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Friday Reads: Farmer Giles of Ham

If you’ve not read Farmer Giles of Ham then you’re missing out on the best thing (in my opinion . . . only really, the best thing) J. R. R. Tolkein ever wrote.

One of the things I’ve always loved is the illustrations. Penned by the superb Pauline Baynes, who also illustrated a number of (Tolkien’s fellow Inkling) C. S. Lewis novels, pick up a copy just to see her illustrations of Chrysophylax the dragon. But it’s also worth picking up to see one of Tolkien’s rarer writerly traits on display: his sense of mischief and humour.

For the fan of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, there is much here to enjoy. There’s a regular chap called Giles, who’s a farmer in the village of Ham. He begins with a small but public success in defeating, somewhat accidentally, a giant . . . but this success leads to his being expected, as the local hero, to take on a creature that no one else – not even the king’s knights – quite dared to. So far so epic, but this isn’t an epic tale of daring-do. It’s a misadventure of the very best kind because Giles (a big chap, used to comfortable living) makes his way with a combination of wonderful mischief, accidental success, and a touch of cunning that allows him, in the end, to turn a difficult situation to his advantage.

This is Tolkien with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He’s clearly drawing on the mediaeval fabliaux with which he was so familiar. He’s clearly drawing on George and the Dragon, and the many dragon slaying myths. But Giles also has a lot of hobbit in him, and Chrysophylax has more than a touch of Smaug in his makeup. There’s also a lot of fun with language going on, which is a delight – for example the sword Giles receives from the king is called Caudimordax (‘Caudimordax, the famous sword that in popular romances is more vulgarly called. Tailbiter’). In one blow the grand Latin name (which is, itself, rather pleasing to the ear) becomes a near parody of itself, and that joke is picked up in the text with the knights (themselves a little pompous) and their Dragon’s Tail Cake.

‘It was still the custom for Dragon’s Tail to be served up at the King’s Christmas Feast; and each year a knight was chosen for the duty of hunting. He was supposed to set out upon St Nicholas’ Day and come home with a dragon’s tail not later than the eve of the feast. But for many years now the Royal Cook had made a marvellous confection, a Mock Dragon’s Tail of cake and almond-paste, with cunning scales of hard icing-sugar. The chosen knight then carried this into the hall on Christmas Eve, while the fiddles played and the trumpets rang. The Mock Dragon’s Tail was eaten after dinner on Christmas Day, and everybody said (to please the cook) that it tasted much better than Real Tail.’

If you’re looking forward to The Hobbit, and you loved Lord of the Rings, I recommend picking up a copy of Farmer Giles of Ham. It’s lighter, it’s witty, it’s a hundred per cent Tolkien and it’s a genuinely delightful little story. It would also, if you have someone who adores Tolkein in your life, make a rather fabulous Christmas present.

Happy reading!