The Joys of Latin and Christmas Feasts: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham

Mateusz Stróżyński

The Christmas season, with its twelve days that culminate in the Feast of Epiphany on 6 January, has been and, thank God, still is a joyful, festive time. This is particularly so for children, but also for adults who have succeeded in the precious art of not entirely growing up. Over this last Christmas I often noticed that there are some Christmas joys which children and adults can share, in their different ways – singing carols, getting presents, eating – but there are also those which are available exclusively to children or to grownups.

One of the delightful experiences for me this Christmas time was listening to an audiobook of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story Farmer Giles of Ham, read by Derek Jacobi. That is exactly something which, first, can be enjoyed by both children and adults; second, it cannot be enjoyed by adults who have permanently mutilated themselves by growing up too much; third, it contains some things which are fun only for grownups or, more precisely, for grownups who know some Latin. Here I would like to share some of the pleasures of Tolkien’s story to which Latinitas is the key.

Tolkien in the 1940s.

Tolkien worked on this story for years, which was typical of his writing. He had serious problems with finishing pretty much anything he worked on, due to his overly critical attitude and insanely high standards. He hated the Narnia stories written by his closest friend, C.S. Lewis, because they mixed ancient mythology with Father Christmas (abominable, isn’t it?). Tolkien seems to have hated much of his own writing as well, so he used to revise and rewrite anything that he cast his eyes on for the second time. It took him 17 years to publish The Lord of the Rings (1954/5) and he never managed to prepare for publication his Silmarillion.

No wonder, then, that he started to write this short story about farmer Giles already in the 1920s, when he was elected a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, and moved to that city with his family. He revised and rewrote the text through the 1930s, until it took some shape around 1937/8. He wanted to publish the story as a sequel to The Hobbit, but his publisher Allen & Unwin was of the opinion that it was just too short for a book. So Tolkien decided to present it to the Lovelace Club in Oxford in February 1938, even though the club usually expected papers devoted to a literary topic. It was finally published by Allen & Unwin as an illustrated book in 1949.

Farmer Giles of Ham is a Christmas story, in the sense that it begins before Christmas and centres around the King’s Christmas feast which was traditionally held at the royal court of Little Kingdom (Regnum Minimum), located in late-antique or early-medieval Britain. Since the main course during the feast was traditionally Dragon’s Tail, it’s no wonder that a dragon makes an appearance in the story.[1] The eponymous farmer becomes a local hero when he discourages, by accident, a certain giant from plundering his village. His career is rapidly advanced when he is asked also to get rid of the dragon who followed the giant. Giles proves to be incredibly successful, thanks to his deep-hidden, slow-stirring, but indomitable British pluck – and thanks also to a magic sword which comes to his aid at a certain point.

The dragon is certainly more cunning than physically aggressive, but ultimately he is always outsmarted by Giles. The climactic point of the story takes place on the Feast of Epiphany, when Giles brings the conquered dragon to his village, Ham, and the monster makes several solemn oaths that he will return with his enormous treasure to the villagers on the Feast of St Hilary and St Felix (14 January, for those who are not following the ecclesiastic calendar on a daily basis).

The dustjacket of Farmer Giles of Ham (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 1950), illustrated by Tolkien’s favourite illustrator, Pauline Diana Baynes.

The dragon doesn’t return, since he has no conscience and cares little about oaths. But then Giles manages to scare him with his sword a second time, when a special operations force (medieval-style), sent by the king, fails entirely to deprive the dragon of his treasure. So Giles makes the dragon bring a significant portion of his gold to Ham, before taming and detaining him there for some time. In the end, Giles himself grows so popular that he becomes king of Little Kingdom.

Where is Latin in all of this? It’s all over the place. And that shouldn’t surprise us, since it was one of Tolkien’s favourite languages. His first contact with it must have been through the Catholic liturgy and prayers, as his mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, when he was eight years old. His mother may have also taught him some Latin before he began a formal classical education, learning Latin and Greek at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. Tolkien excelled in composing Latin verse there and began to study Classics (Literae Humaniores) at Oxford in 1911. He changed subjects to Old English after two years, but ten years of learning Latin provided this brilliant youth, endowed with extraordinary linguistic capabilities, with excellent knowledge not only of the language, but also of the ancient and medieval literature written in it. Tolkien was extremely sensitive to the phonetic and musical aspects of language, and he felt Latin to be very beautiful. In one of his letters, he speaks about his “particular love for the Latin language”.

Even though he thought about the language of the High Elves, Quenya, as “Elvish Latin”, no-one would guess how much Latin meant to him just on the basis of his Middle-Earth works. But in Farmer Giles of Ham his love for Latin really shows through. It seems also that the linguistic and literary allusiveness of the story was related to the fact that he decided to read it at a meeting of the Lovelace Club, i.e. to adults who had a Classical education and were capable of enjoying his Latin jokes. As Emma Goodrum points out, “that the Lovelace Club were delighted with the change in routine is clear from the minutes, which describe the President of the Club having to wait at the conclusion of the tale until ‘the society’s laughter had finally died down’.”

The endpapers of Tolkien’s copy of Arthur Sidgwick’s Introduction to Greek Prose Composition (1902), sold in 2012 at Bonhams of London for a pretty penny; presumably Tolkien acquired the copy bought by A.G. Cox when he was teaching in the West Midlands (although Cox, a contemporary of A.E. Housman at Bromsgrove School, went on to Hertford College, not “coll[egium] Vig[orniense]”, i.e. Worcester).

In the printed edition, Tolkien claims that he didn’t invent the story, but merely translated it from early medieval Latin into modern English. The full title of the book is: Aegidii Ahenobarbi Julii Agricole de Hammo, Domini de Domito, Aule Draconarie Comitis, Regni Minimi Regis et Basilei mira facinora et mirabilis exortus, or in the vulgar tongue, The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and King of the Little Kingdom.[2] In the story, it is proper names that are the main source of linguistic pleasure for Latin enthusiasts. There are medieval villages, placed next to Oxford, such as Quercetum (Oakley “in the vulgar tongue”, since quercus is “oak”, and quercetum an “oak-wood”) and Aula Draconaria (Worminghall: aula being “hall”, and draco “dragon”). The royal abode of Giles was named after him “the Tame Worm” (or, in short, Tame), because one of his official titles was Dominus de Domito Serpente, which is in the vulgar tongue “Lord of the Tame Worm”. And later Tame was mixed with Ham to make Thame, on which Tolkien comments: “Thame with an h is folly without warrant.”

The 13th-century church of St Mary the Virgin in Thame, Oxfordshire.

The name of the farmer, Giles, is only a vernacular or “vulgar” form of his proper name which was Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo. Those familiar with Latin to some extent will learn immediately that Aegidius was red-haired (Latin ahenobarbus is literally “bronze-bearded”) and that he was a farmer (Lat. agricola). “De Hammo” means simply “of Ham” (although we are never told, whether the name of the village is Hammus or Hammum). Why “Julius”? Well, not just because it sounds a bit like “Giles”. It’s probably for the same reason as why the king of Little Kingdom is called Augustus Bonifacius Ambrosius Aurelianus Antoninus Pius et Magnificus. It is pretty clear that the king has to have “Augustus” as his first name (the title given to Caesar’s nephew, Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, by the Roman senate, when he became the sole ruler of the Roman Republic in 27 BC). No surprise, then, that his much more heroic replacement on the throne, farmer Aegidius, should have “Julius” somewhere in his name as well. The same is true of “Antoninus Pius”, the name of an actual Roman emperor of the 2nd century AD – and a good one, at that, even though I don’t recall his ever being called Magnificus.

When it comes to “Ambrosius Aurelianus”, Paul H. Kocher writes that it may derive from Aurelius Ambrosius, mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), who was supposed to be King Arthur’s uncle. Earlier medieval chronicles also mention Ambrosius Aurelianus who was supposed to be a kind of “last Roman” fighting barbarians in Britain around the 5th century AD. He seems to have been later transformed into the legendary figures of Uther Pendragon and Merlin. Kocher points out that the splendid name Augustus Bonifacius is intended as a jest “when the king in question is a petty miser and ineffectual fool”.[3]

Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern (illustration of c. 1260 to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini, London British Library MS Cotton Claudius B VII f.224r).

Recently, John M. Bowers has suggested that the king’s name may have something to do with the Roman philosopher St Severinus Boethius (477–524 AD). Bowers discovered that Tolkien was working in the 1920s on the edition of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ famous work De consolatione philosophiae (On the consolation of philosophy), written in prison where he was sent by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (who eventually sentenced him to death). Tolkien never finished this project, abandoning it after a couple of rewrites, but his manuscripts show his profound engagement with the tradition of Boethius’ work throughout the Middle Ages to Chaucer. Bowers claims that on this evidence we may “suspect the philosopher’s five-part name [Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius] later inspired the king’s five-part name”.[4] At any rate, it is only proper that the king of Regnum Minimum in the south-east of medieval England signs himself officially as dux, rex, tyrannus, et Basileus Mediterranearum Partium (“duke, king, tyrant, and King of the Mediterranean”), since he is an arrogant and bombastic moron: we feel quite reassured when he is ultimately humiliated by Giles, his worthier successor as king.

The names of non-human beings are even more interesting. The farmer’s favourite cow is called Galathea, which suggests that the villagers of Ham were not only Latinists but also somewhat familiar with Greek and able to play sophisticated linguistic and literary games. In Greek γάλα means “milk” and θεά “goddess”, so the cow was apparently a true Milk Goddess, at least among Giles’s cattle, if not throughout Regnum Minimum. It also sounds like the Greek name “Galatea” which was a Greek name of several beautiful mythological ladies – and in the modern period became associated with the statue that Pygmalion wished into human form. Of course, in Greek the name Γαλάτεια has a tau (τ=t) not a theta (θ=th): is “Galathea”, to quote Tolkien, folly without warrant? No, as it also seems to pun on another mythological name, Amaltheia (Αμάλθεια, a word of unclear etymology); she was not a cow, but a truly divine goat who suckled the baby Zeus. He had to be kept safely in the cave of Mount Ida on Crete to hide him from his father, Kronos who wanted to swallow him, just as he had his brothers and sisters before him.

Amalthea the goat (not her best side, perhaps) in Jacob Jordaens’ Infancy of Zeus, early 1630s.

As to the cunning dragon, he is called Chrysophylax Dives. The second part of name appears several times also in the vulgar tongue as “Chrysophylax the Rich” (Lat. dives = “rich”), but Tolkien leaves to the reader the fun of knowing (or not knowing) that φύλαξ (phylax) in Greek means “guardian”, and χρυσός “gold”. Chrysophylax is tamed by a magic sword whose name is Caudimordax, which we are told is called in popular romances (“more vulgarly”) Tailbiter (Lat. cauda, “tail”, and mordax, “disposed to bite”, from mordeo, “I bite”).

The name of the dragon seems to be a sophisticated allusion to what the Greek writer Herodotus reports about the far northern countries in his Histories. At 4.13 he mentions the Arimaspea, a lost poem by Aristeas of Proconnesus (7th century BC) who was a sort of a Greek shaman, allegedly capable of leaving his body and travelling across the world to report on its wonders. According to Herodotus, in one of such soul-trips, Aristeas encountered dragons or griffins:

There is also a story related in a poem by Aristeas son of Caustrobius, a man of Proconnesus. This Aristeas, possessed by Phoebus, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea. (trans. A.D. Godley)[5]

The expression “griffins that guard gold” is in Greek τοὺς χρυσοφύλακας γρῦπας, so Tolkien’s dragon is not the first Chrysophylax in literature.

It may be hard to guess where exactly the one-eyed Arimaspians and gold-guarding griffins could dwell, but Tadeusz Sulimirski (a Polish historian and archaeologist who emigrated to England in 1939) suggested that it may have been the territories inhabited by the Sarmatians in Central Asia.[6] It would explain the fact that Polish people, who traditionally claimed to derive from the Sarmatians, had their dealings with dragons as well. As is recorded in the Polish chronicle (Chronica Polonorum 1.5) of Vincentius Kadłubek (12th/13th century), there was a dragon living in ancient times near the medieval capital of Poland, Cracow. Kadłubek gave the monster a neologism he invented – holophagus, from Greek “the one who swallows it whole” – saying that it was killed by the sons of the local prince Graccus. This man was somehow believed to be one of the famous Gracchi brothers (the Roman tribunes of the 2nd century BC), so the name Cracow was supposed to be derived from the name “Gracchus”.[7] His sons destroyed the dragon by feeding him with a cowskin stuffed with sulphur. Later legends attribute the killing of the dragon to a clever boy called Skuba the Cobbler, which sounds much more like a story that Tolkien would invent. Or rather translate from medieval Latin.

A griffin on an Attic red-figure calyx-krater, c. 375–350 BC (found in Eretria, Greece, and now in the Louvre, Paris, France.)

My favourite character in the story is, probably, a blacksmith called Fabricius Cunctator (“a slow, gloomy man, vulgarly known as Sunny Sam”) who predicts all sorts of calamities. The name Fabricius is associated in Latin with faber (“craftsman”), so it’s a suitable name for a blacksmith. However, it is clearly a pun on the name given by the Romans to Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (280–203 BC), who was later known and honoured as Fabius Cunctator (“the Delayer”). During the Second Punic war, after Hannibal defeated the Roman army at the battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator by the Roman senate. His strategy of fighting Hannibal was to avoid open battle and to try to exhaust the Carthaginian troops in Italy, hence his nickname.  

It is hard to say for sure why the blacksmith Sunny Sam is called by Tolkien “Cunctator”. He writes: “Since he was daily foretelling disasters of every  kind, few happened that he had not foretold, and he was able to take credit of them. It was his chief pleasure; so naturally he was reluctant to do anything to avert them.” It would seem that Fabricius’ reluctance to do anything in the face of upcoming disasters earned him his surname “Cunctator”. Perhaps Tolkien also had in mind the fact that Fabius Maximus was very religious and believed that the Romans were losing against Hannibal because they weren’t honouring the gods properly. Plutarch, in his biography of Cunctator, writes that he began his campaign against Hannibal by consulting the Sibylline books, looking for prophecies, and commanded extraordinary sacrifices and festivals for the gods.[8]

Statue of Fabius Cunctator, Schönbrunn Gardens, Vienna, Austria.

When it comes to prophecies and ill omens, on the Feast of Epiphany (6 January), Chrysophylax Dives swore solemnly to the villagers of Ham that he would bring back his gold and give it to them in eight days, that is, on the Feast of Saint Hilary and Saint Felix (14 January). Fabricius Cunctator, as can be guessed, predicted that it would end very badly. And he was basically right. When he heard that they are to expect the dragon on the day of Hilary and Felix, he

shook his head as he went back to his smithy. “Ominous names,” he said. “Hilarius and Felix! I don’t like the sound of them.”

Clearly, Fabricius Cunctator knew his Latin, since hilaris/hilarus means “cheerful”, and felix “fortunate”, so he had good reason to be afraid that things may in fact turn out well. But they didn’t, at least, not on the day of Hilary and Felix. On the other hand, despite their names, the saints celebrated on 14 January are hardly the examples of luck and good fortune. St Felix was a Pagan of the 3rd century, who lived in Nola, near Naples in Italy. He converted to Christianity and gave away all his riches to the poor. It’s still a matter of some debate whether his bad luck consists in his death from the persecutions of Decius (249–51) or featuring in the letters written by St Paulinus of Nola (354–431), his great fan and populariser (those who have had to read through all Paulinus’ letters to St Augustine may have a clearer view on this issue).

St Hilary (315–67), also a convert from Paganism, was a bishop of Poitiers in Gaul and an important philosopher and theologian, later venerated as a Doctor of the Church. As for his own bad luck, it came more through being exiled for four years from Poitiers to Phrygia or through dying on 13 January. Although it wasn’t in fact Friday the 13th in 367 AD, his feast used to be moved to 14 January because he happened to die on the last day of the Epiphany Octave. At any rate, on the feast of such saints as Hilary and Felix, things simply cannot go entirely wrong.

Left: stained-glass picture of St Hilary in Saint-Germain, France; right: St Felix of Nola, stabbed to death by his pupils (illumination from Jean de Vignay’s Legende Dorée, Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, ms. Français 241, f. 40r.)

I’ll conclude with the last words of Farmer Giles of Ham:


or in the vulgar

the end.

(Written sometime between Christmas, Epiphany, and the Feast of St Hilary and St Felix that fell yesterday.)

Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. 

Further Reading

M. Libran Moreno, “Latin Language,” in M.C.C. Drout (ed.), J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (Routledge, London, 2007) 344–5, accessible here.

W.G. Hammond and C. Scull, “Farmer Giles of Ham,” an essay by the editors of the 50th anniversary edition of Farmer Giles of Ham, available here.

S. Pindur, “A linguistic study of humour and allusions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham”, Beyond Philology 16.3 (2019) 25–58, available here.


1 Spoiler alert: no dragon tails end up being eaten – at least not during a royal feast, to be precise.
2 Published by George Allen & Unwin, London, 1949.
3 P.H. Kocher, Master of Middle-Earth: The Achievement of J. R. R. Tolkien (Thames and Hudson, London, 1973); the chapter in question is available here.
4 J.M. Bowers, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (Oxford UP, 2019) 144.
5 The text of this passage can be explored, in Greek and English, via the Perseus Project here.
6 T. Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (Thames and Hudson, London, 1970.
7 A similarly bizarre medieval tradition explained the name of Britain from Brutus (Brute), a grandson of Aeneas, the Trojan founder of the Roman race.
8 Plutarch, Fabius Maximus 4.3-4, which can be read in English here.