Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When the Value of Myth and History Lies in Action – For the Farmer Giles in All of Us

             Throughout my reading of Farmer Giles of Ham, I was consistently entertained by the silly and seemingly inconsequential course the story took. All characters in the tale, from Giles to his dog to the King, were simplified caricatures that clashed and stumbled along the road of the narrative, “The moon dazzled the giant and he did not see the farmer; but Farmer Giles saw him…He pulled the trigger without thinking, and the blunderbuss went off…By luck it was pointed more or less at the giant’s large ugly face” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 132). In this scene, for example, Giles shoots the blunderbuss “without thinking” and “by luck” it hits the giant in his “ugly” face (hilarious). Giles seems only vaguely in control of his actions – as if he is being pulled by some external force to fire the blunderbuss directly into the face of the giant.
            I have no doubt that Tolkien expertly crafted this tale to have a lighter, funnier feel, but as Professor Fulton pointed out in class, would we really believe that that is all Tolkien meant to give us in Farmer Giles of Ham? There has to be a theme or moral in there somewhere, right? Or else what is the “point” of the story? There must be a point! Ah, but what?
            As we investigated these questions in class on Monday, I found myself drawn back to the scene where the King gifts Giles a sword in return for scaring off the giant. Here, the King, little concerned with “the doings of rustics” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 136), believes Giles deserves some sort of courtesy for expulsing the giant. Without much consideration, he picks a sword from his armory that he thinks is “rustic” and “out of fashion” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 136) to send to Farmer Giles. Neither the King nor the armorer nor anyone in the capital gives a second look or thought to sending off this sword, and upon receiving it Giles proudly displays it as a symbol of honor and success.
            Eventually, this “rustic” sword even falls out of sight and mind of Giles and the townsfolk – that is, until the looming threat of Chrysophylax becomes too pressing to ignore, “We look to you!” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 144) say the people of Ham to a flustered Farmer Giles. The parson in particular sticks around to bug Giles about the sword one night, and, lo and behold, the sword literally LEAPS out of its sheath, “Dear me! This is very peculiar!” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 146) says the parson. The parson then proceeds to point out the “archaic” and “barbaric” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 146) inscriptions upon the sword and begs Farmer Giles to take the sword back to his shelves upon shelves of “learned books” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 146) to translate the inscriptions. He discovers that the sword has a myth and history surrounding it – that it is, in fact, “Caudimordax, the famous sword that in popular romances is more vulgarly called Tailbiter” (Farmer of Giles, 147).
The people of Ham all seem to recognize the renown of Tailbiter, and take some heart in its presence, but “not without anxious looks north across the river” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 148). Even with a vague knowledge of Tailbiter’s myth/history, the people of Ham are not completely comforted by the words of Tailbiter’s history/mythology alone. Even Farmer Giles, who witnessed firsthand both Tailbiter’s inscriptions and the parson’s translation of them, is terrified of going “dragon-hunting” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 149). It isn’t until Tailbiter, doing “the best it could in inexperienced hands” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 156), expertly wings Chrysophylax that Farmer Giles truly believes in the legend surrounding the sword. He has now seen the history and myth literally spring to life, almost of it’s own accord, and it is only in this action that the words and stories becomes undoubtedly true to him. Similarly, when the people of Ham see Giles parade the frightened dragon through the streets of the town, they also finally see believe the words of the legend they had heard and (maybe mindlessly) retold. Their anxiety is lifted, and they laugh, cheer, and “beat tins and pans and kettles” (Farmer Giles of Ham, 157) because the words of history and myth have become action, and in that action those words were reaffirmed as true.
Not to be so “meta”, but as I came to this conclusion during Monday’s class discussion, it felt as if the experience of finding this meaning in an otherwise unrelatably old and lighthearted tale was none too different from Farmer Giles journey through Tailbiter’s legend. Obviously I don’t mean to equate the thrill of dragon taming to the process of literary inquiry, but as a readers of this tale/myth/history (what have you) we brought the words to life and action in discussion, and all took away something very real, valuable, and true from it – regardless of the “factual” integrity of Tolkien’s story. I find Tolkien himself best relates this feeling in the Notion Club Letters when he writes, “ ‘In any case, these ancient accounts, legends, myths, about the far past…they’re not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots.’…‘Roots in what?’ … ‘In Being, I think I should say…and in human Being.’ ” (Notion Club Papers, 227).

E.A. Zale (Lizzy)

P.S. I feel like Farmer Giles of Ham would make a great graphic novel. 


  1. Why shouldn't literary analysis be as fun (and dangerous!) as dragon taming? I very much like how you have identified key moments in which “myth” forces the characters into very real action. I agree that the tone of Farmer Giles is a wonderful blend of absurd, and earnest. My favorite line has to be when the blacksmith thinks that “Hilarius” and “Felix” are inauspicious names (beyond being the names of saints and popes, they both mean some shade of “cheerful” or “happy”!).

    I'm still not clear as to what you think that the “theme” or “moral” here is—what does it mean, exactly, for the “words of history and myth [to] become action”? Do you mean, as you seem to conclude, that Tolkien's goal with this piece is to get us to talk about it? This seems an unsatisfying conclusion to the complexity of the humor and history/myth mixing. Or is there something about the nature of myth and history (when does one become the other?) that you want us to be thinking about when it comes to taking action? What is it about this particular pastiche of legends and myths about blunderbusses and dragons that you think points to the roots of human being?


  2. I am also still pondering the moral of Farmer Giles, even weeks after we read it. As we discussed in class, and as Tolkien writes in the text of the story—place names are important! But that almost seems like a distraction from the many other threads of story and commentary occurring in Farmer Giles. For me, one of the most interesting, yet at the same time disconcerting morals of the story comes from the fact that Giles becomes a king in the end, and he builds a palace just as lavish as the one that the king he rebelled from had. Although kings and kingdoms change (as do place names), these vicious cycles remain. ~ERGG