This was our last reading meeting before Christmas! Our next meeting will be given up to our visit to see the last of the Hobbit films. Ian and Julie could not be with us today, and Carol as usual sent her comments which I will include in the main report.
We began with a brief overview from Eileen and Pat of a TV programme on World War One poets that featured Tolkien. Some of us had missed it for various reasons. Those who have computers will catch up, and it will probably be repeated anyway so we will all be able to follow Eileen and Pat’s recommendation that this review of the influence of the war on Tolkien is better than expected.
When we moved on to our nominated chapters Laura reminded us that the vandalising of Bag End by the young treasure-seeking hobbits at the end of Chapter 1 had shocked us during a previous reading with the unexpected implied violence of the action. Tim noted that the negative aspect is also shown to be present in the Shire at this early stage in Ted Sandyman’s attitude. Carol commented on Frodo’s attitude to Sam when Gandalf threatens to turn him into a toad that it was not nice. [It is yet another example of a ‘violent’ response, although there are certainly extenuating circumstances.]
It was noted, though, that the ‘vandals’ were all from ‘good’ or well-known families.
Pat then raised the matter of the Ring affecting characters according to their ‘stature’. Angela responded that the Ring is most dangerous to ambitious characters. Carol also picked up this issue when she commented that it is less dangerous to Bilbo and Frodo than to some others because Hobbits don’t covet empires and power; because they are simple folk. In this context, Tim observed that Isildur was not a bad man, but the Ring has ‘agency’.
This led us to briefly wonder how Deagol came to fall out of the fishing boat – was he pushed – if so by what? As we got stuck into the customary debate about fate/chance and free will, Mike proposed that (1) the operation of what looks like fate or chance may be likened to the operation of a pinball machine – where many paths may be taken but the end result is never in doubt – the ball ends up at the bottom, and life ends in death, and (2) we are dealing with a work of fiction with gives the linear development of internal event according to the author’s plan. Carol commented that the gossip of the hobbits placed the blame for Frodo’s wandering on Gandalf, and indeed trouble does come of it, and it is surprising how accurate hobbit staidness is. She also commented that the conversation at the Green Dragon was reminiscent of modern discussion on the existence of UFOs.
Then I asked why we keep debating this topic of chance/fate and free will. Carol had commented that perhaps Elves move us deeply, and that in her view little nudges are given from the West, but it’s up to individuals to take advantage of the nudges. Laura replied that LotR does not feel like a fiction, and Tim added that the Road motif is the key to this. Carol had also commented that the Road song introduces the first real drama into the book with its hints of dangers to come.
Eileen went on to remark that we can identify with the struggles of some characters. We all congratulated her on becoming absorbed in the story!
Chris then observed that with our knowledge of the Valar [and with the Elves hymn to Elbereth], it is impossible to deny a ‘higher’ influence. Mike remarked that this backstory produces infinite depth. Angela noted that no one knows what will happen after the Dagor Bragollach, and we those of us who had read LotR many times before agreed that we were all discovering new things as we read.
Pat remarked that LotR begins with a great number of characters, and Eileen agreed that so many characters can initially be off-putting, many undeveloped at least at first sight. Tim proposed that with so many Tolkien was following his artistic method and ‘painting the background’.
We returned to the matter of the effect of the Ring according to a character’s existing propensities when Pat picked out Frodo’s comment to Gandalf ‘What a pity Bilbo did not killed Gollum when he had the chance’, and Gandalf’s reply. I remarked that the Frodo and Gandalf use the word ‘pity’ in different ways. Frodo say ‘What a pity…’ using ‘pity’ colloquially to express his fear and shock. Gandalf used the same word with its full denotation of moral virtue.
Tim added that in this Gandalf resembles a pedant exposing meaning. It was remarked that Tolkien differentiated the uses of the word when he capitalised in Gandalf’s response to Frodo. Angela noted that this pedantry is more elaborate in The Hobbit when Gandalf ‘interrogates’ Bilbo’s simple ‘Good morning’.
Carol had commented that Frodo’s initial response to Gandalf’s history of the Ring: ‘How terrifying!’ seems a bit superficial, and also that it is Frodo’s ignorance of Gollum at this point that prompts him to abstract Gollum as an object.
Laura returned us to the matter of moral stature when she observed that Bilbo’s mercy is inherent and a protection against power of the Ring.
We then got hung up on the origins and significance of the narrator’s report of Bilbo going off ‘into the blue’. None of us knew the answer so I went and got the relevant OED volume (handy being in the Library!) but it was no real help, so Laura asked in the context of Frodo’s restlessness – who were the wayfarers he met?
Mike proposed they were Dwarves and Elves, and I wondered to whom they were supposed to be strangers? Maybe only to other hobbits, but not necessarily Frodo. Tim noted that the comment read like reported speech.
Eileen observed that Elves don’t generally mingle, or offer advice. Carol commented that the Elves caused all the trouble and are then deserting Middle-earth – which she finds both sad and selfish. Tim however, described them as refugees.
Eileen then remarked that the name ‘Baggins’ seems oddly humorous. Mike noted that Tolkien couldn’t change it without rewriting The Hobbit, where the name was suitably jolly in a story meant for children. Laura noted that Tolkien differentiates between Bilbo and Frodo (who is more serious and esoteric than Bilbo) even though they share their surname.
Chris changed our focus at this point as Gollum had entered our debate: Chris asked whether Gollum’s grandmother was the source of his problems. Mike agreed that overstrictness breeds deception. Eileen suggested that under unfavourable conditions it could be a survival technique.
Laura added that neither Gollum nor Frodo have living parents – creating a link between them. Angela observed that in spite of everything, Gollum retains a bit of his own mind.
Mike then took us in a darker direction when he asked us to consider Gandalf’s involvement with the ‘rendition’ and torture of Gollum. We discussed the difference between what seems to be the physical torture of Gollum in Barad Dur and the psychological pressure to which Gandalf seems to subject him. Chris pointed out that the conduct of the characters does not imply the author’s outlook, and that there is no indication of Tolkien agreeing with either practice. Mike added that it is depicted as ‘what people do’.
By this time we had run out of time and needed to consider our next reading. Laura pointed out that we had not addressed the chapter ‘Three’s Company’, so we agreed to discuss the chapter(s) some of us had already read, which included ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’, as well as reading ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ and ‘The Old Forest’. This should keep us going until our next meeting, which will be in January as the December meetings are taken up with our trip to see the film, and then Yule.