Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Farmer Giles of Ham is one of a small number of humorous stories told by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for his young family of four children; Smith of Wootton Major (1967) is another. They differ from the more famous The Hobbit (1937) by being unconnected with the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Nevertheless, strong similarities exist between Farmer Giles and The Hobbit: The Shire is based on the same stretch of English countryside as the Little Kingdom. In addition, both heroes are ordinary, small people who are thrust into greatness by accident. In being so thrust, however, they find resources within themselves to accomplish what is a heroic task. Dragons and giants also feature widely.

Farmer Giles of Ham reflects Tolkien’s own scholarly interests. He had been working on a new edition of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the Arthurian tradition; perhaps the story represented some light relief for Tolkien as he ground his way through the necessary scholarship for the poem.

The mock heroic tone had appeared in some of the earlier Victorian fairy stories, especially those by Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, and in fantasies, as in the Alice books by another Oxford don, Charles Dodgson (who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll). Tolkien’s parody form was in some ways renewing this older tradition within children’s literature. In more recent years, many such parody fairy stories or fantasies have appeared, often with feminist or politically subversive messages, such as C. McNaughton’s King None the Wiser (1981) and I. Williams’ The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales (1978).