Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Artist: Pauline Diana Baynes
Type: Fiction, short stories
Published: 1967 (original “Smith”), 1949 (original “Farmer Giles”)
I read it: September 2016
I’d long known there were Tolkien works peripheral to his popular series, and whenever I’d glanced this book I thought it was a single title: Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham. Turns out it’s two, but their basic similarities as short fantastic fables make them bound companions. (Though they were originally published nearly 20 years apart.)
“Smith of Wootton Major” is the shorter of the pair, a fairy tale in the purest sense as it involves the protagonist traveling to the land of Faery, where few mortals tread. You see, as a boy Smith Smithson swallowed a rare trinket at a village feast and was blessed ever since. He became a successful and popular villager, a delightful singer as well as talented at his trade. He even kept a family and was a thoughtful sort of Renaissance man:
He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.
The tale is a dreamy one about inheritance, destiny, skill, and identity. Of course, it’s only too tempting to identify the author’s recurring ideas from other stories (this one was published decades after LOTR)—I perked up at one character saying, “Tell them that I’ve gone on another holiday, but this time I shan’t be coming back again.” And Smith gets possessive about the fairies’ totem: “Isn’t it mine? It came to me.” To this last, a mentor replies, “Those that are free gifts are given for remembrance. But others are not so given. They cannot belong to a man for ever, nor be treasured as heirlooms. They are lent.”
“Farmer Giles of Ham” is noticeably more lighthearted and comical. Its components are a bit more grounded, and its trajectory straightforward. Instead of a mystical realm parallel to our own, this story features giants, dragons, talking animals, and a magic sword, all out in the open and surprising to no one.
Here, Tolkien is having a lot of fun with his historical and linguistic obsessions. He gives the tale a laborious subtitle, first in Latin but then “in the vulgar tongue.” (It reads “The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall, and King of the Little Kingdom.”) In a foreword, the reason he gives for presenting the story (framed as an interpretation of a found account) is for “the glimpse that it affords of life in a dark period of the history of Britain, not to mention the light that it throws on the origin of difficult place-names.” And oh yes, the plot is kind of fun as well: “Some may find the characters and adventures of its hero attractive in themselves.”
The story concerns itself with lineages and grand names, from its hero Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola (in the vulgar tongue, Farmer Giles of Ham), the dragon Chrysophylax Dives, and the King, with a name and title that take up a small paragraph. The hero doesn’t learn lessons tragically, but simply ascends from bumbling origins to become an unlikely leader. (Hence the “Rise and Wonderful Adventures” of the subtitle instead of “Rise and Fall.”) The King is petty and ineffective, as are his knights. It’s a story that firmly champions the common folk.
Small people unexpectedly turning the tide… sounds familiar. Though not published until over a decade later, “Farmer Giles” was written the same year that The Hobbit was released. Other overlaps include a reference to dwarfs making the best chain mail and the treacherous, greedy hearts of treasure-hoarding dragons. In so much as The Hobbit is a primer for LOTR, this story is a fine primer for The Hobbit itself. As an added delight, simple yet detailed illustrations complement the pages (by a different artist than the one who contributed the cover art). So now I know: it’s two stories, destined to be forever paired in one perfect little paperback.