Thursday, April 14, 2011

How complete is our history?

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed Farmer Giles of Ham. Having always been a Lord of the Rings fan (unto death!) a Tolkien tale without hobbits and elves had just never seemed that appealing. After reflecting on the appeal of a book like LOTR or even for that matter, The Silmarillion, I’ve realized that beyond the characters and their adventures, it is the historicity of the stories, their allusion to some thing more, something that was till then undiscovered that truly drew me to them. This ability to add a historical dimension is fundamental to Tolkien’s style, which as we discussed previously in class, comes forth through various features such as the stories within the story, the footnotes and the language that suggest the existence of a vast, untapped ocean of history.

But how then is he able to create this same sense in a story like Farmer Giles of Ham, which appears to be rather separate from his larger body of work concerning Middle Earth? I’d love to say I have a simple answer, but I’m beginning to discover with this class that as with all things Tolkien, there is always something far more intricate and complex at work.

So when Prof. Fulton asked in class, “Was Farmer Giles a joke?” I smiled. Ofcourse it was! But with Tolkien there is always a point to the joke, and this is where the historical dimension in his writing comes in.

Tolkien’s use of place names significantly contributes to this. The use of existing places like Thame and Worminghall adds to the humor of the story as he begins by stating that their origin are the reason the story is important and ends by explaining their apparent origin. However, by referencing real places he draws attention to an essential feature of historical construction. History also relies on weaving a story based on bits and pieces, and often on scattered evidence.

An extremely crucial point that Tolkien repeatedly mentions in all his work is that they are all translations and that he is in fact re-telling the stories. This idea of storytelling and re-telling are, and always have been, an essential part of the recording of history. With time and the selectivity of the teller, these stories change and transform and quite often, as he writes in the Notion Club papers, “myth dissolves into history”. Through Farmer Giles he is arguably suggesting that the story has (or could have) undergone the same process just as other stories that we believe to in fact be historically accurate. A striking example arises here through the tales of King Arthur. Tolkien almost draws this parallel for us himself as he writes in the foreword to Farmer Giles:

“…the years were filled with swift alterations of war and peace, of mirth and woe, as historians of the reign of Arthur tell us: a time of unsettled frontiers, when men might rise or fall suddenly and song writers had abundant material and eager audiences.” (123)

This short passage is quite telling of what I think Tolkien is endeavoring to achieve through the story. By drawing our attention to Arthur he compels us to consider the way in which Arthur’s history has been constructed and make links between that and how he constructs the story of Farmer Giles. So vague and mythical is Arthur’s history, that historians’ accounts of it could be applied to others (Farmer Giles). Arthur emerges as a great example of the myth dissolving into history idea and it is essentially this idea that he is exploring through the story.

This leads into the question of the ambiguity of sources. In the foreword, Tolkien specifies that the story is “a legend perhaps, rather than an account”. Considering this, one can’t help but wonder how much of history is legend. Historians are often faced with the problematic issue of evaluating the reliability of sources. The verifiability of a source, ‘if the facts check out’, is eventually the test for acceptability. But Tolkien is able to draw historical connections. He is able to make the story of Farmer Giles of Ham link up with the eventual naming of Thame. I know there’s been much debate in class regarding how seriously he wanted us to take the claim about the reality of his stories, but I personally, particularly in this case, don’t think it’s true. In fact, I don’t think the answer even matters. Regardless of whether it is merely a joke or not, he draws our attention to a fundamental limitation of the historical process. Being able to make a connection between Ham and Thame does not make the story true, it does not make it history! So I’m left wondering, how much of our history is peppered with similar assumptions, with the piecing together of bits of evidence but not necessarily the complete picture?

Through the story of Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien cleverly reconstructs the historical process before our eyes holding a mirror up to reflect its selectivity and biases, values and limitations. Now whether he does this as a commentary on the construction of history, a mockery or simply an insight is open to conjecture. Regardless, what essentially emerges is the question that has been plaguing me since those last vulgar words “The End”—how complete is our history?

— Tarika Khattar


  1. I’ve always liked the idea of discovering only over time our tastes in literature, tastes that are irrational and unexamined, that have to become articulated and demonstrated. It’s better when we come to realize that our intuition has made meaningful connections long before our consciousness has. But moving from your introduction to your main point - I think history will inevitably be partial. A complete answer would depend of course on what the measure of completeness is. The kinds of evidence that survive for pre-modern history could never allow a complete history. There will always be empty spaces, and if we’re lucky we can fill them in with speculation, and if we’re really lucky, with fresh evidence. I often stand in awe at the modern impulse for self-documentation - which may be one kind of evidence that can render a complete history (but I’m not even sure that this, in itself, can constitute a history). And yet, this is to ask about the negative implications of Tolkien’s historical demonstration. There is a positive side too. For me Tolkien demonstrates how historical scholarship is also a creative enterprise. Often the nature of the data received raise questions that can only be addressed by an imaginative effort. Different kinds of evidence make different kinds of connections possible. Tolkien worked of course in areas in which there is relatively little evidence. I think that he’s implying that meaning and ‘what really happened’ are not necessarily the same thing. As far as historical meaning is concerned, they’re not separate either.
    JT (in place of CJ)

  2. "Being able to make a connection between Ham and Thame does not make the story true, it does not make it history! So I’m left wondering, how much of our history is peppered with similar assumptions, with the piecing together of bits of evidence but not necessarily the complete picture?" Exactly! *This* is the joke: sober historians make all sorts of sober arguments about place-names based on stories and other similar kinds of non-documentary evidence, but what kind of information do stories really give us? Tolkien is skitting all those who would value literature only for what it can tell us about place-names, while at the same time pointing out how fragile our sense of "real" history necessarily is. Nicely observed!