“Living life on the surface” has always been a negative adage about the dangers of action without reflection. Tolkien himself has delved into the question of what it means to live merely a surface life—and the consequences, or disadvantages, of never digging past the surface. He especially makes a point to really find out not only how history, myth, and location (i.e. being in a certain place) help us to avoid this fate, but also why they can do so. This discussion leads to the idea that perhaps Tolkien’s entire idea is a therapeutic or polemic one—a wise lesson on the importance and uses of history in our own lives.
While this may seem farfetched, Tolkien indeed expresses his distaste for the “surface life” in his own personal letters. In Letter 53 to his son, he complains, “The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb” (Letters, 65). He is speaking here of what he calls “Americo-cosmopolitanism”—what sounds like the too-often-used and thrown-about word “globalization” that now seems to carry no meaning. But Tolkien is being far more specific, and wise, than this. Compare these words to another letter, in which Tolkien explains why place and history are so important to an active experience with the world. In the letter (No.153), Tolkien responds to a critic who deemed The Lord of the Rings as merely “using the traditional properties of the Quest” in order to allegorize subjective experiences (Letters, 239). First, he explains that it is not the quest itself—that is, the actual physical journey, that carries import; instead, one needs to “exercise [her] will” and arouse or satiate one’s curiosity in order to be “[delivered] from the plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer” (Letters, 239). That is, it is not the movement itself, but the mental journey, brought about by exercising the will to find something new or illuminating to “deliver” one from a passive suffering of the world, which is the crux of Tolkien’s stories.
Tolkien here raises, and partially answers, an important question: if “cosmopolitanism” is making everything and everywhere the same, how can one get from point A to point B—not merely point A again? That is, how does one have a journey and change? Obviously, in Letter 153 he suggests it is a certain kind of mental struggle that allows one to do so. But what does this “mental act” consist of exactly?
In “Farmer Giles of Ham,” Tolkien presents two opposing worlds. On the one hand, there is the King and his knights and servants, who have an excellent grasp of contemporary economics, etiquette (see: “The knights were discussing points of precedence and etiquette,” 168-9), and other issues that are relevant to any era in any place among any kind of peoples. On the other, there is the world of the titular Farmer, his dog, his fellow villagers, and other characters (like the parson) who, while probably uncouth in the eyes of the knights, possess an entirely different sort of knowledge: an historical one.
The most exemplary clash of these two sorts of knowledge—one general, the other specific—is represented by Tailbiter, the sword unwittingly given to Giles by the King for the former’s efforts in “routing” the giant. While the King merely gave the sword to Giles as a feudalistic gesture of royal support along with “a red letter” (which, says the miller, makes Giles “a knight in a manner of speaking”), the parson translates these overlooked words to find that the sword is actually an ancient dragon-slayer (144; 146-7). While the knights are concerned about the dragon merely so they can continue the tradition of serving dragon’s tail at the King’s Christmas feast and have only “quite unofficial” knowledge of it (that is, as heard by tongue, 142), the Farmer and his friends are able to utilize their deeper, historical knowledge in order to both make sense of the situation and solve it and, ultimately, have an actual journey (what a psychologist might call an “experience”). When the King goes to confront Giles on the bridge, he carries with him an army of men and (perhaps most importantly) makes various political and legal threats to him, demanding his crown and reputation back. But Giles has at his disposal the dragon—the fierce, undying representation of history, which comes at Giles’ request to spook the King, even if it does not intend to actually kill him.
Here we begin to see what Tolkien means by a journey being an experiential issue, not one of distance. While the King and his men make multiple trips, sending messengers all over the kingdom and setting up pavilions far and wide, it is Giles, who largely remains in his spot in the countryside (except for forays to defeat the dragon), who wins out in the end. And not only that—Giles also changes the landscape itself, adding to the history of the place he lives in (by adding names, e.g. Thame), by his own utilization of previous history. Like Tolkien says in his letter, “a man is both a seed and in some degree also a gardener, for good or ill…the development of ‘character’ can be a product of conscious intention, the will to modify innate tendencies in desired directions; in some cases the change can be great and permanent” (Letters, 240). Giles is a seed of his village—he has sprung out of the earth there and is a product of its historical soil—and also a gardener, as he tilled the earth for information and planted the seeds of new history.
If before we have seen how The Lord of the Rings partakes of an etymological dialogue, we can now see that it also represents the “planting” of new historical seeds—as Tolkien says, his stories are “an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth,’” just like “Farmer Giles”. History isn’t merely the background or plot outline of a story, but represents the very soil on which we stand and, eventually, we add to when we die. If globalization is making the world flat and changing formerly vastly different cities into copies of New York and suburbanizing the countryside, we now more than ever need to dig into that soil and find what makes us us, even if that means ignoring (for a time) whatever the fashionable etiquette of the day is.