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ONE LAST VISIT WITH TOLKIEN'S MAGIC

BILBO'S LAST SONG
(At the Grey Havens)
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Illustrated by Pauline Baynes
Houghton Mifflin
32 pages, $14.95
NORTHERN TALES:
Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples
Selected and edited by Howard Norman
Decorative art and maps by Jenny Vandeventer
Pantheon
347 pages, $24.95
PICKING UP GOLD AND SILVER:
Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Selected and with an introduction by M.M. Kaye
St. Martin's Press
281 pages, $18.95

AS INFALLIBLY as the knocker with Marley's head on it, a knocker picturing the furry poll of Bilbo Baggins, hero of "The Hobbit," will open the door of the House of Christmas. Purists will point out that Bilbo belongs to the Third Age of Middle-earth, the Age of Elves, and not to the Fourth, the Age of Men. But elves, too, albeit in a sadly diminished state, have always belonged to Christmas.

Readers of Tolkien's epic fantasy, "The Lord of the Rings," will remember that Bilbo, along with Frodo, was one of the two Hobbit scribes delegated to record the adventures of Gandalf and his immortal company. Toward the end of the final volume, "The Return of the King," Hobbit Sam expresses to Frodo his doubt that their somnolent fellow will ever write their story now. Bilbo rouses himself to make this unconvincing defense:

"You see, I am getting sleep," he said. "And when I have time to write, I only really like to write poetry."

"Bilbo's Last Song," written as he heads for the ultimate West, is not nearly as good as some of the other songs he has written, especially the one on the Road and the Lighted Inn. But that doesn't matter. It's good enough; and anyway, this is really Pauline Baynes' book more than Tolkien's. She is the illustrator of his "Farmer Giles of Ham" and, more importantly, of C.S. Lewis' seven Chronicles of Narnia. Usually she does not work in color. Here she does, over 27 full pages and the endpapers; and the effect is glorious.

It is as if a modern artist were creating a medieval Book of Hours and a Bestiary combined as Bilbo's memories flow on to the pages. Smaug the Dragon appears twice in gorgeous crimson. The endpapers depict the withdrawal of the Bright Elves from Middle-earth as the Third Age draws to a close. The visual impact, on the mind's eye, of the gay-colored rout is like the auditory impact, on the mind's ear, of Debussy's "Les Fetes."

Howard Norman's selection of 116 Indian and Eskimo stories for his sumptuously produced "Northern Tales" -- he apologizes for using "Eskimo" instead of the more correct "Inuit" or "Yup'ik" of "Inupiat" -- draws on two main language families: Northern Athapaskan, and Algonquian, the latter related to the Iroquoian spoken by the people of the Six Nations who live close by Buffalo. As Norman notes of these tales in his introduction:

. . . They range in geographical origin from the Japanese island of Hokkaido up through Siberia, over to Greenland, all across Canada, and so on out to the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. Drawing on "deep time" or "Way Back Time." . . . Northern tales are tuned to the ancient rhythms of human and animal speech and to landscape. . . .

These grimly realistic stories -- more particularly the ones about shamans and their magic -- reflect the hunting culture out of which they come. They are the raw materials of future art, as hard in texture as the mammoth bones that sometimes figure in them. They await their Grimm and Perrault and -- dare one hope? -- their Andersen, too. There begin to be indications, in an emerging Indian-Inuit culture, that that wait may soon be over.

M.M. Kaye, author of "The Far Pavilions" and a novelist of India in her own right, has chosen for her anthology 12 tales culled from Rudyard Kipling's 21 volumes of short stories. She calls it "Picking Up Gold and Silver" -- one cannot help but think of ornaments for a Christmas tree -- from an old nursery rhyme she knew as a child:

Here we stand on Tom Tiddler's Ground, Picking up gold and silver . . .

Where her selections are not pure gold -- as in at least two cases -- they are still purest silver. We have given up the foolish sport of maligning Kipling as an imperialist. Imperialist-schlimperialist: What does it matter? Death cancels all literary mortgages. Who cares now that Virgil was the poet of Empire? That Homer celebrated unimportant Greek kinglets? That Dante backed the Guelfs against the Ghibellines in Florence's internecine fighting? What matters now is their literary genius, and the literary genius of Kipling.

What an empathy he has with animals, children, lovers, ghosts and the magic of place! Kay has chosen wisely from his prodigal best.

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