Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Anachronistic History

Tolkien’s vision of history is fundamentally nonlinear, rejecting the assumption that history moves toward some end and embracing the fluidity of both time and space in cultural memory. Yet it is also a distinctly Christian vision, one that preferences human agency over predetermination but assumes that divine interventions guide daily life toward certain divinely-intended goals. Though there are no Eagles in Farmer Giles of Ham to signal for readers the overt intervention of God, the specifically Christian framework of the story and the role of seemingly random, yet magically enabled, chance in driving the narrative reveals the story’s connection to Tolkien’s overall vision of human history and progress. Reinforced by lighthearted jokes and jarring anachronisms, this subtle vision glimmers through the narrative at the key junctions of the plot and only fully reveals itself when Farmer Giles is considered in relation to Tolkien’s larger body of work.
Through the overtly anachronistic medieval tale of Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien plays with the relationship between myth and history, insisting that the ‘truth’ of a history lies not in its factual content but in its inherent artistic worth as such: it is not past events that make history, but the stories that cultivate them. The story of Farmer Giles is a piece of an imagined historical period which, by its very anachronism, reinforces the reality of its geographic setting, just as Tolkien insists that his Middle Earth is, in fact, our own Earth, but in a “historical period [that] is imaginary” (Letter 183). With Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien invents (or perhaps re-invents) an imaginary historical period firmly grounded both in existing local legend and in real local geography of the region of Oxfordshire. The result is a re-imagined, re-invented version of the supposed “Dark Ages” that teases out modern assumptions about far-off history by poking fun at our vision of “Norman Keeps,” all the while gaining validity by the same stroke through the story’s deep foundations in the modern myths of history.
The mythical, invented historical period in which the story is framed takes place “somewhere… after the days of King Coel maybe, but before Arthur or the Seven Kingdoms of English”—thus, roughly between the 3rd and 4th centuries, if any timeframe can be assigned to an imagined period of history at all. Yet the details of the story suggest a late medieval setting, when the anachronisms come close to agreeing on any set period at all. These anachronisms are numerous, and certainly intentional. For instance, the blunderbuss, Giles’ first weapon of fortune, was widely used only in the 18th century by mariners and coach drivers, and the term was first used as late as 1654 according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Gunpowder, essential for the weapon, was invented as early as the 7th century, but the Chinese invention did not reach Europe until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century (the first image of a European canon appears in an illustration of the Siege of Orléans, of Joan of Arc fame, in 1429). Even the cultural setting of the tale, which is staunchly Anglo-Saxon, does not match its supposed historical period: if the story of Farmer Giles’ Little Kingdom takes place before the Seven Kingdoms, then it must also take place before the largest waves of Saxon immigration to the British Isles. These are only the most obvious anachronisms: even down to the detail of illustrations, the story does not fit in its supposed period, as Prof. Fulton Brown showed in class. The style of writing depicted in the King’s red letter to Giles, with its large wax seal, did not appear until the 14th century, and the style of illustration overall is in a distinctly late-medieval style. Again, as with Tolkien’s internally anachronistic narrative, Pauline Baynes’ illustrations are no accident, and their anachronisms are fully intended to reinforce those of the narrative itself.
The text is littered with tongue-in-cheek jokes, not only of the anachronistic variety, but also (of course) of the linguistic kind. Every name in Tolkien’s work carries weight, though most in this tale are unusually straightforward translations from Latin or Greek, such as Caudimordax, which translates literally to Tailbiter (from the Latin cauda for tail or rear and mordax for biting, cutting, or sharp) and Chrysophylax Dives, which again translates literally to mean greedy and rich (from the Greek for gold-guard and the Latin for rich). Yet Garm, one of the shortest names, is the real joke: his one-syllable name was all he merited, we are told, for “dogs had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters.” Garm, however, might have the most magnificent name in the story by Tolkien’s standards, as he is named for the mythical Norse guard dog Garm or Garmr, guardian of Hel’s gate and herald of Ragnarök.
Other jokes in the story center on the geography of a specific place: Oxfordshire, England, where the story is set, written, and presented to the author’s colleagues, all along the expanding and contracting timeline of Farmer Giles’ anachronisms. These local jokes, most often centered on invented etymologies for nearby place names (this endeavor itself being a sidelong jab at historians seeking data within art), tie the story to its specific locality in a key way. Though never mentioned explicitly, there was already a historical myth of dragon-slaying in Oxfordshire for Tolkien’s story to latch onto, as local legend holds that St. George killed his dragon on Dragon Hill, south of the Rollright Stones. The many local jokes playing on place names and etymologies draw similarly on local tradition within the story, and posit the creation of a new set of myths to mirror the tale of St. George nearby. Coupled with Tolkien’s many anachronisms, these local jokes tie the story to the land in which it was made as fundamentally as a tree is bound by its roots to the soil.
These anachronisms are more than mere jokes, however: they are highlighting an underlying tension within the story. The blunderbuss, the greatest and most obvious anachronism, is raised from its usual quotidian level as the everyman’s weapon of the 18th century to that of a miraculous and mysterious magical item by its shear rarity (read: anachronism) within the confines of the story’s realm. Along with Tailbiter, it is one of the strange items that allow fates to converge, random events to align, a trigger to go off seemingly on its own, and a mythical monster to be defeated by a farmer. Just as Tailbiter, the nearly-sentient magic sword, gives Giles the necessary edge (no pun intended) to outwit Chrysophylax by taking advantage of a set of miraculously fateful coincidences, the blunderbuss raises the farmer to the level of “the Hero of the Countryside.” Incidentally, both his fatefully lucky encounter with the giant and his magically-assisted meeting with the dragon occur at Christmastime.
There’s a tension here between the lighthearted, chance encounters of the farmer with mythical monsters and the typically somber, foreboded encounters of the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythos with their respective enemies. Yet Tolkien would not present such vastly different views of history—guided by chance vs. guided by providence—because he simply overlooked the parallel. Famer Giles, lighthearted as it may be, is no less a part of Tolkien’s story of English culture than is The Children of Húrin, but it is a distinctly more overtly Christian story than are his histories of Middle Earth. The chance encounters in Farmer Giles all occur around major Christian holidays and ultimately have enormous ramifications for the political, social, and linguistic landscape of the surrounding communities, as they result in new place names and the foundation of a new kingdom. The tension between the lightheartedness of stories and the magnanimity of history come through beautifully in Farmer Giles, as Tolkien mirrors the Christian style of medieval writers by pairing, both stylistically and content-wise, the miraculous and the quotidian. By ennobling the ignoble farmer, by giving an everyman the opportunity to be a hero with the help of Providence-inspired chance encounters, Tolkien reaffirms a distinctly Christian vision of history in Farmer Giles of Ham and creates a story that resonates within the Christian, Anglo-Saxon context of modern British culture. 
--Morgane Martinet 


  1. I enjoyed your obviously well-researched exploration of the anachronisms of Farmer Giles but was especially impressed with your discussion of the blunderbuss in the penultimate paragraph. It called to mind the greatest and most famous out-of-place bit of Tolkien's writings, Tom Bombadil. Like the blunderbuss, Bombadil allows "fates to converge, random events to align," and he defeats some monsters as well, seemingly out of nowhere and with scant, and obscure, cause. Of course, Bombadil also has a unique relationship to time. He's impossibly old, the "eldest." Coupled with the relation between the events in Giles with the Christian calendar, it opens up larger questions about the nature of time -- mythic, historical, and liturgical -- in Tolkien's writings that I would love to pour through the books again to draw out.

  2. The assertion that "the ‘truth’ of a history lies not in its factual content but in its inherent artistic worth as such: it is not past events that make history, but the stories that cultivate them" is very interesting. In some ways, it seems that Tolkien would be inclined to disagree with such a sentiment. I would point to his inclusion of massive genealogies and historical accounts of men, elves, and dwarves in the appendices of LOTR as an example of the importance hard facts and events. Furthermore, the usage of fragments seems indicative of solidified historical linkages importance to the truth of accounts. In fact, the use of anachronism seems to further push a rift between myth and history rather than complicating the relationship between the two. We know Farmer Giles couldn't have a blunderbuss if he lived when he is supposed to have lived. How then can we reconcile historical facts with the "truth" of this story? Obviously Tolkien's goal was to create a mythological history, but when analyzing the "truth" of the Story of Farmer Giles, we must question whether a mythological history is different than a factual history. There must be some relationship, but there also seems to be divergence at a point that makes the two at least partially irreconcilable on a fundamental level.

    BM McGuire

  3. I find your idea of non-linear history very interesting, especially because the anachronisms which permeate the story would lose their humor if history did not move in a linear way. I think that perhaps Tolkien is arguing that history is linear but myth does not intersect history in a linear way and therefore complicates the picture. Myths grow over time and incorporate new pieces which are anachronistic when seen as coming from the time of their conception. However, Tolkien also seems to argue that if myths affect people, they can be more real than history. Therefore, I would argue that rather than Tolkien envisioning history as non-linear, he might see history as linear but less real than non-linear myths.

    In The Once and Future King, White also plays with this idea of history and myth. He starts out with something mythological (King Arthur), and places it anachronistically within history. I think that this shows the same idea that myth is non-linear when attempted to be placed within history. However, this non-linearity does not equal a complete lack of reality in both White and Tolkien. As Tolkien says in The Notion Club Papers, myths affect the primary world (p. 228). In some ways Arthur and Farmer Giles may be more real than linear history.