Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2021

Farmer Giles of Ham, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Farmer Giles of Ham has been in my house for a very long time, but for most of that time it was shelved among children’s books, under the misapprehension that that was where it belonged.  But as the dust-jacket attests, Tolkien did not write it for children in particular, though many will enjoy it all the more for that. It is best read aloud, when it will live with all the force of “a tale that holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.”

Wikipedia quotes Tolkien himself about the story’s origin:

[Farmer Giles of Ham] was, in fact, written to order, to be read to the Lovelace Society at Worcester College [Oxford]; and was read to them at a sitting. For that reason I should like to put an inscription to C. H. Wilkinson on a fly-leaf, since it was Col. Wilkinson of that College who egged me to it…

Dedication to Colonel Wilkinson, in Farmer Giles of Ham, illustrated by Pauline Diana Baynes

Further hunting reveals that this first outing of this story is one of the Treasures of Worcester College, and in this blog post you can see the minutes of the Lovelace Society when it recorded the proceedings on 14 February 1938. The author of the article, Emma Gudrum points out that

During his lifetime J. R. R. Tolkien published only a few of the stories originally written for his children (though several have appeared posthumously). That he considered Farmer Giles of Ham worthy of publication must be partly down to the laughter and appreciation of the Lovelace Club and the support of their patron Colonel Wilkinson.

Farmer Giles of Ham is a story that resonates with the era of reading as an entertainment for adults rather than as a private solitary activity.  Accordingly, I read it in company with Amber, and read out the bits that involved Farmer Giles’ dog Garm…

Farmer Giles had a dog.  The dog’s name was Garm.  Dogs had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters.  Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in.  Bullying was for beggars and trespassers, bragging for other dogs, and wheedling for his master.  Garm was both proud and afraid of Giles, who could bully and brag better than he could. (p.10)

The mock-serious tone of this fable is established from the first paragraph where we learn that our hero rejoices in the name Ægidus Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo:

for people were richly endowed with names in those days, now long ago, when this island was still happily divided into many kingdoms. There was more time then, and folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished.  However, those days are now over, so I will in what follows give the man his name shortly, and in the vulgar form: he was Farmer Giles, and he had a red beard.  Ham was only a village, but villages were proud and independent still in those days. (p.9)

Briefly, the story is this: when Garm raises the alarm about a giant ransacking the neighbourhood, Giles, armed with a never-used blunderbuss, goes to see if it’s true. A lucky shot is interpreted by the giant as a bite from a horsefly, and taking a couple of sheep to eat on his way, he goes back home. This makes Giles a hero far and wide, and the king presents him with an ancient sword.  Unknown to anyone because the king is basically offloading to a mere villager something he thinks is of no value, this sword is Caudimordax (a.k.a. Tailbiter), once owned by Bellomarius, ‘the greatest of all the dragon-slayers’ in the Middle Kingdom.  It cannot be sheathed if a dragon is within five miles.

Well, one day a dragon called Chrysophylax Dives turns up in the area wreaking death and destruction, because the giant has spread the word that there are no dragon-slaying knights around, only horse flies. So Giles, now a rather reluctant hero (not unlike Bilbo Baggins), is despatched to deal with it.

Tolkien the great medievalist, set his story in Britain in an imaginary period of the Dark Ages. He parodies the great dragon-slaying traditions with knights who are supercilious, useless and cowardly, obsessed with etiquette at the expense of taking note of evidence that a dragon is nearby. Indeed, it is years since anyone has seen a dragon, and the king’s chef has taken to making a dragon-tail cake as a substitute for the real thing for celebrations.   Giles, however, (like Bilbo), grows in stature during his quest, and he turns out to have the measure of the dragon after all, and the king too, for good measure.

The book concludes with some witty nonsense about the etymology of place-names near Oxford.

I read Farmer Giles of Ham for ‘Short Classics’, the fourth week of #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books.

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: Farmer Giles of Ham
Publisher: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London; Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1949
ISBN: 0048230685, hbk., 79 pages
Source: personal library, purchased some time in the 1970s


Responses

  1. This was on my shelves for years and years before finally reading it…and I’m afraid I didn’t remember much, apparently.

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    • If you still have it, read it again… you will love it, I am sure.

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  2. I love the vocabulary and names. Had not heard of this book before.

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    • I think I bought it for The Offspring after he had read The Hobbit. It must have been in a bookshop because there was no Internet back then…

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  3. I read the L of the Rings and Hobbit as a teen, and still quite like his use of medieval themes with a modern sensibility- but I don’t feel the urge to return to these things

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    • I recently listened to TLOTR as an audiobook, but it didn’t have the same effect as when I read it in book form in my twenties.
      But this is sheer drollery, it’s not really fantasy in the way that the others are.

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  4. I don’t know why, but I did laugh at the dragon tail cake! Thanks for the chuckle, Lisa!

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  5. I knew of this book, but like you thought it was only for children and somehow missed it when my children were crazy about LOTR and the Hobbit.

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  6. Like many of us, I read Tolkien obsessively in my youth. Less obsessively, I have still dabbled into my old age. I am one of those that thought Jacksons film’s rubbish. Strangely, though, this one passed me by. Your review has made me feel that I should seek it out.

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    • Hello, nice to see you here!
      Oh I agree, I saw the first film and was bored, and even fell asleep at one stage. What a shame that for so many young people *that* will be their experience of Tolkien.

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      • I lurk a bit Lisa. Keep up the great blog.

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  7. My goodness! I received a copy of ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ for my 20th birthday, and then read ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’. Sadly, I no longer have either on my bookshelf.

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    • I think there may be more to Tolkien than most of us know…

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  8. either *of* them (sigh)

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  9. I’ve just discovered our library has this in the Junior Fiction section, so I will happily give it a go! Thanks Lisa. I loved the Lord of the Rings books!

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    • In Junior Fiction. Well, older kids would enjoy it, but the satire is probably wasted on all but a few. Do come back here and tell me what you think!

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      • Hi Lisa, I definitely will do that! I was amused after reading your post to find it in the Junior category at the library!

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  10. Hi Lisa, I picked up Farmer Giles of Ham this morning from the junior section in my library. I have just finished reading it. It was like a breath of fresh air – loved it. Funny, witty and loved the notes and introduction. A great book to read to children.

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