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There and Back Again, with Gorbo the Snerg

In Humphrey Carpenter’s 1976 biography of Tolkien, he cites an almost unknown children’s book as an influence on The Hobbit. The book is The Marvellous Land of Snergs, by E.A. Wyke-Smith, and it originally appeared in 1927, some scant few years before Tolkien began writing The Hobbit. Carpenter even quotes a letter from Tolkien, who described the book as "an unconscious source-book: for the Hobbits, not of anything else". These are enticing references to me, but finding a copy of the book to read proved for a long time impossible.

In The Annotated Hobbit (1988), there are a few more tantalizing bits, including the following from Douglas A. Anderson’s Introduction:

"This story concerns the adventures of a Snerg named Gorbo. Snergs are ‘a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength.’
The Land of the Snergs is described as ‘a place set apart.’ There a small colony has been established where children who are uncared for by their parents are taken. The story centers on two children, Joe and Sylvia, who, along with Gorbo, proceed on a rambling adventure into unknown lands; they encounter a reformed ogre who no longer eats children but has become a vegetarian, and a sinister witch named Mother Meldrum. . . .
Its playfulness and humor are strongly suggestive of The Hobbit. For example:
‘[The Snergs] are great on feasts, which they have in the open air at long tables joined end on and following the turns of the street. This is necessary because nearly everybody is invited–that is to say, commanded to come, because the King gives the feasts, though each person has to bring his share of food and drink and put it in the general stock. Of late years the procedure has changed owing to the number of invitations that had to be sent; the commands are now understood and only invitations to stay away are sent to the people who are not wanted on the particular occasion. They are sometimes hard up for a reason for a feast, and then the Master of the Household, whose job it is, has to hunt for a reason, such as its being somebody’s birthday. Once they had a feast because it was nobody’s birthday that day.’ (The Marvellous Land of Snergs, p. 10)
The Marvellous Land of Snergs has many admirable qualities. It remains a delightful book even today, and ill deserves its sixty-odd years of obscurity.
(The Annotated Hobbit, pp. 4-5)

Invitations to stay away? I love the idea! (I can fondly dream of its applicability to many family barbecues….)

But really, these Snergs do sound an awful lot like the Hobbits we know and love.

A few years ago, and rather quietly so that I missed it at first, The Marvellous Land of Snergs was finally reprinted, thus solving the problem of its scarcity. The new edition has an introduction by the editor of The Annotated Hobbit, and was published in a very handsome trade paperback by Old Earth Books in Baltimore ($15.00, ISBN 1-882968-04-2). It includes the illustrations by George Morrow from the original edition, which add a visual charm to the book. And on the front cover, there is another comment by Tolkien himself on the book. It reads: "I should like to record my own love and my children’s love of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s Marvellous Land of Snergs, at any rate of the snerg-element in that tale, and of Gorbo, the gem of dunderheads, jewel of a companion in an escapade."

Snergs Front Cover - Click to see larger image Snergs Back Cover - Click to see larger image
click on the images to see them close-up

I was sold. And the book itself is a charm! The language is rolling and the humor delightful, and from personal experience I can say that it is a great book to read aloud to children. The Tolkien connections–and there are a few more than just the hobbits–are all well and good, but the book stands well on its own. It has the true flavor of a fairy-tale, mixing knights and kings with witches and ogres, and there is a truly charming map of the whole adventure by the author’s daughter, which reminds me a bit of Ernest Shepard’s panoramic maps accompanying Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

Snergs Map - Click for larger version
click on the images to see them close-up

The further points of similarity with The Hobbit come in when Gorbo, Sylvia and Joe get lost in the Twisted Trees, which will remind Tolkien-readers of Bilbo and his party getting lost in Mirkwood.

Twisted Trees - Click for larger version
click on the images to see them close-up

Another of George Morrow’s illustrations looks especially Tolkien-esque–is this not Gandalf?

Snergs Mother Meldrum - Click for larger version
click on the images to see them close-up

It sure looks like a good representation of Gandalf to me, but it’s actually the villian of the story, Mother Meldrum, in disguise.

The Marvellous Land of Snergs has plenty of attractions for fans of The Hobbit, as well as many reasons to read it for what it is without the Tolkien connection. In fact, my favorite part of the book has no Tolkien connection at all, but it is rife with real fairy-tale richness. It’s the part where Gorbo goes hunting for true mandrakes–the true ones are distinguished from the spurious ones because they squeak when you pull them out of the ground in the moonlight! There is even an appropriately atmospheric illustration by George Morrow to go with this episode.

Snergs Mandrakes - Click for larger version
click on the images to see them close-up


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