We’ve been reading fairy tales here the last week or two. First we read a number of Grimm Fairy tales and then some modern rewrites of fairy tales by Gail Carson Levine and we watched the movie Tangled.
Then totally by accident I found Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien in the library. It fit beautifully into our fairy-tale theme, holding much in common with the Grimm tale of the Valiant Little Tailor. Both are tales of a not-particularly brave or talented person finding themselves as local heroes who must go on to live up to their reputation. The story is a fun one though the language was a bit of a challenge. We had to look up a few words, particularly “mort” meaning “a large amount” and we found it interesting that the dragon was referred to as a worm. We also looked up the calender of saints, since it is mentioned a number of times.
My four year old’s favorite part was when the dragon gave the farmer part of his wealth and agreed to carry it for the farmer. I found that fascinating too, but not for the same reasons as him. I love this paragraph:
Then the farmer took out a toothpick with his left hand, and he thought very hard for a minute. Then ‘Done with you!’ he said, showing a laudable discretion. A knight would have stood out for the whole hoard and got a curse laid upon it. And as likely as not, if Giles had driven the worm to despair, he would have turned and fought in the end, Tailbiter or no Tailbiter. In which case Giles, if not slain himself, would have been obliged to slaughter his transport and leave the best part of his gains in the mountains.
Here is someone who knows when to take his winnings and quit the game-show, so to speak. It is a great opportunity to discuss decision making with my children and also to talk about how people do silly things when they are desperate and it is best not to put others in a desperate position. If you want someone to give in, find a face-saving way to do so. The phrase “laudable discretion” reminds me also of the line from Pride and Prejudice, “where does discretion end and avarice begin?” In Pride and Prejudice discretion means making choices that allow one to have a financially stable marriage; it implies not settling for too little, whereas in the story of Farmer Giles it refers to not demanding too much. Yet is not some minimum amount of wealth still required by Farmer Giles? Could he have simply returned home without any treasure? Or does his new-found social status demand him bring at least some back in the same way that discretion in Pride and Prejudice requires not marrying too low? Perhaps the king would have also benefited from the dragon’s wealth if he had shown some of the laudable discretion that Farmer Giles does.
Social status definitely plays a big part in Farmer Giles story. The dragon is particularly humiliated that one such as him of noble lineage is led by a commoner. Yet the trappings of nobility are for the most part mocked. Had Farmer Giles followed any of the knights rules about hunting dragons he would have been unsuccessful. Book-latin and elegant speech is in some ways mocked. Even the favors from the king bring to Farmer Giles strange obligations; the villagers know they can get a drink from Farmer Giles by asking to see his letter from the king. Like in the Valiant Little Tailor the commoner eventually becomes king and a more sensible one than the noble one before him.
The setting of the story has some similarities to Harry Potter’s world, and not just because its set in England. In the story dragons and giants are just drifting out of general knowledge into the wild mountains. Farmer Giles and all the other characters would be Muggles of course, but one can imagine that somewhere far away a group of wizards are practicing in secret, and in a few generations they will be the only ones to still know of the dragons and giants.
After reading the story we made our own paper dragon, pictured above. I started it by curling strips of card-paper and once my seven-year-old got interested I handed the project over to him. The body is several spirals taped and stapled together so that they hold each other open. At the bottom I taped a piece of metal to give it weight and keep it stable. While he worked on that his younger brother made a little treasure box for the dragon’s treasure.