Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The mythic Oxford symbolism of Smith of Wootton Major

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This seems apparent from the wonderful opening section:

There was a village once, not very long ago for those with long memories, nor very far away for those with long legs. Wootton Major it was called because it was larger than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees; but it was not very large, though it was at that time prosperous, and a fair number of folk lived in it, good, bad, and mixed, as is usual.

It was a remarkable village in its way, being well known in the country round about for the skill of its workers in various crafts, but most of all for its cooking. It had a large Kitchen which belonged to the Village Council, and the Master Cook was an important person.

The Cook's House and the Kitchen adjoined the Great Hall, the largest and oldest building in the place and the most beautiful. It was built of good stone and good oak and was well tended, though it was no longer painted or gilded as it had been once upon a time.

In the Hall the villagers held their meetings and debates, and their public feasts, and their family gatherings. So the Cook was kept busy, since for all these occasions he had to provide suitable fare. For the festivals, of which there were many in the course of a year, the fare that was thought suitable was plentiful and rich.

There was one festival to which all looked for-ward, for it was the only one held in winter. It went on for a week, and on its last day at sundown there was a merrymaking called The Feast of Good Children, to which not many were invited.

No doubt some who deserved to be asked were overlooked, and some who did not were invited by mistake; for that is the way of things, however careful those who arrange such matters may try to be. In any case it was largely by chance of birthday that any child came in for the Twenty-four Feast, since that was only held once in twenty-four years, and only twenty-four children were invited. For that occasion the Master Cook was expected to do his best, and in addition to many other good things it was the custom for him to make the Great Cake.

By the excellence (or otherwise) of this his name was chiefly remembered, for a Master Cook seldom if ever lasted long enough in office to make a second Great Cake.

JRR Tolkien. Smith of Wootton Major. 1967

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I shall comment on this section by section, unpacking what seems to me to be implied:

It was a remarkable village in its way, being well known in the country round about for the skill of its workers in various crafts, but most of all for its cooking.

Crafts imply the various branches of scholarship; cooking is, of course - as certainly intended, Christianity. And Wootton Major is clearly a mythic city not merely a village, since it has many specialist craftsmen and is a religious centre. Tolkien's mythic city was Oxford.

It had a large Kitchen which belonged to the Village Council, and the Master Cook was an important person.

Large kitchen implies a Cathedral (i.e. a large church) - the Master Cook is therefore a Bishop.

In the Hall the villagers held their meetings and debates, and their public feasts, and their family gatherings. So the Cook was kept busy, since for all these occasions he had to provide suitable fare. For the festivals, of which there were many in the course of a year, the fare that was thought suitable was plentiful and rich.

In this mythic Oxford, the Cathedral is the centre of human life - and all significant human affairs are conducted in a Christian context and location.

The Cook providing suitable fare indicates the Bishop's spiritual rule over (and likely presence at) all these meetings, debates, feasts, gatherings.

There was one festival to which all looked for-ward, for it was the only one held in winter. It went on for a week, and on its last day at sundown there was a merrymaking called The Feast of Good Children, to which not many were invited... it was largely by chance of birthday that any child came in for the Twenty-four Feast, since that was only held once in twenty-four years, and only twenty-four children were invited.

Every twenty four years means every generation - the feast of Good Children seems like the occasion at which the Bishop's successor is chosen - chosen from among who is good (so far as this can be judged), and chosen on the basis of divine Grace (by who has the star bestowed upon them) and chosen by how they respond to the Great Cake...

For that occasion the Master Cook was expected to do his best, and in addition to many other good things it was the custom for him to make the Great Cake. By the excellence (or otherwise) of this his name was chiefly remembered, for a Master Cook seldom if ever lasted long enough in office to make a second Great Cake.

So what is the Great Cake? Presumably a distillation of the Bishop's wisdom, something like a sermon or homily - what is to be determined is firstly how good the sermon, secondly which child receives the sermon as it should be received- upon that child the faery star (ennobling gift of supernatural Grace) is bestowed.
 
So, Wootton Major hints at an ideal, mythic city of an Oxford type - as Oxford should be: a primarily Christian centre, ruled by a Bishop, and under whose rule the scholarly Arts might flourish - and a place touched with and ennobled by the mystery of faery.
 
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2 comments:

Dale said...

You are getting close to a Charles Williams-style interpretation of Smith of Wootton Major in terms of the City -- coinherence, etc. More, please?

The captcha, by the way, is "doesse entio," which looks like medieval metaphysics about cognition and substance to me.

bgc said...

@Dale - I am (slowly) reading Arthurian Torso by C.S Lewis, written-up posthumously by Lewis from C.W's notes on a fragmentary Arthurian book. It is full of interesting stuff - scattered ideas and clarifications.

Today I was reading that C.W chose Byzantium (rather than Rome - Rome was retained but in relation to the Pope) as his Empire because of the association with a patterned and precise Glory, and elaborate hierarchy and ritual - and the symbolism of the Christian Emperor in his luminous palace.

I have the first edition from a library, but it can be bought in a more modern reprint included with C.W's Arthurian poem sequences (which I find completely ineffective as poetry - although interesting to read *about*).