The basic genre of Farmer Giles of Ham is the mock epic or mock heroic. J. R. R. Tolkien uses his scholarly knowledge of medieval heroic legends to parody them, to compare small with great as if both were equal, and to render farcical the typical episodic motif of such stories. There are even hints of the great Old English epic poem Beowulf (c. 1000), as Giles battles both giant and monster. The mock genre is also heightened by Tolkien’s apparently scholarly introduction to the story, with its claim that the story has been translated from Latin.

The humor of the book arises directly from this approach. Everything is miniaturized, in the way that Jonathan Swift does in Gulliver’s Travels (1726-1727), to create irony. The kingdom is very small, no bigger than a county. The king’s power is just as small in the beginning, with an idle lot of courtiers and officials, and even smaller when challenged by anything—be it giant, dragon, or Farmer Giles himself. The damage done by the giant and the dragon amounts to no more than a few squashed cows and knocked-down houses, with only one priest eaten. As with Swift, the insignificance of the aristocracy exposes their petty weaknesses and vainglory, rendering them laughable rather than perilously incompetent. No danger is ever really posed.

This vainglory is humorously reproduced in Giles’s own behavior after his presentation with Tailbiter. While there is peace, he proudly displays the sword and rehearses his so-called act of bravery, an act that has as much to do...

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