In Famer Giles of Ham, Tolkien whimsically takes us to the beginning of England, back when civilization was spread thin and monsters were never more than a few days’ journey away. Here, a stodgy farmer with a long name manages, through a series of events unlooked for, to become the Hero of the Town and Darling of the Countryside in his dealings with Chrysophylax Dives, a Dragon.
It is a Arthur and Knights of the Round Table meets Monty Python’s Holy Grail, if you enjoy the latter—though I haven’t been able to get beyond the mere buffoonery to find the wit, style, and substance of the latter, if any—and we take a rollicking good gallop through the quickly unfolding events.
What follows will contain massive spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. The mere exposure of plot points does not concern me so much, as most of Tolkien’s work is more enjoyed in later readings, but the fact that my interpretation of the events will, to some extent, color the taste of what should be first eaten (or drunk) without outside seasoning.
Farmer Giles of Ham does not kill the Dragon. Outrage! Failure! Or not.
This is an especially excellent example for any pacifists reading this. Killing anything is not always necessary and often there are other ways. From a “cold, hard, objective” review of the facts, carrying a “big stick” is generally helpful (alternatively, consider Garm’s example).
Of course, this depends on who the author is. Or for a movie, director. Or for your life and mine, whether there is a Someone behind it all.
American soldiers WWII surrendered then bravely fought psychological battles in POW camps, whereas the onlooking Japanese did not understand or consider such behavior in the least bit courageous, as hara kiri, kamikazes, and the militarization of their culture may help explain.
When considering the “rock and a hard place” situation of a hypothetical shipwreck, C. S. Lewis said ten dead heroes is better than nine live cannibals and a victim.
It all depends on what you believe in enough to lose for.
Back to the tale. What we lose in epic swordplay we gain in negotiation, which could be argued to be the possibly more valuable skill for us today. Farmer Giles barters Chrysophylax Dives’ life back to him in return for aid in transport and protection. All good.
The key point here is what Farmer Giles did NOT do. He did not, with sword in hand more ancient than Monsieur C. Dives himself, require all of the treasure. He did have the upper hand, that is true, but a live Dragon neighbor is not someone you wish to think ill of you. Then again, years of enforced servitude may do that by itself….
Farmer Giles simply gets enough.
Tolkien adds the editorial that some may have bargained harder, for the whole Hoard, and received a curse into the bargain. I’d always thought of this as a curse the Dragon casts, and given the nearness of Faerie in stories like these, appropriately so.
But it may be as well for our purposes to think that it is the treasure-taker who casts his own curse: if he acts Dragonish in his acquisition, he may have gained a Hoard, but he cannot transmute it into a Treasure. And so instead of gaining a Hoard, he has become taken by one.
And what is enough? This speaks to purpose. What was Farmer Giles’ vision for the treasure? He didn’t know, but instinct served him well. The vision came and grew clearer as he hired a dozen likely lads, returned home, and… well, I shouldn’t give it all away.