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The Tolkien Professor

Farmer Giles of Ham
Corey Olsen

Farmer Giles of Ham is the delightful story of a farmer who, through a mixture of good fortune and shrewdness, becomes King of the Little Kingdom by overcoming and taming a marauding dragon, Chrysophylax Dives.  It was published in 1949, but it was written in the late 1930’s, at the time in which he was finishing The Hobbit and seeing that book through publication.  The story arose and developed similarly to The Hobbit as well, as a story told by Tolkien to his children, and like The Hobbit, it uses a light-hearted narrative style that aims to amuse children. 

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people who read Farmer Giles of Ham are already lovers of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories.  Farmer Giles does not take place in that same imagined world; it is a story which stands completely on its own, as far as its narrative framework is concerned.  Nevertheless, people who know and love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion will doubtless be interested to find elements in Farmer Giles which play on or anticipate well-loved and admired moments in Tolkien’s more famous works.

Tolkien’s treatment of the dragon provides several fun examples.  Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books contain two major dragon stories: The Hobbit and the story of Turin Turambar in the Silmarillion, and Farmer Giles of Ham contains echoes of both.  When the dragon Chrysophylax Dives rises from the river, creating a thick fog through which only his red eyes may be seen, readers of the Silmarillion may remember the baleful eyes of Glaurung, father of dragons, shining through the mist to lay his awful spell on Nienor.  Chrysophylax’s personality may be less overpowering than Glaurung’s, but the echo lends an eerie force to his commands to the King of the Middle Kingdom, whom Giles is defying from the bridge.  The connection also highlights the differences in spirit and tone of the two stories: Chrysophylax Dives may have a wicked heart and he may try to hoodwink people, but he has no power to dominate his victims and is himself easily cowed.  Farmer Giles of Ham subsides into slapstick humor rather than rising to tragedy.

There are a few Chrysophylax episodes which sound like they could almost be inside jokes shared with readers of The Hobbit.  When the King’s knights are riding ostentatiously toward Chrysophylax’s mountain lair, the dragon leaps out of his cave in wrath and descends on them in flame, sending men scrambling and running and scattering their terrified horses.  We might remember a similar scene in The Hobbit, after Smaug first realizes the theft of the golden cup and he descends with fire and great anger on the encampment of the dwarves and Bilbo.  The more clearly we remember this scene, the funnier the sudden turn in Farmer Giles of Ham becomes, for the cowering and terrified dwarves are replaced by a businesslike farmer who rides straight up to the dragon and asks: “Excuse me … but were you looking for me, by any chance?” (132).  It is almost as if Giles’s grey mare herself has heard the story of how Smaug hunted down the dwarves’ fleeing ponies one by one, for she faces Chrysophylax’s attack, knowing “in her bones that dragons on the wing are worse behind you than before you” (132). 

Soon after, Tolkien makes what seems like a more pointed inside joke.  In The Hobbit, Smaug mocks Bilbo for seeking to carry off his treasure, asking him how he would possibly take it away from the mountain: “But what about delivery?  What about cartage?  What about armed guards and tolls?” (Hobbit 202).  Farmer Giles has come to Chrysophylax’s lair for the express purpose of hauling away his treasure, and though Bilbo might have “never bothered to wonder how the treasure was to be removed” (Hobbit 202), the canny farmer has a plan: “We’ll make the old worm do the carting,” he reassures his old grey mare (FGH 136).  Having previously and unsuccessfully tried to arrange for “delivery” by the dragon, Giles now proceeds to enforcing “cartage.”  He also quickly acquires “armed guards” in the form of the twelve “likely young lads” he recruits from the first village he comes to, Smaug’s jibe being given an anti-draconian turn once more as the guards are not for the treasure so much as to watch over the dragon who is being compelled to haul it.  As for tolls, Giles gets around these by avoiding the king’s court and returning straight home to Ham.  Smaug’s whole speech, so unsettling to poor Bilbo, is turned about in Farmer Giles and made into a joke at the dragon’s expense.

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But we mustn’t simply root around in Farmer Giles of Ham for parallels and echoes of Middle-Earth; it is a very enjoyable story on its own ground. 

But we mustn’t simply root around in Farmer Giles of Ham for parallels and echoes of Middle-Earth; it is a very enjoyable story on its own ground.  Farmer Giles is highly comical, perhaps one of the most purely funny stories that Tolkien ever wrote.  Amidst the laughter, however, Tolkien crafts a tale in which we can see reflected several of his primary passions and interests.

Tolkien’s love for the old days of his story, which he sets in England sometime before the reign of Arthur, is certainly evident.  The main character is given the very impressive full Latin name of Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo, not to mark him as a man of especial importance and a future king, but merely because “people were still richly endowed with names in those days, now long ago, when this island was still happily divided into many kingdoms” (69-70).  Like the evocative framing of The Hobbit in a time when there was “less noise and more green” (Hobbit 5), Tolkien sets this story in a past of unrecoverable peace.  Giles and his neighbors had such long names not only because “folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished,” but because “there was more time then,” for the “time was not one of hurry or bustle” (70).

In front of this quiet backdrop, Tolkien examines the legends of the heroic past.  Within the story, old songs of ancient heroes are kept alive in villages, and even Giles, who is “a slow sort of fellow, rather set in his ways, and taken up with his own affairs” had been fond of them as a child (71).  Giles’s story itself shows his rise from prominent local farmer to “the Hero of the Countryside” (83) after he shoots the giant, to “the Darling of the Land, and the matter of song” (149) after he leads the dragon home in triumph.

Yet Farmer Giles of Ham resists many traditional themes and figures of heroic tales.  The protagonist is not a knight of noble blood, nor even a foundling of unknown (and thus presumably royal) descent.  The knights and nobles in the story are soundly and continuously mocked as foppish and self-absorbed fools.  These knights spend their time discussing the latest fashion in hats and arguing about “points of precedence and etiquette,” and when the dragon attacks they are all scattered and many are “killed before they could even issue their formal challenge to battle” (130-1).  The rustic Giles, in his first encounter with Chrysophylax, issues no challenge and follows no etiquette, merely delivering himself of a forthright and yeomanly declaration: “I am Farmer Ægidius of Ham, I am; and I can’t abide trespassers” (113). 

This hero, the tale admits, is a simple farmer who “owed his rise in a large measure to luck, though he showed some wits in the use of it” (152).  The story is not even one of an unlikely hero elevated by luck and serendipity, however.  Giles is, on many occasions, distinctly unheroic.  He displays the sword given by the king quite boastfully at first, but when the dragon comes near and Giles begins to find his new reputation awkward, he hides the sword away in a cupboard (96).  The closer the dragon comes to Ham, where all the villagers look to Good Ægidius, the “Pride of Ham” and “Hero of the Countryside,” the more Giles seeks courage (or solace) in strong ale (100-101).  Even in his two moments of greatest triumph, his overcoming of Chrysophylax Dives at his lair and his victory over the king at the imprecisely named “Battle of the Bridge” (for there is no battle), Giles distinguishes himself not by displays of valor or virtue, but by his marketplace shrewdness at haggling, for “few had ever outlasted Farmer Giles at a bargaining” (135).  He fights no battles, and he flatly refuses to meet the king in single combat.  All in all, the mock-heroic couplets in which the meeting at the bridge is remembered seem like an apt medium for memorializing Giles’s rather questionable career.

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This air of wonder is greatly intensified by the fictitious connections that Tolkien establishes between Giles’s Little Kingdom and contemporary England

And yet, comical as Farmer Giles’ exploits are, the story’s final effect is not one of mockery.  The king and his priggish knights are roundly satirized, but satire is not the dominant tone of the tale.  In the end, the unlikely accomplishments of Farmer Giles take on an air of wonder, as King Ægidius Draconarius takes his place alongside the great Bellomarius in the songs and legends of the countryside.

This air of wonder is greatly intensified by the fictitious connections that Tolkien establishes between Giles’s Little Kingdom and contemporary England.  The story of Farmer Giles is credited with supplying the origins of several modern English place names.  Tolkien identifies the village of Thame in Oxfordshire with Ham, explaining that the name derives from “a natural confusion” between two of Giles’s titles, “Lord of Ham and Lord of Tame,” resulting in the town’s becoming “known by the latter name” (though he protests that “Thame with an h is a folly without warrant”) (153).  Through this funny little story, Tolkien colors the county that he loved with a new richness of legend and fantasy, a fantasy none the less full of wonder for being also a bit absurd.

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