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Topic: The History of Britain...Farmer Giles of Ham

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Lord Elrond of Rivendell - Rank 9
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Date: Mar 18, 2010
The History of Britain...Farmer Giles of Ham

All,
Certainly we have learned that Tolkien's works contain dimensions that exceed the typical fantasy or fairy story.
In The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion we have found a complicated myth that as we have explored Tolkien's notes and different versions lead us to Celtic, Germanic, and Norse folklore.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg so to speak.
Tolkien also explored the roots and development of the language we call English.
This led him to many resources that we might call historic.
One of those historic-folklore-mythological tracks was the Arthurian one.
I leave it to others to list his writings that support his explorations.

My topic or interest in this topic has been peaked by the recent theories or revisioning of English history brought about by recent archeological discoveries which refute the claims of Britain having a "dark age" brought about by the Roman withdrawal. This has also led to a denial of the Anglo-Saxon invasion as the prime element of the islands genological typography.
This was shown to me by a BBC TV series titled "Britain A.D."
One supposition expressed was that rather than there being a grand barbarian  invasion local indigenous "petty kings" arose and created the mythos we now accept as rational for their ascendancy.
This theory was explained and supported by a wonderful collection of scientific and empirical research...you can watch this for free on the net.
"Britain A.D."

The reason I have brought this to the Forum is because of a story written by Tolkien called "Farmer Giles of Ham."  It seems Tolkien jumped ahead in anticipation of this revolutionary theory by close to fifty years.

What do you folks think?



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Samwise Gamgee - rank 9
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You believe Tolkien wrote the setting of Farmer Giles of Ham more in tune with a Britain only coming to light with recent archeological evidence?

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Lord Elrond of Rivendell - Rank 9
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mouth of sauron,
Part of Tolkien's grand plans was to find and create a mythological base that he saw in other cultures and he thought absent or distorted in England.
That is not to say he had a gift of foresight or prophesy. But "Farmer Giles" ascendance  through a more subtle and less violent  way seems to be closer to actual archeological evidence than the imposed myth of a "dark age" following Roman withdrawal and Anglo-Saxon invasion with population replacement.
Recent archeological evidence shows a blossoming and expansion of culture and trade after the Roman legions left the isle.  And it also shows that there was continued prosperity and cultural assimilation without massive invasion.  In fact the evidence points to peaceful immigration as Northern Europeans arrived gradually and were assimilated.
A huge support for that theory is in the study of the development of the English language, a subject that Tolkien was an expert in.  The softening of a Germanic base with Latin, Norse, and Celtic accents, vocabulary, and structure wasn't an abrupt change but rather a gradual lingual transformation.

My thought is that Tolkien's work brought him into closer contacts with these ideas and he synthesized the "petty kings" who rose after Roman withdrawal and their self created (and completely false) heroic myth where really a "Farmer Giles" which were agrarian not militaristic, more familiar with a pitchfork than a sword.

And I am saying (or more correct wondering) is that Tolkien's exposure to the mythological, lingual, and historical ambiguities led his creation of "Farmer Giles of Ham" to be more accurate than the "hero fairy tales" and "Roman propaganda" which distorted the true story of Britain.
In other words Tolkien's fiction was more real that what Britain called its history.

Is that a little clearer?



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Anarion, Son of Elendil - rank 8
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Interesting ideas Bear. I'll have a look at that programme and get back to you.

This type of thing seems to be Galin's area of expertise, perhaps he could give us an insight into this?

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Lord Elrond of Rivendell - Rank 9
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Date: Mar 29, 2010
All,
I read "Farmer Giles of Ham" when it was combined (by Ballantine I think)with "Smith of Wooton Major."
I thought, (at the time still a novice Tolkien fan), that it was an unusual pairing.  But as the years have gone by and I have read other others I can see how Tolkien was influenced by medieval sources including those of the Church as well as cultural myth...many cultures...and many myths...
Only now are some of these myths finding scientific support...

So how come Tolkien was so right on without the evidence?


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Anarion, Son of Elendil - rank 8
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Not easy to say Bear. I don't have any answers to that one!

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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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I think of Giles as a traditional enough fairy tale hero, similar enough to Bilbo as a reluctant hero.


Regarding Britain A.D.

The notion that these dark ages may not have been so dark doesn't seem to be that new among scholars, who I think would also agree that the times in question are much more complex than what the limited resources can currently show. For example, Peter Hunter Blair, published in Tolkien's day, notes that Gildas' account, though difficult: '... seems, however, to imply that the native British were in some way able by their own efforts to overcome the difficulties in which they had been placed by the Roman withdrawal and to prevent any repetition of the disater of 367. This achievement, it is said, introduced a period of prosperity to which Gildas and his contemporaries looked back to a golden age.' P.H. Blair, Anglo-Saxon England

Even Tolkien has commented on the matter of oversimplification, with respect to the language and the period concerned: 'There is, of course, no doubt that the view of the process which established the English language in Britain as a simple case of 'Tuetons' driving out and dispossessing 'Celts' is altogether too simple. There was fusion and confusion. But from names alone without other evidence deductions concerning 'race' or indeed language are insecure.'

'So it was again when new invaders came to Britain. In later times it cannot be assumed that a man who bore a 'Danish' name was (in whole or part ) of Scandinavian 'blood' or language, or even of Danish sympathies.'
JRRT Tolkien, English And Welsh, The Monsters and the Critics


But that doesn't mean Tolkien agrees with certain of Pryor's suggestions in Britain AD smile


Of course TV shows arguably can't be expected to digress into 'too much boring detail', but for myself, I don't find some of his theories very compelling, at least as presented here.


The West Heslerton segment, for instance, has a genetic argument behind it, but that would be a small slice relative to England as a whole, and in any case (and to his credit at least) Pryor had already interviewed a geneticist who argued for somewhere between a 50% to 100% Germanic replacement! mentioning the Germanic Frisians. Here Pryor had said that other studies give different or inconclusive results, and he doesn't like relying on just the genetic information in any event.

Also (same segment on Heslerton) Pryor appears to be treating 'invasion' as use of force, and he looks for war cemeteries and evidence of burning. But what were the particular circumstances when the Germanic peoples arrived here? and even if there was a peaceful continuity here, again we are dealing with a specific settlement of course. 

[Incidentally, according to the West Heslerton site itself, there is proof of burning at some point: 'The settlement was finally deserted, presumably in favour of the present village site, c 500m to the west, by about AD 850, and extensive deposits of burnt daub and ashy material show that there was a great deal of burning associated with the desertion of the site. It would be easy to see this in the context of a Viking attack, but there is no direct evidence, and the burnt material may simply derive from the dismantling of the settlement. The results of this huge excavation, following on from that of the associated cemetery, to be published at the end of 1996, provide an opportunity to re-evaluate early Anglo-Saxon settlement, to examine the case for continuity, and to assist in the identification of similar sites worthy of preservation.']

With respect to the brief segment on language, Pryor states that the native Britons, after a prolonged period of contact, chose to adopt a new way of speaking, and then he asks why. Why indeed, but he doesn't give his answer right away. He then says, just as the language changed, so too did the Briton's clothing and style of weapons, and next we hear from an expert who adds that we also start to get different burial rites, stating the theory that Britons are perhaps adopting continental styles. 

When we ultimately get to the answer to the big question, Pryor concludes: 'The people of Britain learnt a new language, adopted new fashions, and shifted their political allegiances because they knew, from experience, that this was the best way to keep up with the rapidly changing times.'

Well, that's 'possible' in general. Pryor adds later that there can be no doubt that a 'trickle' of warriors and families on the move were coming in to Britain from Northern Europe, but that the traditional picture of invasion and population replacement is unsustainable. But are Pryor's suggestions or assertions more sustainable than the widely held view? and by that I mean the widely held views of scholars that is, not any oversimplified views. 

Pryor has not, in any case, presented all the evidence relating to the Adventus Saxonum. Again, it's a show, I get that, so arguably he can't do this even if he wanted to; but on the other hand I see no real compelling support for statements like: 'In order to gloss over the messy origins of English Christianity, Bede invented a new race of people, the Anglo-Saxons.' Moreover, his expert asserts that the Christian missionaries 'blanked out' the fact that what they really found was a flourishing Christianity, and 'pretended that it never existed and didn't exist.'


The missionaries found a flourishing church according to this expert, and what was so very problematic with the 'messy origins' of the English Church that caused Bede to invent a Chosen People? Was it mostly Britons who (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) traced their royalty back to heathen figures like Woden and Saxnot? And what were Augustine and his missionaries doing if not converting heathens (what did they tell Rome they were doing)? Or what about the English place-names that point to sites of heathen worship, for instance?

Of course Bede was not a historian in the full modern sense, and the written sources can be attacked in ways, but to what extent can we turn what we do have into agenda-based fabrication? Sir Stenton had, back in Tolkien's day for instance, published Anglo-Saxon England, in which he says of certain written sources:

'Gildas was writing polemic, not history; Procopius had little interest in the condition of the lost province of Britain; the Fulda tradition was not written down until three centuries after the event which it records; and the traditions preserved in the Chronicle are only memoranda derived from verse in praise of ancient kings. But it may at least be claimed that when four independant authorities agree in suggesting a single coherent story, it is unlikely to be very far from the truth.'

Bede appears in Stenton's book of course, but not among these examples. 




-- Edited by Galin on Friday 2nd of April 2010 11:57:49 AM

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Lord Elrond of Rivendell - Rank 9
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Galin,
Very interesting.  There seems to be almost a "tidal pull" from different cultures and research methods...an idea is brought to shore by the "current wave" of academic thought then recedes leaving us to sort through the debris until another wave brings us more of the same, or something completely different. Refuge from another shore?
While Britain A.D. claims to bring new and original thoughts; Galin you are saying that those threads are not so new and that it has already been part of body of both modern and historical archeological data and research.  Pryor and Blair can claim anything they want as long as they are not challenged. I think one can get lost in the double speak.
But it does answer my question about Tolkien having any unusual or paranormal insight being reflected through Farmer Giles of Ham.

Thank you for the insight and analysis my friend.

Now the question seems to be why did he write it?
"
I think of Giles as a traditional enough fairy tale hero, similar enough to Bilbo as a reluctant hero." (Tolkien Forums > Other Tolkien books >  The History of Britain...Farmer Giles of Ham > Galin > April 1st, 2010)
I'm sorry but here I can't agree with you.  Farmer Giles is not a traditional fairy tale...it is anything but.  Reluctant hero?  Anti-hero perhaps he may be. Giles has guile.
What does Tolkien say about writing this story?
Again Galin;
Thank you my friend!
Bear




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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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Well, my 'traditional enough' with respect to Giles as the hero concerns the basic circumstances: he appears to be an ordinary enough person -- meets fantastic creatures (giant, dragon) -- and subsequently rises from a humble position. Though I guess there are fairy tales in which the hero is the prince or the brave knight, for example.

Katheryn W Crabbe (book: JRR Tolkien) notes that Giles has the 'virtues of the powerless': prudence, discretion, and reverence for the past (and as the narrator suggests, luck and wits).  


More on Britain A.D.

While I do have an interest in this period of English history, I'm certainly no expert myself. I should say rather: what is 'new to me' from the show I don't find all that compelling. And I think Pryor could have altered his phrasing in parts.

For example, in the language segment, Pryor says that linguists have discovered a 'hidden code' in our language structure which shows a strong influence from the Britons -- yet the expert he introduces says rather it's thought perhaps that some of the Celtic structure of the language affected English. Which is a relatively vague thing to say, less strong than Pryor's introductory comment IMO, and echoed by adding that the Celtic languages had 'a part to play.' 

I have read a bit of research that might be relevant in general, in: 'Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or What Was Spoken Old English like?' by Hildegard Tristram in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 40 (2004). Basically Tristram argues that written Old English was deliberately kept relatively unchanged over a period of 550 years or so. The written sources show (generally speaking here) a fairly in tact inflectional system compared to Modern and Middle-English -- but the argument is that spoken Old English had already changed, in ways, due to contact with British speakers trying to learn Germanic tongues over the decades.

It's more involved than that, but basically that's the theory. In any case, the producers of Britain A. D. arguably thought that delving more into linguistics would result in too many viewers looking for something else... and they would probably be correct! 



-- Edited by Galin on Friday 2nd of April 2010 07:06:19 PM

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Lord Elrond of Rivendell - Rank 9
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Galin,
Yes!  And your remark that it is a TV show with the specific goal of TV.
Pryor's goal does seem to be challenging traditional modes and promoting the theorem that there was very little dark in England's medieval "dark ages."
Still the linguistic threads he reveals can be interpreted as he has done and irrefutably other ways also.

What I found fascinating was he supports his threads with several different modern research tools...meaning DNA, large geographic cartographic mapping using sonar, current and ongoing archeological  "diggs",  and linguistic mapping.

But I take your point...he has a specific goal in mind...and part of it includes the "shock" value in attracting and keeping an audience.

None the less I appreciate his de-mythologizing the Roman withdrawl from Britain.

Once again a very interesting post Galin.
Thank you for your efforts and your excellent logic.
Thank you for your scholarship,
Bear


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