MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday July 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Hello. I am Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Most readers have probably heard of JRR Tolkien and his high fantasy stories like The Hobbit and the the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But you may not know the humorous side of Tolkien. Now here’s Emily Whitten with our classic book of the month for July.
EMILY WHITTEN, JOURNALIST: In this audio version of our classic book of the month, narrator Derek Jacobi starts us off with the name of our hero.
JACOBI: Aegidius of Hammo was a man who lived in the center of the island of Britain. His full name was Ngidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo; for people were richly endowed with names at that time…
Fortunately, Tolkien gives us the common name of our hero–Farmer Gilles de Ham. This is also the name of the story, first published in 1949. Wesley Shantz of Signum Academy presents the story this way in his 2020 online course:
SCHANTZ: Farmer Giles is kind of a fun story. Kind of a stupid satire almost. You know, a playful version of the legends of the knight versus the dragon. In his version, the knight is Farmer Giles, a kind of average country man, trying to take care of his own house…
Giles first encounters a giant and accidentally defeats it. But when a dragon appears, Farmer Giles faces a tougher foe….
SCHANTZ: …Farmer Giles must once again stand up to the dragon with a wondrous sword. Not a gun this time, but a magic sword. It’s a nice little story.
fans of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings enjoy the elements of Middle-earth – dragons, swords and heroic quests. But Tolkien is not aiming for high fantasy with this tale. He just wants to make you laugh.
Take our hero, Farmer Giles. He’s your stereotypical jester, acting heroically only when shamed by others. Here’s another excerpt from Jacobi’s audiobook, this time featuring Farmer Giles’ confrontation with the giant. And to set that up, if you’ve never heard of a blunderbuss, it’s an ancient firearm like a shotgun.
JACOBI: The moon dazzled the giant, and he didn’t see the farmer. But Farmer Giles saw it and was scared to death. He pulled the trigger without thinking, and the blunderbuss went off with a “Bang!” amazing. Luckily, it was more or less pointed and the big ugly face of the giant…
A significant difference in this comedy and certain types of satire – Tolkien does not want to undermine the idea of noble sacrifice or heroism. In fact, his good-natured ribs flows out of his love for heroic tales – King Arthur, Beowulf, etc. For him, dragon myths are not pure fantasy or even satire; they ultimately point to something true about Scripture and our world.
I recently spoke with Champ Thornton, co-author of The Serpent Slayer and the Scroll of Riddles. In this children’s book, Thornton helps families appreciate dragon imagery in scripture.
THORNTON: Paul picks it up in his epistle, I believe, to the Romans, and he says that God will soon crush Satan under your feet. So he picks up on this theme, this subtle theme that goes way back into Genesis. And so this whole idea of serpents and dragons and the warfare between them and the people of God, is found throughout the Word of God.
Thornton recognizes some of these dragon warfare themes in Tolkien’s work.
THORNTON: I’m thinking of Smaug in The Hobbit, for example. He is sneaky, yes. It is powerful and destructive, yes. But he’s also vulnerable, and his apparent invincibility is just that; eventually he is defeated. So I feel like there are similarities in terms of the nature of the dragon, of the serpent coming to the surface, whether we’re reading Tolkien, or Bunyan, or you know, really anything Christian about dragons. I feel like they have a lot of the same themes.
Our classic book of the month of July, Farmer Gilles de Ham, will especially delight readers familiar with more serious dragon stories – they’ll get the joke, so to speak. Families or groups of students at home might even enjoy recording it together, like this version recorded under the direction of Paul Butler.
CLIP: “Give me my sword!” “Give us your crown. “Lightning from heaven, seize him and bind him! Why do you stay behind? Just then, the dragon rose from under the breach. He had remained there hidden on the opposite bank, at the bottom of the river. Now he let out a terrible vapor, because he had drunk several liters of water…
Whatever you do, don’t read too much into this tale. It’s summer, after all.
I am Emily Whitten.
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