Farmer Giles of Ham: Comedy in FaŽrie?

J.R.R. Tolkien
had a cat called Grimalkin:
once a familiar of Herr Grimm
now he spoke the law to him.
--clerihew by Tolkien

We were TALKing of DRAGONS, | TOLkien and I
In a BERKshire BAR. | The BIG WORKman
Who had SAT SILent | and SUCKED his PIPE
ALL the EVEning, | from his EMPTy MUG
--C.S. Lewis, Rehabilitations 122

Tolkien suggests in "On Fairy-Stories" that the magic of the world of FaŽrie must not be mocked, even if comic elements are present in the story:

Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic - but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.  There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself.  That must in that story be taken seriously neither laughed at nor explained away.

In part, he believes this is so because true FaŽrie requires readers who desire the magic of its world and believe, which is not the same as a suspension of disbelief. The world must, indeed, be desirable for it to work its charm. Farmer Giles of Ham, while it originated in the 1920's as a tale for Tolkien's children, much like Roverrandom or Mr. Bliss,  was expanded by 1938 into a tale that clearly included mock elements which a learned society, such as the Lovelace Society, could appreciate. And by its publication in 1949, it had acquired the mock-scholarly forward and the delightful comic illustrations by Pauline Baynes. It had clearly become a tale appreciated best on a number of levels. The Russian literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin has observed that mock-genres tend to bring a realistic corrective to the more idealistic works they parody. Mock genres reduce the hallowed distance that a work like an epic, tragedy, or grand romance introduce to hold readers in its power. Instead, their laughter brings the foibles of life up-close for examination:

As a distanced image a subject cannot be comical; to be made comical, it must be brought close. Everything that makes us laugh is close at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look at its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. . . . Parodic-travestying literature introduces the permanent corrective of laughter, of a critique on the one-sided seriousness of the lofty direct word, the corrective of reality that is always richer, more fundamental and most importantly too contradictory and heteroglot to be fit into a high and straightforward genre.

In other words, parodies, mock-genres, force us to see the complex, contradictory nature of life as it is really lived. The literary world that is Farmer Giles is not the same as most of Tolkien's literary fiction. It is a medieval world set somewhere in 9th-century England, though one not easily identified on any map. It is not the Middle-Earth of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or LOR. What then, if any, is relationship of these two fictional worlds?

Discussion Questions

  • Should Farmer Giles of Ham be classified as a fairy-story? Why or why not?
  • Likewise, does it possess any elements of Faerie? Why or why not?
  • Is it classifiable as a genre or mock-genre?
  • Can the plot, characterization, and/or setting of Farmer Giles be said to possess the heteroglossiac qualities that Bakhtin attributes to parody? Explain.
  • How does Tolkien's story compare with the world of The Silmarillion?
  • Is its humor comparable to that in The Hobbit or LOR?
  • Should Giles be understood as a comic hero? What kind of world does that imply?
  • How (or where) does Farmer Giles fit into Tolkien's poetics? (cf. "Mythopoeia")


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding