Tales from the Perilous Realm is a collection of four independent works written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Whilst exploring Tolkien’s style of writing in different lands other than those of Middle-earth, it is interesting to see how these short works inspired or, in turn, were influenced by the author’s more famous works.
The following post shall briefly tackle each major work; outlining the general storyline/content and providing some reflections on each of them and their context within Tolkien’s other work.
– Farmer Giles of Ham
In a fantastical Britain, shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire, there existed the so-called Middle Kingdom. Amongst its many habitations, the village of Ham is where the main character is introduced to us.
Much like Bilbo Baggins, Farmer Giles is a reluctant adventurer – preferring rather the simple, rustic life and the qualities of good food and drink. Living with his wife and dog, one day he becomes an unlikely hero when he manages to ward off a blundering giant who had accidentally lost his way home and was trampling all over Farmer Giles’ livestock.
The villagers soon proclaim the man a local hero and, whilst his reputation in Ham soars, he soon finds himself having to defend the Middle Kingdom from the devastation caused by a most particular dragon by the name of Chrysophylax.
Written in 1937 (though published much later in 1949), this short story clearly marks the point at which Tolkien was adding the finishing touches to The Hobbit, before its release that same year (1937). As the adventure of Farmer Giles progresses, similarities between him and Bilbo surface and the fascinating unraveling of the story results in a fantastically well-written tale.
Familiar elements include: a famous sword by the name of Tailbiter (a dragon-slaying sword), Farmer Giles’ conversation with the gold-hoarding dragon and a quest to reclaim stolen treasure.
Farmer Giles of Ham is perhaps Tolkien’s attempt to try and “realistically” portray the qualities and elements found in The Hobbit and implementing them into a historical England.
The seeds of a mythology for his country seem to have begun here.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
After having visited a semi-historical/fantastical England, we are back on the equally enchanting lands of Middle-earth.
Consisting of 16 beautifully-crafted poems, this work gives us a fresh and different outlook on the world we’re so versed in.
Tolkien, yet again, demonstrates his superior command of poetry, fleshing out rhyming verses in a very dynamic and evocative way. Indeed, the subject of the poems ranges from light-hearted songs, to eerie verses, to sad and melancholic pieces.
The title of this work might seem slightly misleading – considering that only 2 of the poems deal specifically with Tom Bombadil. Still, it is highly stimulating and admittedly nostalgic, to be able to look at Middle-earth and its inhabitants from a very different perspective than we are used to in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The general timeline of all the poems seems to take place either before the events of the War of the Rings, or in the distant past.
Readers might be familiar with a few pieces – having already encountered them in The Lord of the Rings, such as: “The Man in the Moon” , the Troll Song and others. Some poems also deal with the historical aspect of Tolkien’s novel – such as the Legend of Amroth.
We also get further insight into the mystery of Tom Bombadil, where Tolkien provides us with some tantalizing details on how he came to meet Goldberry and his friendship with Farmer Maggot.
Not to mention providing us with new elements never before read about (but still existed) in The Lord of the Rings – such as the creepy Mewlips who lived somewhere in the Merlock Mountains. One can still argue whether these creatures actually existed or were simply a folk-tale among Hobbits. Tolkien cleverly keeps his readers busy and engaged with his fantasy world by leaving such tantalizing mysteries to us.
And let’s face it, without a little bit of mystery, Middle-earth certainly wouldn’t be as appealing as it already is.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is truly a hidden gem, often overlooked by general readers – it is yet another secret entrance into the world of Middle-earth.
– Smith of Wootton Major
Following on a similar style in title names, Smith of Wootton Major describes the fantastical adventures of Smith (a blacksmith) from the village of Wootton Major. Renowned for its food festivals,the village organizes a grand celebration every twenty-four years. During this event, twenty-four children are invited to eat from the Great Cake and whoever happens upon the magical ingredients, is allowed entry into the Land of Faery.
… but I am not here to tell you what happens in the story, but rather, to express my deepest fascination towards yet another narrative as written by Tolkien. There’s a real sense of childhood nostalgia in Smith of Wootton Major; as well as experiencing the wonders of being introduced to a fantasy world for the first time.
Unlike any of the other works in this collection, Smith of Wootton Major has something of a ‘magical’ feeling about it – a sense which cannot be described in words, but has to be experienced – simply by reading the story itself.
– Leaf by Niggle
Most probably, the only story by Tolkien which has a solid argument for an underlying allegory in its contents.
Leaf by Niggle tells the story of a painter (by the name of Niggle), who finds himself desperately trying to create his ultimate painting: the image of a tree – The Tree.
He obsesses over the intricate details of a single leaf – only to be constantly disturbed by his neighbour and the world around him. Niggle eventually ends up going on a very particular adventure of his own …
From the outset, it seems very clear that Niggle is actually Tolkien himself (or any other artist, for that matter). The creation of a painting, or a secondary world, is the primary goal of the individual – if only for the constant interruptions from the real-world.
The journey taken by Niggle is also a representation of the journey that an artist (or sub-creator) undergoes, until finally completing his/her own masterpiece.
Although not directly related to Middle-earth, the scope of this story has profound significance when it comes to understanding Tolkien’s own approach in creating his stories and legends for Arda.
– So what is the Perilous Realm?
As I understand it, it is Middle-earth. It is the village of Ham. The Little and Middle Kingdom and Wootton Major. It is inhabited by Niggle and all the other characters constructed by Tolkien. It is simply Faërie.
I won’t go into much detail here, for I’ll reserve this for a future post; but here is a short reflection about what all this consists of.
Tolkien wrote a famous essay entitled “On Fairy Stories” – perhaps, the single most important essay of all his work (and which I happen to share this opinion).
In his essay, amongst other things, Tolkien discusses the concept of Faërie – the Secondary World made by a sub-creator (in this case, the author himself). This mental image of a fantasy land is ultimately the place where all environments, creatures, characters and stories end up on paper.
(Faërie is also the hobbits’ name for Aman)
To put it in a simple context.
And according to Tolkien,
“Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold […] The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
– (this quote is found at the beginning of the book itself).
And whilst the essay is very complex, the concept is astoundingly beautiful.
But more on that in the future.
All you need to know for now is that, considering this work is a collection of short stories taking place in different environments/worlds, they all ultimately come from the same place – the Perilous Realm.
– The other tale from the Perilous Realm
Until a few years ago, Tales from the Perilous Realm consisted of the above four works. Recently however, the publishers have been including two other works by Tolkien: Roverandom and the aforementioned essay “On Fairy Stories”.
The move was definitely wise. These two works are essentially linked to the whole concept of the book. Roverandom is yet another short story (slightly more elaborate than the other four) which essentially deals with the Perilous Realm; whilst the essay, as mentioned earlier, is an analytical discussion on both Tolkien’s Faërie as well as the whole idea behind Fairy-stories (hence the title).
However, in an attempt to keep things short, I think it would be best to deal with these two works separately – in different posts.
Therefore, I shall soon be doing an “Approaching Tolkien” post for both Roverandom and “On Fairy Stories” – the latter requiring some detailed explanations (after all, it took me two to three readings to grasp the general concept of the essay. But fear not!)
– Final Remarks
If you have not yet acquired Tales from the Perilous Realm, I urge you to do so; and it would be best if you could find a copy that includes also the latest additions, with Roverandom and “On Fairy Stories” too. Actually, you might find that THAT is the only version available right now.
So get reading and until the next post 😉
[Copyright of illustrations belongs to Alan Lee]