Today is Independence Day, the day we commemorate the inception of our nation with the signing of The Declaration of Independence in 1776. While most Americans know that the “independence” being spoken of was from the British Empire, far fewer of them know what was so “revolutionary” about the kind of nation that was eventually established as a “more perfect Union” under our current Constitution after the Revolutionary War and the failed Articles of Confederation. It was a nation which turned the belief that all humans had certain God-given rights that the State could neither confer or take away, into a governing principle whereby it was the State’s duty to uphold and protect those rights.
Ignorance of the historic and philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s founding principles is in part due to the fact that unless you received a classical education, either at school or at home, you either never learned it or worse, were taught its polar opposite. From Howard Zinn’s notion of a “people’s history” to the 1619 Project, and all the other bastardized descendants of Critical Race Theory that have made their way into school curricula across the country, the Left’s long march through the institutions has been hugely successful in rewriting our nation’s narrative about what it means to be an American.
The gradual but deliberate changing of our nation’s narrative is an example of what religious icon carver, speaker, and podcaster Jonathan Pageau calls “Parasitic Storytelling.” According to Pageau, revolutionaries and activists view the current cultural narrative as “the vehicle of power and normativity” and that “just as a virus can destabilize the human body, so to an ideological parasite can destabilize the body politic.” However, unlike a real virus that risks destroying its host “the strategy of those enacting these new story tropes is not so much for woke culture to give us new characters and stories, but to deconstruct and ultimately take over existing cultural norms and stories from the inside.” Thus, in the same way that one iconic movie franchise after another has been taken over and transformed by woke ideology, so too has the manner in which we learn and pass on our nation’s history and its sense of identity been subverted and transformed from the inside out. Almost to the point where what it means to be an American has been defined into meaninglessness.
However, as with every other revolutionary movement in history that achieves its goals, it then becomes the new “vehicle of power and normativity.” It is here where Pageau sees the solution to counteracting the current woke narrative. For when the revolutionary fervor runs out of “hosts” to infect and invert, it will change its own narrative about itself and then turn on the very marginalized elements in society that it was once one of. So when the new cultural center of “power and normativity” becomes vacant, because it is busy eating its own, that is the time for a new subversive narrative to move into and claim the center. Pageau cites this as the trope of the “return of the king” that is seen in stories such as Robin Hood or The Lord of the Rings where the center or core (from the Latin word for heart) of the society or culture is reclaimed and set back to its proper ordering.
Resetting our Nation’s Narrative for the Fourth of July
With that in mind, the solution to countering the “parasitic storytelling” that has turned what should be a unifying holiday, into yet another battlefield of our uncivil culture wars is, according to Pageau, to simply “tell better stories about the things that really matter.” Of course, given that most kids today lack any coherent historical or philosophical sense of America’s exceptionalism, this is easier said than done. In fact as Joy Pullman over at the Federalist has noted, because civics curricula have already been so subverted by the Left, teaching more of it in school is unlikely to do any good.
In that case, perhaps it would be better to take a different approach with out kids. Perhaps we should turn to stories that are rich in meaning and symbolism as a means of countering the inverted clown-world narrative of the Left about our nation and its founding principles. While a list of such stories or novels is beyond the scope of this article, my one suggestion as a place to start would be the short story “Farmer Giles of Ham” by J.R.R Tolkien. Published in 1949, after the phenomenal success of The Hobbit but before he had finished his epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the story is a silly tale about an ordinary farmer named Giles who has enough troubles of his own trying to eke out a living when he is drawn into a squabble with two rapacious but cowardly foes- a dragon and a far-off king.
When Giles drives a giant off his farm with a blunderbuss, he becomes a hero in his home village of Ham, and eventually the King when the story of his exploits reaches his royal ears. Impressed by one of his subjects' courage, the King sends Giles the fantasy version of a “form letter” of appreciation and an old sword and sheath that were collecting dust in the royal treasury. However, with the giant out of the way, a vain but cowardly dragon name Chrysophylax Dives, decides the land around Ham is ripe for his picking and soon arrives to make trouble. The locals naturally turn to Giles for help, who now realizes that being a “hero” actually comes with some responsibilities and duties.
Torn between his desire to tend to his own affairs and his pride, he is reluctant to go until the village parson tells Giles that the sword is a magical one named “Caudimordax” (which means “Tail biter”) that once belonged to a famous dragon-slaying knight. So he sets out and finds the dragon. After a lot of humorous banter and a few magical swings by Caudimordax, Giles bests Chrysophylax who then haggles for his life in return for a promise to return in a month with treasure for the people of Ham. However, once again, the king hears of Giles’ exploits and heads out to the village of Ham to lay his royal but dubious claim to any treasure the dragon will bring, but when the Chrysophylax reneges on his bargain and fails to return, the king leaves in a huff and tells Giles to accompany his knights to go find the dragon.
The knights treat Giles as bumpkin and put him at the end of their line, which is why when the dragon spies and attacks the knights, he survives as those up front are killed or scattered. However, Giles catches up with the dragon and once again used Caudimordax to force a small fortune from the dragon. When the king hears of this, he is more concerned about whether Giles will bring what he still considers his treasure, than he is about the well-being of his knights. When Giles doesn’t come, he sends a letter demanding Giles to come to him, which Giles ignores.
So the king once again heads out with his remaining knights to Ham to demand his due from Giles. When he gets there he finds that Giles has been generous with his new-found wealth with his neighbors and even hired his own men-at-arms to act as guards. When the king demands Giles’ obeisance and all of the treasure gained from the dragon, Giles replies, “If you’ve come for a social call you’ve brought too many men, but if you’ve come to take me by force you’ll need a lot more than you have.” The king is enraged and challenges Giles to single combat, which Giles refuses on the grounds that he doesn’t want to harm anyone but just wants to leave well enough alone. The king then realizes that the Chrysophylax is still around and that he under Giles’ control and so decides to depart, but not before demanding the return of Caudimordax to which Giles politely refuses. The king is then chased off by the dragon empty-handed. We then learn that Giles went on to be a kind, just, and generous ruler of his people, and eventually became a lord and then king in his own right.
Symbolism and Sentiments of the American Spirit
Although Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham” is not as epic as his Lord of the Rings trilogy, it nonetheless still contains many elements that are appropriate to Independence Day. After all, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and was very familiar with the same English cultures and traditions that were carried over to the original thirteen colonies in Albion Seed form, and which were later mixed with the legacies of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem to give us the constitutional republic we have today.
And as unlikely as it may seem, “Farmer Giles of Ham” contains within it snippets of those same cultural pathways and legacies that shaped what most of us traditionally thought it meant to be an American. So while there is no mention of the Magna Carta, Blackstone’s Commentaries, or any Classical or Scholastic treatment of the Natural Law, they are all there in seed form in the short story in the background. Some of which are,
1. The story perfectly encapsulates the original Hamilton-Jefferson debate over a national and centralized government versus local and decentralized authority, that continues with us to this day. When the King makes demands on Giles’ time and treasure, he does so by making the classic argument from authority. As a farmer, Giles is used to reaping what he sows, and all that he had and later gained from the dragon came from his hard work and as the story says “a little luck”. So while Giles is shown to be a fair, reasonable, and generous man, he will not be made to be so by force. Thus, when it comes to dealing with the king’s demands, he is loyal to his countrymen first and even hires men of their own free will to help safeguard their rights.
2. Aside from the Biblical references connecting them with the Devil and the demonic, dragons and other primeval monsters are symbolic of the chaotic forces of nature. And despite the idyllic view of nature held by modern people far removed from the drudgery of life that up until recently had been the norm, nature is not our equal. It is an amoral force that, like fire, is a useful when managed but cruel when you are at its mercy. “Farmer Giles of Ham” illustrates this when it is not the cultivated knights from the royal court that kill the dragon, but a farmer who, with the help of a magic sword, doesn’t destroy the dragon, but tames it (albeit uneasily) for his own purposes. This is emblematic of the American spirit that valued hard work, taking risks, and sometimes being willing to head out into the unknown to settle and cultivate the land so that those who will come after us can have a better life.
3. Finally is the magic sword Caudimordax (“Tail-bitter”). This is not a object found in nature or made by chance, but the result a lot of time, effort, and craftsmanship, that took a collection of raw materials in the earth and forged them into a sword. A sword whose nature had been augmented or perfected (in Aristotelian or Thomistic terms) by an unseen grace or force, so that is had a purpose (teleos) beyond its normal one. The sword, which can be used to attack or defend, is symbolic of the “self-evident” rights and freedoms we have such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, while its magical nature is meant to show that those rights are “inalienable” and have been “endowed” by God.
We see this in the story in how the sword is used to both attack- against the dragon- and defend-against the king’s rapacious claims on Giles. When the king demands the sword back, Giles replies in as much about the sword as our God-given rights, “Finding’s keeping and keeping’s having, as we say here. And I reckon Tail-biter is better with me than with your folk.” Our right our ours by virtue of us being human and they are, as Alexander Hamilton said of them, “written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased.”
It May be a Stretch but it's Also a Good Place to Start
Now some may complain that the interpretations being made here are as much of stretch as the critical race-baiting theory and the Zinn-ical woke worldview they are trying to counter. It’s just a charming children’s story after all and it can’t bear the weight of all this retro-Iron John style mytho-poetic analysis, and certainly, Tolkien (as an Englishman) would probably not agree with this take. While this is a fair criticism, consider the following.
First off, such interpretations are fully compatible with those Christian traditions that are used to reading the Bible according to the ancient tradition of the Four Senses of Scripture. Moreover, what comes around goes around, as the renewed interest in fairy tale analysis that came back into popularity with the emergence of academics like Jordan Peterson, has once again shown that simple stories can still tell us much about human nature and the world we live in.
Secondly, remember that the story is meant for children who hopefully still possess a working imagination that has not been prematurely warped by the woke propaganda that is taught in far too many schools or which they absorb through their screens. The symbolism of the story is not meant to be explained or broken down to them, but to be imparted at an instinctual or even spiritual level through conversations about the story or better yet acted out in playtime. For when it comes to children, try not to fall into Pageau’s “parasitic storytelling” trap, whereby you react logically to an argument that is not even being made, and end up letting a subversive message pass by your parental guards because you have forgotten how to think like a child.
In this way, later, when (God-willing) your kids do read The Federalist Papers, Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America or any of the other historical and philosophical writings that went into the formation of our nation’s founding principles, they will be more attuned to ideas and able to more easily to connect the dots in understanding why July the 4this worth commemorating. So if you are inclined, get yourself a copy of “Farmer Giles of Ham”, set some medieval ambient music in the background, and tell your kids that it’s story time.
Photo Credit- illustration taken from The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien- Ballantine Books, 1966, p.73.