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Farmer Giles of Ham

"Farmer Giles of Ham" is a novella written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1937 and published in 1949. The story describes the encounters between Farmer Giles and a wily dragon named Chrysophylax, and how Giles manages to use these to rise from humble beginnings to rival the king of the land. It is cheerfully anachronistic and light-hearted, set in a fantasy Great Britain of long ago, with mythical creatures, medieval knights, and primitive firearms. It is only tangentially connected with the author's Middle-earth legendarium: both were originally intended as essays in "English mythology".

The book was originally illustrated by Pauline Baynes. The story has appeared with other works by Tolkien in omnibus editions, including The Tolkien Reader and Tales from the Perilous Realm.

Plot summary

Farmer Giles ("Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo") is not a hero. He is fat and red-bearded and enjoys a slow, comfortable life. But a rather deaf and short-sighted giant blunders on to his land, and Giles manages to ward him away with a blunderbuss shot in his general direction. The people of the village cheer: Farmer Giles has become a hero. His reputation spreads across the kingdom, and he is rewarded by the King with a sword named Caudimordax ("Tailbiter") — which turns out to be a powerful weapon against dragons.

The giant, on returning home, relates to his friends that there are no more knights in the Middle Kingdom, just stinging flies — actually the scrap metal shot from the blunderbuss — and this entices a dragon, Chrysophylax Dives, to investigate the area. The terrified neighbors all expect the accidental hero Farmer Giles to deal with him.

The story parodies the great dragon-slaying traditions. The knights sent by the King to pursue the dragon are useless fops, more intent on "precedence and etiquette" than on the huge dragon footprints littering the landscape. The only part of a 'dragon' they know is the annual celebratory dragon-tail cake. Giles by contrast clearly recognises the danger, and resents being sent along to face it. But hapless farmers can be forced to become heroes, and Giles shrewdly makes the best of the situation.

Linguistic Humor

Tolkien, himself a linguist, sprinkled several linguistic jokes into the tale, including a variety of ingeniously fake etymologies. Almost all the place-names are supposed to occur relatively close to Oxford, along the Thames, or along the route to London. Tolkien insists, tongue in cheek, that the village of Thame originally referred to the Tame Dragon housed in it, and that "tame with an h is a folly without warrant." Another joke puts a question concerning the definition of blunderbuss to "the four wise clerks of Oxenford" (a reference to Chaucer's Clerk; Tolkien had worked for Henry Bradley, one of the four main editors of the Oxford English Dictionary):

A short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded, in civilised countries, by other firearms.)
and then satirises it with application to the situation at hand:
However, Farmer Giles's blunderbuss had a wide mouth that opened like a horn, and it did not fire balls or slugs, but anything that he could spare to stuff in. And it did not do execution, because he seldom loaded it, and never let it off. The sight of it was usually enough for his purpose. And this country was not yet civilised, for the blunderbuss was not superseded: it was indeed the only kind of gun that there was, and rare at that.

Chrysophylax Dives

Chrysophylax Dives is a comically villainous dragon. He stands midway between Smaug, evil and greedy, and The Reluctant Dragon, comical and timid. His name means "Goldward the Rich": Chrysophylax (Χρυσοφυλαξ) is Greek for "Guardian of Gold," and Dives is Latin for "rich".

Chrysophylax comes across as a pompous aristocrat — rich, vain, and arrogant, but not actually malicious. Farmer Giles learns that he can be bullied, but is smart enough not to push him to desperation.

Caudimordax

Caudimordax is the Latin name of "Tailbiter", the sword of Farmer Giles. The sword cannot be sheathed when a dragon comes within five miles of its bearer's presence. Four generations earlier, the sword belonged to Bellomarius, "the greatest of all the dragon-slayers" in the Middle Kingdom. Farmer Giles is granted this antiquated sword — by then become unfashionable — as a reward for driving off a giant from his fields with his blunderbuss. He later uses the sword to capture and control the dragon Chrysophylax Dives. ------

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