Farmer Giles Of Ham, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Besides his writings in the Middle Earth universe, Tolkien wrote a great deal of diverse writings, including this enjoyable fantasy tale that began as a tale for his children and became a short fantasy novella that explored the relationship between man and beast as well as the theme of reluctant heroism that would resonate with Tolkien’s work as a whole. While this book is definitely one of the more obscure works within Tolkien’s oeuvre as a whole, that does not make this a less than enjoyable work that began somewhat modestly and then became far more complex as Tolkien reworked a more straightforward tale of a hero of commoner background and a giant and then a dragon into a far more complex tale which even included the possibility of a sequel that Tolkien outlined briefly but never ended up writing. Whether or not the world would have been ready for a Farmer Giles universe in an alternate universe of medieval England, this particular book on its own is certainly enjoyable enough for what it reveals about Tolkien’s writing process and the enjoyable results of turning literature for children into something that is far deeper than one would initially expect.
This particular novella is about 100 pages or so and it consists of three parts. The first, and largest part, consists of the completed copy of the eponymous novella. And this book is deeply interesting in that it begins with an aspect of domestic annoyance, where Farmer Giles, annoyed by his cowardly dog Garm, goes out and fills his anachronistic blunderbuss with some fireworks gunpowder and chases away a giant that stomped on one of his cows. After this Farmer Giles is awarded the knighthood by a grateful king and develops a (somewhat undeserved) reputation for heroism that leads the giant to play a trick on a dragon named Chrysophylax and encourage that dragon to settle in the land where he found such an unwelcome place himself. The results of that choice lead to further conflict and further opportunities for heroism that end up making Farmer Giles a far more important person than he had realized before. The second part of the book consists of the far simpler and less detailed initial story that Tolkien had amused his children with, which is still an enjoyable story even so. Third and most briefly there is a brief series of notes that Tolkien had written concerning an abortive sequel to the story that dealt with the heroism of Giles’ son, who succeeded him in the kingship of the small area near Oxford where the story takes place.
There are at least a few worthy aspects that this short book provides. For one, it provides evidence that when Tolkien turned his mind and attention to any story that it ended up having mythic overtones of considerable depth, involving linguistic jokes and references to nonexistent lore and mythos far beyond the story itself. Likewise, the story itself is a reference to the essentially egalitarian ethos of Tolkien in that he made his hero a simple farmer with a cringing and whiny mongrel dog rather than a more obvious hero. Then again, considering the way that modest and unassuming halflings were among the most important heroes of his Middle Earth universe, this is not too surprising, although it is illustrative. The book is also a helpful reminder that the struggle against evil and darkness is such that it often removes us from what we would rather be doing and sometimes draws out heroism within ourselves that we and others may not readily see within us. Even a simple farmer with an unimpressive dog can end up defeating a giant and a dragon, protecting his neighbors, and becoming a ruler through his glorious deeds.