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Farmer Giles of Ham

Aegidii Ahenobarbi Julii Agricole de Hammo
Domini de Domito, Aule Draconarie Comitis
Regni Minimi Regis et Basilei
mira facinora et mirabilis exortus

 

~ Article written by Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (editors of the 50th anniversary edition of Farmer Giles in 1999). ~

The tale of Farmer Giles of the village of Ham, in a Britain of long ago, may have been first conceived by Tolkien as an entertainment for his family after a picnic, while they sheltered under a bridge during a rainstorm. So, at least, was the recollection of Tolkien’s eldest son, John. If John’s memory is true, the event cannot now be dated; but since Farmer Giles was inspired by the lands around Oxford, its first telling most probably occurred after the Tolkien family returned to that city from Leeds in 1926. This date is supported also by the similarity of the prose style of the earliest manuscript of Farmer Giles to that of Roverandom, which Tolkien wrote down probably at Christmas 1927, and to the early parts of The Hobbit, which he began around 1930.

The Evolution of Farmer Giles

The story of Farmer Giles developed through several versions. Each tells how Giles drives a giant from his land with a blunderbuss (a kind of antique gun), and for this act is acclaimed far and wide. As a reward, the King gives him an old sword, later found to be Tailbiter, a magic weapon famed for slaying dragons. When Ham is menaced by a dragon which the King’s knights are reluctant to fight, the people turn to their local hero. Ludicrously dressed in homemade armour and aided by his sword and grey mare, Giles captures the dragon and makes it promise to share its treasure with the people. But the dragon’s promise is false, and it escapes into the hills. Giles once again seeks out the dragon and forces it to carry its enormous hoard back to Ham. The dragon also aids Farmer Giles in defying the King, who wants the treasure for himself. In the end, Giles becomes ruler of the land.

The earliest versions of Farmer Giles are notably different from its final form. In the first of these, the tale is narrated by “Daddy”, and few characters are given names. Events are set only vaguely in the past (“Once there was a giant”). And only near its end is the landscape related to a modern map, when Giles takes the surname Worming and Ham is renamed Worminghall (pronounced “wunnle”; worm is an old word for “dragon”), the name of a village a few miles from Oxford.  In the second version of the story, the narrator is “the family jester” and events are placed definitely in the past, but there were few other changes. This dates probably from the early to mid-1930s, and is mentioned by Tolkien in a letter in November 1937.

In January 1938, however, Tolkien substantially rewrote Farmer Giles, enlarging it by some fifty per cent for reading the following month to the Lovelace Society, an undergraduate essay club at Oxford’s Worcester College. For this larger, more academic audience, he added many proper names, jokes, and allusions, and further developed characters and setting. Ham, located in the “Little Kingdom”, became the precursor of the village east of Oxford called Thame, and Worminghall the name of a house built by men who had helped bring the dragon, now Chrysophylax (from Greek “gold-keeper”), back to Ham. Among the sly jokes added to the tale are a reference to the “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford”, transparently the editors of the renowned Oxford English Dictionary, and fake origins of local place-names.

History of Publication

By now, Tolkien had begun to work on a sequel to his children’s story The Hobbit, and his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, expected to have a finished book from him by Christmas 1938. The new work, The Lord of the Rings, was progressing slowly, however, and would not be ready in time. Tolkien suggested Farmer Giles of Ham as an alternative. He had submitted it already in late 1936, but it was felt to be too short to make a book by itself. Now, in 1938, Tolkien had a professional typescript made, and sent the work again to Allen & Unwin. He warned, however, that it had taken on more of an “adult” flavour compared to the earlier version, and he had not written other stories of the Little Kingdom to accompany it. The publisher’s production manager liked Farmer Giles very much, but was concerned that it did not fall into a firm category, neither clearly for children nor clearly for adults, and therefore might be confusing to the book trade.

Allen & Unwin were prepared to publish Farmer Giles of Ham, but first wanted Tolkien to complete The Lord of the Rings. As his Hobbit sequel continued to be delayed, Tolkien again encouraged his publisher to accept Farmer Giles, even though by early 1945 he still had only briefly plotted one sequel, a story of Giles’ son, George Worming. The Oxford countryside which had once inspired him – the heart of the Little Kingdom, as Tolkien put it – would do so no more, having been transformed during the Second World War by the construction of aerodromes and other military facilities.

At last, Allen & Unwin decided to publish Farmer Giles of Ham on its own, fleshed out with illustrations. Tolkien again revised the text, and added a mock foreword in which he pretends to be the editor and translator of an ancient legend of the Little Kingdom. After rejecting sample pictures by another artist, Tolkien embraced a series of humorous, mock-medieval illustrations produced for the story by Pauline Diana Baynes. He felt that they captured the spirit of his book, and were the perfect counterpart to his text. From the publication of Farmer Giles of Ham in 1949 onwards, Pauline Baynes was Tolkien’s illustrator of choice.

A book for all readers

Despite Tolkien’s caution, Farmer Giles was originally marketed by Allen & Unwin as a children’s book. Its first critics, however, like its many readers today, were quick to see that it may be enjoyed by both children and adults. On the one hand, it follows in a line of children’s stories that includes Kenneth Grahame’s “Reluctant Dragon” and the dragon tales of E. Nesbit, [to discover these and other texts you could do worse than to search our Links section...] but is also full of sophisticated humour and satiric wit.

Many of these points are discussed in notes to the 50th anniversary edition of Farmer Giles (1999), edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, which also includes transcriptions of the first manuscript of the story and of Tolkien’s notes for a sequel.

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