The Marvellous Land of Snergs

E.A. Wyke-Smith. The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Illustrated by George Morrow. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, 1996. pp.220.ISBN 1-882968-04-2. $15.

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(This review of a newly-released edition of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs, a book enjoyed by J.R.R. Tolkien and his children and which influenced Tolkien’s early concepts for his hobbits, originally appeared in Mythprint #179 in February 1997.)

Reviewed by David Bratman

The Hobbit did not come out of nowhere. Besides its roots in Tolkien’s great mythology (already in development for 20 years when the book was published), it is also an entry in a great tradition of children’s fantasy. The books that came before it and to some extent inspired it include such works as Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections and George MacDonald’s Curdie books, the novels of John Masefield and Walter de la Mare, and E. A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs.

The what? That last entry isn’t as well known as the others. The fondness of Tolkien and his children for Snergs has been known since Humphrey Carpenter mentioned it in his Tolkien biography 20 years ago, but few people have seen this rare book. Thus I was intrigued when Old Earth Books announced at the 1994 Mythcon that they would soon be reprinting Snergs. Now, finally, the book has made its appearance: a sturdy trade paperback (a hardback is also available) for $15. The complete text, along with the original illustrations by George Morrow, is reproduced photographically from the only previous American edition, of 1928, and a lengthy introduction by Douglas A. Anderson has been added, discussing E.A. Wyke-Smith’s colorful life and work, and what the book meant to the Tolkien family.

The Marvellous Land of Snergs is a rather long and discursive novel, lacking the clear-cut structure and tight plotting of The Hobbit, but the resemblances should be easily seen. The Snergs themselves are smallish, semi-childish semi-humans, and the Snerg protagonist, Gorbo, is a prototypical lovable klutz. The “Snerg-element” in the Hobbits can be plainly seen, though Tolkien’s treatment of his imaginary people is very different. What is so similar as to be almost identical, though, is the humor and the authorial voice. This can be a tricky matter. A lot of Tolkien fans find his simple sense of humor tiresome, and the authorial interjections in The Hobbit to be irritating. Such readers will not care for The Marvellous Land of Snergs. But if you get a chuckle out of the Master’s jokes, and enjoy the slightly didactic explanatory attitude he displays in The Hobbit, then this is the book for you. Wyke-Smith’s chatty style, full of digressions, backchat, and childlike humor, is just the ticket.

As for the plot–well, besides the Snergs there are two runaway orphan children; there are kings, knights, the Flying Dutchman, a twisty forest in which travelers get caught, an evil witch, a cap of invisibility (which doesn’t work), heroic deeds and a happy ending, and many other elements some of which may remind you, closely or dimly, of Tolkien. It’s an intriguing book that well deserves this resurrection from the dusty out-of-print shelves. Fans of whimsical children’s literature about adventures in imaginative invented lands loved The Hobbit, and they’ll enjoy this too.

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