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Literature / Farmer Giles of Ham

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Farmer Giles of Ham was written in 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is a comedic tale about the adventures of a rather plump farmer and his dog Garm, set in Mediaeval England but parodying the traditional picture of dragon-slaying knights of that era. Tolkien’s love of wordplay is strongly evident, especially with regard to place names, and the story is much lighter in tone than some of his other works.

It was published in 1949 with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, which Tolkien famously said had “reduced [his] text to a commentary on her drawings”. This collaboration led to a lifelong friendship between writer and illustrator.

This book contains examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: The story claims to take place "before Arthur or the Seven Kingdoms of the English" (which suggests, before c. 500 AD), but Giles wields a blunderbuss (a musket-like gun that wouldn't be invented until several centuries later), and the whole thing feels more like a generic mythic "past" than a specific time period. This is very much intentional.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The blacksmith opines that Hilarius and Felix are "ominous names"—in truth, they mean "cheerful" and "happy" and are anything but ominous. Unless, of course, the dragon is the one supposed to be cheerful and happy with the whole deal, which he's probably counting on.
  • The Blacksmith: "Sunny Sam", a morose man who always predicts everything will fail and is only happy when his doomsayings come true. He's forced to devise a mail coat for Giles from leftover bits and pieces. His real name is "Fabricius Cunctator", which can be translated as "the Slow Smith".
  • Canis Latinicus: The story features none of this directly, but the term is used jokingly when discussing actual dogs, particularly the farmer's dog Garm.
    "[T]he Book-latin was reserved for their betters. Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue..."
  • Character Title: Though it's the Vulgar version — Giles' real name is the Latin "Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo".
  • Dirty Coward: Chrysophylax is all flash and bluster. Once Giles establishes who's boss, the dragon instantly becomes an obsequious toady.
  • Dragon Hoard: The cave of Chrysophylax Dives ("Gold-watcher the Rich") contains fantastical riches of all sorts. How he got all that stuff is never explained, nor does anyone ever ask.
  • Dragons Versus Knights: The story parodies the convention of dragon-slaying knights through Farmer Giles, who comes into possession of a legendary dragon-slaying sword and needs to pose as a knight to slay the dragon that menaces the region.
  • Empathic Weapon: Caudimordax leaps out of its scabbard and cannot be sheathed again if a dragon is within five miles, and seems to do most of Giles' fighting for him. Also counts as Situational Sword.
  • Faeries Don't Believe in Humans, Either: A lot of younger dragons believe that knights are a myth. The older ones know better, although they admit that they are few and far, and not a danger anymore, which is true since the King and his Knights are pretty useless. The only person who can effectively deal with Chrysophylax the dragon is a fat, red-headed farmer who doesn't like trespassers — even if they are scaly and breathe fire.
  • Fairy Tale: This story is an Affectionate Parody of the genre.
  • Grail in the Garbage: After Giles become a celebrity from shooting at the giant, the King sends him a sword as a gift, choosing a plain weapon which is out of fashion. It also happens to be a powerful magical sword meant to fight dragons.
  • Gratuitous Latin: Or in the vulgar, A Lotta Latin appears in the mira fascinora.
  • Howl of Sorrow: When Giles rides off to slay Chrysophylax, his dog Garm howls all night because he thinks his master will be killed.
  • Ironic Echo: “Excuse me, were you looking for me?” First said by Chrysophylax when he catches Giles off-guard, then by Giles in the reverse situation.
  • Ironic Nickname: The blacksmith is nicknamed "Sunny Sam", because he's extremely morose and always predicts doom.
  • Lemony Narrator: The commentary of the narrator on various issues is also most of the fun in the story for adults.
  • The Low Middle Ages
  • Meaningful Name: Giles himself is named Ahenobarbus ("Bronzebeard"), Chrysophylax ("Gold-keeper") Dives ("rich") the dragon, Giles' dog Garm (the monstrous dog of the dead in Norse Mythology), Caudimordax ("tail-biter") Giles' sword.
  • The Middle Ages: The Low Middle Ages, to be precise, but with little historical precision and a fair sprinkling of dragons, giants, a blunderbuss, and magic.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: At the end of the story, Chrysophylax returns to his cave and finds that a young dragon occupied it. Chrysophylax kills and devours the other dragon.
  • Named Weapons: Caudimordax (‘Tailbiter’), Giles’ sword. The tails it likes to bite are specifically dragon tails.
  • Noble Tongue: The King, his courtiers, and other highly educated people speak and write mainly in Latin. Farmer Giles and his fellow townsfolk use "the vulgar tongue" — ie, English.
  • Not Always Evil: Eventually both rich dragon and farmer-turned-knight had to agree to a truce. In his bad heart Chrysophylax felt kindness towards Giles, as much as a dragon could feel.
  • Resigned to the Call: When the King orders him to accompany his knights to find the dragon Giles realizes there aren't any more excuses he can make.
  • Talking Animal: Garm, though the narrator assures us that at the time all dogs could talk. Also Chrysophylax, although as a dragon it's more or less expected of him.
  • The Tourney: One excuse the knights give for not immediately going after the dragon is that they'll lose the tourney if all their best knights are off hunting it.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Chrysophylax comes across as a pompous aristocrat—rich, vain, and arrogant, but he's not beyond reason or compromise.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The story includes lots of jokes, inside references, and Stealth Puns about the field of historical linguistics and philology that was of course J. R. R. Tolkien's academic specialty. In a particularly funny example, a question about the definition of "blunderbuss" is put to "the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford," whose response is a verbatim quote from the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Weapon for Intimidation: Whether Giles' blunderbuss could actually be fired or only intimidate was an issue of much speculation in the village, until he fired it at the giant.