SnergsSnergs as Hobbits

A Review of The Marvelous Land of Snergs

Authored by Edward A. Wyke-Smith (1871-1935) with illustrations by George Morrow. A new facsimile edition containing an Introduction by Douglas A. Anderson, published by Old Earth Books, P.O. Box 19951, Baltimore MD 21211. Cover Design by Glen Burris.

Click here to purchase: Marvellous Land of Snergs

Reviewed by J. Michael Williams

As the father of two small children, I am frequently in the situation of reading childrens books aloud. My average is about two books per day. As such, I feel in a uniquely qualified position to review The Marvelous Land of Snergs (Snergs). This review will cover Anderson's introduction, the unique nature of Snergs as a childrens story and its influence on J. R. R. Tolkien's work.

Douglas Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit, has written an introduction, a short biography of Wyke-Smith and a bibliography that rivals Snergs itself for entertainment. Part of this is surely due to the interesting experiences of Wyke-Smith himself, who lived a life of adventure in exotic places.

As a young man, Wyke-Smith asserted his independence by rejecting his fathers plans for him to become an artist and he joined the Horse Guards at Whitehall. This appears contrary to the approach of more recent generations in which young men avoided the military to become artists! As it turned out, Wyke-Smiths father bought him out of military service for a considerable sum. Following this, Wyke-Smith promptly joined the crew of a great windjammer and sailed to Australia and the west coast of the United States. In the American West, he worked as a cowboy. After returning to England, Wyke-Smith studied mine engineering and managed mines in Mexico, the Sinai, South America, Spain, Portugal and Norway. In Mexico, he accomplished the harrowing rescue of his wife from the capital during the revolution of 1913 and during World War I, he built a pontoon bridge across the Suez canal.

While on a trip abroad, Wyke-Smith wrote a fairy tale at the request of one of his children. This later became his first book, Bill of Bustingforths. This book was published concurrently with another childrens book, The Last of the Barons, by Oxford University Press in 1921. Some Pirates and Marmaduke (1921), Captain Quality (1922), The Second Chance (1923), Because of Josephine (1929) and Fortune My Foe (1925), all novels for adults, appeared soon thereafter. The Marvelous Land of Snergs was published in 1927. This was Wyke-Smith's last published work. He died in Cornwall in 1935.

Douglas Anderson' s description of these events in the form of an Introduction is excellent given he was probably working under space limitations. This is unfortunate since many of Wyke-Smith' s adventures deserve a chapter of their own. It would also have been interesting to hear more about the writing of Snergs. Now that Tolkien readers have been spoiled by Christopher Tolkien' s detailed analysis of the construction of The Lord of the Rings, reported in the History of Middle-Earth series, I expected a similar analysis of Snergs. I am not sure what information Anderson had concerning the construction of Snergs but more analysis would have been helpful in presenting a context for this particular fairy story. This is compelling since Snergs stands out as " pure " Tolkienesque subcreation. There is no transition from the real to the fairy world. The land of the Snergs is a place somewhere on Earth, just a little out of reach of our current navigational skills.

Snergs begins with an explanation of Mrs. Watkyns and the Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children (SRSC). Mrs. Watkyns and a number of other matronly women formed a union to rescue neglected or abused children and by some unexplained method invented by the remarkable Mrs. Watkyns, transport them to the relative safety of the Land of Snergs. Here they are cared for in a commune of sorts at Watkyns bay, watched over by the matronly women. The settlement was constructed by Snergs, a robust and helpful race of short people (" only slightly taller than the average table" ), who provide a number of services to the settlement. The vicinity of Watkyn' s bay also includes the camp of Captain Vanderdecker and the crew of the Lost Dutchman, who have settled into a retirement life that includes occasional hunting expeditions with the Snergs. The town of the Snergs is nearby but not so close that visits are commonplace. Surrounding these areas is a pleasant forest inhabited by friendly cinnamon bears. The area beyond the town of the Snergs is bounded by a deep ravine with an impassible, swift-running river in the bottom. The lands beyond the river are largely a mystery but prominently include Sir Percival, a traveling knight, Golithos, an ogre who is trying to mend his ways, and a wicked witch named Mother Meldrum.

The adventure begins when two children, Sylvia and Joe, decide to slip away secretly and have an adventure by visiting the town of the Snergs. They have a general sense of the direction but get lost in the surrounding forest. There they meet a stalwart Snerg, Gorbo, who guides them to the town of the Snergs, and indeed, throughout the entire adventure.

Snergs Gorbo is presented as a type of social outcast because he is bumbling and generally dim-witted. The social standing of a Snerg is evident by his proximity to the King of the Snergs during feasts. It suffices to say that it is impossible to see the King from Gorbo' s seat at the banquet table.

Gorbo leads the children to the town of the Snergs and all seems well. However, the next day, during a short tour of the area around the town, Gorbo gets the children and himself lost in the nearby Forest of Twisted Trees. After making their way through some fantastic caverns, they emerge on the other side of the great river, far from home, with no practical way of getting back across the river. Then follows a series of contacts with the characters across the river.

In the meantime, Captain Vanderdecken and the King of the Snergs launch a campaign to rescue the children and Gorbo. The crafty Vanderdecken devises a method to propel a ship' s anchor and line across the river chasm. This enables them to cross the river and search for the children.

Gorbo and the children have some dangerous adventures engineered by the evil Mother Meldrum. Gorbo makes a few mistakes but demonstrates his devotion and bravery. The children are saved by Gorbo' s adept archery and the accomplished marksmanship of Vanderdecken' s men. In the end, Gorbo takes his place as hero only seven seats from the king at the next banquet.

The Marvelous Land of Snergs has elements in common with Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. The land itself has many features of an island, similar to the structure of Never Land in Peter Pan. This association is also reinforced by the presence of isolated, disparate groups, similar to the Lost Boys vs. Mermaids vs. Pirates in Never Land. These groups have limited communication and each is a stark contrast to the others. Wyke-Smith contrasts the settlement of the children to the crew of the Flying Dutchmen to the town of the Snergs, and so on.

The Alice in Wonderland features include fantastic elements, such as a cavern of giant mushrooms being eaten by a giant, otter-like creature, and a rambling, dream-like quality to the plot. In this plot, the main characters experience fantastic environments in haphazard sequence. This occurs in much the same way that Alice meets Dweedle-Dee and Dweedle-Dum, then the Mad Hatter, then the Cheshire Cat, and so on through the story. These stories have a mad-cap quality because the events, although entertaining, have no foundation structure, such as character development, suspense or other conventional plot elements.

Wyke-Smith transcends such superficial, dreamlike stories by creating a true fairy story, along the lines that were later elucidated by Tolkien (1964) in his famous essay, " On Fairy Stories" dedicated to Andrew Lang. In this essay, a fairy story is defined by the creation of, " ... the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country" . The creation of the fairy world is the major task of the writer, and so success is measured by the degree to which the alternative world is internally consistent and fosters the necessary suspension of skepticism that carries the reader into this world. Although subcreation was clearly the implicit aim of Wyke-Smith' s efforts, Snergs does not completely represent the fairy story as Tolkien described it. The story is hampered by a problem Tolkien identified in his essay: tales constructed just for children often miss the goal of complete subcreation. Whenever the author simplifies the text, includes parenthetical asides, or other methods designed to engage children, the subcreation suffers tremendously, even to the point of appearing cartoon-like.

This strategy was taken to a most pathetic extreme by Walt Disney et al. The contrast of the original story presented by the Brothers Grimm to the Disney version of Snow White immediately exposes the defects in subcreation when assumptions are made about the intelligence and gullibility of children, and then attempts are made to construct a story from these misguided notions. Both Wyke-Smith in Snergs and Tolkien in The Hobbit succumb to this tendency and these stories fall short of Tolkien' s later constructed standard of subcreation.

Snergs For Wyke-Smith, this resulted in a story that lacks some features of internal consistency that are obvious to adults but presumably unnoticed by children. For example, the land of Snergs has no apparent history. The inconsistency between the presence of medieval knights, seventeenth century Dutch sailors and early twentieth century matrons is not easy to accept. The SRSC has the same place in the work as the Lost Boys in Peter Pan and its presence in the story results in the same inconsistency: What happens to the children when they grow up? Of course, the Lost Boys are perpetual children; the children in the SRSC presumably grow up but their place in the Land of Snergs as adults is not explained. These inconsistencies detract from the subcreation.

The other annoying result of a writing style tailored for children is that the author develops a tendency to speak directly to the reader. Wyke-Smith does this prominently by telling the reader the moral of the story and the character changes associated with Gorbo. Tolkien does this in The Hobbit with parenthetical material in the text. The authors almost become characters in the story as their narrative intrusions become overbearing. These features of the writing style are derived from the author' s expectation that children require a narrative lesson. They detract from subcreation because they emphasize the contrast between the fictional nature of the story and the real world of the author and reader. Although Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings in this same style, by the time the Hobbits reached Bree, he apparently came to a clear understanding of this problem in recent fairy tales and was able to formulated a formal theory of this literary genre (Carpenter, 1977). Wyke-Smith did not have the benefit of Tolkien' s analysis and so wrote a conventional modern, childrens story, that was a blend of subcreation with the infantilizing elements that characterize " childrens" literature.

What were the aspects of Snergs that may have inspired J. R. R. Tolkien? Tolkien did not write at length about Snergs and only made a few notes about it for his Andrew Lang lecture, " On Fairy Stories" . He referred to it as an unconscious source reference for the Hobbits, and nothing more. He did not like the medieval elements but noted the great enthusiasm for the story among his own children. In the introduction to Snergs, Anderson essentially agrees with Tolkien that the only influence on The Hobbit was the community of the Snergs. They are similar to Hobbits in physical features and general culture. Anderson also cites the similarities in writing style common to the two books.

I believe there were two other influences derived from the Snergs that appear in Tolkien' s work. The first of these is the unique example of subcreation constructed by Wyke-Smith. After consideration of the inconsistencies, Snergs is one of the few fairy stories written in the modern period that approaches Tolkien' s expectation for genuine subcreation. The stories he cites in " On Fairy Stories" as models of subcreation are " traditional" in the sense that they were stories written long before the modern era of childish fairy tales. I believe this represents an unconscious or implicit influence on Tolkien' s later creation. Although Wyke-Smith does not develop this sufficiently, the Snergs represent an entire society of people who have a history and culture. The detailed history and culture of Hobbits described in The Lord of the Rings may be considered an elaboration of the brief sketch of the Snergs given by Wyke-Smith.

" I should like to record my own love and my children's love of E. A. Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs, at any to the snerg-element in that tale, and of Gorbo, the gem of dunderheads, jewel of a companion in an escapade. " -- J. R. R. Tolkien

The physical properties of the Land of Snergs is similar to Middle-earth in all its basic aspects. Middle-earth is presented as our own Earth at an earlier time when it was shaped differently but still maintained the same natural laws that govern Earth now. The Land of Snergs is actually a place on Earth that is set apart somewhere and only approached through the great navigational skills of Captain Vanderdecken or Mrs. Watkyns. This similarity is crucial for believable subcreation and stands in contrast to the inconsistent other worlds created in such works as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

It is possible that when Tolkien saw the excitement for Snergs in the reaction of his own children, this prompted him to develop similar narrative childrens stories derived from the informal tales he had constructed for his children in the past. The result was The Hobbit, a narrative tale of adventure for children that included a few obscured mythological elements from The Silmarillion. This process continued in the early phase of The Hobbit sequel, called, " The New Hobbit" . Once the childrens elements were exorcised, " The New Hobbit" became The Lord of the Rings, a complete narrative, epic romance derived from the mythology of The Silmarillion.

The second influence derived from Snergs was the character of Gorbo. I believe the character Trotter in early drafts of The Lord of the Rings was implicitly modeled after Gorbo in Snergs. Trotter was a worldly, well-traveled Hobbit who Tolkien imagined would be Frodo' s guide and helper after he left the Shire. This character later became Aragorn. The role played by Aragorn from Bree to Rivendell is essentially the same one taken by Gorbo in Snergs. Aragorn takes the role of knowledgeable guide and, like the children in Snergs, the four Hobbits are completely dependent upon him. Of course, there are differences between the characters. In particular, Aragorn' s character is revealed by events and Gorbo' s is developed by them, in the same way that Bilbo' s character is developed in The Hobbit. Regardless, this role of guide and defender adopted by Trotter/Aragorn is virtually the same as the role written for Gorbo.

Of course, these comments really fall into the area of speculation. Their only supports are Tolkien' s brief notes, a few comments by others who heard Tolkien talk about Snergs and the apparent great enthusiasm for Snergs expressed by Tolkien' s children. This enthusiasm even included the creation of new Snerg stories by Michael Tolkien. Much is correctly made of the role of traditional myths and tales in the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, I can think of no example other than Snergs that represents the influence of a fairy story written in the modern era. It is conceivable that the publication of Snergs in 1927 and its enthusiastic adoption by Tolkien' s children was a stimulus for the initiation of TSnergshe Hobbit in 1930.

A complete review of Snergs must include a comment on the illustrations by George Morrow. Morrow was the illustrator for Punch who contributed illustrations to Snergs and Wyke-Smith' s other childrens books. These illustrations are a marvel and contribute to the story as none I can recall. The " great" illustrators of childrens books, such as Arthur Rackham and N. C. Wyeth, create artwork that is so remarkable and distracting that it should probably not be included in the pages of the book itself. The other style of illustration, best exemplified in the Andrew Lang color fairy books, complements the story with what are usually simple line drawings that add visual interest. George Morrow accomplishes this with nothing short of perfection. His realistic understatement of images derived from the story actually contribute to the realistic subcreation of Snergs. I believe this quality is one of the reasons that illustrations by Pauline Baynes had such an appeal for Tolkien. One can only wonder at the success Morrow may have demonstrated if he was given the commission of illustrating Tolkien' s work.

In the end, weaknesses or inconsistencies aside, any fan of Tolkien and fantasy subcreation will enjoy the Marvellous Land of Snergs. The edition produced by Old Earth Books is a compliment to their craftsmanship and I expect this special limited issue will sell out quickly.

Click here to purchase: Marvellous Land of Snergs

Carpenter, H. (1977). Tolkien: A Biography. Boston:Houghton-Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1964). On Fairy-Stories. In J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.








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