Taming Dragons: Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”

Tolkien is definitely the big name in the fantasy reading and writing community.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even known by faerie scholars in the Otherworld as one of the great human writers who “came the closest to finding us.” Most people, even the ones who don’t read much fantasy (or don’t read much of anything) have at least heard of the Lord of the Rings.  The movies earned him a whole new group of fans who now don’t even have to read to appreciate Tolkien (more or less, but we could argue the quality of the films for hours… it’s been done… believe me…) and reaffirmed for the readers just how truly awesome Tolkien is.

The man himself.

The “true” Tolkienites will tell you that they have not only read the trilogy and The Hobbit, but the creation and early stories found in The Silmarillion as well.  If they’ve done their reading, they have also discovered the additional adventures penned by Tolkien outside the realm of Middle Earth, and it is on one of these that I plan to focus.

Tolkien is known to most for the Lord of the Rings, but he did so much more.  He was an incredibly brilliant scholar, a masterful philologist, and translator of Old English. He applied his brilliance to creating Middle Earth and all of its stories, but he also wrote several other fictional and fantastical works that deserve attention.

One such charming and enjoyable story is “Farmer Giles of Ham.” This story takes place in a fantastical version of Britain and is, of course, about a farmer named Giles.   It is a fun and comical story of a farmer who defeats a dragon and ascends (somewhat unwillingly) from the common life to heroism, fame, and power.

I don’t want to simply narrate the story.  It is a delight to read that should be discovered individually! Instead, I want to focus on one aspect that I really enjoyed in the story, something that I found significant as I read.  Namely, I want to talk about the importance of the dragon.

I know, this is a surprise.  If you know me at all, you know that dragons are my favorite animal and I appreciate any chance I have to read, write, and talk about them.

Dragons in the world of Farmer Giles are swiftly passing into legend (although according to the dragons, it is the knights who are just a rumour).  Where once a knight could venture forth and prove his mettle by bringing back the dragon’s tail for the annual feast, now the dragon hunt is a pageant and the dragon’s tail is a sugary confection created by the royal chef for the feast.  The court has become decadent and passive, unable and unwilling to defend the nation.

Fortunately for all, the country has not needed such a hero for some time.  There are no more dragons.  However, due to a dog, a blundering giant, and a rumour, all of that changes and a dragon returns to the land.

There are some fun parallels between Farmer Giles and Bilbo Baggins.  Both find themselves forced into situations that require heroism.  Both find themselves in possession of a magical weapon.  Both must match wits with the cunning of dragons.

The difference in the stories lies in how the dragons are dealt with.  In The Hobbit, the dragon dies.  In “Farmer Giles” the dragon is tamed but not killed.

I found the difference very important, and I think Tolkien was well aware of the distinction between killing a dragon and taming one.  When Smaug fell to his death at Laketown, the real “dragon” in the story did not die.  The mountain is filled with dragon gold and the greed and possessiveness are still alive.  A dead dragon is not necessarily a defeated dragon, as Bilbo and the dwarves and men and elves are forced to learn.

Farmer Giles learns a much happier lesson with a much happier ending.  Like the dwarves, the people of Giles’ land want the gold.  The knights go forth to fight the dragon with Giles, who has recently impressed the court with his supposed giant-vanquishing skills.

The dragon Chrysophylax (who is rather cowardly) is still quite intimidating and scares everyone away, except for Farmer Giles.  Giles, however, despite possessing a magical dragon-slaying sword, does not end up killing the dragon.  Instead, he tames it.  Chrysophylax submits to Giles and gives up his treasure.  He becomes a tamed beast.

A tamed dragon is an entirely different matter.  While a dead dragon might live on in spirit, a tamed dragon has effectively lost his claws.  Farmer Giles has the treasure, but the greed and evil that the dragon represents is gone.

There is a lot more to the story than the dragon.  The characters of Garm, the loyal, but craven dog (who can apparently talk) and Giles’ snarky horse (who cannot talk but has a lot of very pointed thoughts) add humor and lighthearted fun to the tale.  The juxtaposition between the court and the commoners and who the the true nobility of the country are is very interesting.  A few good readings of “Farmer Giles” will reveal more than just a story of a a farmer and a dragon.

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on May 24, 2011, in Authors, Book Review, Books, Dragons, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Middle Earth, Universes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Well tantalized. But let us not neglect the philological riches which also await the intrepid Reader! Tolkien had way too much fun with this story.

    Have you read Kenneth Graham’s THE RELUCTANT DRAGON? You would love it!

    • Oh there were so many things I could have said, but I had to keep it post length rather than paper length, alas!

      I know the author Kenneth Graham but I have not read that title by him. I will have to check it out! =)

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