Themes and Characters
Farmer Giles of Ham is a fairy tale, with appropriate fairy tale themes and characters. Its characters are therefore stereotypes. The village of Ham is populated by the wise and learned parson, the gloomy blacksmith, the menacing miller, and a troop of fickle village folk. Far off is the pompous king, who speaks in first person plural (we, us, and our) and claims for himself everything that Giles wins from the dragon. Giles is the most human of the characters, a reluctant hero, a good and decent person blessed with a modicum of common sense, and he is a fierce protector of his possessions. He is thrust to the forefront as an unwilling hero, but because he is fundamentally good he is also blessed with luck and receives the help of those who are strong where he is weak. For example, the parson, the most educated man in the village, reads the inscriptions carved into the magic sword given Giles and identifies it as Caudimordax (commonly known as Tailbiter), the sword that all dragons fear. When Giles learns this news, his courage is redoubled as he marches off to do battle with the dragon.
The most memorable characters in the story, however, are the animals. Garm, Farmer Giles's dog, is a delightful characterization of man's best friend. He is a pastiche of conflicting emotions. In general, he is loyal to Giles, but on occasion he can be cowardly, only to turn vain and boastful at the very next moment. His memory is quite short; he is a creature of the moment. Unlike real dogs, he talks, and Giles and his wife talk back to him. They are not surprised that Garm can talk, nor should this fairy tale element surprise the reader. Chrysophylax the dragon, Giles's enemy and the object of his quest, also talks, but he is sly and crafty. A pragmatist, he is courageous when he has the advantage, but if he has to work too hard for a conquest he may surrender. When he recognizes Tailbiter, the dragon-slaying sword, he acquiesces to Giles rather than fight him. Giles avoids angering the dragon by taking only about half of his treasure, and thereafter he becomes Giles's ally against the pompous king, who arrives to claim for himself all of the farmer's treasure.
. . . Giles owed his rise in a large measure to luck, though he showed some wits in the use of it.
Even in this minor work, one can find the major themes that weave their way through Tolkien's longer works. The classical view of history predominates in Tolkien's work, specifically the belief that the pure and mighty have diminished since the beginning of time. Examples of this abound in Farmer Giles of Ham. In former days, the king's knights counted among their duties the pursuit and killing of dragons, bringing back dragon tails for the Christmas celebration. Now, however, the knights are reluctant to fight, having become comfortable in their favored station. When, at the king's orders, they set out to find the dragon, they become more interested in singing and discussing points of etiquette and precedence than in the serious task at hand; and when Chrysophylax startles them on the road, they are either killed immediately or flee to the safety of shelter. The magic sword Caudimordax has rested as an ornament on the king's wall, its lineage unknown to anyone because no one has taken the pains to decipher its inscriptions. Even the common folk seem to be "little" in many respects. They are often petty and faithless and show their lack of common sense in allowing the dragon to escape with his life on the condition that he will come back with his treasure and lay it at their feet. No one with any sense would believe an oath that a dragon takes.
In "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien had described the Perilous Realm of...
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