From Master of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin, 1972)

By Paul Kocher

 Chapter VII, “Seven Leaves”

Essay 3. “Farmer Giles of Ham”


The publication year, 1949, of this joyously mock-heroic tale gives us a clue to why it was written. The prewar clouds which oppressed Tolkien in “Leaf by Niggle” had passed away with victory in 1945, bringing “days less dark” but “no less laborious” by reason of his final drive to complete The Lord of the Rings. Though much revision was still in order, the epic was finished at last in 1949 after eleven years of more or less steady toil. Only an artist, scientist, or scholar who has suffered the happy bondage of such years can imagine the relief of the shackles dropping away. There seems to follow a need to celebrate the new freedom, which can take the form of poking fun at the type of materials just mastered. Chaucer, caught in the mazes of The Canturybury Tales, parodied the high chivalric ideals of his “Knight’s Tale” with their humorous opposites in the Sir Thopas caricature  in later years. Similarly in “Farmer Giles” Tolkien laughs good-humoredly at much that is taken most seriously by his epic, and not only there but also by his previous scholarship and literary criticism.

Few readers, save professional editors of ancient manuscripts at least as old as the Middle Ages who have wrestled in prefaces with problems of authorship, date, sources and analogues, linguistics, and so on, know enough about such things to enjoy fully the nonsense of Tolkien’s Foreword to “Farmer Giles.” Tolkien pretends to be editor and translator (from “very insular Latin”) of an ancient manuscript recounting the origin of the Little Kingdom in pre-Arthurian Britain. Solemnly he discusses the nature of the document (a late compilation derived from popular lays contemporaneous with the events), the author (an inhabitant of the Little Kingdom at a time when the events were already long past, as shown by his intimate knowledge of the geography of that region) and the boundaries of the Little Kingdom in time and place. The latter, from internal evidence, is somewhere in the valley of the Thames. But the date of its existence requires profounder analysis. Tolkien is obliged to call upon the aid, though not by name, of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s popular and quite fictitious Historia regum Britanniae (published in 1139) for a chronology of the many divisions within the island after Brutus, of which “the partition under Locrin, Camber, and Albanac was only the first…” Some where between then and Arthur’s time, “after the days of King Coel maybe…” occurred the rise to the kingship of Farmer Giles of Ham, whose unabridged titles in the original Latin march over the manuscript’s first page, matching in resonance those of Queen Victoria, or Aragorn at his proudest in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien as translator voices the usual pious hope of the scholar that the document will throw light on a dark period of British history, as well as the origin of “some difficult place names.” Of this philological jest more anon.

The compiler of the manuscript under translation is evidently already, in some vague post-Arthurian age, nostalgic about the greater simplicity of life in the old days of which he writes. In a suspiciously Tolkienish vein he looks back to the happier past when “there was more time…and folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished”; “villages were proud and independent still in those days.” One hopes that Tolkien is smiling here at his penchant for a pre-industrial society. He is certainly smiling at the talking animals of fairy stories in describing the Farmer’s dog, Garm, who “could not even talk dog-latin; but…could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in.” And he is certainly smiling as he begins the portrayal of his mock-hero “who could bully and brag better” than his dog could. Giles says he is busy keeping the wolf from the door, “that is, keeping himself as fat and comfortable as his father before him.” He was “a slow sort of fellow…taken up with his own affairs,” giving little thought to the Wide World outside his village. In this he recalls the hobbits of the Shire. And somewhat like them he is intruded upon by a giant from Wales, “larger and more stupid than his fellows,” who is no distant relation of Tolkien’s trolls.

Cowardly master, roused by quaking dog, seizes his blunderbuss, runs out, pulls the trigger in a spasm of terror when he sees the giant, and “by chance and by no choice of the farmer’s” spatters him in the face with scrap iron. Tolkien’s shameless introduction of a seventeenth-century blunderbuss into pre-Arthurian England is funny enough in itself but he has another card to play with it. In case anyone asks what a blunderbuss is, the compiler of the manuscript refers him to the answer given by “the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford,” who reply: “A blunderbuss is a short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded in civilized countries by other firearms.)” This quotation corresponds word for word with the definition of blunderbuss given in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of course “the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” must then be the four editors of the Dictionary: James A. H. Murray, Henry Bradley, W. A. Craigie, and C. T. Onions. Since Tolkien was Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, when the dictionary was first printed in 1933, and helped in its preparation, the blunderbuss incident takes on the aspect of a private joke with his colleagues, along the lines of his Songs for the Philologists, privately printed for the Department of English at University College in 1936. Not exclusively so, however, for Tolkien catches up the parenthetical remark about supersession of the blunderbuss by other firearms “in civilized countries” to remark ironically that his village of Ham was not yet civilized enough to use any other weapons more lethal than bows and arrows – which rather turns the joke against the Dictionary editors. One would rather like to know exactly who composed that definition of blunderbuss for the Oxford Dictionary.

Giles duly becomes “the Hero of the Countryside,” gets drunk, and comes home “singing old heroic songs.” He receives a testimonial and an ancient sword from the reigning monarch of the Middle Kingdom, who rejoices in the appellation “Augustus Bonifacius Ambrosius Aurelianus Antoninus Pius et Magnificus, dux, rex, tyrannus, et basileus Mediterranearum Partium.” The “Ambrosius Aurelianus” may derive from “Aurelius Ambrosius,” chronicled by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Arthur’s predecessor and uncle. And if Tolkien wishes to aggrandize him further by adding the name of a pope and a Roman emperor or two, so much the richer the jest when the king in question is a petty miser and ineffectual fool.

It is left to the village parson to read the runes on Giles’ sword and so to identify it as “Caudiomordax, the famous sword that in popular romances is more vulgarly called Tailbiter,” particularly renowned for slaying dragons. This busy blade outdoes all the greatest blades of fable from Arthur’s Excalibur and Roland’s Durendal to Aragorn’s Anduril. Those others are merely wielded by heroes, but Tailbiter makes a hero of any man who wields it. Whenever a dragon is within five miles, it leaps from the sheath of its own accord, and during combat it wisely delivers all the strokes at the dragon’s most vulnerable spots by forcing its owner’s arm into the right maneuvers. Obviously this is an embarrassing sort of weapon to own when a dragon named Chrysophylax Dives, “cunning, inquisitive, greedy, well-armoured but not over bold,” invades the kingdom after a hard winter, particularly for Giles who is not overbold himself.

Tolkien now turns his parody against the institution of knighthood. In the brave days of old, the King’s knights efficiently kept down the population of dragons, and when Augustus Bonifacius, etc., formerly held feast at Christmastide (as Arthur did in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other romances) he could always count on being served Dragon’s Tail (as Arthur never ate until he heard or saw some noble exploit). But that glory is fled. Now the high table is reduced to eating an imitation tail made of cake baked by the royal cook. The situation is so bad that in a delightful reversal of human skepticism about dragons, the younger dragons never having met a knight, conclude, “So knights are mythical!…We always thought so.” The knights are engaged in gossiping about the latest fashion in hats when Chrysophylax descends on the kingdom, devouring “two persons of tender age” and one very tough, stringy priest. Their information about these ravages being still quite unofficial, the knights do nothing until officially notified, and then bethink themselves of several remarkable reasons for postponing action – of which Tolkien remarks wryly that “the excuses of the knights were undoubtedly sound.”

How the adventure of killing the Worm is thrust upon Giles’ unwilling shoulders, how the slow village smith named Fabricius Cunctator (no doubt named after Hannibal’s Roman adversary Fabius the Delayer) makes for him a ridiculous suit of armor surely descended from that worn by Plautus’ Braggart Soldier, and how Chrysophylax refuses to fight because he was not challenged first according to the rules of chivalry are narrated with fine zest. But to my mind the high points of comedy come in the talk that ensues between Giles and the dragon, and other later talks of the same kind. “Conversations with a Dragon” would be as good a subtitle for the story as any. Chrysophylax the Rich finally buys his release from the people of Ham by promising them incredible sums from his hoard in the mountains. But the village folk have forgotten that dragons, once freed, have “alas! no conscience at all” about keeping promises. “The parson with his booklearning might have guessed it…He was a grammarian, and could doubtless see further into the future than others.”  Even admitting that in the Dark Ages grammarians were often suspected of magic, we should no doubt also see in the word here a pun on the philologists and a consequent laugh at their pretensions. Tolkien is hitting out at every target in sight, not excluding himself.

But he is not yet finished with the Knights. Enraged by the perfidy of Chrysophylax in not keeping his word to bring back his treasure, the King orders all the knights out in pursuit, and Giles too, though he is too “plain and honest” to want to be “dubbed.” As soon as the knights approach the mountains of Wales and find ominous footprints, they bring Giles up to the head of the line to examine them and tell him to go first. “Lead on!” they say. Then, like Arthur’s knights before the founding of the Round Table, they fall to “discussing points of precedence” as they ride, but whereas Arthur’s champions dispute who shall be first, these paladins dispute who shall have the post of safety in the rear. Chrysophylax’s sudden attack kills several knights “before they could even issue their formal challenge of battle” and panics the others’ horses, which flee “carrying their masters off whether they wished it or no. Most of them wished it indeed.” The baggage ponies and servants also run away at once. “They had no doubt as to the order of precedence.” Since his old gray mare (the Rosinante of the story) for her own reasons refuses to budge, Giles is left to fact the dragon alone. After another long bargaining session, in which Tailbiter is very persuasive, Chrysophylax agrees to carry his treasure back to the village then and there if Giles will let him keep a part in his cave. Giles accepts, “showing a laudable discretion. A knight would have stood out for the whole hoard and got a curse laid upon it,” as happened to Fafnir’s hoard.

The tale of Giles’ founding his own Little Kingdom with the help of the dragon has its climax in the Battle of the Bridge, wherein the forces of the Middle Kingdom are dispersed by a single snort of steam from Chrysophylax, and Giles refuses to meet the King in single combat for fear of hurting him. Many lays are sung to celebrate Giles’ deeds. “The favourite one dealt with the meeting on the bridge in a hundred mock-heroic couplets.” Tolkien is leaving no doubt of the literary genre to which this tale belongs. In the same vein he has Giles get the jump on the future King Arthur by inaugurating  “an entirely new order of knighthood” called the Wormwardens, headed by the twelve village lads who guard the dragon. Besides, if Arthur has his Guinevere Giles has his Agatha, who “made a queen of great size and majesty…There was no getting around Queen Agatha – at least it was a long walk.”

Before the end Tolkien has one shaft more to aim at philologists. The Foreword had promised to throw light “on the origin of some difficult place-names.” Take, for instance, the name of the river Thames. One of Giles’ titles was “Dominus de Domito Serpente, which is in the vulgar Lord of the Tame Worm, or shortly of Tame.” But he was also known as “Lord of Ham.” Out of a natural confusion” between “Ham” and “Tame” arose Thame, “for Thame with an h is a folly without warrant.” Tolkien says he gets this etymology from “the learned in such matters.” He may be laughing merely at bad philology, but more probably his target is the speculative tricks played by philology as generally practiced.  Similarly, Worminghall, the great hall of the Wormwardens, has sunk today to Wunnle, “for villages have fallen from their pride.”

“Farmer Giles of Ham” is an outburst of pure good humor. The fact that it mocks the heroic does not mean that in 1949 Tolkien embraced the fashionable cult of the antihero, any more than his fun with his beloved philology meant that he renounced his devotion to it in the past or its charms for the future. After that date he gave years of revision to readying The Lord of the Rings for publication, and he has never stopped work on The Silmarillion. “Farmer Giles” is simply a vacation from the “things higher…deeper…darker” which these epics treat. That a writer can laugh at what is dearest to him does not signify that it has grown less dear. It signifies only that he is able to laugh at himself.