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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reading Group meeting 28/2/09

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

28.2.09
Present today: Pat, Anne, Vicki, Laura, Tim, Ian, Julie, Mike, Angela, Chris, and me (Lynn). As always Carol has contributed her comments by email.

Farmer Giles of Ham
Our first venture into Tolkien’s shorter fiction made for a pretty lively meeting that at times dissolved into hilarity, and it wasn’t even the feast of St Hilarius! Everyone had been busy looking things up, and the general opinion was that this short story is a lot more scholarly than its matter of dragons, talking dogs, and lazy knights might initially suggest.
To get us all in the mood for such a tale of derring-do, or at least reluctant heroism, Laura had kindly brought in some biscuits she had found in the shapes of both knights and dragons. Sadly, because of the shape of the finished biscuits we still don’t know what Dragon’s Tails themselves taste like, but both knights and dragons were delicious!
Pat had been doing some tangential reading and had discovered that according to Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion to English Literature, there are only 7 basic plots in literature. When Pat read them out to us we could see what she meant when she said that they were all in LotR. The 7 are Overcoming the Monster; Quests; Rags to Riches; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth. Mike added that he had heard that there were only 4 themes in literature, however, the way he explained these caused so much laughter that I didn’t get them down in my notes!
We all noted that the Forward includes the old medieval convention of the ‘discovered and translated manuscript’. It’s constantly used by medieval writers to give their (usually original) work a sense of authority. Umberto Eco uses it very consciously at the start of The Name of the Rose, and it was remarked in the group that Tolkien employs it all the time especially citing the Red Book.
Tim got us into the story itself by questioning the origin of the traditional name Farmer Giles. The earliest use seems to be a poem of c. 1800 called ‘The Farmer’s Boy’. This prompted a brief mention of the name being used as rhyming slang before Julie noted that St. Giles’s name is usually derived from Aegideus which itself is derived from Julius, so the farmer’s name is a kind of tautology! It wasn’t the only example of tautological naming that we came across, but Julie also asked, with reference to the Foreward, who was the Brutus mentioned there. I was able to contribute some background on this.
Brutus is named in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britannicum) written in the 12th century as propaganda to show how the Norman Conquest fitted legitimately into British history. According to Geoffrey, Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas of Troy who travelled up through France from Rome and crossed the Channel to land at Totnes in Devon. There he and his followers did battle with the giants that were living in the land, the last of whom was called Gogmagog. Having vanquished the giants Brutus decided to take and name the land after himself, hence Britain. Of course, as medieval readers themselves realised, this begs the question of where the giants came from. The answer can be found in the early fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman story of Albina, who is said to have been the founding ‘mother’ of the Island of Albion, whose story is used by Chaucer as a source for his own Man of Law’s Tale of Constance. The giants are said to be the offspring of Albina and her sisters, and the Devil, after they arrived on the Island to which Albina gave HER name.
After this long digression into founding myths, including the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath, Ian rescued the discussion with his remark that the Latin bits in FgoH are a great way to get children interested in Latin. He had also found out who the 4 Wise Clerks of Oxonford were – they were all editors of the OED! This really substantiated our feelings that, as Mike said, the story is to a great extent intended for Tolkien’s academic peers. Chris thought it was even more closely directed at other philologists. He went on to say that he thought Farmer Giles himself was very much like Farmer Maggot – profoundly territorial, and a lot wiser and well-informed than he at first appeared. Chris also thought that the Parson resembled Gandalf in his role and attitudes, and likened the King to the Master in The Hobbit. Tolkien seems to like exploring the same types of character.
Pat had been taken by the episode of the giant in the story and thought that picking up a couple of sheep made look like shopping at Tesco. Laura thought the giant significantly rude and uncultured, while Tim noted that he was also humanised in his anxiety about the state of his copper pot.
Ian and Tim opened up the topic of contemporary social satire, and there does seem to be a great deal, sometimes disguised in ‘medieval’ camouflage, but not always. Chris remarked on the grim humour of the blunderbuss that had been superseded. It had also been mentioned that Tolkien used exactly the OED definition of Blunderbuss in his text. Laura commented on the bucolic association of the weapon.
We went on to consider the many references to feast days in the Christian calendar, which I had taken as the suitably Christian framework for the ‘medieval’ society, but Mike perceptively objected that they are not really Christian as such, but external signs by which the year was organised in society. The distinction seems highly significant, and perhaps another instance of social satire. The equivocal significance of the Feast Days of the Christian (Catholic) calendar, and the specific timing of much of the action around Christmas reminded me of the medieval tradition of the Feast of Fools, the Lord of Misrule, and all the hierarchical inversion associated with the 12 days of Christmas. Vicki mentioned the King of the Bean, and there does indeed seem to be a good deal of ‘putting down the mighty’ in the story – which was taken as the scriptural justification for the Feast of Fools and its off-shoots.
Pat got us back to the real theme of the story when she said that she liked the politeness of the dragon. Some of us were wary of this appearance of civility, but Pat maintained her position. Tim noted that a good deal of business-style haggling also takes place over the gold. Pat went on to remark on the similarity between the King and Chrysophylax. – as the king realises Giles is snubbing him his anger is described in increasingly dragon-like terms ‘fiery anger’, ‘he had a mind to burn the place down’. Anne and I were reminded of the Volsunga saga and Wagner’s Ring Cycle in which Fafnir turns into a dragon as a result of his lust for gold. There is a similar transformation in the fourteenth-century Middle English verse romance Bevis of Hampton.
Mike asked about the derivation of the word ‘mort’ and whether it meant ‘a small amount’. This had originally been my expectation, but in fact it means ‘a huge amount’ of something. Its derivation is unknown according to my Funk and Wagnells dictionary. It isn’t in the Clark Hall Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, so its back to the full OED at some point.
Mike then went on to remark that the relationship between Giles and Garm is similar to that between Sam and Gollum. We all agreed with Carol, that it seems unnecessarily unpleasant that Garm gets kicked, and the threats to beatings and drownings are not to modern tastes, but as Ian pointed out, these are only ways of expressing irritation. Ian also answered Pat’s question about Garm’s name – it comes, like so many others in Tolkien’s work, from Icelandic, in this case from the Edda.
Carol also drew attention to Tolkien’s occasional liking for things gruesome and grotesque, and we commented briefly on the squashing of poor Galatea.
Angela, Pat and Laura all remarked on the making of Giles’s mail shirt and the use of the normal spelling of dwarfs, rather than dwarves. It would be interesting to check back to Anglo-Saxon and see if these variant forms show some influence of Grimm and Verner’s Laws. It would fit well with the philological jokes in the story.
We noted another of the tautological namings when we looked at the King’s proclamation, and we had fun looking at his use of 3 versions of the word ‘king’. We concluded that in a putative time when, as in medieval England, several languages could be used for official and legal documents, it would always be wise to cover all contingencies and assert one’s authority in all the relevant languages. At this point I was going to give details, but the blog won’t accept the original words, however they are all words meaning king, but in the most important literate languages. Carol wondered if this was another joke about the pompousness of the Court.
Angela went on to note that many stock phrases were again being subjected to Tolkien’s etymological and philological playfulness, and Carol noted the anachronism of icing suger. We also enjoyed the schadenfreude of the blacksmith, and its appropriate result when he became an undertaker. Carol asked about millers, and Chaucer describes his own Miller as having the traditional ‘golden thumb’, a reference to the conventional opinion that millers were blatant thieves, pinching grain and meal from their customers.
Julie thought Giles’s exploits had a touch of Don Quixote about them, and Laura remarked on the scariness of the idea of giants blundering about in the night. She also added that having looked up Venedotia she discovered a fascinating link to a ‘real’ myth. The name is the Latin version of Gwynedd in Wales. The headland known as The Great Orme is part of the coastline and the myth says that when the Vikings came upon that area of the coast the headland looked to them like a dragon, so they gave it the Norse name for ‘serpent’. Giles heads into the West to find his dragon, but not as far as the sea. In the context of dragons and Geoffrey of Monmouth (again!) I mentioned the story found in Historia Regum Britannicum of the childhood exploits of Merlin who as a boy solved the problem of King Vortigern’s collapsing castle, which was due to a dragon sleeping under the hill on which it was built. This story is the basis for the episode in Monty Python’s Holy Grail in which a castle is built, falls down, is built again, falls down, is built again, catches fire and falls down!
Carol commented on the dual naming of swords in the story as Caudimordax is also Tailbiter, and she said it reminded her of the way Tolkien gives swords ‘high’ names at the same time as their ‘common’ names, like ‘beater’, and ‘biter’ and ‘sting’. On the topic of naming, I mentioned that Tolkien’s violent objection to the spelling of Thames is apparently justified. There is no legitimate reason for the /h/ - it was simply added in during the 16thC on the grounds that because Thomas (a Greek spelling) has an /h/, the revised spelling would add classical kudos to the name of England’s most important river. Tim pointed out the word play involved in Tolkien’s aetiological tale of how Tame (the town) got its name.
Farmer Giles of Ham gave us lots of fun, but proved to be a good deal more complex in its use of sources, allusions, word play, and historical and cultural influences. We thought it would be entertaining for younger readers, but the consensus was that this seems to have been a virtuoso piece written for the amusement of, or as a challenge to, Tolkien’s colleagues. There is a good deal of mileage in this story for further research and study, but we finished our discussion of it and decided to move on to Smith of Wootton Major. Ian proposed that after Leaf by Niggle we should move out into discussing themes rather than single texts, at least for a while. Pat suggested the theme of Faerie. No decision has yet been taken on this, but it is open for consideration in good time.
See you in the fairy world of Smith of Wootton Major, and don’t forget your cake forks!

12:59 PM  

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