fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJ.R.R. Tolkien Tales from the Perilous RealmTales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien

There is a passage in one of the stories collected here that accurately sums up the content of the book itself. In “Leaf By Niggle,” J.R.R. Tolkien describes a painting that the artist Niggle has been working on:

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots… Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder, and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there.

If the great tree on the canvas is Tolkien’s master-work, The Lord of the Rings, then the other little pictures that are “tacked on” to the edges of the bigger one are the stories that are contained within Tales from the Perilous Realm. Although they are written in the same style and often contain the same themes as the famous trilogy, they are not directly related to Middle-Earth itself. Instead they are self-contained short stories that shed further light on Tolkien’s ideas concerning the importance of fairytales, or more specifically, his love of Faerie (not the species, but the place) as a setting for adventures.

Contained here are four short stories, a collection of poems and an essay that explore Tolkien’s work outside The Lord of the Rings, supplemented with illustrations by Alan Lee. Although older editions of the stories were illustrated by Pauline Baynes (better known as the illustrator for C.S. Lewis‘s The Chronicles of Narnia), Lee’s art is not just an acceptable exchange, but somehow even more fitting. Thanks to his work on Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, Alan Lee (along with John Howe) has come to be affiliated with Tolkien’s work in the same way that we link Quentin Blake with Roald Dahl and John Tenniel with Lewis Carroll, and his beautiful pencil sketches (or watercolours, depending on what version you get) manage to capture the text’s blend of whimsy and realism.

The story of “Roverandom” was born out of Tolkien’s desire to comfort one of his sons after the boy’s favourite toy dog went missing on a holiday to the seashore. Tolkien speculates that the toy was not a toy at all, but rather a real dog that had been transformed by a grumpy wizard, and who was now attempting to find his way home again. As Roverandom journeys from the moon to the depths of the ocean, and meets a host of magical creatures on the way, his various adventures contain aspects of the ancient mythology that Tolkien admired so much. As the introduction by Tom Shippey points out, the dragons, serpents and wizards in the story all have their counterparts in later works; it is all “connected with the bigger picture.”

“Farmer Giles of Ham” is distinctive due to its narrative voice, in which an imaginary editor translates an imaginary narrator, wherein the editor is more interested in the tale’s scholarly value on historical place names. With a rather disdainful tone of voice, the editor is ultimately undermined by the spirit of the story itself, which pits a hapless farmer against a wily dragon, entirely against his will. Sound vaguely familiar? Clearer than in any other story we can glimpse Tolkien’s love of hearth and home, and the supremacy of simple pleasures and old traditions.

Midway through the book is a segment titled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” named after one of sixteen poems included here, some of which were included in The Lord of the Rings and only two of which involve Tom Bombadil himself. As most readers already know, Tom Bombadil appears within the trilogy as one of its most mysterious characters, most widely regarded as a sort of embodiment of the English countryside; someone who is immensely powerful, but not interested in exerting that power. Tolkien’s powers of creating mood and melancholy are at work here, particularly with the poignant “The Last Ship,” which involves the passing of the Elves from Middle Earth.

Tolkien presents these poems as the “marginalia” of writing that was found in the Red Book of Westmarch, which most will recall as the book authored by Bilbo, Frodo and Sam at the conclusion of the trilogy, and from which Tolkien himself purported to gather his information on the War of the Ring. It is a clever way of including several of his early poems (many of which were composed before his great trilogy was properly conceived) into the framework of his greater story, and Tolkien even includes a foreword that speculates on which of his characters wrote which poems. This means he has to retcon a couple of details, as when he blames the fake Elvish names in the poem “Errantry” (which was written thirty years prior to the trilogy) on Bilbo’s poor grasp of the Elvish language, but also provides intriguing details such as speculation that “The Sea Bell” was written not by, but in memory of Frodo, regarding to his disturbing illness after he returned to the Shire. Needless to say, it all adds to the rich tapestry of The Lord of the Rings.

“Smith of Wootton Major” is my favourite story in this collection. Despite its humdrum name, the tale is one of the deep enchantment that comes with passage between this world and “the Perilous Realms,” after a lowly smith swallows a star concealed in a celebratory cake. Endowed with the ability to traverse the Faerie world, the story tells of his experiences there, until the time comes for him to pass the gift onto another. Sad and sweet, the story contains themes that permeate Tolkien’s other work, such as the diminishing powers of the Elves due to people willingly reducing them to pretty little dolls, stripped of all their potency. Yet, as the Elf Queen says: “Better a doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all.”

As mentioned above, “Leaf by Niggle” can be interpreted as a metaphor for the creation of The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien as the artist Niggle, a man who is desperate to get his life’s work finished. Shippey describes it as an “otherworldly Divine Comedy,” in which Niggle is constantly interrupted, first by his own habits, and then by outside forces, finally enduring a sort of Purgatory before advancing on into the world beyond the frame of his own work. Although all the stories so far can easily be read to and by children, this is one that may very well leave them baffled. However, this shouldn’t stop anyone from actually reading it to them anyway, though it may take a few reads by adults as well in order to derive the full meaning of Niggle’s mysterious journey. Having apparently coming to Tolkien in a dream, this story is one that transcends both our world and fantasy realms, taking us past death and into the (possible) afterlife.

Finally, the collection is capped off with Tolkien’s famous “On Fairy-Stories” lecture, which essentially contains much of the ideology behind The Lord of the Rings, and the blueprint for its themes and plotting. Here is where Tolkien coined terms such as the “eucatastrophe” and “sub-creations” and argues the full importance of fairytales in the world: “we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very heart web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

Tales from the Perilous Realm will most likely appeal most to Tolkien enthusiasts, particularly in its inclusion of the poems, but anyone with a passing interest in fairytales will most likely appreciate and enjoy this collection. Inevitably there are glimpses and echoes of The Lord of the Rings, which add depth to Tolkien’s later work whether it is read before or after this anthology. If you squint, the star in “Smith of Wootton Major” is almost like a benevolent Ring, which grants insight and a certain degree of power; whilst “Farmer Giles of Ham” has the warmth and familiarity of the Shire in its portrayal of the English countryside. And when Roverandom gets a glimpse of the Western Isles of the edge of the world, I felt a little shiver, knowing that in another time and place, Frodo would be glimpsing them too.

Tales from the Perilous Realm — (2008) Publisher: The definitive collection of Tolkien’s classic “fairie” tales, in the vein of The Hobbit, illustrated by Oscar winner Alan Lee. Never before published in a single volume, Tolkien’s four novellas (Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, and Roverandom) and one book of poems (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) are gathered together for the first time, in a fully illustrated volume. This new, definitive collection of works — which had appeared separately, in various formats, between 1949 and 1998 — comes with a brand-new foreword and endmatter, and with a series of detailed pencil illustrations by Alan Lee, in the style of his other award-winning Tolkien work, most recently in The Children of Húrin. The book is the perfect opportunity for fans of Middle-earth to enjoy some of Tolkien’s often overlooked yet most creative storytelling. With dragons and sand sorcerers, sea monsters and hobbits, knights and dwarves, this collection contains all the classic elements for Tolkien buffs of all ages.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.