Friday, July 12, 2013

Farmer Giles of Ham by JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, having shot into well-deserved fame for his Lord of the Rings and even, by now, The Hobbit, continues to baffle publishers. On the one hand, it is their benevolent and entrepreneurial duty to introduce as much of the reading public to as many of this great man's works as possible. On the other hand, how does one drum up a perfect fever of PR excitement over, shall we say, an unfinished Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative-verse retelling of an almost entirely forgotten legend? (It's true, if somewhat beside the point, that the Vintage Novels blogger is in thrilled about getting a copy of this work someday). Or what about a slim, jolly children's book featuring a rotund farmer, a wily (but easily-tamed) dragon, a handful of sly scholarly jokes, and charming illustrations by Miss Baynes...with not a Hobbit nor an Elf nor an epic and cinematic battle scene in sight?

Oh, all right. To those who know of his existence, Farmer Giles is irresistible.

Long ago, and not too far away--in the Thames valley, to be precise--lives a comfortable hard-headed farmer rejoicing in the name of Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo...or, in the vulgar tongue, Farmer Giles of Ham. When an accidental midnight encounter with a giant who has lost his way makes Giles a local hero, the King of that country sends him by way of recognition an ancient and unfashionable sword from his armoury which nobody remembers the use of. Until, that is, the fearsome dragon, Chrysophylax Dives, hears of the rich and easily plunderable lowland country where Giles lives, and arrives in a blaze of fire. While the King and his knights discuss points of etiquette and postpone their involvement until after Christmas, Giles discovers that his sword is the legendary Caudimordax (or, in the vulgar tongue, Tailbiter), which will not remain sheathed if there is a dragon within five miles. And the village of Ham begins to think that if the King won't help, Farmer Giles might...

This little story is, of course, wonderful. Giles himself is the type which hobbits were invented to evoke: comfortable, a homebody, unlearned, but with a certain native wit and entrepreneurial know-how. Chrysophylax the dragon is a less terrifying cousin of Smaug, and Tailbiter has a lot in common with Anduril, Sting, Glamdring, and Orcrist (the last even nicknamed Biter). Then there is all the fun had with an almost forgotten high-toned language (Latin) as contrasted to the common (or 'vulgar') language of the day. But this is as Lord of the Rings-ish as the story gets. Far from being an epic, it's a rollicking tale in the lowest vein of humour of which Tolkien was capable. From Garm, Giles's dog, by turns cowardly and boastful, to the farmer's grey mare which has a claim to being the smartest character in the book, the farmer's wife Agatha, around whom there was no getting--"or at least it was a long walk" and his cow Galathea, squashed as flat as a black-beetle, Farmer Giles of Ham demonstrates wit, satire, and low punning...

Meanwhile the story comes lavishly illustrated by Pauline Baynes, perhaps best known for her iconic Narnia illustrations. Her Farmer Giles work, however, is quite unique: smooth, flowing line drawings in the style of medieval manuscripts, beautiful in themselves, but brimming with impish humour and adding substantially to the wit and satire of the story (in fact Tolkien famously remarked that they had "reduced [his] text to a commentary on her drawings").

I look forward to the day when an annotated Farmer Giles is published, with explanations of all the jokes. Meanwhile, for your enlightenment, here are a few:
  • Tolkien's tongue-in-cheek Foreword parodies his fellow scholars by waffling on about the historical significance of the Farmer Giles of Ham manuscript, and then adding as an afterthought that some readers might enjoy the story on its own account. Tolkien's famous essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics", argued that scholars should stop mining that poem for historical significance and just enjoy it as the corking good story it is.
  • In explaining what a blunderbuss is, the author of Farmer Giles refers to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford for a suspiciously dictionary-type definition. This is a double joke: it refers not only to Geoffrey Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford, but also to the four editors of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. 
  • The parson of Ham, a learned man, is called "a grammarian, [who] could doubtless see further into the future than others." Tolkien-lovers agree that grammar is a pun on the related words glamour and grimoire, both of which referred to magic in medieval times. The parson also serves for a sly joke at the expense of linguists like Tolkien himself: faced with language he can't read, the parson breaks out into professional-sounding polysyllabics to stall for time.
  • When Chrysophylax strikes a bargain with the village of Ham to return at the feast of St Hilarius and St Felix, the village's pessimistic smith grumps, "Ominous names! ... I don't like the sound of them." Hilarius means happy and Felix means lucky.
  • Many of the characters' names have some hidden or punning meaning. Chrysophylax Dives means "Gold-watcher the Rich" and refers to the traditional name of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus. Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola, our hero, literally translates as "Giles Red-Beard Julius Farmer". The pessimistic blacksmith, Fabricius Cunctator aka "Sunny Sam", is a parody of a famous Roman general, Fabius, surnamed Cunctator ("the delayer") for his brilliant cat-and-mouse guerilla tactics used fighting Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Fabricius, though, means "blacksmith"; the smith's name roughly translates as "slowpoke smith". Meanwhile, the lengthy signature of the King of Farmer Giles's country can be translated as:
"Augustus [common name of Roman emperors] Bonifacius [common name of Popes] Ambrosius [well-lettered saint, Tolkien probably liked him] Aurelianus Antoninus Pius et Manificus [A few more Roman emperors’ names run together and a ’hotshot" tacked onto the end for good measure] king, king, king, and [yet another Greek word for] king [just in case you didn’t get the idea] of the Midlands." (source)
Naturally, I highly recommend Farmer Giles of Ham to just about anyone. Children will love the story and humour; adults will relish the wit; linguists and Latinists will whoop at the word-play; while Tolkien fans will enjoy the distinctive flavour. Enjoy!


Joseph Jalsevac said...

I really enjoyed it, and it is no less amusing for fitting squarely into the realm of academic humour, complete with truly obscure inside jokes that only someone like yourself would be able to pick out.

Its nice to see Pauline linked with Tolkien, though of course these illustrations are nowhere near the caliber of her inspired Narnia work.

Charles said...

Just happened across your blog while looking for Tolkien books! I love the whole idea you have here. Saving you to bookmarks and sharing with my friends who love this old literature! Keep up the good work!

Suzannah said...

Thanks--I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog :).

Lady Bibliophile said...

Ah, now I have a chance to read your post! I missed it in all the travel.

Definitely a must-read for an education on the edibleness of dragon. *cheeky grin* I'm going to add it to my list.

So you've seen the new Tolkien book too! I thought of you when that came out; I didn't know he had any more unpublished works, but this one looks quite exciting. :)

Suzannah said...

I like to joke that one day they'll get around to publishing the Tolkien Laundry Lists. The thing with Tolkien is that he had a massive output throughout his long life--but so rarely finished, or published, anything that there is a great deal of sorting-out and editing and posthumous-publishing to do. The Silmarillion, for example, was edited together by Christopher Tolkien; The Children of Hurin was too; The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was, I think, complete, but more than half of the big shiny hardback is taken up by Christopher Tolkien's invaluable commentary on the original legends and what Tolkien was trying to do with them. The Fall of Arthur is, alas, only a fragment--but it should be amazing, and I enjoyed Christopher Tolkien's work on the Volsungs so much that I'm sure his commentary on Arthur will be equally worthwhile...

Are there any more unpublished works? I don't really have my ear to the ground on this topic but it's quite possible there are.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Christopher Tolkien must lead a very strange life, cooped up with his Father's dusty papers, piecing together story fragments like a Classical scholar working in a treasure-trove of ancient documents from a lost world. He once said in an interview, "As strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created. For me, the cities of The Silmarillion are more real than Babylon.” He is 89 years old now, and I don't imagine there is anyone who could take his place. When he dies, the most complete conception of Middle Earth in any mind outside of J.R.R. himself will go with him.

Anonymous said...


I have been reading your blog ever since I found the link from My Lady Bibliophile, and enjoying it immensely. : )
I have read more than one article claiming that a number of years back, American professor Dr. Michael Drout discovered a manuscript containing J.R.R. Tolkien's verse translation of Beowulf while doing Anglo-Saxon research at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. However, because of the public hype surrounding Peter Jackson's films, which were at the height of their craze at the time, the Tolkien Estate refused to allow it to be published. I had never heard of any such work before, but a Tolkien translation of Beowulf is something I would give a lot to get my hands on. Supposedly the scholars who got to look at it before it was whisked away hailed it as the greatest English verse Beowulf they had ever seen, surpassing Seamus Heaney's.

~The Philologist

Suzannah said...

Hi there, Philologist! I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog!

I've just gone and looked around for information on the Tolkien Beowulf translation--ohhh, how tantalising! I've often wondered why Tolkien didn't do a translation of Beowulf, and it looks like he DID. I sure hope it sees the light someday.

Joshua E. Bourne said...

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