Welcome, dear readers, as always.
I have, more than once, in reading about Tolkien, seen a reference to a book with a rather odd title: The Marvellous Land of Snergs. I confess that I don’t find the word “Snergs” at all inviting, but I have been intrigued: what’s so marvelous about this land and why is it associated with JRRT to the point where Douglas Anderson, in his The Annotated Hobbit, calls it an ”obscure influence” upon The Hobbit?
I had a copy of the 2008 Dover reprint of the 1928 US edition on my bookshelf,
and, when I took it down, I noticed this quotation at the bottom of the cover:
“I should like to record my own love and my children’s love of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s Marvellous Land of Snergs. J.R.R. Tolkien”
Hmm. So this was a favorite book of JRRT. But where had this quotation—perfect for a book blurb– come from?
Although I often write about some aspect of Tolkien and his work, I would never claim to be a Tolkien scholar. Fortunately, there are now numerous members of that community, from Tom Shippey
whose book, The Road to Middle Earth, should be on the bookshelf of everyone interested in JRRT,
to John Garth
to Dimitra Fimi
to Verlyn Flieger,
and far beyond.
Among the works of these excellent students of Tolkien, one book has now carried me through teaching The Hobbit half-a-dozen times in the last few years: Anderson’s
The Annotated Hobbit.
It’s rare that, when I have a question about The Hobbit, a quick thumb-through doesn’t answer it (although I wish that some enterprising person would make an index for it, thus speeding up my thumb) and so I flipped to his introduction and there it was.
And, in a draft to “On Fairy-Stories”, a lecture given at the University of St Andrews in 1939, Anderson reports that Tolkien wrote:
“I should like to record my own love and my children’s love of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s [The] Marvelous Land of Snergs, at any rate of the snerg-element of that tale, and of Gorbo the gem of dunderheads, jewel of a companion in an escapade.” (Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit, 7).
That Tolkien had read the work to his children, who had enjoyed it, we know from Humphrey Carpenter, as he writes:
“…the nursery housed more recent additions to children’s literature, among them E.A Wyke-Smith’s The Marvelous Land of Snergs…Tolkien noted that his sons were highly amused by the Snergs…” (Carpenter, Tolkien, 184)
So, what and where is this land and what has it got to do with Hobbits?
E.A. Wyke-Smith (1871-1935),
was, among other things, the author of 8 novels, four for children, of which the last was The Marvellous Land of Snergs, published in Britain in 1927 and the US in 1928.
As I read it, it seemed to me actually to be several different novels at the same time. It begins somewhere on the coast of South Africa, at an imaginary place called “Watkyns Bay”, which is, in fact, the base for something called the “S.R.S.C.”, which stands for “The Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children”. This sounds like a Victorian goblin association, poorly concealed behind the respectable words “The Society for…”, but is, in fact, a kind of fantasy orphanage. A group of rather severe English ladies have the ability to observe neglected or mistreated children and carry them away, seemingly on the wind, like Mary Poppins,
(don’t try this at home)
to this mysterious spot, where they appear to be frozen in time, which is, I suspect, why the original US publisher added his blurb:
“All who love Peter Pan will also love this story for children of every age and kind.”
After all, the original J.M.Barrie play of 1904
and Barrie’s subsequent novel of 1911
both begin in England, then move—by flying–to an island in a place called “Neverland”, where children remain children, presumably forever.
(Although it is suggested that a few children may be returned to better homes in England, Snergs, 2-3). Thus, we begin with a sort of mild social satire on children’s welfare in Britain. This is then briefly interrupted by the mention that, although Watkyns Bay, is protected by its position, someone named “Vanderdecken” has landed a ship just north of it and is encamped there with his men. Although he is not identified directly, there is a clue to who he is in the following:
“Owing to his rash oath that he would beat round the Cape of Good Hope if he beat round it till Doomsday he found himself doing so…” (Snergs, 2)
And, with this, we have moved from social satire to legend, as this “Vanderdecken” is actually the folk character called “the Flying Dutchman”, condemned to sail the seas forever because of a vow he had foolishly made—although, in one version of the story, he is allowed, every seven years, to come ashore and, if he finds a woman brave (or mad) enough to love him, he can be redeemed. This forms the basis of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883)
1843 opera Der Fliegende Hollaender (“The Flying Dutchman”).
(This is the first page of the overture. It’s quite a piece of music, full of Wagner’s characteristic leitmotifs, little themes tied to characters and emotions. If you don’t know it, here’s a LINK to a recording of that overture with its ferocious opening here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEcyCEAm1Mg From the details Wyke-Smith offers us about Vanderdecken, I suspect that he had read this early account in Blackwood’s Magazine for May, 1821: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KPUAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA127&focus=viewport&output=html )
So far, with the exception of the linking of the S.R.S.C. and the Dutchman to South Africa, there seems to be little connection between two seemingly disparate stories—then enter the Snergs.
We are told, at the beginning of Part I, Chapter 4 (if the chapters had numbers) that :
“Probably they are some offshoots of the pixies who once inhabited the hills and forests of England, and who finally disappeared about the reign of Henry VIII.” (Snergs,7)
To me, this is an echo of the tradition that the English Reformation (1532-34) and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541)
saw the migration of the supernatural (with one notable exception) from England. This would have been relatively recently expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), the title of the latter being based upon Richard Corbet’s 17th-century poem “The Fairies’ Farewell” which laments the disappearance of England’s “other” world because of the change of religion in Henry’s time. (For more on this, see the posting for 22 June, 2022, “(Failed) Rewards and (No More) Fairies”).
The Snergs act as general dogsbodies to the ladies of Watkyns Bay, building houses, providing game, even acting as lifeguards for the children, and are described in ways that might suggest something hobbitlike about them:
“The Snergs are a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength…They are great on feasts, which they have in the open air at long tables…” (Snergs, 7, 10)
After a certain amount of description of said Snergs, we are introduced to the two main human characters, Sylvia and Joe, children of a neglectful or abusive parent, respectively, and, with them, the main narrative begins. Soon, they run away from Watkyns Bay, are lost in a dense forest on the way to the Snergs’ town, meet a local, Gorbo, who seems less-than-brilliant,
and stumble through a complex tunnel network which lands them on the other side of a difficult river. In this part of the story, then, we’ve moved from social satire and legend into what appears to be a standard fairy tale: a journey by children attempting to return home—with a dubious guide.
Thereupon, they meet a shakily-vegetarian ogre, a timid knight, an obnoxious (and very unfunny) jester, a witch out for revenge, a king said to be a monster (but who turns out to be quite genial, if touchy), before finally being rescued and sent home. With the story ended, there is, as far as I can tell, no more possible influence upon The Hobbit than a kind of general sense that the Snergs are vaguely suggestive of Hobbits (and why their land is “marvellous” is difficult to tell, as most of the story occurs to the east of that land and, in itself, isn’t marvellous, just home to some odd characters).
What about that blurb, then, and its source, with what sounds like unbridled enthusiasm?
I think that we can begin with an interesting fact about the source of that blurb, which Anderson tells us was taken from a draft of a talk—those words only appear in the draft and don’t appear in the published version of the lecture (see Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 109-161, for the actual text). Did Tolkien have second thoughts about Snergs as early as 1939?
Certainly , upon rereading George MacDonald’s The Golden Key, for a proposed introduction to a reprinting in 1965, he found the work “illwritten, incoherent, and bad, in spite of a few memorable passages”, Carpenter, Tolkien, 274) and abandoned the project. And, in 1955, he certainly appears less enamored of Snergs in writing to W.H. Auden of the history of The Hobbit:
“But it became The Hobbit in the 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children’s enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough)…not any better I think than The Marvellous Land of Snergs, Wyke-Smith, Ernest Benn 1927. Seeing the date, I should say that this was probably an unconscious source-book! for the Hobbits, not of anything else.” (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Carpenter, Letters, 215)
As Tolkien could be rather touchy about sources and influences, it’s interesting that he would suggest that the volume had had some sort of effect—on the Hobbits—but, he’s quick to add, “not [on] anything else”, which, for me, underlines one part of Anderson’s description of The Marvellous Land of Snergs—although, as JRRT writes, it might have had some “influence”, that influence was certainly “obscure”, even to Tolkien.
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
Avoid ogres with a professed desire for cabbages,
And remember that there’s