island was forbidden.  The children had to hide their precious copy under a rock slab.

"Young Ted had always shown signs of a marked artistic ability, and his father wanted him to study art, but the boy rebelled.  First, he joined the Horse guards at Whitehall.  When his father found out, he bought Ted out of the service at considerable expense (ibid)".  The father may have stopped his son from one form of familial revolt, but he couldn't keep him from discovering other outlets.  From here, Wyke-Smith's biography almost turns into a real life spin on the kind of cliche Victorian novels he was forbidden to read.  Ones where the hero sets off to find his fortune, and winds up having a number of the usual unusual adventures that are meant to set the teeth on edge.  Wyke-Smith's case is amusing for the way it almost reads as if the storybook came to life.  His next revolt from his father was to spend a number of years as a Jack Tar that left him with "a lifelong love of ships and a deep interest in anything to do with sailing and the sea (v)".

From there, Ted soon discovered an enjoyment for mining.  This led him to the job that would sustain him for most of his life.  It took him from the Cornish coast of England, all the way to the deltas of Alabama.  From there, his success in the business saw him shipped off to work the mines that dotted the hill country of Mexico.  Wyke-Smith found he was so good at it, that he soon made his way up the ladder to a managerial position.  It was also in Mexico that he met his future wife, Angela.  In addition to marriage, and eventual fatherhood, life itself seems to have not forgotten to make sure that the author's life was packed full of incident.  

"In 1910, revolution broke out in Mexico.  When the siege of Mexico City began in 1913, Angela and the baby were trapped in the city, with intense shell fire overheard and sniper fire all around.  Wyke-Smith was at the time far away, frantically trying to get home.  With the railroad system virtually paralyzed, Wyke-Smith and an American colleague managed to return to Mexico City only by stopping a stray train and taking over the driving themselves (vi)".  Ted and Angela were able to escape Mexico by the skin of their teeth, and wound up settling right back where it all started in England.  It was here that the  artistic inclinations and proclivities of Wyke-Smith's youth began to catch up with him.  It wasn't long after his homecoming that Wyke-Smith began to dabble in the Edwardian form of the Young Adult Novel.

The way it all came about was simple.  "...Wyke-Smith's daughter Frances...asked her father to make up a fairy tale for her.  Wyke-Smith had done nothing like this before, but he could not resist such a request.  He began sending weekly installments of what became his first book, Bill of the Bustingforths, to Frances and her mother...his wife persuaded him to rework the letters into book form and to try to get the book published.  Wyke-Smith offered the finished book to Humphrey Milford at Oxford University Press, who promptly accepted it.  The publisher then asked him to write a story for boys, and Wyke-Smith quickly completed The Last of the Barons, which Oxford University Press published simultaneously with Bill of the Bustingforths in July 1921 (vi-ii)".

That lucky bit of spiraling happenstance caused Ted to find his own, long neglected voice as a literary practitioner.  The result of this snowball effect allowed him to produce six more titles, along with his first two efforts.  In addition, Wyke-Smith was able to add at least eight more titles to his name with the publication of a series of light short stories. The best available bibliography can be seen here.  When taken as a whole, the slight, subverted nature of Wyke-Smith's progression as an artist becomes a bit more discernible.  I've compared him to a hero in one of those hoary old Boy's Adventure papers that used to get sold for a shilling in The Strand.  The artist starts out rebelling from a stifling home life.  so far, so prototypical.  It's the way this adolescent rebellion is applied in practical terms that makes it stand out a bit.  The usual pattern you expect in this kind of setup is for the artist to try and make a break from the bland conformity of the bourgeois settings in which they are brought up.  Often this setting is meant to place a heavy emphasis on the mercantile as the highest achievable goal.

In Wyke-Smith's case, the usual ingredients are somewhat reversed.  Here it is the authoritarian patriarch who tries to stand for a symbol of the integrity of the arts, all the while compelling the son to find a means of escape from the type of aesthetic setting or culture that is often regarded as a solace from the snares of mediocrity.  In Wyke-Smith, however, we see the artist trying to escape from aesthetics into respectability.  In that sense, it seems as if a lot of his life was about trying to find a way to escape from either the rule of his father, or else anything that he felt the old man would approve of.  It's an unusual path for an artistic type to take, and its what makes Ted's case stand out from among the pack.  

Along with this, there is one other aspect that marks out the trajectory of Wyke-Smith's career.  Anderson seems to have been on point when he noted that the young Edward had an artistic temperament.  If that's the case, then his desire to escape from it gives his exploits a very ironic note.  It throws an interesting light on the exploits he had during all of his years when he was, in essence, on the run from himself.  The one pattern that trailed Wyke-Smith's exploits boils down to one central fact.  He could never choose an ordinary job without it turning into an "adventure".  He tries to became an average seaman.  The net result is an exciting time on the high seas.  He tries to become a simple mine worker.  The choice makes him into a vagabond wanderer who is always fencing against the elements, along with the vagaries of human nature.  If he's not trying to prevent cave-ins, or tussling with the Mississippi River, he's trying to survive a revolution in Mexico.  And it all comes back to normal when he settles down to write novels.

It really is tempting to believe the universe, or something like it, was always making sure that Wyke-Smith never did anything that could even remotely be called uncreative.  While I don't go so far as to dismiss such a notion, I think the most likely truth of all his exploits is that Smith was always fighting a losing battle with his own artistic temperament.  It's an important point to note, as it says a lot about how art is able to even exist in the first place.  The preponderance of evidence suggests that the artistic mindset is something that some numbers of the population (never a majority) is just naturally born with.  It's the kind of phenomenon that is as natural as the color of the eyes, or the shape of a brow, and yet it remains a lot more inscrutable than either of these more normal developments.  When a person is born with such a mental slant, it really does color everything they say and do.  You can see it in those mindsets that are considered normal.  People who are good with numbers tend to be excellent statisticians, and their conversation is littered with facts and figures.  The artistic type, it seems, has little choice except to think and relate in terms of narrative and anecdote.

It's this very disposition that Wyke-Smith was born with.  At the same time, he lived under a shared roof with a man who made even his natural inclinations seem like a chore.  It is just possible that if Smith's dad hadn't been so much of a control freak.  If he could have just known enough to stand back and allow his son's imagination to develop in a natural way, on its own, then perhaps the entire roundabout detour that made up a great deal of Wyke-Smith's life could have been avoided.  Instead, the resentment Augustine built up in childhood gave birth to a series of misadventures with an ironic moral attached to them.  You can sort of tell that Edward was always an artist at heart.  While he might have been able to survive in the world of regular commerce, there was a chronic inability on his part to resist turning a simple business venture into an escapade, or story.  Even his most successful enterprise always found itself turning more into a backdrop against which a series of "exciting narrative incidents" took place.  

To make matters more satiric, every time an adventure happened, it was Wyke-Smith who emerged the inevitable hero.  It leads me to wonder if his life's exploits might prove something of value.  What if part of the reason it's best for creative types to find an outlet in the arts is because without it, the same imaginative streak will just find ways of turning real life into a storybook?  I know that probably sounds strange, yet I'll swear that's the inescapable conclusion the shape of Smith's life forces on an onlooker.  It's the incredible, yet simple fact that his real strengths lay in his imaginative skills.  It was a function that needed a mode of transmission to express itself.  Denying the imagination, in Smith's case, didn't mean it went away, or even ceased to exist.  What seems to have happened is, if the imagination is not allowed to express itself through normal channels, then it will find other outlets to work upon.  In Smith's case, that outlet turned out to be his own flesh and blood life.  The curious part is that it could also be argued that it was his imagination that was slowly pushing, or guiding him back to a point where it could return to its normal modes of expression.

This is all just a theory, of course.  In any case, the net result of Wyke-Smith finding his authorial voice meant that he spent the remaining years of his life happily engaged in one creative composition after another.  The Marvellous Land of Snergs was the last book the author published during his lifetime.  It wound up being the capstone to an industrious, ultimately satisfying, and unsung career.  Perhaps now is the best time to see what it all amounted to.

A Work of Literary Subversion. 

It can be difficult to talk about something you've never heard of before.  Part of the reason for that is because if you run across something that's never been a very big topic of conversation, even within the halls of the Ivory Tower, you're more or less stuck with nothing to work with.  It's kind of the dirty secret of the art of criticism.  Part of what makes this job so easy (at least for some) is that whenever a new recruit comes along, half of their job has been filled in for them by all the names that have gone before.  All that any newbie has to do is freshen up on the commentary of ages past.  If you read up on what other critics of bygone ages have said on any given artistic topic, pretty soon, if the would-be critic is either capable or worthy of the title, it is just possible to dive in head first towards the deep end of the pool and not have to worry to much about whether they sink or swim.  Then you have an author like Wyke-Smith, and all of sudden the whole apparatus comes to a screeching halt anyway, and all you're left with is that Robert Burns quote about the best laid plans of mice and men.  In this case, it's as if one of the mice had crawled into the works and pulled out a key piece of the machinery.

Part of the problem with trying to get a proper fix on a book like The Marvellous Land of Snergs is the glaring lack of critical resources.  It has nothing to do with the novelty of the concept.  In the strictest sense, there is nothing unfamiliar or groundbreaking to be found in Wyke-Smith's text.  The real issue here seems to go back to the problem of a lack of reader familiarity, or popular awareness.  If a book is able to stack a claim to worldwide appeal, then it never takes long before the commentary starts spilling out of the woodwork.  This doesn't happen to books that fail to get that level of traction.  In such cases, it's like uncovering a blank spot on the map that someone forgot to fill in.  This can be both a problem or a creative challenge, depending on how you look at it.  The truth is probably somewhere in between those two poles.  It takes a great deal of care and critical skill to try and uncover the skeleton of an unexplored story, and what it has to tell us.  This is the main reason why the approach here is so damn cautious.  Part of the hazards of any uncharted territory is that you're all too soon to fall off the map.

The best place to start talking about the author's book is the way he chooses to begin.  Wyke-Smith establishes that he's in no great hurry right on the opening page.  Instead, he's willing to take his time in establishing the nature and setup of his secondary world.  The opening pages read almost as if we've caught the writer in mid-creation, just as he is beginning to observe the first narrative strands as they appear to him from nowhere.  The first elements to appear are the settings.  We follow along as imaginary spaces such as Watkyns Bay, the S.R.S.C, and the surrounding kingdoms and landscapes begin to reveal themselves one strand at a time.  By the time Wyke-Smith has finished laying out the landscape in full, the reader has had a firm and more or less definite idea of the Island Kingdoms (for lack of a better title) planted firm in their mind.  This is helped a great deal by the detailed illustration of the island provided by illustrator George Morrow.  It is his painstaking drawings that decorate both the immediate front and back inner linings of the book.

I've heard at least one complaint that this slow building setup means that it takes while for things to get going.  At the same time, it's also possible to see how other readers will find themselves expressing a counterargument.  Wyke-Smith's initial method of approach is the kind that has found a great deal of favor these days in modern fantasy circles.  It's possible to turn up fans of places like Middle Earth or Hogwarts complimenting their creators precisely for their very insistence on attention to detail.  My own reading of the text winds up in a comfortable middle ground between the two extremes.  The opening buildup neither drags nor wears out its welcome.  Wyke-Smith is able to strike up a crucial balance between world building and narrative proper.  He knows the setting of his story is one of those secondary landscapes that are so vast it is just possible to make both a concordance, encyclopedia, and atlas out of the whole thing.  He's smart enough, however, to realize that it's the story that is the real engine driving the whole jalopy.  He therefore keeps his attention glued to the plot, giving the reader just enough glimpses of the secondary world itself before making us realize there is a narrative that serves as the real heart of the design.

From there we move on to the two figures of Sylvia and Joe.  Like most of the child protagonists you tend to meet in fairy tales, both of them are orphans, and have spent their maturing years under the careful and caring eye of Miss Watkyns and her cohorts.  The staff of the S.R.S.C appear to be a modern humanitarian variation of the folktale trope of the Fairy Godmother.  That word has to be given a plural in this story as Watkyns and the nurses more or less serve as both guardians and de facto family for an entire island of orphans, including the two main leads.  I should get out ahead of things and declare right now that in looking at the two main leads as orphans, my intention is always to keep the focus squarely in literary terms, and nothing else.  With that in mind, the most obvious thing about Joe and Sylvia is that they do conform to the typical trope of the fairy tale fixture.  It's a feature of the fantasy that has become so prevalent that I think we're in danger of losing sight of what its initial purpose might have been aside from the go-to answer of plot convenience.

When it comes to assessing the nature of the Literary Orphan, the one source that seems most on target comes from Arnold Van Gennep's The Rites of Passage.  His main thesis is spelt out as follows.  It's the "notion that an individual's life consists of a series of transitions, structured by the society one lives in, and that these consist of three stages - separation from the old role, a liminal period between roles, and then the assumption of the new role (vii)".  It's a theory that I find to be particularly useful in uncovering the significance of the Literary Orphan in general, and Sylvie and Joe in particular.  It seems to be the express nature of the orphan in fiction to start out at the second, liminal role, as outlined by Gennep above.  The key thing about the liminal phase is that it is a role of margins.  Anyone said to occupy this phase is someone who exists on the periphery of their secondary world.  This trait can be either positive (as in Huck Finn), or negative (see, for instance, Beowulf's Grendel), depending on the nature of the story.

With Sylvia and Joe, the narrative is very much concerned with all the positive aspects that can attach to the trope.  Technically, the reader is introduced to the two main leads sometime after both of them have left their first phase of initiation behind.  Joe's father was an abusive old cuss who worked for the circus.  Sylvia, meanwhile, has a wealthy mother whose vanity pushed her very near the point of malnutrition.  Neither of them was cared for, and its implied that there is no real sense of regret on either sides.  It's possible to spill a great deal of ink on that situation, and I'd still admit I'm not sure what I should make of it.  In any case, the narrative is interested in the protagonists at their current, liminal stage.  Here's where a certain amount of narrative insight is provided from an ironic source.  As the wiki based site TV Tropes observes, Literary Orphans "don't need an excuse to go on wild adventures or stay away for days on end, they don't have anyone waiting around for them to come home! Conveniently, these heroes can answer the Call to Adventure because they don't have other responsibilities (web)".

The fact that the instigating action of Wyke-Smith's narrative is almost an exact match for the summary provided above also serves to double the irony, and that in a very informative way.  It's stated and shown to the  audience that Sylvia and Joe are great at playing pranks on everyone.  The readers is allowed to view several examples of this mischief in passing.  In doing so, the narrative is able to combine two tropes in one.  The Literary Orphan is also revealed to be a form of the Trickster archetype.  It's no real surprise then that it's one of the kid's pranks that kick-starts the whole thing, and sets the novel's plot in motion.  After convincing themselves that Miss Watkyns is going to send both of them back to their old lives as punishment, the children pack up what little valuables they have, along with some sandwiches, and enact yet another familiar trope by striking out for the open road.  What makes this entire setup unique is that it has to be one of the few times I can remember where it is the protagonists themselves who are willing and able to set the story going.  Everything that happens to the main characters is more or less self-created.  The fact that the initial conflict is started in a moment of disobedience makes the rest of the novel an exploration of the ramifications that stem from that trespass.

The bare description makes the whole thing sound dour.  The truth, however, is that Wyke-Smith is able to uncover all kinds of humorous and amusing avenues to explore from and within this setup.  The road in which Joe and Sylvie find themselves "goes ever on" and way does indeed "lead on to way".  However, it's a breadcrumb trail lined with great morsels of incisive wit.  Since the children are stuck in a fairy tale, it just makes sense that the challenges of the road are all of a fantastic nature.  The good news is that they do not have to suffer all by their lonesome.  In the best folktale tradition, the children meet a number of aids and guides to help them along in their journey.  One of them is an amusing chap, no higher than a table top, or thereabouts.  At first you might mistake him for a human being.  However a closer inspection reveals he's nothing of the sort.  Never has been, or will be.  He comes from a setting were an entire race of his sort reside, in a kind of jolly seclusion.  They enjoy eating, drinking, a good pipe of an evening, and good tilled earth, or else a nice lazy afternoon.

He's name isn't Bilbo, Frodo, or Sam, by the way.  If you were to ask him if he was a Hobbit, he'd have no idea who, or even what you were referring to.  He's a Snerg, his name is Gorbo, and he's not the only one.  "The Snergs," as Wyke-Smith explains, "are a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength.  Probably they are some offshoot of the pixies who once inhabited the hills and forests of England, and who finally disappeared about the reign of Henry VIII.  Their language is not very difficult and the children especially learn to speak it in a few weeks, which helps to strengthen my theory of the origin (7)".  "They are a long lived people; roughly speaking they live as long as oaks.  For instance those Snergs who remember the excitement caused by the landing of William the Conqueror (1066) are old, old gaffers, opinionated, sitting in arm-chairs.  The men who remember the Wars of the Roses are middle aged and of ripe judgment (in so far as a Snerg ever had judgment), while those born about the time of the Gunpowder Plot have still something of the gay insouciance of youth.  The babies date from Trafalgar and upwards.

"They are great on feasts, which they have in the open air at long tables joined end on and following the turns of the street.  This is necessary because nearly everybody is invited - that is to say, commanded to come, because the King gives the feasts, though each person has to bring his share of food and drink and put it in the general stock.  Of late years the  procedure has changed owing to the enormous number of invitations that had to be sent; the commands are now understood and only invitations to stay away are sent to the people who are not wanted on the particular occasion.  They are sometimes hard up for a reason for a feast, and then the Master of the Household, whose job it is, has to hunt for a reason, such as its being somebody's birthday.  Once they had a feast because it was nobody's birthday that day (9-10)".  And so it goes.  Gorbo tends to be that one guy who is always seated at the emptiest spot at the very last table.  Either that or he just gets a cordial invitation.  When Sylvie and Joe turn up, he's tasked with looking after them.  The whole goes about as you might expect.  He tries to give the children a brief tour of the surrounding environs, and it isn't long until it looks as if the woods have closed in on them.

It's when they find one of the trees is hollowed out that Wyke-Smith's narrative begins to kick into overdrive.  It's when the reader reaches this point in the narrative that the nature of Wyke-Smith's strategy begins to come clear.  So far, he's shown himself as a more than competent hand at world building.  The children getting lost in the woods and coming upon the door in the middle of nowhere is the make or break moment.  The story proper is about to begin, and its gratifying to discover that it's the kind the wants to grab the reader by the throat right out of the starting gate.  Wyke-Smith finds he has to switch gears from a painter of landscapes to a seller of suspense.  It's something of a relief to find he's capable of pulling such an old hat trick off with the necessary amount of skill.  Part of it is down to the author's powers of description.  Here, for instance, is what the main character see when they come across a mysterious portal.   "In the big tree was a door about four feet high, a queer looking door with mighty iron hinges and clasps, all red with rust or green with moss.  In the deep shadow and at a little distance away it was difficult to distinguish it from the trunk (53)". 

Wyke-Smith's description in this passage is sparse and economical, and yet he is able to sell it in just those few choices of words.  The writer has found a way of generating a legitimate sense of dread and uneasy excitement by doing no more than highlighting all those details of scenery that are sure to raise the hackles and make us beg to know what's behind that door, even if we know going through might be a bad idea.  It's the first big moment of tension in the story, the one instant that everything has been building up to, and Wyke-Smith carries it off like a seasoned pro.  He also seems to have realized it was important to keep that idea of suspense going from the moment it appears.  From then on, the writer's task becomes that of a tricky high-wire act.  The plot has begun to run in its traces, and Wyke-Smith has managed to find the natural rhythm of the story.  

It's a mistake, however, to assume this means he's anymore out of the woods than his character.  The writer now has to keep his imaginative eye trained on that rhythm, and the thread of plot that it's made out of.  Inspiration can sometimes be a precarious deal.  If Wyke-Smith were to lose sight of that thread, even for just a moment, it could be the difference between success or failure.  It doesn't help much that the plot itself is made up of multiple, interlocking strands.  It's the kind of story that likes to jump around, or cross-cut between different characters and situations at the same time.  It's not an impossible setup to pull off, the bookshelves are full of novels where the writer was able to accomplish just a such a feat.  However it's one of the most complex artistic operations to perform, and getting it right often takes a skill beyond even the most careful planning that any writer can devise.  That's why it's something of a relief to find that Wyke-Smith is capable of bringing the whole thing off.  

When the children and their companion reach the other side of the door, the narrative continues to not let up.  That initial note of excitement comes along for the ride from start to finish.  A lot of the reason for that has to do with the kind of adventures the children have, and the company they meet in the unexplored country.  Perhaps a better statement is to say that what grants the novel significance as a whole is the way in which Wyke-Smith explores this secondary world.  As a work of fantasy, the Land of Snergs doesn't bother to cut back on the usual cast of characters you'd expect to find in a fairy tale.  Once more we find ourselves in a situation where it's the particular use the author is able to discover for them that counts.  In Wyke-Smith's case this means more or less just two things: satire and subversion.

This is the one aspect of the book that stands out the most, and is also the most difficult plot element to talk about.  Part of it is the way both terms and concepts have either grown or devolved with usage over time.  When we hear words like satire or subversive, the modern world leaves us with very narrow real life examples for anything like a working definition.  In calling the book subversive, or satirical, all it does is make it sound like the only reason Wyke-Smith wrote the damn thing in the first place is just so he could take a blowtorch to anyone's cherished childhood icons.  To be fair, it's no real stretch of the imagination to say that this is always one possible narrative strategy.  There has been more than one artistic effort out there which does try to deconstruct the very notion of the fairy tale.  Indeed, considering the nature of the enterprise, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the effort doesn't take all that much use of imagination at all.  The trouble is this is not Wyke-Smith's concern.  Nor does he seem have written the book in such a vein.  Wyke-Smith's use of satire appears to be an example of the more constructive criticism of Shakespeare, E. Nesbit, or perhaps James Thurber's Fables for Our Time

This form of satire is a lot milder than the ones we are used to today.  Whatever it lacks is volume, however, it tends to make up for by making sure its barbs reach the intended target in a way that makes its meaning crystal clear.  It also tends to be a lot more remedial than just plain deconstructive.  In Wyke-Smith's text, this often takes the form of characters not often foreseeing the consequences of their actions.  There's a palatable cautionary note to a lot of the children's exploits as they make their way through the land.  Joe and Sylvia will find themselves in a situation that requires them to learn to use cunning and quick thinking in order to get out of a prototypical jam.  They both prove to be resourceful in their own ways, and this in turn forces a greater level of maturity on their characters.  The trick is even if, or because their plans are able to come off in their favor, the net result is that they keep winding up in even greater difficulties than when they started.  It all amount to a more ironic conception of adventuring, one that guys like Tolkien would later go on to turn into an art. 

Let's say that Joe, Sylvia, and Gorbo are lost on the road until a Knight Errant comes along.  They must be safe now, correct?  Well, if it's possible to have ordinary circumstances (inasmuch as any fairy tale can be ordinary) then I suppose it's what could happen.  It would all be a lot easier, however, if the knight in question didn't prove, and could stop himself from being so much of a bully and a loud-mouthed braggart.  Instead, the situation that children find themselves stuck with is best described by the narrator:

"Sir Percival seemed to have settled down to the inconvenience and (I must own) grotesque appearance due to his having children fore and aft of him on the saddle, and he was quite ready to talk about himself.  He was out looking for adventures because he had become enamored of a young lady, and she had told him that if he would go forth as a knight-errant for one year and conquer a reasonable number of knights and caitiffs and slay some dragons and the like, she would have something to say to him, but she did not say what.  So far he had not conquered anybody because he hadn't met anybody who would fight, and as for dragons he really believed they had all left the country.  One man, a miller, had told him where there was a dragon, but it turned out that the ribald fellow meant his own wife, who used to go for him with ferocity, and probably with plenty of reason.  But he told them he had now great hopes, for he was on his way to a castle he had heard about as being likely - though he didn't know whose it was - for in a castle there were always knights, and knights were always spoiling for a fight.  This was good news to Gorbo because he worked it out that in a castle there was always something to eat, and the children were delighted when he told them this, for the sun was now getting high and they had nothing to eat since least night's turnips (95)".

That particular tone is one that Wyke-Smith strikes time and again throughout the course of the novel.  Even when he's taking his time laying out the landscape of his secondary world, there is always that lingering note of sarcasm hovering over everything.  The key trick is that while the author ladles his story with a good dose of "humor in a jugular vein", one never gets the sense that it is outright mean-spirited.  Instead, the story adopts a tone of a bemused adult trying to keep up with the escapades of a runaway nursery.  In practice, this give Wyke-Smith the opportunity to uncover a series of very amusing character studies tucked away into the action.  The one that sticks out the most has to be the figure of Golithos, an ogre who claims to be reformed, and is now a vegetarian.  He comes off as the polite sort when the reader is first introduced.  However there are always choice words or actions he makes that demonstrate that some old ways are hard to leave behind.  It's the way these moments play out that showcase the story's wit.  It's also an opportunity for the author to show that he hasn't forgotten how to raise the stakes.  In particular, certain passages showcase Wyke-Smith's gift for humor in a macabre vein.

"Those are dear little children," remarked Golithos, trying to be amiable and interesting.

"Yes," said Gorbo shortly.

"It's a long time since I saw any.  In my bad old days I saw plenty, as you know, but I thought it best - after I reformed - to keep away from them for a good long time."

"Sound idea."

"Yes, wasn't it?  But as I say, these are very dear little things, especially the little girl.  Do you know," he went on chattily, "it used to be a saying amongst us in the bad old days that the lighter the hair the tenderer the meat - however I don't suppose that interests you."

"Not a bit."

"Of course not.  But I have taken quite a strong liking to these little ones.  The little girl is very pretty, and they are both well formed.  Not fate exactly.  I should describe them as well filled out.  Chubby, if you understand my meaning."

"Gorbo slipped down from the window and went down the ladder in a leisurely way.  "Tidy up the place properly," he ordered as he went (82-40)".

Moments like these throw an added bonus into the proceedings.  It doesn't really throw away the story's overall comedic tone.  That's something Wyke-Smith maintains from the first page all the way to the last.  Instead, moments like these lend the narrative a certain amount of genuine dramatic weight.  We begin to understand, when reading passages like the one above, that while we're reading a satire, that's not the same as calling the narrative a complete lark.  There are moments in the adventure where the story is more than happy to reveal to us that is has teeth and claws, and well as pratfalls and guffaws.  In these moments, Wyke-Smith finds himself faced with a very different sort of delicate balancing act.  It's not impossible to mix horror and humor together in the same setting.  However, the history of entertainment is rife with examples where the storyteller has overdone on one side or the other.  There are books and films where the emphasis is placed so much on the horror elements, that when it comes time to deliver the laughs, the result just feels out of place and, what's worse, in bad taste.  At the other extreme, the writer goes so far out with the humor that the menace of the horror can oftentimes be defanged.  That's the worst way to treat any legit form of artistic horror.  I'm not saying you can't be successful at humor in a Gothic, it's just that is usually the result of a comedy played straight, rather than a legit work of the macabre. 

Wyke-Smith, however, shows in these, and other passages that he knows what kind of story he's telling, and how to present the elements of genuine menace when they arrive on-stage.  The Land of Snergs is a work of the Fantasy genre, first, last, and always.  That means even the story's darkest elements adhere to a certain lightness of touch.  That sounds like the wrong word to my ears, yet it's also kind of true.  Wyke-Smith is a smart enough writer to allow the villains to have a genuine enough sense of threat.  It's one of those creative decisions that can either make or break you're story if you're not careful.  Wyke-Smith could have degraded them.  He could have written them all as harmless figures of fun.  No matter how much the final result might have amused the author, however, the fact remains if he'd gone that route, not only would he have dropped the narrative thread, the writer would have been outright lying.  It's perhaps the biggest failure any artist can have.  If you can't respect the integrity of the work, then does it say anything about your ability to respect yourself?

The good news, however, is that Wyke-Smith shows himself to be a genuine writer at each of these crucial moments.  He never composes a work, nor even a sequence or passages, of total horror.  Instead he proves himself to be a natural craftsman at turning the thumbscrews on the reader just enough to keep them turning the pages, which is all that is required in this narrative's case.  I have said that humor and terror are difficult to pull off, yet this is not the same as calling them irreconcilable.  Wyke-Smith is lucky in that its is the Fantasy elements that must predominate.  As such, the overall tone of the novel remains one of a light-hearted and sardonic sense of fantastical humor throughout.  

I think part of what makes this approach work as well as it does goes back to the concept of the the two main leads.  I said that it makes sense to view them as "liminal characters", archetypes who represent the borderland margins of society.  It gives them a space just outside of the social norms, and grants both the characters and audiences a marginal, satirical perspective on the everyday trappings of society.  The characters allow the writer a certain amount of permission or creative leeway in how they can be presented.  Throughout the narrative, Wyke-Smith treats Joe, Sylvia, and Gorbo as an alternating mixture of both satirists, and targets.  They are the main instigators of the plot, and as such, become much of the driving force for the incidents they either encounter or set in motion.  At the same time, they are able to serve as useful foils, or self-made satirists for pointing out and exposing the shortcomings of others, as well as themselves.  This is most on display with their interactions between figures like Golithos and Sir Percival.  

It also conditions the effects they have upon the story's ostensible authority figures, and how they are forced to react to a pair of main leads whose every movement tends to obey the laws of the trickster archetype.  There are at least three members of the cast who have to fill in the unfortunate role of sanest person in the room.  These are Miss Watkyns and the two Kings, Merse and Kul, who rule over separate parts of the island respectively.  Gorbo and the children are brought before each monarch in turn.  These encounters happen at least three times in the book, first with Merse, then with Kul, and finally both together.  In each encounter except the last, the behavior of the children forces both rulers to have to treat them as a pair of mixed up zen koans, or puzzle boxes that need some kind of three or fourth-dimensional level of thinking just to solve them.  Even the straightest answers Joe and Sylvia try to give them just comes off sounding too remarkable to be honest, even if it is the truth.  The worst part is it's the sort of confusion that neither King can write off as having a bit too much to drink.  The interactions are an almost perfect encapsulation of the creative insanity Wyke-Smith is able to find within the pages.

There is just one character who always gets the better of the twins and their companion, and that is the villain of the piece, a cantankerous old crone named Mother Meldrum.  Golithos is the one who tells the travelers about her, and directs them to her house.  It's located, as such dwellings should be, in the darkest corner of the woods, and she has an old kettle hanging over the fire, like any respectable wicked witch in a fairy tale.  The curious part is how she seems to be genre savvy enough to know how to think around all the corner the three protagonists can't quite see or reach.  It's what allows her to always stay a step or two ahead of them, and grants the novel a worthy enough antagonist.  It's a combination of her evil and the power trio's penchant for making, getting into, and exposing mischief that is responsible for the style of satire that permeates the book.  The whole thing reads like something Mark Twain might have conjured up in collaboration with the Brothers Grimm.

I think bringing Twain on-stage at this juncture is apt enough.  A lot of it has to do with Wyke-Smith's own sense of humor.  The author spares no expense in ladling the action, descriptions, and even some of the book's dialogue with neat and precise doses of irony.  His satire isn't anti-Romantic.  Rather it's more that Wyke-Smith happens to be one of those scribbling types with a healthy awareness of the foibles of human nature.  He sees the nonsense a lot of us can get up to if we're determined, or just plain crazy enough to try it.  The writer is also smart enough to know he can't let anything that crosses some kind of fundamental line slide.  In that sense, he never hesitates to take a shot at those targets who earn it.  When that happens, Wyke-Smith's sense of humor really does go for the jugular.  However, he also has some kind of sense of semi-definable charity.  When it comes to his heroes, while the author is more than willing to cast a sardonic eye on a lot of what they say and do, he can never find any good reason to turn them out of house, in a manner of speaking.  If he can't help but chuckle at them every once in a while, there is no genuine cruelty or malice in it.  Instead, it's more that of someone who hopes the character will one day learn to laugh with him.  It's this peculiar combination of sour and sweet that give the story's humor a more than passing resemblance to that of the creator of Huck Finn.

Perhaps Wyke-Smith's greatest feat in this regard is the final result that turns up at the novel's end.  The reader has followed the story's power trio as they've gone traipsing from one end of the secondary world to the other.  Their antics have put all the adults in the room through the ringer as they try and catch up with them.  There is perhaps no finer image of the absurdity of the plot than a whole royal battalion of grown men having to make a haphazard series of stops and starts as they try to figure out the meaning behind the jumbled nonsense they tend to leave in their wake.  The the Knights of the Round Table meets Kindergarten Cop.  The novel's ultimate punchline is that it's because, and not in spite of Joe and Sylvia's misbehavior that everything somehow turns out alright.  Or least it really is good enough for not one, but two forms of government work.  It's also implied to have done both kids a bit of good into the bargain.  

If Joe hadn't pulled a prank that went awry.  If Sylvia hadn't broken him out of detention, and they both tried to run away from home and safety, then they never would have met Gorbo.  There would have been no reckless adventures, and the two kingdoms of the land would never have met and united to form stronger bonds between their respective cultures.  The whole trip turns into an expected unification of opposites.  In addition, the book hints that if neither of the kids had rebelled, then both of them would have had a harder time adjusting to adult responsibilities.  Instead, learning to survive both in the wilderness and under pressure from enemies has done at least something to teach them a better lesson than just being sent to the corner for time-out ever managed, that's for damn sure.  The whole thing is enough to leave the story's narrator flummoxed.  He's left to wonder if the moral of story is that no human foible goes unrewarded, or words to that effect.

Wyke-Smith, however, knows a lot more than that.  He seems to be saying in his closing pages that people often learn the costs, stakes, and rewards of the real world when they are forced to confront it head on.  Sometimes when that happens, if you're able to take in the lessons imparted by such experiences, no matter how off-the-wall or scatterbrained, you might just sometimes come out of it all a wiser and better person.


When an author like Tolkien is willing to stand up and defend a book with a title like the Land of Snergs, the results might come off as jarring to some readers, even those who count themselves as staunch fans.  It's not all that surprising when you think about it.  The minute a book such as Lord of the Rings becomes famous, that's usually the start of the author's reputation.  That's always a mixed blessing at best.  Most flesh and blood human beings are leery of turning into brand names, after all.  Tolkien never had the luck of escaping that process either, though there might have been compensations.  One of them has to do with the level of literacy that went into his most famous work.  It's one of the unsung joys of fandom that sometimes an author comes along whose sense of literacy is not just surprisingly deep, it's also does something more.  Tolkien is one of the few authors I've read who is able to take the idea of reading classical literature and describe in ways that make it all sound irresistible.  I speak from experience when I say that it is just possible to pick up a taste for poems like Beowulf from this guy, that's how good he is at selling these old legends.

That's not to say there can't sometimes be downsides involved in the process of fame.  Part of the trouble is that sometimes a reputation can grow to such an outsized level that the voices of other original talents, especially those from the past, can be drowned out over the roar of popular clamor.  This issue in particular can be very problematic when you realize it was never part of Tolkien's goal to eclipse anyone else.  It's still what happened anyway, despite his best efforts.  People who've never read any of his books might know Tolkien's name from the creeping aether that is the water cooler osmosis of pop culture.  Another part of the problem with this kind of fame is that it is highly selective.  People on the street might know the name Tolkien has something to do with those old Peter Jackson movies, so what else is there?  Many don't know that he was a tenured Oxford professor who was able to produce critical editions of ancient poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  

When it comes to the handful of readers who are aware of Tolkien as an academic, the problem almost reverses itself, like a sock being turned inside out.  It doesn't make the problem go away, it just grants it a different yet similar perspective.  Here the problem becomes a riff on the age-old question of snob appeal.  I know there was a time when the Professor was looked down on by the Ivory Tower, but that was a great many beers ago.  What happened was simple enough, once all his original critics left the map, the newer generation welcomed him with provisional open arms.  They loved him for his wit and the obvious erudition he put into his own works.  They also tended to look down on the sort of popular fiction that Tolkien read for enjoyment.  That includes a book like the Snergs.  The former camp, meanwhile never reads very much, so that's two strikes Wyke-Smith has against him.  The third is the simple fact that history has consigned him to the pulp ghetto ash heap.  It's a critical mistake which sells a genuine talent (along with countless others) way too short.  Wyke-Smith deserves better than that.

Still, Tolkien seems to be the single reason anyone even knows Wyke-Smith' and his book exists.  Because people tend to underestimate Tolkien, or else try to make him into the kind of snob that he never was, the net result is an unfortunate tendency to pick and choose without bothering to give much in the way of a fair consideration.  That's a shame, because even Tolkien knew on both a topmost and unconscious level that Wyke-Smith's book had a lot going for it.  According to Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien even wrote what amounted to an incidental blurb for the story while composing notes for a lecture that would later by published as On Fairy Stories, which is a topic in its own right.  The blurb went as follows:  "I should like to record my own love and my children's love of E.A. Wyke-Smith's [The] Marvellous Land of Snergs, at any rate of the snerg-element in that tale, and of Gorbo the gem of dunderheads, jewel of a companion in an escapade (ii)".

"The influence of The Marvellous Land of Snergs on The Hobbit is most immediately noticeable in the surface resemblance between the Hobbits and the Snergs.  Snergs are, like Hobbits, "a race of people only slightly taller than the average table, but unlike Hobbits they are "broad in the shoulders and of great strength."  Snergs have names like Gorbo; Hobbits have names like Bilbo.  Snergs, like Hobbits, live by themselves in "a place set apart," and like Hobbits, they are fond of parties...There are a few other passages in The Marvellous Land of Snergs that might be considered analogous with certain scenes in The Hobbit, such as Gorbo the Snerg and the two children, Joe and Sylvia, getting lost in the Twisted Trees in the Dark Woods, which is similar to Bilbo and the dwarves getting lost in Mirkwood.  Another similarity can be seen in the way Bilbo, like Gorbo, grows in character and responsibility as the story progresses.  Also, a few of George Morrow's illustrations in The Marvellous Land of Snergs may have been a visual influence on Tolkien, particularly the almost wizard-like appearance of the disguised witch Mother Meldrum as drawn on page 192 (ii-iii)". 

Anderson makes the curious claim that "All of Wyke-Smith's children's books have the delightful common trait of mocking traditional fairy tale elements and characters (viii)".  He then goes on to cite the book's creative treatment of both Golithos and Mother Meldrum as prime examples of this declarative "mockery theme" (viii-ix).

"Other characters from folklore and literature appear.  Vanderdecken and the lost men of the Flying Dutchmen live on a bay nearby to the Snergs.  King Kul (King Cole) appears in The Marvellous Land of Snergs.  In Bill of the Bustingforths, three children wandering through a forest meet Augustus, a thousand year-old dwarf, who "had known little Red Riding Hood - in fact he was one of the people who chopped up the wolf - and although he had not seen her for years since she married and left that part of the country, he had heard that she now had eight, or it might be nine, children (pp. 36-37).  Also in Bill of the Bustingforths, we meet old Pelonius, the Lord Chamberlain of the Land of Toor, or the Land of Bumptious Rudeness.  His name is spelt slightly differently from that of Shakespeare's Polonius in "Hamlet", but they are clearly cut from the same mold...Wyke-Smith clearly had a great fondness for Shakespeare, as his books contain a large number of Shakespearean allusions and apposite quotations (ix)".

Anderson's unstated thesis in these passages maintains that such excerpts display a kind of postmodern sensibility of scorn in Wyke-Smith's composition.  However, I can't help thinking a critical lapse, or mislabeling has been made.  The chief reason for this is because there is no firm evidence that the author himself ever knew about either the term or its practice.  His own outlook seems more suited to the then contemporary Mythical Method of Literary Modernism.  As such, while it may be possible to speak of his creative method as both satiric and/or parodist (the two modes of expression are not, in the strictest sense, mutually exclusive), there is nothing that enables it to be thought of as fundamentally deconstructive.  It helps to keep in mind that at the time Wyke-Smith's productivity as an author was at its peak, the world of satire still had just two modes at its disposal.  Both of them were drawn from Classical literature.  

One mode is known Juvenalian, the other, Horatian, after the writers Juvenal and Horace, respectively.  The key difference between the two modes lies in the severity of their application.  Juvenal's satires featured elements that were more biting and cutting in their nature.  Hence, any satire up to the present day that has a more sarcastic and bitter edge could be said to be in the Juvenalian tradition.  While the works of Horace were never lacking in a sense of wit and irony, he tended to write with a slightly lighter hand.  A good way of distinguishing the two is to compare them with two useful contemporary models.  If Juvenal was the closest Ancient Greece ever got to a Michael O'Donahue, then Horace was kind of like the Harold Ramis of his day.  

Guys like Mark Twain, on the other hand, had a tendency to forever swing between the two poles.  He was always oscillating, as noted above, between the sweet and sour.  Shakespeare's own sense of satire seems to have been a combination of the Horatian intermixed with occasional touches of the Epic or Classical Mythic mode of discourse.  These then were all the models of satire that were available to Wyke-Smith at the time he wrote about the Snergs, and their adventures.  The fact there are so many allusions to the works of the Bard are perhaps a clue to his own sense of humor.  As a result, the book itself (along with what little we know of his other works) seems more geared to a Horatian mode of expression, rather than that of Juvenal or Derrida.  Like Ramis, Wyke-Smith is willing to acknowledge human nature without throwing in the towel.  Perhaps it's all just a distinction, yet it does seem like kind of an important one.  Looked at from that angle, maybe Anderson is more right about Smith and Shakespeare being cut from similar cloth than he knows.

Beyond that, Wyke-Smith's own sense of humor seems to be very congruent with that of Tolkien's.  I think most of his fans tend to underrate the use of laughter in Middle Earth.  A lot of this can perhaps be chalked up to the fault of the author, what Tolkien himself even confessed to as his a bit too self-conscious "heigh stile".  However the man could be just as much of a wit as Twain or Swift in both fiction and real life, and its a mistake to try and pretend it isn't there, or that it is of an inferior nature to his more notable traits.  Anderson never bothers to excavate the relationship or influence of Smith's sense of humor on Tolkien as a writer, and that's kind of a shame.  I'd like to set down as a remark here that the possibility of Middle Earth's humor coming from a children's book by Wyke-Smith is an under-explored avenue that needs to be dug up and studied in greater detail.  Even if this is an inspection of a minor element in a greater whole, I'd argue that the very identity of the final product would not have been as much itself without it.

Beyond that, the greatest strength of Wyke-Smith's book is simple enough.  The whole thing is just a plain fun read.  That's still what matters most.  If the writer can find the right door into their secondary world, then once you've located the engine that makes the whole thing run, sometimes it's all they need to rev up the motor and the story can take wings and fly.  Wyke-Smith's skill in this department is notable in particular for the way he's able to keep a number of interconnected plates spinning in the air the whole time he was at work on the novel.  If you were to ask me how the author wrote the book, as opposed to the usual question of where is ideas came from.  Then I'd have to say the whole text reads as something the writer was more or less forced to follow along as it appeared in his mind's eye.  Nothing about the book tells me it was all planned out.  However, none of the finished product ever comes off as aimless and wandering.  

We follow the novels three main leads as they try and make their way home out of a strange, frightening, and sometimes inspiring landscape.  That is the basic setup that Wyke-Smith was confronted with as he started to write.  Much like his more famous literary descendant, Wyke-Smith is telling a story about there and back again.  The typical nature of this kind of setup is that the goal to be achieved is already known.  It is the journey itself that is supposed to make all the difference, at least when it's done right..  That doesn't always turn out to be the case.  There's always the lingering threat that the story itself can get mislaid, or else that the author can always just drop the ball, and never be able to get it back.  When that happens, the final product is usually some pretty cold fish.  And without naming names, I'll admit here that I've seen it happen before, more than once.  Wyke-Smith is able to hold all the strands together, however.  I think a lot of that is down to his ability for implicit trust in that story.  He's willing to believe it knows where its going and is willing to "keep calm and carry on".

There's no denying that such an undertaking is a gamble.  For some there is nothing worse than the sense of having to fly blind on a blank piece of paper.  The complete and total irony (one that I'm pretty sure wouldn't have been lost on a humorist like Wyke-Smith) is that a lot, if not all, of the best authors I've read (and here I am thinking of the likes of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson) have composed their greatest efforts in just such a fashion.  That's neither a recommendation, or a criticism.  That's writing, and like Mt. Everest, it just is.  Only a handful of people seem capable of climbing to the the very topmost of the literary heights.  Tolkien is one of that number.  I don't know whether or not it's right to claim Wyke-Smith for that same level.  The good news is this in itself doesn't amount to a bad thing.  Perhaps a better way of saying it would go something like this.  Every good book has its place.  If the writer can make it work enough to count as a success, then it stands to reason there shouldn't be too much to apologize for.  It all comes back to how much trust and effort the artist is willing to put into their creative endeavors, if they can find any.

In Wyke-Smith's case, the gamble pays off.  It's easy enough to let the narrative lead as it takes all over the secondary map, following the three main players through their paces.  By the time they reach the finish line, a number of threads have been turned up, and they all come together in a neat and humorous way that is natural enough as to appear seamless.  The fact that Wyke-Smith has found all the right doors into that natural conclusion is perhaps the real testament to his ability to both consult, bounce off of, and then consult his imagination time and again until the final result is as right as it ever can be.  That's real challenge all writers have to face.  The fact that E.A. Wyke-Smith had the ability to reach the end more or less intact is just one of the reason why I think it's okay to say you really should try and hunt down any copy you can of The Marvellous Land of Snergs.  It's not libel to be something you'll regret.  


  1. (1) Isn't it wild to consider the fact that something as fundamental as "The Hobbit" could, on the plain of ideas where all such things begin, not exist in one moment and then pop into a tentative form of existence one moment later? I recently watched a documentary about the Bee Gees, and there is footage in which you can actually see some of their famous songs leap into existence in that manner. Pretty incredible!

    (2) The needing-housework-to-do analogy actually makes sense to me. I find my own imaginative creativity -- such as it is -- tends to leap into existence when I go for walks. I do that entirely too rarely. What it amounts to, I'd say, is having a way of allowing your brain to go into a sort of consciously subconscious mode, almost like a form of waking dream. I have to use a sort of inverse of that to go to sleep most nights!

    (3) I know I'd heard of Wyke-Smith's book at some point prior to this post, presumably while reading something about Tolkien. I've never read it, but in theory would like to. Speaking of which, that "Tales Before Tolkien" book seems like it'd be well worth having.

    (4) The Mexico City thing is intriguing. I wonder (and there's obviously no way to do a study on this) what percentage of the creativity of authors like Wyke-Smith and Tolkien is prompted by the trauma they undergo. I think much of creativity probably does stem from response to trauma, and certainly it did in Tolkien's case. Maybe that's a slender brightside to the ravages of 2020 -- thinking about all the great art that might come from it years down the road.

    (5) It's not hard to imagine a hobbit being named Gorbo Baggins, is it?

    (6) You've got a typo in the post's last sentence ("libel" should be "liable"), but it accidentally creates such a marvelously complicated thought that I'm reluctant to even point it out!

    1. (1) I suppose that begs another question. Are creative ideas like that the best inspiration to have? Well, I admit here's where I think caution is in order.

      There is nothing to prevent a genuine inspired from getting spoiled if the artist, in and of his or herself, is not up to uncovering the fossils. It's a hazard to be on the look out. However, that said, with this precaution in place, I'd have to say that yeah, maybe those are the best ideas.

      (2) Well, maybe the truth is that's how some people dream more than others. If that's the case, then I have to admit the form of wide awake dreaming has this much going for it. It has less of a chance of getting caught up in the random weirdness of a lot of dreams, unless its baked into the scenario, so to speak. Like, Middle Earth itself is ultimately pretty weird, taken from a life-size perspective.

      However, it works within its own narrative frame, because the entire setting would just be incomplete without it.

      (3) It is, and you don't need to take my word for it. That's the book where I first learned to love the weird fiction of Arthur Machen. In fact, his short story that can be found in "Tales Before Tolkien", a neat and ghoulish offering called "The Terror", could almost be looked at as a trial run for Hitchcock's "The Birds".

      (4) I doubt you're wrong on that point. In fact, I tend to agree with the theory of Jung that all art is in some form or other the result of the need (often unconscious) for the mind to work out any or various psychological dilemmas that can or could confront it in the course of a single lifetime.

      This also does explain why the content of certain stories can reflect either the structure or a problem taking place in the mind of the artist. The best example I know of this still remains the novel "Misery".

      (5) Oh, I say about as hard as discovering that bears conduct their business in the woods.

      (6) Ummm, oops! My bad!