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Revisiting The Marvellous Land of Snergs

In a previous column (http://greenbooks.theonering.net/turgon/files/070100.html) I wrote about The Marvellous Land of Snergs by E. A. Wyke-Smith, a children’s book that inspired The Hobbit. Recently I was delighted to receive a friendly email about that column from the author’s grandson, Charles Wyke-Smith, who has recently written a screenplay of the Snergs book, and who graciously consented to answer some questions for posting here. So without further adieu, and with a thank you to Mr. Wyke-Smith, here follows our exchange.

Tell us about your grandfather's book, and your own connections with it.

My grandfather’s book, The Marvellous Land of Snergs, was published by Ernest Benn in September of 1927, and was the eighth and last one he wrote before his death in 1935.

It tells the story of two small children, Joe and Sylvia, who have been rescued from their different but equally awful lives by a Miss Watkyns who runs The Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children, which is located in a "world apart". She transports the children there where they join numerous other children saved from bad circumstances. The two children are always up to mischief together and end up meeting Gorbo the Snerg and getting into a series of adventures with him.

The Snergs are a race of dwarf-like people who love to feast and enjoy life, and many aspects of the Snergs can be seen in Tolkien’s The Hobbit published in 1937. Tolkien himself wrote of his children’s love of the story, and apparently they even made up Snerg stories of their own.

Tolkien, in a letter to W. H. Auden in 1955, mentioned that his children enjoyed The Hobbit, then adds a footnote: "Not any better I think than The Marvellous Land of Snergs, Wyke-Smith, Ernest Benn 1927. Seeing the date, I should say it was probably an unconscious source-book! for the Hobbits, not of anything else" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p 215)

My grandfather’s books were on the bookcases at home, and I particularly loved two of them - The Last of the Baron, about three young boys from London sent to kill an evil baron in the north of England in medieval times, and Some Pirates and Marmaduke, a wonderful and rather unusual pirate story. I kept starting The Marvellous Land of Snergs but I was in my late teens before I pushed past the rather strange beginning and discovered what an imaginative and original story it was.

In 1994, Tolkien scholar Douglas Anderson contacted my Aunt Nina, E.A’s older daughter, after looking in the London phone book for any Wyke-Smiths that he could find. He had referenced The Marvellous Land of Snergs in The Annotated Hobbit, became interested in re-publishing it, and wanted to obtain permission to do so. Our family granted rights for a limited run of something like 2500 copies, with 500 in hardback, and these were printed in 1996. The book included a long introduction about my grandfather’s rather adventurous life, which was based on information Nina provided him from her extensive family archives. I gather it sold quickly in Tolkien circles and it’s rather hard to find copies anymore.

My father sent me a couple of copies and, as I re-read it after many years, I realized that it had great potential for a movie, and I wrote the screenplay in the first months of 2001.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Ted, E.A.’s only son and Nina’s older brother, had four children, Caroline, Charles (me), John and Angela and we were all born in Derbyshire, England in the 50’s.

It was a creative family — my parents were both good musicians and my mother Sheila was a prolific writer and taught Shakespeare and drama. Both my sisters acted for a while and have always worked around the theatre and event staging, and my brother John is an excellent singer and pianist.

I moved to the US from England in 1985 and I now live in the Napa Valley in Northern California with my wife and two daughters. My wife and I run a web design company called BBd, and I am also a writer — of music, fiction and more recently, movies.

I am currently working on a screenplay that has parallels with the movie Traffic, in as much as it deals with a complex, current issue that has broad political, social and human aspects. I hope to have a first draft in early 2003 — it requires a lot of research and couldn’t be less like the Snergs story, but its issues resonate strongly with me so I feel compelled to write it, however long it takes.

What did you and your family think of Tolkien's works before it became publicized that Tolkien had much admired your grandfather's book, and that his Hobbits are, in terms of literature, closely related to your grandfather's Snergs?

I loved Lord of the Rings as a teenager and read it several times. I’ve always known through my aunt that there was a connection with my grandfather and Tolkien, and that Tolkien’s children had liked the Snergs story, but really it was only when I read the book again after it had been re-published that I really saw how many parallels there were.

What do you and your family think of Tolkien now?

The Tolkien connection has served to get my grandfather’s book out of years of obscurity and that is very gratifying. That said, my Aunt Nina has always felt that Tolkien simply saw how much his children loved the Snergs book and so took all of the parts he liked about the story and used them as the basis for The Hobbit.

And certainly, you don’t have to look far to see numerous connections between the Hobbits and the Snergs — in their physical descriptions, their love of communal feasting, the numerous similar locations through which the heroes of the two stories travel, such as dangerous forests and underground caverns, and even the heroes’ names — Gorbo and Bilbo - indicate to me that Tolkien must at least have been influenced by Snergs.

I think perhaps that when Tolkien read Snergs, which we know he did, the sense of place and the characters stuck with him, and when he was inspired to write The Hobbit, these influences came through in his story.

Also, very similar use of the author’s voice in The Hobbit, meaning where the writer addresses the reader directly, and in the ironic style of the humor, are to me less obvious but stronger indications of the influence the Snergs story had on him, as if Snergs provided a basis for a stylistic framework in which he could tell the story of The Hobbit.

J. Michael Williams’ review for The Tolkien Collector briefly discusses these issues:

and similarities are discussed in David Bratman’s review in the February 1997 issue (#179) of Mythprint, which is online at:

Of course, Tolkien took the "world apart" concept much further in creating Middle-earth and combined it with many other ideas. Also, the success of The Hobbit inspired him to write Lord of the Rings, one of the greatest fictional novels of the twentieth century, to which he gave a sweeping sense of scale, and linguistic and historical dimensions that Snergs simply does not have.

So although I have a more open-minded point of view than some family members, it’s not unreasonable for anyone who has read both books to think that Tolkien used Snergs as more than an "unconscious source" for The Hobbit. At the same time, if Tolkien did indeed draw ideas from Snergs for The Hobbit, by the time he got to LOTR, he had certainly elevated them to a far more sophisticated level.

Comparing the two, Tolkien’s book is certainly more accessible. My Edwardian grandfather’s strong and often parental-sounding "author’s voice" throughout the Snergs story, and the somewhat rambling opening make it slow going at first, unlike The Hobbit which introduces its main characters very quickly and gets right into the story. So I can see why The Hobbit was such an instant success and Snergs slipped into years of obscurity.

And the inevitable question (since we are a Tolkien movie-related website), what did you think of Peter Jackson's film, both on its own as a film and in relation to it being a screenplay adapted from Tolkien's book?

I certainly enjoyed the movie very much. I thought the New Zealand locations captured the scale of the setting of the story, and that Ian McKellen really captured the spirit of Gandalf. Also, some of the settings, such as Rivendell, had that other-worldly quality about them that is so evocative in the book.

My biggest issue with the LOTR movie is one that can occur with any large-scale movie; the viewer is in effect traveling with the hero, but when watching Lord of the Rings movie, the viewer has no idea of how far he has to go.

The great thing about the maps in The Lord of the Rings (and in Snergs) is that you can get a sense of how the characters are faring in their efforts to complete their quest as you read. The movie didn’t help the viewer truly understand the progress of the key characters, so unless you were an avid reader of Tolkien who knows that Rivendell is only a fraction of the way to Mordor, then the movie tended to turn into a cycles of the characters traveling and then facing one conflict after another without any sense of whether killing off the last fifty Orcs, or getting through the Mines of Moria, was really getting them much closer to their goal.

Of course, knowing that there were two more movies to go served as something of a clue, but still, it’s not like really truly understanding the scope of the world in which they are traveling. So providing a stronger sense of the relationships between places would definitely have improved the film.

As far as the translation from the book to the movie goes, it’s inevitable that if you take a thousand page book which takes days to read and condense it into even a three-hour movie, much is lost, and you tend to end up with a sketch of the story that has only the key dialogue and more of a focus on action than depth and theme. The language, writing and history that give richness and dimension to LOTR can only be hinted at on screen, such as when the elves briefly speak Elvish.

So any shortcomings you might find in Jackson’s translation process are inevitable for any director who takes on an epic novel — you have to strip away everything that isn’t action and dialogue, and you have to adapt the aspects of the book that are conveyed in description or discussion within those two forms, or simply not touch on them.

So the question for me when I went to see the movie was: could it convey the very strong theme that unifies the books? - which is Power and how everyone is influenced by it. More specifically, the story shows that the downside of power is more that is obtained, the more it corrupts, and only those with balancing redeeming qualities can handle it. And the question at the heart of the story is, is anyone strong enough to balance the absolute power given by The Ring?

When you walk out of the cinema after a movie, you’ve had two or three hours of entertainment, but what sticks with you is that theme beneath the action. While you probably didn’t come out of LOTR saying "Oh yes, I really do see now that absolute power corrupts absolutely!", those kind of feelings get lodged inside you by a good movie and give a significance to the experience that works in a subconscious way over time.

Most movies don’t even seem to know what their theme is, let alone how to convey it to the viewer, which is probably why you forget so many of them so quickly. But Lord of the Rings certainly did stick with me, particularly the sequences in the Mines of Moria, so perhaps for me it’s the thought that to overcome the evils of power you have to face going into some dark and scary places you would rather not visit (rather like scriptwriting : ). So I thought that in terms of conveying that essence of the book, the movie worked very well.

Jackson set himself up for inevitable criticism by shooting LOTR because every Tolkien reader has their personal vision of Middle-earth, and I think many avid fans were turned off because Jackson’s world didn’t match theirs. But their vision wouldn’t match anyone else’s in all probability, so you just have to go to the movie and see it as a movie, rather than trying to compare it with anything, even the book. And as a movie, I thought it delivered tremendous emotional impact, and deserved the acclaim it received.

You have recently written a screenplay of The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Tell us a bit about the problems and pleasures in translating a book from one medium to another.

Firstly, regardless of my family connection to it, I find The Marvellous Land of Snergs to be very entertaining and humorous — the characters are so well drawn and the outcomes of their actions so well matched to their personalities, that you just have to laugh out loud in many places.

The problem that I considered long and hard before I started the screenplay was that the story is made much less accessible by the long narrative opening and some of the rather old-fashioned writing, references and moralizing.

So I decided that if I just focused on telling the story, letting the characters speak for themselves, and starting them on their adventures right from page one, that I could perhaps release this wonderful story from the rather out-dated style of the book.

The limitations of using only action and dialogue can make screenplay writing very demanding; you can’t write "He felt very sad" as you can in a book, because you can’t film that — you have to write action or dialogue that shows the character is sad.

But with Snergs, that’s exactly how the book is written; once it gets under way, there’s lots of action and dialogue (which is also why it’s such an easy read after that point) and where there wasn’t any, it wasn’t too tough to create it from the descriptive parts, because the characters were so well defined that I had a good basis on which to decide how a character might speak or act in a given circumstance.

The beginning was the toughest challenge. The first twenty-four pages of the book that set up the story have virtually no dialogue at all, so I spent almost four weeks (of the four months it took to get to a first draft of the script) planning and trying ideas for what turned out to be the script’s first ten pages.

However, once I started to see the story unfold in the script, it became very exciting and I would spend long days with my grandfather’s book and my laptop, slowly inching forward, and just retelling the story within the script format as faithfully as I could. Much to my surprise, I kept most of the dialogue as is. I’d expected to have to re-write large chunks, but the dialogue "speaks" very easily and realistically, each character with his or her own speaking style, so my grandfather obviously had a great ear for the way people talk.

There was another unexpected pleasure I got from writing this script. I never met my grandfather and only knew of him from photographs and family anecdotes, but as I worked on the script, I felt his personality so strongly evoked in his words, which of course I read and re-read in excruciating detail, that it was like actually getting to meet him in some way. Anyone who has read a book and felt the presence of the writer, which probably includes a lot of Tolkien fans, will know what I mean.

One of the charms of the book is the author's wry style. Do you think that translates well in a script?

Yes, I do, although I think you get the strongest sense of that wryness in the extensively-used authorial voice, specially at the book’s opening and close — stuff like "It occurs to me here that there is some difficulty in providing a really useful moral from this tale…etc, etc.". I made a conscious decision not to go down the obvious and rather clichéd path of having a narrated voiceover take the author’s part, and to drop that whole aspect of the book and only retain the story.

However, within the story itself, that same ironic humor is there in the character’s actions and dialogue, even though perhaps it’s not so obvious as in the author’s comments to the reader, and so that did translate very well.

In working with the book, I found my grandfather had given real dimensionality to the characters — each is very individual and clearly-drawn and has their own strengths and weakness — and I finally realized it’s the characters’ actions that are truly at the heart of humor in Snergs, and that humor not only translates, but can actually be intensified in the screenplay format because a screenplay is a very action-based medium.

How do you see your screenplay of The Marvellous Land of Snergs being made into a film - as an animated film, or a live-action one? And what might be the pros and cons of each way?

I think I really see it as live action — I even had specific locations in mind, in Devon, and in Derbyshire, England, where I grew up, as I was writing.

That said, a live-action version will still require some special effects, but not so much of the whiz-bang variety — particularly, I want to represent the Snergs as George Morrow’s imaginative and wonderful illustrations depicts them, and as my grandfather describes them: "only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength", and not simply slightly modify real people as Jackson did with the hobbits, so that will probably require computer generated characters to be combined with live action.

I saw Hallmark’s "Dinotopia" on TV this week which showed just how far that technique has come, with a very believable sequence of a small computer-generated dinosaur playing ping-pong with a real person — if only the simplistic and predictable storyline had been as sophisticated…

Snergs is set in rolling countryside, moorlands and mountains, and I think when your story is set a real-looking world, then go with live action, which seems more real to the audience simply because it is real, and use the animation effects to enhance and modify when you reach the limitations of the real world to convey the story’s vision. Perhaps Peter Jackson came to that same conclusion when he decided to use primarily real locations rather than computer-generated settings for LOTR, although he clearly used massive computing power when he need it.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me how the end result is achieved; I just want to see the movie made, and made well.

Charles Wyke-Smith

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