For this installment of Well at World’s End, we’ll take a look at the pagan themes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction. I could easily dedicate the entire blog to Tolkien, but have chosen one rather obscure piece to focus on, “Smith of Wootton Major.” If you would like to read the story first, and then read along, you can find the selection here.

 “Smith of Wootton Major” is a short story written by Tolkien in 1967. It was originally known as “The Great Cake,” since the story starts off with the festival, Feast of the Good Children, which is celebrated every twenty-four years, and attended by only twenty-four village children. Baked inside the cake are a variety of trinkets, and hoped to be won by the children. (Cake with trinkets, can you see where this is going?)

One special trinket, by accident, makes it in the cake and is later swallowed by the blacksmith’s son. The star allows the boy to enter into the land of the Faery. Most of the story recounts various adventures the boy takes into the realm of Faery; the reader eager to tag along.

From the pagan perspective, the boy, Starbrow, crosses a barrier into the Faery realm, and although presented as a fictional account, has some grounds in modern mysticism. Starbrow wears the magic star on his forehead, like a glowing third-eye. One can read Tolkien’s story as an allegory for attaining spiritual enlightenment when the barrier is essentially crossed. Tolkien writes:

“In Faery, at first he (Starbrow) walked for the most part quietly among the lesser folk and the gentler creatures in the woods and meads of fair valleys, and by the bright waters in which at night strange stars shone and at dawn the gleaming peaks of far mountains were mirrored. Some of his briefer visits he spent looking only at one tree or one flower; but later in longer journeys he had seen things of both beauty and terror that he could not clearly remember nor report to his friends, though he knew that they dwelt deep in his heart. But some things he did not forget, and they remained in his mind as wonders and mysteries that he often recalled.”

The description, although dreamlike, is indicative of an altered-state reached through meditation, energy work, circle-casting, shamanism, and more. As Starbrow ventures into the Faery realms, he encounters a stillness and peace, and for a time he experiences both realms at the same time.

“… a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery … in peace.”

As the story progresses, Starbrow gives up the star, and only has faint remembrances of the Faery realm. Upon looking at a flower he remarks:

“…the scent reminds me of something, well, of something I’ve forgotten.” 

Starbrow, like many, have forgotten the way to Faery, or to “enlightenment.” He can recall it in the view or scent of nature, like a distant dream, but can’t get back to it, nor recall it fully, yet his desire to rediscover it is ever present.  

There are other pagan images evoked in “Smith of Wootton Major,” like the King’s tree, which like Yggdrasil, (or other trees of life), holds the Faery realm together. The cake itself, is magical, one with treasures and charms inside and has special meanings to the recipients; King’s cakes are still being used today. It goes without saying that the Faeries themselves and Tolkien’s representations are in themselves pagan. More importantly, however, I believe Tolkien’s reminder that a barrier exists and can be removed, with practice, or magic, is more to the point.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider reading past posts:
Sound of Thunder: Pagan Themes in Ray Bradbury’s Fiction. Or 
Well at World’s End: Pagan Themes in William Morris’ Fiction 

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