Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham: Hero for Our Time?

Set outside of Tolkien’s well-traversed Middle-earth, “Farmer Giles of Ham” is easily missed by the casual fan of “hobbitses.” It’s a fairy tale from a fictional medieval land known as the Little Kingdom, but it offers fertile soil for thinking about many of the social issues we are facing in the contemporary American political scene. What follows is intentionally anachronistic on my part, what some modern scholars refer to as a “presentist” reading that considers texts not in their historical context but as living artifacts still existing as part of a current discourse.  Although Tolkien might not agree with all of the following observations I’m about to make about his own story, I think he would concede the validity of the attempt. In his “Essay on Fairy Stories,” Tolkien argues, “it is more interesting, and also in its way more difficult, to consider what they are, what they have become for us, and what values the long alchemical processes of time have produced in them” (from “Essay on Fairy Stories,” 46).

By way of summary: Giles is a simple farmer who, after scaring off a giant from his farm, becomes a local town hero. His newfound fame as a monster-fighter makes him the go-to guy when the sneaky dragon Chrysophylax Dives attempts to plunder the countryside. Accidentally armed with a magic sword, Giles subdues Chrysophylax on his first reluctant encounter and forces the dragon to promise to surrender its treasure trove. When the king hears about the treasure, he demands Giles deliver it to the state, but the dragon never returns. Thus, the king forces Giles to hunt for Chrysophylax’s lair. After subduing the dragon a second time, Giles returns with the treasure—and the dragon. When the king arrives to demand his treasure again, Giles repels him, and eventually becomes a king himself. All told, it’s a straightforward fairy tale, and in that sense, it is timeless—as the best fairy tales are. But reading Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham as a 21st century American yields a number of elements that seem to speak uncannily to issues that permeate our news: gun rights, private property, terrorism, and taxation.

Gun Rights
As a Catholic, I find myself somewhat ambivalent on the topic of gun rights. It can be a challenge to reconcile Christ’s non-violence and his warning to those who live by the sword with the political right to own death-dealing firearms. Balancing these ideas requires a careful prudence and a degree of real world practicality—both of which Farmer Giles possess … as well as an antique gun.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Farmer Giles could serve as a poster-child for the Second Amendment. His first act of heroism is to ward off a galumphing giant using his blunderbuss. The blunderbuss is an archaic firearm, the kind of wide-mouthed musket that we typically imagine cartoon Pilgrims carrying around Thanksgiving. It’s with fairly good reason that we imagine Pilgrims carrying them: historians date the heyday of the blunderbuss to the 17th century. Tolkien, as a learned medieval scholar, would be well aware that most farmers of the so-called “Dark Ages” did not keep blunderbusses on hand (firearms don’t seem popular in Europe until the 14th century, which seems far too late in the medieval period to relate to Tolkien’s “Little Kingdom”). This means Tolkien goes out his way to arm Giles.

Giles of HamThe gun, for farmer Giles, is the great equalizer. It allows him to defend himself against a much greater, more powerful trespasser. The scene even plays out like a standard guns-rights political advertisement. “It is a fine night,” Tolkien writes. Giles is snug at home in his nightgown; he is alerted to the danger by his panicked (and, incidentally, talking) dog. The giant’s incursion is violent and proves fatal to Giles’ cow, Galathea. Giles only hope to save himself and his property is the blunderbuss (or a complete retreat, abandoning the farm to the giant’s will), and Giles chooses to stand his ground. Tolkien largely plays the scene for comic effect. The giant doesn’t even realize he’s been shot by a farmer; he assumes the motley assortment of household goods that Giles has crammed in the barrel were stinging flies. That, however, is enough to send the giant on his way back home, preserving not only Giles’s land, but that of his neighbors as well. In short, the incident suggests that guns protect private citizens from harm. The fairy tale is not, however, primarily an investigation into the morality of weaponry. Tolkien’s story dodges the more nuanced difficulties of our contemporary gun debates by the simple fact that the blunderbuss proves non-lethal to the giant. Indeed, Farmer Giles has little interest in harming anyone…even dragons…despite owning firearms and magic swords. Rather, weapons in the story serve more effectively as deterrents than destroyers.

In modern America, 2nd Amendment rights activists claim that the right to bear arms is not merely to defend ourselves against burglars (or giants for that matter), but against a tyrannical government. Although Giles will not raise his blunderbuss against his king, this skepticism of government will crop up later in the story. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take another look at Giles’s encounter with the giant.

Private Property
What motivates Giles to take a loaded gun to confront the giant is his value of private property. Giles is not Beowulf or Arthur—or even Aragorn for that matter. He doesn’t seek out monsters to slay because they are monsters. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in honor or glory. He doesn’t even rush out with chivalric daring to protect his wife as a knight might protect his lady. Giles is a farmer: he is tied to the land. He’s a material man in a material world. What he cares about is property. There is a giant, and it’s messing with his stuff. That’s where Giles draws the line.

Indeed, when the dragon eventually appears, Giles is completely uninterested in confronting it, so long as it leaves his property alone. He’s something of an isolationist: let monsters be monsters if they keep their monstrosity out of his business. Here, too, I can’t help but hear echoes of modern American political debates. Eminent domain, privacy laws, socialized healthcare, taxes, even more trifling disputes over digital media piracy, used video games, and intellectual properties, all bring about questions of who actually owns what, what it means to own something, and under what conditions someone else can take away the objects that you keep about you.

Farmer Giles does not entertain debates over whether or not he should protect his property against a monster. But a certain kind of modern philosophy would pose a challenge even to his defense of his own home. Most recently, and in many cases tragically, states have felt the need to impose and then question “stand your ground laws.” Some Americans find themselves on trial for protecting their home or selves against invaders, and the extent to which we can protect ourselves has divided our country. From another point of view, one might consider Farmer Giles’s situation from, say, an environmentalist mindset. We are told that giants and dragons are fairly rare occurrences in the days of Farmer Giles. Might one consider them endangered species? And is it not natural for giants to eat people’s livestock, or even people? Who is Farmer Giles to interfere with the survival of a species on the brink of extinction? (In 2002, for instance, a French shepherd was arrested for killing endangered wolves to protect his sheep). But perhaps I am dehumanizing the giant too much by referring to giants as a “species.” Perhaps it is better to consider giantism as a way of life, a threatened culture belonging to a demonized “Other.” It would be easy to imagine a modern rewriting of Farmer Giles where he is forced to surrender his lands to giants to prevent their complete disappearance from the earth or even just to prevent the disappearance of their way of life.

Giles denies such questions though. His right to protect himself and his way of life trumps that of another’s.  Today, it reads like a surprising avowal of self-preservation, especially in a century where so many Western leaders seem overzealous in their desire to avoid giving offense to members of ideological groups that would destroy our cultures to promote their own. Which leads me to my next point.

No Negotiating with Terrorists
Tolkien’s Catholicism has been well rehearsed elsewhere, and his sentiments for the traditional Church are clear when the Abbot of Ham, a highly respectable, wise character convinces Giles to pull himself together and confront the dragon. (Giles even rewards the Abbot later.) So it may at first come as a shock when Tolkien makes a rather dark and brutal joke at the expense of another abbot (not so shocking, perhaps, to readers of medieval Chaucer, though). This other abbot is a well-intended, but foolish fellow: he attempts to convert the dragon and ends up becoming dragonfood.

As Tolkien argues in his essay “Beowulf, Monsters and the Critics,” medieval worldviews recognize that evil is a thing. There are monsters of darkness who seek the destruction of humanity because humans are creatures of goodness and light. That is the monster’s nature, and there is no changing it. Monsters are not men with free will. One must always have the Christian hope that a human being can be reasoned with, but one should never converse with a devil. In the real world, those who seek to harm innocents and attack civilians are not monsters in Tolkien’s sense. They have, however, been duped by monsters into adopting monstrous philosophies. They choose to behave like monsters. This incident in “Farmer Giles of Ham” offers a brief tale on the balance between mercy and prudence.

One can see something almost romantic in trying to convert a dragon. I can imagine St. Francis attempting as much (or, at least Chesterton’s rendition of St. Francis). But it completely mistakes the nature of a dragon. Although Farmer Giles and Chrysophylax eventually reach a truce, Giles merely “tames” the dragon. He never actually converts him. Tolkien writes that Chrysophylax respected Giles as much as a dragon could, but that doesn’t quite make them friends. He isn’t quite a tame dragon, and that’s saying something very different than Lewis’s Aslan isn’t a tame lion. Giles tolerates the dragon, but only after he has beaten it into submission, and even then Giles seems uneasy about the expense of keeping Chrysophylax fed and housed.

This, obviously, doesn’t produce a simple allegory for how we should relate to, say, modern terrorism. I don’t think “Farmer Giles” suggests that we can manipulate terrorists into a force that serves our ends. Rather, the point is that we are fools if we make ourselves vulnerable to ideologies that explicitly call for our destruction. There are dragonish ideologies, and not acknowledging their dragonishness will lead to immense harm.

As Catholics, we recognize the existence of dragons—perhaps not as a species of fire-breathing reptile—but as those spiritual forces that are the common enemy of all men. We acknowledge them, and we attempt to rally our brothers and sisters—even those of other beliefs—to fight our shared foe. The knights of the Little Kingdom, who once valiantly slayed dragons, now only know them in the form of “mock dragon tail”—a type of baked dessert served on holidays. The knights have denied the reality of dragons, and, as a result, most end up eaten by the thing that they didn’t believe existed. When we forget that evil is real, we find ourselves woefully unprepared to defend ourselves when they manifest in the world.

Anti-big government and Taxation
Of course, Chrysophylax is not an ideology. He’s an actual, living, fire-breathing dragon. There are qualities of a dragon that tend towards the allegorical—their penchant for hoarding wealth, for instance—but Chrysophylax is more than a mere representation of greed. He’s a tangible character who happens to have greed as a character trait (his surname is “Dives,” the “rich man” of Christ’s parable). He is not alone in this trait either. While Giles strays a bit close to materialism with his focus on private property, his attitude towards wealth is healthy compared to Chrysophylax and the king of the Little Kingdom. We are told that after subduing the dragon the second time with his magic sword, Giles wisely does not force the dragon to yield all of its treasure to him. This, we are told, would have made Chrysophylax resume his fight even to the death. Instead, Giles is content to claim much of the dragon’s wealth—but not all. This is private property done right. Anti-capitalists see capitalism as only perpetuating a Darwinistic system of powerful men seizing all of the wealth they can from everyone they can get it from. It’s a debatable point. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, however, middle-class, religious, red state Americans (which seem comparable to Giles’ medieval, British demographic if not the readers of Crisis) are the least greedy people around. Because he recognizes his own value on private property and has both a sense of morality and self-preservation, Giles realizes not to push the dragon further than he would be pushed himself.

Not so the king. The monarch over the Little Kingdom appears to have triggered a medieval depression. The exchequer is overdrawn; the government is in severe debt from overspending. It all sounds too familiar to the modern reader. The solution the king draws is much like the solution of any modern government: he will just take more wealth from the people to pay for its debts. When the king first learns that Giles has forced the dragon to surrender its wealth, he demands that the treasure be given to him as the feudal lord—but this is just an excuse to cover bailing out the government.

If the purpose of the government is to protect the rights and property of its citizens (or in this case subjects), then the government of the Little Kingdom is doing a terrible job. The government did not protect Giles when the giant came. Nor did the government protect Giles when the dragon came. In fact, the government threw Giles into harm’s way when it was to no one’s benefit (except the government’s). Giles seems to have realized that he is more powerful than the king—at the very least, he obviously possesses more wealth and defensive capability, so Giles refuses to dump more money into the king’s failing economic plans.

When the king attempts to violently collect the dragon’s treasure, Giles stands his ground again. However, Giles does not need his firearm against this giant; now, he has a firedrake. One can only imagine how 2nd Amendment opponents would feel about Americans possessing living flamethrowers. Giles, a somewhat reclusive, practical, rough-around-the-edges farmer, launches a one-man (and one-dragon) revolution against a tax-hungry monarch. Though the product of a 20th century British subject, the fairy tale reads like American wish-fulfillment—with the exception, perhaps, that Giles ultimately takes the throne to rule as a benevolent and mostly laissez faire monarch. Although Giles does not establish a republic, he does embody the American fantasy of individual autonomy. Had Tolkien lived in, say, 21st century Alabama, the gun-toting, priest-friendly, private-property-lovin’ Farmer Giles could easily be read as a stand-in for a right-wing, Tea Party-style libertarian.

This is not to reduce Giles to political allegory, nor do I wish to claim Tolkien for one political ideology over another. After all, Tolkien goes to great lengths to give Giles a fair amount of flaws: his self-interest makes him a reluctant hero, delaying his confrontation with the dragon and allowing its destruction to spread. Left to his own secular devices, Giles would not move until it was too late for his neighbors and ultimately himself. The wise abbot of Ham, the religious leader, urges Giles to be more than just a farmer and see more than just his material possessions. The Abbot tempers Giles’s rustic materialism and political practicality with a spiritual wisdom and an ability to see a higher good.

Editor’s note: The image in the text is the cover of the first American edition of Farmer Giles of Ham, published in 1950.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...