Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Instructive Nature of Tolkien's Joke

We spent a sizeable portion of class discussing why the jokes of Tolkien and White, which fuse historical fact and historical scholarship with stories of mythical--and sometimes childish--character, are meaningful or significant. The punch line of the joke, however, is built upon Tolkien's conflation of fantastic myth and historical fact; thus, to decode the joke, one must ultimately return to the question of "What is Reality?" We have discussed this at length throughout the course so far, and I expect we will return to it time and time again. The question, despite its repetition, is possibly the most prominent source of debate when discussing Tolkien's legendarium and The Lord of the Rings--it helps us decide if the story supposed to be real, fantasy, or a pseudo-historical combination of both. The last answer is closest to the truth, but its conclusion implies a somewhat serious, somewhat problematic, meaningful undertone to the story. If Tolkien's work is indeed an attempt to create a pseudo-historical reality, then the relationship of that reality to our own becomes very different and much more difficult to comprehend than the normal relationship we have with either fantasy or history. The meaning behind Tolkien's joke, then, is intertwined with this attempt to understand our relationship to the world of Middle-earth, and hopefully, the joke itself will help us elucidate that relationship.

The joke, which conflates history and myth, might initially appear to be a somewhat shallow, undeveloped comment; one could look at White's version of the joke, read the passage that concerns the "legendary kings like John...or Philip," (White, p. 522) and share a laugh with a friend about how silly it is to think that King John--and consequently the Magna Carta--never existed. The joke is not, however, merely a false statement. A closer analysis will reveal that behind the joke lie the foundations of British history; it is the joke itself that Tolkien eventually uses to explore these mythical English beginnings.

Tolkien tells the joke in a much deeper way than White does, incorporating real history--and the important lessons of that history--into his version of the humor. In Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien heavily cites the Arthurian legends, not through a direct relationship between Arthur and Giles, but through literary parallels to the first major Arthurian writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Tolkien begins the story with a foreword which cites many of Geoffrey's claims, beginning with Brutus of Troy's founding of England and moving through the time period of Geoffrey's Historia Regnum Britanniae, touching on King Coel and Arthur before settling on a description of his fictitious Little Kingdom.

The parallel to Geoffrey accomplishes a number of things. First of all, Tolkien's inclusion of Brutus in the story not only ties him to Geoffrey, who arguably wrote the original creation myth of England, but also ties Tolkien to Brutus. The inclusion of Brutus integrates Tolkien into the legendary framework started by Geoffrey, and simultaneously into the chain of classical epics and myths that Geoffrey was seeking to build on. It's almost as if Tolkien is saying to his audience "Look, Geoffrey already wrote a lot of this down, but he forgot all about Farmer Giles!" Given the foreword to the story, it would not be unsurprising if figures like Joseph of Arimathea began popping up in a fifth or sixth age version of Minas Tirith.

Tolkien further plays into Geoffrey's mythical texts by omitting exact dates for the story while still asserting a time period between King Cole and Arthur, which would theoretically be the 4th or 5th century. The mythical, pseudo-historical attitude apparent in both Arthurian legends and Tolkien is characterized by this fluid sense of time; in both cases, the reader is aware of the type of time period he or she is in, and what the history and future is, but can never pinpoint exactly when the story takes place.

When the story proper begins, Tolkien embarks on an even more detailed examination of Geoffrey and his legends. After having tied his legendarium to the founding mythology of Great Britain, and after the reader has been immersed in the mythical time period, Tolkien begins something of an analysis of the Arthurian legends. His inclusion of Latin names in the beginning of the story, along with the description of a kind of golden-age of Romano-Celtic society in the first paragraph, hints at the theme of Celtic decline that so plagued Geoffrey of Monmouth. The subject matter of the story--giants, dragons, knights and magic swords--is childish, yet also parallels many of the Arthurian and other mythic tales of the middle ages. Tolkien's joke becomes more apparent throughout the story; he includes a scholastic description of the problems and concerns that compelled Geoffrey to write his history with a story that appears to be meant only for those under age fourteen. The fusion of academic, historical literature with childlike storytelling, though a joke, provides much insight into what Tolkien attempted to achieve with his legendarium and how he perceives our relationship with his world.

In Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien combines his comical, playful attitude towards fantasy writing with his quite serious and academic engagement with English myth and history. This strange mix of genres is, in essence, his joke. In his jesting, he provides a commentary on other foundational legends and myths that both allow him to set up a myth structure for England while simultaneously instructing his readers how to interpret and relate to the myths. Because of the ridiculousness and obvious falsehoods of his joke, it is nearly impossible for the reader to accept his tales as fact, whether it's Farmer Giles or Lord of the Rings. Yet through the foundations he creates for his comic tales--through connections with Geoffrey and his philological work, for example--Tolkien is able to insert enough history into his legendarium to make it seem mildly plausible.

One of the main goals of his writings, as we discussed in relation to some of his letters, was to provide a mythology for England, in a similar fashion to Geoffrey's Arthurian legends, but free of the medieval French tampering of figures like Chretien de Troyes. He analyzes this type of national mythology--the Nordic, Welsh and Irish mythologies can be included in this group--through his joke, explaining to the reader that they are, in truth, somewhat ridiculous conflations of fact and fiction. But, as is typical in the mythologies he is critiquing, he adds enough historical merit to his jokes to allow them to function in the same way as the stories his joke ridicules. His joke is thus, in a sense, a warning to the reader: the stories Tolkien presents should not be taken for truth, and certainly not be interpreted as real history. But they do describe what Tolkien imagines England might have been like long ago, and where it might have come from. And for Tolkien, who is trying to compose a foundational national myth, a rough, somewhat fictional image that conveys his thoughts on how England became England, and why England is the way it is today, is enough to fulfill his purpose. His joke, which might be best characterized by the word 'juxtaposition,' is merely his way of telling us how to relate to his work: we should not to take his work too seriously, but at the same time, we should respect is as a rough explanation of why England developed into its current state. The joke of Farmer Giles of Ham juxtaposes history and myth, as do the rest of Tolkien's writings, in much the same way that any half-decent national mythology would combine history and fiction to justify the culture and society of that particular country.



  1. "Juxtaposition" sums up Tolkien's method quite well, I think. Excellent account of the way in which he refers throughout Farmer Giles to Geoffrey. I can't help think of the time I was standing in a bookshop (whether in the States or England, I'm not sure), and overheard some readers talking about whether Geoffrey (as published by Penguin) was a good history of England. The sad thing about the joke (Geoffrey's or Tolkien's) is how many people can't get it because they don't have the background--and, therefore, for us historians, how hard it is to tell "real" history when readers are perfectly happy with legend. Perhaps happier, even.


  2. I think your last two paragraphs really nail it regarding the establishment of a national myth. However, I’m not sure how much Tolkien thought England really could have credibly resembled Middle Earth (or visa versa). That would be an exercise in “what if” historical fiction rather than myth building. Often what myths do for us now, rather than what they did when originally formulated, is provide stories to which we ascribe cultural pride and attachment. They provide a unifying story and a sense of belonging.

    Here I am making the distinction between a national history which one believes is true (and may happen to be based on fictional events) and a national myth which one chooses to embrace even when the details are know to be fanciful. For example, the corpus of Greek mythology can be seen as a national myth for Greece. They allegedly take place in Greece. They give stories for locations throughout the Aegean and beyond. And many if not most Greeks proudly embrace them as a production of their culture. However, very few Greeks believe that Zeus, Heracles, Odysseus, Polyphemus, Medusa, etc truly existed or even could have existed in reality.

    In contrast, the American story/legend of Thanksgiving probably swings both ways a bit. It is generally accepted that the natives aided the colonists with food and survival techniques when they first arrived. Whether or not something like a grand feast in late November starring a turkey is a different story. However, some people really believe that the colonists and native sat down to a great feast and celebrated together in a now lost sense of brotherhood and cooperation, thus we mark this event each year in the last week of November. For them, it is history. Others more suspect of the story, accept it as a good story with some basis in fact and something worth commemorating. For them, it is in that gray area between fact and fiction.

    -Jason A Banks