Farmer Giles of Ham
is a 1949 a satiric fable by J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous writer of The Hobbit
, and many other stories set in the fictional Middle-Earth. The story follows the adventures of the unlikely Farmer Giles and his talking dog, Garm, as they parlay a unique skill for overmastering large foes into great wealth and acclaim. The story is not set in Middle-Earth, but rather in a fictionalized and anachronistic Dark Ages England (for instance, aside from the obvious – dragons – one thing that the story's England contains that Medieval England actually did not is firearms). Noted artist Pauline Baynes, who also famously illustrated C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
in the 1950s, originally illustrated the book. Tolkien was so taken with Bayne's illustrations that he is quoted
as having said, “They reduced my text to a commentary on her drawings.”
It is said Farmer Giles of Ham
was translated from a medieval manuscript, written originally in Latin. The manuscript claims that the fable gives the reasons for certain place names in England's county of Oxfordshire, which is where the “Middle Kingdom” of the story seems to take place. The fable's events are ambiguously dated to “before Arthur or the Seven Kingdoms of the English.”
At the beginning of the story, a farmer lives a quiet life in the countryside of the Middle Kingdom. The manuscript notes that the farmer's full name is “Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo,” because “people were richly endowed with names in those days.” Nonetheless, it goes on to refer to him by the “vulgar form” of his name: Farmer Giles of Ham. Farmer Giles is a plump, redheaded, average man, who enjoys the routines of his bucolic existence and strongly dislikes trespassers. He is unsurprisingly outraged, then, when one night, a wayward giant shatters his peace.
The giant, as it turns out, is both nearly deaf and nearly blind, and he leaves a path of destruction in his wake that includes the utter flattening of Giles's favorite cow, Galathea. His lumbering approach awakens and panics Giles' dog, Garm, who can talk; Garm, at some risk to himself, and with the help of Giles's wife Agatha, inspires Giles to action. Farmer Giles is able to ward off the giant by shooting him with a very primitive form of firearm called a blunderbuss. His blunderbuss shot hits the giant in the face (mostly by accident), and while it doesn't damage the giant, it does convince him that he has entered a “nasty, unhealthy” area swarming with biting insects. The indignant giant takes his leave to healthier climes, as Garm brags to the village of his master's heroic deeds. Many miles away, the King of the Middle Kingdom comes to hear of Farmer Giles's besting of the giant, and in thanks, sends him an old, out of fashion, unwanted sword from his treasury.
Farmer Giles loves the adoration with which his neighbors now view him. But his self-satisfaction is short lived: a hungry Welsh dragon named Chrysophylax Dives (Latin for “Gold-watcher the Rich”), having heard by way of the aforementioned giant that the Middle Kingdom no longer contains any pesky knights, but only biting insects, decides to investigate the Middle Kingdom. Late one night while he is out chasing delectable scents, Garm discovers the interloper. After literally stumbling upon the dragon, Garm dashes home to alert his master.
Giles at first tries to ignore the dragon's approach; the dragon is far to the north, and who knows whether he will come to Ham? After all, the king has knights for just this occasion. However, the knights find many excuses to put off hunting the dragon; the villagers of Ham look increasingly to Giles to attend to the situation. When the local parson deciphers that Giles's sword is none other than Caudimorax (“Tailbiter”), a dragon-slaying sword, that is the final straw.
Reluctantly, Farmer Giles finally sets out to meet Chrysophylax. Once he does, he finds that his sword works more or less of its own accord; he wallops the dragon, preventing it from flying away, and drives it through town. When the dragon collapses in front of the Church, Farmer Giles, aided by his greedy neighbors, makes the dragon promise to go and retrieve them its hoard or else perish. The dragon, of course, agrees to go fetch his wealth.
The dragon, of course, does not follow through on his promise. The king orders Farmer Giles back to take care of the dragon, sending several knights with him, but they are comically useless at the task. The closest thing to a dragon any of them has seen is the marzipan cake in the shape of a dragon's tail they eat every Christmas; a sweet substitute for the real dragon tails that were served in earlier, more heroic times. When the party reaches the dragon, the beast dispatches the haughty and ineffectual knights almost immediately.
Farmer Giles cleverly escapes destruction, and again, his magical sword helps him bring Chrysophylax to the point of defeat. He makes the dragon promise him a portion of his treasure, which he must transport for Giles to Ham. Along the way, Giles gathers up the servants of the several slain knights, making them his own. Instead of bringing the treasure back to the King, Giles brings everything back to his home, where he establishes himself as a de facto
When the king finds out what has happened, he becomes furious and sets out with his army to attack Giles at Ham. Giles employs the cowed dragon to aid him against the King, and the King's army is scared away. Finally, the King leaves, humiliated and without having gained anything. Giles becomes the official Lord of Ham. Giles houses Chrysophylax in a barn on his property. Using his dragon, his wits, and his ambition, he continues to rise in rank, wealth, and power until eventually, he becomes king of his own “Little Kingdom.”Farmer Giles of Ham
is one of Tolkien's lesser-known works, but perhaps his best work of comedy. It contains much wordplay – such as about how the Thames got its name – that betrays Tolkien's lifelong interest in philology.