Last Saturday in November


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.

First Saturday November additional

Carol’s comments on the previous reading: The Prologue
‘Concerning Hobbits’
…’love peace and quiet and good tilled earth…’ Tolkien is almost writing about himself in the first half of this paragraph.  We later learn that hobbits like beer and pipe-weed, again Tolkienesque.  Tolkien once wrote in a letter that he was a hobbit, liking all the above and fancy waistcoats.
 ‘being fond of simple jests’ – JRRT again.
I know Mirkwood is derived from the Elder Edda but I’ve always thought it one of the great descriptive names for a forest, long before I knew about Eddas. and sagas.
So far, the prologue mentions lots of unexplained things from the past, just one e.g. ‘the kings of men that came over the sea out of Westernesse’ and if you want to find out more, you’re going to have to read the book!
‘Concerning Pipeweed’
 At the time this was written smoking pipe-weed was quite acceptable. Pipe-weed doesn’t seem to be as addictive in LotR as in real life because the fellowship goes long times without smoking and Bilbo, in old age, has almost given it up. Jackson had to portray smoking in his films but very low key and deprecatory. o pipe-weed I miss you!!
‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’
Ok, a reflection of Tolkien’s idea of ideal government – anarchy or very little of it – which might work in a small country where most inhabitants didn’t break the law. Tolkien believed that non-constitutional monarchy was the best, all fine well if you get a decent king like Elessar. The Shire stratified and deferential and though it’s generally kind, it’s still class-ridden.
‘Of the Finding of the Ring’
Tolkien mainly concentrates on the riddle game with Gollum and Bilbo’s finding of the ring because it is crucial to the future of Middle-earth, both the finding and the mercy showed towards Gollum by Bilbo.  The word ‘luck’ is used several times in its being Bilbo who finds the ring. More of this in ‘shadow’.
Could this section be considered a spoiler because it talks of Middle-earth after the quest to get rid of the ring.  Some bits of it I find unspeakably sad.  I’d just like to note of all the books mentioned, nothing is fiction. All the beings of Middle-earth at this time don’t seem to have made-up stories from their imaginations.  Neither do they seem to have have drama and only Sam makes slight reference to ‘a play-acting spy’ later in the story.
The Fellowship of the Ring  Book 1 Chapter 1 ‘A Long-expected Party
This title mirrors ‘An Unexpected Party’ as the opening chapter in The Hobbit
‘riches…now become a local legend.  Legend and story are very important themes in LotR amd it begins right here in Hobbiton.  For once hobbit dislike of anything out the ordinary and maybe jealousy will prove to be right. Bilbo’s ‘prolonged vigour’ ‘will have to be paid for…it isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it’.
Parts of this chapter are a bit whimsical like eleventy-first birthday but we need a bit of whimsy before the gruelling quest which is to help save this whimsy. I often wonder if Tolkien made the hobbit coming of age 33 because he was 33 when he became an oxford prof. Or, Jesus died at 33. and 22.9 because TH was first published on 21.9.37
C.S. Lewis said there was too much of hobbit talk but I love this conversation at the Ivy Bush. It shows the hobbits’ clannish nature and dislike of anything unfamiliar – hobbits who live on the other side of the shire, the old forest, boating, written in italics on p.35.
Nepotism seems to be the way of getting jobs in the Shire and is not frowned on like it is now. ‘i’d not long come prentice to old Holman (him being my dad’s cousin)…
Tolkien weaves back-stories very well. It’s not mere exposition; there’s a reason behind all the telling of this family history – because Bilbo’s party makes everyone want to know about him and his relatives again.
O dear, there’s just so much to quote. Sam, mad for the old stories and knowing how to write, thanks to Bilbo, and the Gaffer warning him this will lead to trouble but if you ‘desire dragons with a profound desire’ and are curious be prepared for where it might lead you – the road.
Tolkien’s still in hobbit mode, having children as his audience and also himself I think with all the food, gaiety, presents and fireworks still being anachronistic in comparing the dragon firwork to an express train. He liked dragons but not trains.
‘an engrossing entertainment’ – a bit of Tolkien humour and punning. Ditto Proudfoot/Proudfeets.
The Springle-ring, the only dance mentioned in the whole of LotR and subject of lessons at Oxonmoot.
‘I don’t know half of you as well as I should like and like less than half of you as well as you deserve’. It does in fact work out as a compliment though it took me years to fathom it out. However bilbo does go on the insult – one gross.
Bilbo VANISHES much to everyone’s chagrin.
Bilbo showing signs of reluctance at leaving the ring behind and Gandalf showing some of his latent power.
Gandalf’s temptation to seize the ring. Others will also be tempted.
The first version of the road song – pursuing it with eager feet. That has been the first real drama in the book with indications of dangers to come.  Now we go back to a bit of flummery.

First Saturday in November


It was a full house for our meeting this afternoon, and very lively. We looked forward to our annual trip to the cinema to see the next instalment of the The Hobbit film trilogy, and were introduced by Laura to the concept of ‘echo tongues’ as used in some modern fiction, before we began our third(!) group reading of LotR. We were naturally starting with the Prologue and Chapter 1.

Eileen, reading LotR for the first time, remarked on the amount of humour she found in these first parts of the text, as well as the lovely descriptions of scenery, but was surprised by the tension between Bilbo and Gandalf. Eileen also commented that she thought Tolkien was playing with his readers in the way he set this up. Mike noted the very hobbit-like humour emerging at times in Chapter 1.

Tim agreed that there is ambiguity for the first-time reader in the relationship between the hobbit and the wizard.

Mike commented on Tolkien’s use of different narratorial voices in the Prologue, where it is more ‘scholarly’ and didactic, and the story itself where he suits the voice to the character. Pat remarked that he differentiates the characters as people differ in society. Laura noted the specific kinds of characters we meet in the Ivy Bush.

Tim then reminded us that Tolkien did not write this story! Bilbo wrote the original and Tolkien translated it. This led to various recollections of other writers who used this ‘found manuscript’ device. We mentioned M.R. James, Lovecraft, the Flashman series, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

As we discussed Gandalf, Ian surprised us with his observation that Gandalf arrives in the Shire with a cart load of munitions! Pat commented that Tolkien created fireworks she didn’t recognise and there was some nostalgic recollection of simple fireworks we remembered. Angela remarked that Tolkien must have liked fireworks. Mike wondered if the volcano described was (presciently) Mount Doom. Tim and I thought it was Erebor while Ian thought its identity was ambiguous.

We briefly tackled the traditional question of the ‘express train’, but having thrashed out this anachronism during previous readings, Ian’s observation that this image was “the closest Tolkien could get in his translation of the ‘original’ description of the noise, power, and sight of the dragon” went unchallenged.

Pat then questioned the way in which the transmission of the Ring is dealt with and Chris commented that two ‘Powers’ are vying for influence over it. Laura suggested that this made the Ring neurotic!

Noticing that the Ring was not originally on a chain when Bilbo found it, Tim proposed that its chaining by Bilbo to keep it from slipping off was also symbolic of the Chaining of Melkor.

Laura then extended the idea the Ring being under external control and suggested that the hobbits might be understood as Iluvatar’s ‘sleepers’, quietly existing and protected until they were needed.

Eileen wondered if there was a hidden agenda behind the characterisation of Gandalf, and Mike suggested that he was part of a constant iteration in the story of ‘something beyond’ what is apparent.

Pat compared the thematic motif of the journey which is a physical representation of always moving beyond. Mike thought this was perfectly précised in the ‘Road Goes Ever On and On’ song, especially in the last line: ‘And wither then, I cannot say’.

Angela then referred us to the Appendix and its information that the external guard on the Shire was doubled after the Birthday Party. Ian remarked that this implied a need for the hobbits to be kept inside, even suppressed. Mike added the ominous analogy of the suppression of the working classes, since the Shire folk are primarily farmers and small craftsmen.

Pat considered the matter of the presents Bilbo gives, and wondered if the sarcastic or perhaps spiteful messages accompanying them were related to the influence of the Ring on the otherwise kindly hobbit. Mike noted that the gifts are highlighted in capitals in the text, and Ian suggested the presence of rhetorical figures such as alliteration implied the significance of the gifts at a level beyond the companionable. Chris did not agree that the Ring influenced the present giving.

Eileen approved of the sharp edge to some of Bilbo’s messages because it adds another facet to his characterisation and Mike agreed that Bilbo is an adult and his flaws link him to us.

Tim thought that Bilbo’s presents were an unburdening as he leaves, compared to the Ring which he really wants to keep.

Mike noted that the relationship between Bilbo and the young Frodo is a sign of the times – there is no hint of moral darkness in it.

Pat then asked, as Gandalf does not get a present, what we would give him? Julie proposed a tobacco jar. Tim suggested ‘ a cartful of problems’, while Ian suggested ‘Frodo’. This is indeed finally the answer to his cartful of problems!

Laura observed that the chapter itself moves from fun to something darker, and Ian remarked that the Prologue in fact introduces doubt with references such as ‘mere luck’ and ‘luck (as it seemed)’.

Tim then wondered who the Authorities are that are mentioned in the Prologue as judges of the rules of the Riddle Game. I thought they could have been very ancient, because Gollum knows the rules of the game. Mike thought they were probably the drinkers in the Ivy Bush – keeping up knowledge of the Rules whenever they were instituted.

Pat returned to the influence of the Ring on Bilbo, asking if it was the motivating power behind Bilbo being able to find his way through the tunnels under the mountain because it ‘needed’ him to get it out. Pat also wondered if it was the reason why Bilbo lied uncharacteristically.

Julie observed that the Birthday happens around the time of the Equinox – a time when light and darkness are in balance. She also wondered if Frodo’s ‘fidgeting with something in his pocket’ during his interview with the Sackville-Bagginses was a sign that the Ring was beginning to influence him, that it was already out of its envelope and in his pocket.

Tim ended our session with the observation that the ending of Chapter 1 is poignant.

Our next reading will be the next 2 chapters up to ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’, although some of us may read further.


Last Saturday in October


This week we set out to finish off Unfinished Tales. Mike sadly was not well enough to be with us and Eileen could not join us. As usual Carol sent her comments by email, and Julie emailed a few additional thoughts after the meeting which are included at the end of the discussion of the palantiri.

We began the afternoon with Ian’s update on his latest visit to the Bodleian and the additional information it provided for his latest project.

Laura launched the discussion of the final chapters of UT – ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’ – with her observation that both chapters are rich in details.

Carol commented on ‘The Istari’: this is one of my favourite sections, especially on first reading, learning more about Gandalf and co.: ‘whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal…or to seek to rule…’ I call this the Istari’s prime directive as in Star Trek, not to interfere with different races – against their wills or not. Even the Valar have to learn lessons. This is a prime example of the allowing of free will without ‘endeavour to dominate’.

Laura also commented that Tolkien knows ‘human’ nature, even if some characters are not precisely human. She was directing our attention to the way that Varda ‘promotes’ Olorin (Gandalf) during the council of the Valar when the Istari are being chosen. The result is that Saruman bears a grudge against Gandalf ever after.

Chris remarked that Cirdan recognised Gandalf as more powerful, and Carol comments: What would have happened if Saruman had been given a healing ring of power? Would it have nudged him to better conduct and averted his jealousy of Gandalf’s having Narya?

We all commented on the strange wrangle over which Istari travel together, including Saruman’s scorn for Radagast, and the pairing of the 2 blue wizards. Julie recollected that Saruman travelled into the east with the blue wizards.

Tim noted that Gandalf is humbler on his own account as against Saruman’s pride in his own status. Carol, however, had commented: ‘he was not proud’ – (Gandalf) – ever so slightly, see his white horses at the Fords of Bruinen and his reaction when telling Frodo. We discussed this point and it was concluded that this was not so much pride as delight in creating a fun effect (because it was strictly unnecessary. However, Angela pointed out that the white horses are effectively an insult to the Black Riders.

Angela saw this as the reason why he shows such empathy with hobbits, Men and others, because he has his own fears and anxieties.

Tim remarked that this was perhaps the result of a Maia taking physical shape, leading to the giving up Maia power.

Laura then proposed that maybe each wizard’s staff is a necessary part of their physical being ‘containing’ some extension of Maia power passed into it. Ian suggested that the staff was the sign of their ‘infirmity’ in Middle-earth.

Angela took an example from the Harry Potter stories, where it is important to match the wizard to his/her wand. Julie reminded us of the use of Aaron’s staff when Moses confronts Pharaoh. Ian qualified this by remarking that in LotR no wizard’s staff is ever transformed.

In the context of the importance of staffs (staves) Angela noted that Denethor breaks his staff, but this may be understood as a staff of office. Pat added the example of Prospero breaking his staff in The Tempest, and I remembered the breaking of a staff of office in Richard II. We did not explore the relationship between wizards’ staffs and staffs of office.

Chris then questioned why Tolkien was working on defining the Istari in 1954? I directed everyone to Christopher’s Introduction to the UT book which suggests that it was part of Tolkien’s method of working, especially as he was at the time creating an Index for the first edition of FotR and TT and frequently gave detailed Index entries, although nothing as long as the material that makes up the Istari and Palantiri chapters. They do, however, replicate the way he worked when creating his Index entries.

Laura then remarked on the fact that the Maia were already gendered in Valinor. This led Tim to wonder whether any of the other Istari were female? He also questioned whether Radagast had a staff, since there is no mention of one.

Angela drew our attention to Saruman’s comment on the ‘rods of the 5 wizards’, and concluded that Radagast must have had one.

I was interested in Saruman’s eventual fate, as his physical form was destroyed and dissipated, and I asked whether this meant that he would be denied access to Mandos. Angela and Chris both confirmed that his ‘essence’ went west and then east. Tim concluded that he was thus banished from Valinor.

We noted the care with which the Valar consult over sending the Istari as Tolkien reflects on the mistakes they had made. Manwe also (probably) consults Eru about this – Christopher includes these his father’s tentative and unresolved ideas, but this led Julie to wonder what mechanism was used to contact Eru. Chris and Angela noted that Manwe was always able to do this.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s choice of the name ‘Eru’ meaning ‘the One’, in these references and wondered why this name? Tim pointed out the definition ‘Eru who is called Iluvatar (All-Father) in Arda’. Julie remarked that Iluvatar is a title like ‘Adonai’ in the New Testament, rather than a name.

We went on to consider Gandalf again as Angela observed that Gandalf’s liveliness is ‘veiled’ in grey. Julie noted that grey is a colour associated with elves, and Laura remarked that the wizards’ colours go back to their origins in Valinor and the Valar whose Maiar they are.

Angela remarked that Gandalf has the red ring, signifying the flame of his spirit within. Tim reminded us that Gandalf is a servant of the secret fire. Chris then wondered why Saruman assumed primacy. Tim responded that he was both the eldest and the first ashore in Middle-earth. Tim also wondered if the Valar perceived the possibility of Saruman’s turn to evil and thus sent him first while they sent Gandalf quietly later to do the real work – making Saruman a stalking horse.

Chris observed that this prompts sympathy for Saruman.

Tim added that both Saruman and Sauron were mentored by Aule, and Julie noted that Aule was an equivocal presence by reason of his disobedience in creating the dwarves.

I asked everyone’s opinion of Tolkien’s brief pondering in a text of 1972 that Gandalf was ‘the last appearance of Manwe himself’. Julie considered the special relationship between Gandalf and the eagles, and also proposed that if Gandalf had been Manwe in disguise Sauron would have perceived the deception.

Laura then asked what we thought happened to Radagast – did he pass over the Sea, or did he fail because he was naive?

Tim remarked that Tolkien clearly didn’t know cats when he described the relationship between Queen Beruthiel and her cats. We all agreed that no felinophile would suggest that cats could be anyone’s slaves.

As we moved into the Palantiri chapter Laura noted that Denethor was jealous of Aragorn and Tim observed that this echoes in Faramir’s poor relationship with his father.

We all discussed Carol’s observation of the origins of the palatiri: when he’s riding with Pippin to Minas Tirith Gandalf slightly implies that Feanor made them as he’s musing on ‘seven stars and seven stones and one white tree’. Whatever Feanor has done wrong, in this passage Gandalf still reveres him.

Pat wondered how Saruman made an ‘innocent’ stone evil. Time replied that it was ‘by the way he used it’.

Angela remarked on the use of the remaining palantiri for brainwashing and reading thoughts. Laura noted that Sauron as a Maia was strong enough to control both the stone he has and its contact. Angela added that a stone was dangerous to use if it was in contact with Sauron, but Aragorn had both the strength of mind and the benefit of legitimate ownership.

Laura commented on the fact that the palantiri had largely been forgotten and noted that the exact number of them is not known, so there must have been more.

Pat asked if there had been something in the stone during the contact described in TT, but it was Pippin’s curiosity that led him to encounter Sauron.

Chris observed that it was odd, or convenient, that the stone Pippin finds lands just right. Carol comment that the palantiri were unbreakable. Indeed when Grima chucks the Orthanc stone down on Gandalf and misses, and it hits the steps, it’s the steps that crack.

Julie emailed her additional comments on the palantiri: I didn’t mention this at the meeting, but I was struck by the description of the Stones as being made out glass.  As they were black I should think this meant volcanic glass, i.e. obsidian.  This has occult connotations when used for making weapons but as a “seeing” instrument a lot of people into crystals would say that it is no use at all, as glass does not have a crystalline structure and therefore can have retained no “earth energy” (which is apparently vital if you want a sphere to have this function), unlike crystalline rock!  Just a thought.  (And the crystalline rock has to be untreated, I recall.  Crystals which have been heat-treated to improve their colour – something which routinely happens – are allegedly rendered inert by this process.)

With that we had finished Unfinished Tales. Our reading for next time is the Prologue and Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings.

First Saturday in October



Unfortunately this afternoon we were missing Julie (making Christmas puddings!), and Mike and Tim – both languishing with illness, but the rest of us had a busy afternoon. Tim, like Carol, sent comments by email which are included as appropriate here.

Before starting the discussion, Ian updated us on the fate of the pinus nigra, Tolkien’s favourite tree in the Oxford Botanical gardens which lost 2 of its major limbs during the summer and had to be cut down.

Eventually we turned our attention to our nominated reading: ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’, and ‘The Drúedain’, having briefly touched on some of its major elements ahead of Laura’s arrival, thus Laura picked up the point Eileen had mentioned – that Grimbold and Elfhelm, the 2 marshalls of the Riddermark, had compromised and co-operated although they had different ideas.

Angela, Eileen. Laura and I found the detailed strategy Tolkien describes in the battles rather difficult to engage with, and Eileen was surprised that no time was given to mourning for Theodred. We variously suggested that there was no time in such a dangerous and embattled situation, and Laura remarked that it probably represented real battle conditions such as Tolkien would have known from his time in the trenches. Laura added that Theodred is later buried in one of the barrows at Edoras, when there would have been time to mourn properly.

Ian went on to observe that the title of the volume we have been reading – Unfinished Tales – is not really accurate in the case of The Battles of Isen because this is less an ‘unfinished tale’ than an ‘Untold’ tale until now.

Laura picked up the matter of Theodred’s death when she noted that there is something mystical and/or supernatural about the way Theodred is left for the time being as if in defence of his home territory.

Chris wondered why the full story of the Battles was not included in LotR. Angela and Ian suggested that their inclusion was not structurally necessary to the development of the story.

Tim commented by email that ‘It develops events that are referred to in “The Two Towers” – I can’t tell from the notes (and may have overlooked such a note – and I haven’t got round to checking in HoME) but I wonder if Tolkien ever intended at some point to include it in LotR.’

“but the shield wall held” the battles of Isen might not be the main ones fought in the War of the Ring and left out of the main text but they are great battles nonetheless.  The Rohirrim are stern fighters and without these battles, however much defeat is suffered, they nevertheless contributed to Saruman’s final defeat in the Rohirrim’s bravery, staying power and experienced fighting. A bit like the Alamo holding back Santa Ana’s army in Texas till Sam Houston could get his act together.

Laura observed that there is no feeling for Theodred, except that Saruman targets the prince especially as a tactical move – taking out the head/commander.

Carol commented by email: ‘somewhere else in the book ‘little mistakes’ are mentioned that lead eventually to the enemy’s defeat. Here we have an example of Saruman not following through after Theodred’s death and invading the Westfold immediately: hubris’.

I suggested that Saruman’s tactic may also have been expected to weaken Theoden, who was already undermined by Grima’s influence. Laura noted the potential additional impact of Saruman’s recruitment of the Dunlendings and Angela remarked on their vengeful attitude towards the Rohirrim.

Carol commented: ‘the appendix [to the chapter] is well-written, interesting and gives a lot of otherwise unknown background. But the question does arise about the original inhabitants of Calenardhon, i.e. the Dunlendings. Superior race comes in and the natives suffer.  Who can blame the Dunlendings? and Saruman exploits this. As is said after the battle of Helm’s Deep, not in 500 years do the Dunlending forget their grievance against Rohan and it isn’t too great an exaggeration for holding grudges as witnessed in religious divisions, some longer than 500 years.

Angela went on to comment that Peter Jackson includes the Battles of Isen in his films and has been praised for this.

Laura wondered if Saruman’s forces employed a bad tactic using wolf-riders in the same as horses – which feared them.

Tim commented ‘The chapter reads very much as a part of a greater military history of the Rohirrim, in tone and content. (I meant to sit down with my Middle-earth Atlas and try to work out the details of it visually).

I could imagine it being one chapter in a long chronicle preserved by bardic tradition by a succession of bards – “Hwaet! Theodred waes god eorl” sort of thing (please excuse my rough Old English!) – and perhaps later by Gondorian scribes at Minas Tirith.’

Laura observed that throughout the Battles Tolkien’s understatement registers the horror of his own war experiences.

We moved on to consider the chapter on The Drúadain, and Angela remarked that although this race is described as ‘unlovely’ that are also said to be much respected and loved. Laura thought the description of the Drúadain reiterated Mongolian characteristics, although their glowing eyes added a mystical dimension.

Tim commented: ‘This chapter comes across very much as a pre-history, with an archaelogical/anthropological feel to its description of these primitive yet sophisticated people. Again it adds more detail to the race of “Wild Men” who keep to themselves. We encounter Ghan-buri-Ghan and his folk the Woses in RotK when they guide the Rohirrim through Drúadan Forest.’

Carol commented: ‘the Druedain are very earthy aboriginal peoples with seemingly the power of the Maiar to transfer part of themselves into inanimate objects – like Sauron and the Ring.’ Laura observed that Druedain philosophy linked to this which meant that the transference of power involved some reciprocity.

Laura and I wondered if Tolkien had in mind the Neanderthal people, I noted that they are described as painting as well as carving, and Laura remarked that their stout build was reminiscent of the prehistoric ‘Venus’ fertility carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,000 B.C.E.– 25,000 B.C.E.)

I wondered if we should understand the orcs as being superstitious in their avoidance of the wooden carvings the Drúadain made of themselves sitting on orcs which they placed at strategic places. Laura thought this was perhaps a sign that the orcs were being more practical in their dealings with the secretive and dangerous Drúadain.

However, Carol commented: ‘again we get reference to a ‘lesser’ people being ‘harried. Seems par for the course for some ‘progressive’ stronger white men whenever they’ve encountered the native population. The Drúadain have just the qualities needed for when Armageddon comes + Ray Mears.’

Eileen remarked that orcs certainly seem to be aware of the Drúadain insults.

Chris observed that the Drúadain are sensitive to changing winds like hobbits, and like them are linked to the earth. Angela remarked that they are not hobbits in their preference for drinking water and Laura suggested that in this they seem entish.

Chris then wondered why Tolkien invented the Drúadain, apart from Ghân-buri-Ghân? Angela thought it was filling in the backstory, while Laura proposed that Tolkien was depicting the diversity of the earth-dwellers. Laura also noted the great service provided by the Drúadain to other peoples, and she thought there was a resemblance between them and Tom Bombadil. Ian, however, thought this was not the case, but Laura explained that she thought they were closer to the elements – like Tom.

Angela then noted that there had been Drúadain in Numenor, even though they disliked voyages.

Eileen remarked that Drúadain laughter is contrasted to their ‘gutteral voices’, and considered this to be a comment on real communication. Chris observed that Drúadain language is not linguistically mixed with other languages of Middle-earth and that this may have been Tolkien’s reason for including them.

Ian thought this reflected Tolkien’s interest in languages, and Angela noted both Christopher and his father’s discursive work on languages.

Tim had already commented that ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’ is a very dramatic piece with a lot of rhythm to its language – describing the orcs assailing the Westfold: “They came on at great speed, and suddenly all the host burst into flame, as it seemed. Hundreds of torches were kindled from those borne by the leaders of troops, and gathering into their stream the forces already manning the west bank they swept over the Fords like a river of fire with a great clamour of hate.” (UT p.469 1998 edition)

Ian went on to observe the synchronicity of the Isen battles and the Drúadain episodes and Carol had also commented ‘here we get synchronicity with the main text of Theoden and co. also riding for Helm’s Deep and the ents ransacking Isengard.’ Synchronicity seems to evolve here as a theme.

Carol commented on a note to the chapter in which Elfhelm is said to have explained the sound of the unseen Drúadain to Merry: “nice bit of etymology going on here – a bit English folklore”. They are described as ‘woses’ [from OE wudu wasa ‘woodwose’], but also as Púkel-men from OE púcel ‘goblin, demon’.

For our next meeting we shall be reading ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’, and that will finish the book. This means that in December we shall begin reading The Lord of the Rings!

Last Saturday in September – our only meeting this month


We began this week’s meeting by welcoming back Mike and Julie and welcoming for the first time Eileen, who is new to the group and to Tolkien. Angela and Chris were not with us but sent comments on our reading: ‘The Quest for Erebor’, and ‘The Hunt for the Ring’. We did not have time for ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ so that is held over for the next meeting.

And so we began with Pat’s query concerning Elendil’s tomb – why, she asked, is it black if Tolkien always associates black with evil. Most of us pointed out that this is a generalisation that does not hold up when examined closely, and that in some cases Tolkien uses whiteness to signify evil, such as Saruman’s use of the white hand as his ‘heraldic device’.

Laura observed that in Chapter 42 ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the mariner Ishmael considers that ‘anything that is terrible seems even more horrifying when it has a ghostly whiteness.’

Mike suggested that the blackness of Elendil’s tombstone was symbolic of his fate at the hands of evil. Mike went on to consider the distance a horse could travel in one day and had discovered that it was possible to achieve 40 miles, but one Arab breed is reputed to have been able to manage 100 miles.

Ian remarked that there could be totemic significance in a horse and rider being able to cover extraordinary distances, and to the amount of land covered.

Mike compared the great distances to biblical characters living hundreds of years, and Tim wondered whether some stories involved one rider with a relay of horses.

I then asked how it could be that Azog could brand Thrór after their battle at the East Gate of Moria? Laura and Tim conjectured that the orcs might have had mobile braziers for the reforging of weapons broken in battle. Mike suggested that Azog might have carried a blade engraved with an orc symbol, and Tim questioned whether orcs actually wrote, while Mike thought they might sign themselves with something like an X.

Laura remarked that Azog’s act showed orc understanding of different cultures.

Pat then asked about the mention of the Elves’ New Year, what was the date. We found the answer in the Notes to ‘The Quest’: April 6th. Tim observed that it is also the start of the financial year!

I then mentioned that I found it interesting that Gandalf uses the Shire as a place to rest. Laura observed that he was clearly aware that the Rangers were on patrol on the borders.

I asked too what kind of disguise Gandalf might have adopted in order to get safely in and out of Dol Guldur? Laura wondered if he might have reverted to his unclothed Maia form, while Tim thought he might have adopted a ‘Sherlock’ kind of disguise – not doing anything spectacular or radical, but making subtle changes. Mike thought Gandalf could have exploited any trade into the fortress and disguised himself as a tradesman, and Tim thought he might have been disguised as a tinker – able to mend weapons and pots. Tim also noted that Dol Goldur was in the process of being rebuilt at the time. And Mike suggested he might have used his wizard’s power of influence through his voice, telling the orcs on watch: ‘This is not the wizard you are looking for’! We all liked that.

Laura then thought it odd that Gandalf suddenly remembers the key and map Thrór gave him as he travels through the Shire. I thought it was because until that time Gandalf had been seeing only the problem from a ‘southerly’ perspective, and worrying over the threat from Dol Guldur to Lorien and Rivendell. Even when he began to worry about the potential alliance between Smaug and the power in the fortress it was from that orientation. His need to take out the dragon became part of his need to protect the 2 Elven powers.

Tim put it more concisely when he identified Gandalf’s thinking as initially strategic, but then became tactical, as he realised the map and key would allow him to attack the dragon from an unexpected direction.

Laura thought it poignant that Gandalf didn’t recognise the value of Thrór’s gift. Julie wondered why Thrór still had it after so long in the dungeons of Dol Guldur, why hadn’t he been searched? Tim suggested that maps and keys could be small things, and not obvious. But Ian reminded us that the map was made on parchment.

Mike then directed us to Gandalf’s problems of persuading Thorin to accept Bilbo on the quest. We remarked on the language used as Thorin refers dismissively of Bilbo as Gandalf’s ‘darling’, and Gandalf says that he had been ‘attracted’ to the hobbit when he was a youth, meaning he appreciated the hobbit’s potential early in life.

Laura observed that we know that what appears as Gandalf’s ‘chance meeting’ is really no such thing, and Angela and Chris noted that this chapter also reminds us of the events going on in parallel with the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, namely Dáin Ironfoot and Brand fighting their own battle against Sauron’s forces. Julie noted that all the battles are encouraging gamers to take more notice.


I questioned the rejected passage in which Gandalf admits that it was annoyance at Thorin’s disdain for hobbits that made him decide to put them together. This seemed to me like a bad way of making decisions, and most unlike the Gandalf we are used to. Mike remarked that initial irritation did not rule out later mature consideration.

Laura wondered if his irritation was a consequence of a Maia taking on bodily form – with the form came the weaknesses, and we considered again why Gandalf took the form he did. Laura though the aged form was least threatening, and Tim reminded us of Gandalf’s threat to Bilbo to ‘uncloak’. Mike added the biblical reference from the transfiguration of Christ: the disciples have to bow before the brilliance of the light of Moses and Elijah.

Eileen observed that Gandalf is able to manipulate Thorin and the power of his mind takes effect through reference to the consequences of ignoring his advice. Eileen also noted Thorin’s ‘racism’ in his comments about Bilbo, and Angela and Chris remarked on ‘The Dwarves’ general contempt for the hobbits (as displayed by Thorin, Glóin and Fili), even though they don’t really know anything about them.


Mike drew our attention to the specific vocabulary Tolkien uses when Gandalf speaks of Gollum’s ‘torment’ in Barad Dûr, and Mike observed that the word has diminished in significance. Tim wondered if the word signified the use of more sophisticated techniques for interrogation in BD than the rack and thumb screws kind. Tim wondered if psychological techniques were implied.

We then went through the process of untangling the double negative of Gandalf’s comment that ‘Sauron did not underesteem the powers and vigilance of the Wise’. And Pat noted the use of the unusual word form ‘stolider’.

Pat also wondered why such a point was made of Bilbo remaining unmarried, and Mike remarked that the unmarried state was very much part of the early Inklings culture as far as C.S. Lewis was concerned. Julie commented that Bilbo nevertheless had plenty of relatives, while Laura remarked that Bilbo was saving himself for something he did not recognise (as Gandalf notes).

Tim then remarked on the increased horror of the unclad Riders, and I said that I had found the details of the Black Riders’ movements in the Shire deeply disturbing – actually knowing that it is Khamûl, the Witch King’s lieutenant, who confronted the Gaffer, and as Julie noted, also Farmer Maggott, is both more terrifying and a more powerful sign of the strength of both hobbits, but it was also remarked that it is a measure of their innocence that they are not cowed by the horror of the Riders.

Julie wondered at the terrifying power of Sauron over the Ringwraiths, and Laura considered how nervous messengers from Mordor must have been when confronting their presences in Minas Ithil and Dol Guldur.

Mike remarked on the way Tolkien sets out the process of Saruman’s jealousy over Gandalf, noting that this is an exposition of the decline of Saruman’s personality. Tim commented that Saruman envies Gandalf’s strength, and Laura wondered if the tension between the 2 wizards picked up the small politics of Oxford academic life as Tolkien knew it.

Mike noted that the films don’t explain Saruman’s malice against the Shire that Gandalf loved.

Ian observed that this kind of character development is not in LotR but Tolkien had to write it out in additional works.

Tim noted that Saruman going disguised into the Shire parallels Gandalf going disguised into Dol Guldur, and Ian observed that comparison needed to be made between the risks each wizard confronted. Angela and Chris noted ‘Saruman’s sneaky visits to the Shire disguised as Gandalf and his corruption of the Bracegirdles and Sackville-Bagginses. The events which led to the situation in The Scouring of the Shire obviously began a long way back.’

And so we ran out of time. Our next reading will be ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ and ‘The Drúedain’. We had noted some of the comments sent by Angela and Chris, the others are included here.

Quest of Erebor

This is good back story and good at “filling in” the characters. I chiefly noted the following:

  • Thorin’s arrogance. Reminded me of Boromir – see p.430 when Gandalf tells him he must go on his quest in secret with: “no messengers, heralds….” – reminiscent of Boromir blowing his horn on leaving Rivendell.
  • Very forthright arguments between Gandalf and Thorin.

Overall it was interesting to hear the story of the beginning of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point of view rather than Bilbo’s.

Hunt for the Ring

What a complex lot of events and undercurrents underlying the story we know so well!

  • Gollum being captured and tortured by Sauron, then released and caught by Aragorn
  • Saruman’s servants waylaying Sauron’s, with Sauron being aware of this but not letting on
  • The Dúnedain spying on Sauron’s servants
  • Sauron learning of the “dream” verse
  • The interception of Wormtongue and the squint-eyed Southerner by the Nazgûl
  • The Lord of the Nazgûl’s role in stirring up the Old Forest and the Barrow-wights

I think the attack on the Dúnedain by the Nazgûl is a very grim episode. These were the toughest guys in Middle-earth and yet “their hearts misgave them “and all were killed or driven off. The trauma and shame of the survivors must have been considerable.

The description of Aragorn’s journey with the captured Gollum (900 miles on foot in 50 days over a lot of difficult terrain!) perhaps explains why Aragorn’s attitude to Gollum at the Council of Elrond was less than compassionate. It must have been impossible for him to get any sleep without tying Gollum up. This is not to mention the lengthy search – in the most noxious and dangerous parts of Middle-earth – which preceded the capture.


Last Saturday in August


It was quite an unusual meeting this afternoon, what with the sudden intrusion of a Lancaster bomber overhead, the lack of 3 of our usual participants, the addition of an accidental new member, and lots of cake! Added to this, Laura brought photos of the triumph of the LonCon masquerade tableau in which Ian had taken the role of Manwë, and Laura had participated in the construction of the spectacular costumes using her beading skills to create decorations, details, and jewellery.

Eventually we turned our attention from the Valar, and cake, to our text: ‘The Disaster of the Gladden Fields’ and ‘Cirion and Eorl’. As in other weeks, Carol sent her comments which are included here.

Angela began our discussion with her observation that Meneldur was glad to be rid of Isildur in the north, and that at last the ancient names now become personalities.

Carol commented:  this was when Isildur wrote his piece about the ring 3434 which Gandalf found and read millinia later.

Boromir inherits Isildur’s pride over the ring and like him realises his mistake before death, surely a cause for Mandos’ grace in both cases, even though the forgiveness is death.

Laura noted that Isildur’s force is ambushed by a band of LOST orcs. Angela added that they didn’t know Sauron had been destroyed, so they were just doing what orcs do, there was no higher command driving them. Laura remarked that they were like the Japanese soldiers at the end of WW2 who held out in the jungle unaware that the war was over.

Laura also noted that the Ring is depicted in this chapter as having greater volition, that it behaves like a puppet-master, and that it’s real presence is more evident.

Chris observed that the description of ‘lurking orcs’ implies that their assault on Isildur was not a determined attack.

Laura then queried the number of Elendilmirs (the single Elvish crystal set in a fillet of mithril worn in place of a crown by kings of Gondor). Angela confirmed there were 2, because a second was made after the first was lost with Isildur.

Pat asked for clarification about the pain Isildur suffers when he puts on the Ring. We explained about the heat of Sauron’s hand lingering. Angela responded by asking whether Isildur felt the pain permanently. Laura wondered whether Isildur’s cry of pain was one of mental anguish, and thought the Ring was like a drug, causing mental and physical anguish.

Pat went on to ask whether the Ring was capable of changing shape because it slipped off Isildur’s hand. I thought there was a statement in LotR to this effect and Angela wondered if this was why Bilbo put the Ring on a chain.

Chris thought the effect of the Ring brought Isildur close to suicide. Angela noted that he admits to his son that he has not the strength to control it. Chris also wondered if Elendil was taking the Ring with him to Rivendell whether he did not know the Ring’s danger? Carol commented, ‘Isildur’s wife and son are at Rivendell, interested to check but only Valandil, the youngest son is mentioned! [All the other sons are riding with Elendil, which bears out Carol’s further comment] All women seem fit for is bearing sons who’ll grow up to die in battle’.

Laura remarked that the chapter shows that even after victory the world is still a dangerous place.

I noted that in this short chapter there were lots of details of battle tactics, and Laura observed that this may be evidence of Tolkien’s time in the Officer Training Corps before WW1.

Angela liked the section on Gimli helping Aragorn (King Elessar) searching Orthanc after the fall of Saruman, in which Gimli’s help leads to the discovery of a ‘steel closet’ found to contain the chain on which Isildur had worn the Ring, and the original Elendilmir. Carol commented:  ‘I like this section because it puts a bit more flesh on the bones of the post-war story. Nothing could really be worse than Saruman’s treachery but finding all these stolen treasures just compounds his crime’.

Angela then remarked on the amount of detail included in the Notes to this chapter, and on the time scale illustrating the long wait for the right king.

Chris wondered if the Great Plague that decimated Gondor affected the Orcs as well. It seems that it did not, so Chris wondered if it came from Sauron. Angela noted that a Númenórean king and his whole family were killed by plague. Laura compared this to the flu pandemic after WW1. Chris then observed that no mundane illnesses are mentioned. I suggested that you can’t have colds in epics, but Angela pointed out that Bilbo gets one in The Hobbit!

We moved on to discuss Cirion and Eorl and the threat posed by the Wainriders out of the east. Chris and Angela remarked on their use of fortified camps of wagons and we discussed the configuration of ‘wains’, as well as the Wainriders’ use of chariots in battle.

Laura and Carol and I all approved of Galadriel’s protective mist created to shield Eorl’s eohere (horse-army) from the surveillance of Dol Guldur as they rode south.

Carol commented on ‘Cirion and Eorl’, ‘what a nice story, putting a bit more flesh onto the bones of TS record. Foretaste of Éomer and Aragorn. Nice revelation of where Elendil is buried. He wasn’t just left to rot in the ruins of Mordor – as if. What else can I say?’

Carol commented on ‘the northmen and the wainriders’: ‘this is like reading “real” history. It also shows Gondor might have grown too proud to even remember the men of the north whom Faramir would call men of the twilight. But they WILL remember eventually and be thankful for the friendship.

No wonder Dagorlad had turned into such a noisome swamp – the dead marshes – when so many people had been killed there and left to rot. If this was really history I think I’d get bored reading about all the fighting but this is Tolkien and as it says on p. 290 without the ride of Eorl and Théoden in the future, the king couldn’t have returned in LotR.’


Carol also asked:

(1) Doesn’t Ondoher (King of Gondor during the assaults of the Wainriders) have spies or scouts? And don’t the enemies have spies or scouts either?

(2) 15 days to travel nearly 1000 miles on horseback, approx. 66 miles per day – can this be done?

(3) was Elendil buried at Halifirien?  If not, what was in the casket that Isildur buried there? And if not, where did Elendil lie?


‘ Numenorean linear measures’

All this section did was send me to my sums. I’m surprised that Numenor was decimal. Decimals have no heart and are cold in colour – black, pale blue and white, whereas old measurements and money are rich in colour and tradition and have grown organically.

We ran out of time at the end of the meeting and did not get round to discussing what to read next. As we have such a long break before our next meeting on 27th September, I suggest at least the next 2 sections of Unfinished Tales. More of course will be fine.



August – First Saturday


It was good to have Julie back with us again this week, and Carol had sent her comments  again as our reading this week picked up Unfinished Tales at ‘The Line of Elros’ and ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’.  But after our usual foray into AOB (any other business), which included Ian recommending the book he had just read Carl Phelpstead’s Tolkien and Wales  for its attention to Arthurian material and the little-known ‘Aotrou and Itroun’. We then noted that ‘Aragorn’s Sword’ from the LotR films is coming up for auction – thanks to Laura’s mother for the newspaper cuttings – we took on the question of ‘whether Elves can commit suicide’. This was a question from a non-Southfarthing member which prompted opposing answers from Laura and me at the time, and elicited a range of responses at the meeting.

My immediate response had been that Elves can commit suicide, but Laura had asserted that this was not possible because they were tied to the existence of Arda. Angela reminded us that Feänor’s mother gave up her life, and it was variously noted that Elves can be re-incarnated, or may be left in the Halls of Mandos, from which Ian extrapolated the suggestion that they could commit relinquish their lives but would be judged by Mandos according to whether they were culpable or whether they deserved to be re-incarnated because their relinquishment amounted to a selfless act.

Angela gave the example of Glorfindel1 who sacrificed his life battling a balrog during the Fall of Gondolin and was later reincarnated in the Second Age. I thought Amroth probably counted as culpable for throwing away his life in a tempestuous sea even though he was in love.

Chris then pointed out the fascinating fact that all the Elves who sail into the West may be said to be giving up on life, and Tim thought this was true of Frodo, although/because he has suffered so much he cannot sustain living any longer.

We considered situation of Arwen, who gives her immortality to Frodo, as well as the situation of Elros and Elrond, one of whom relinquishes immortality in favour of eventual death. Angela then drew our attention to the practice of Númenórean kings who originally laid down their lives and chose when to die.

This rather neatly brought us to ‘The Line of Elros’. Laura said she found it ‘rivetting’ and observed that it reads rather like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, including specific forms of words for dying. It also shows evidence of political thinking. Tim observed that its form equates to tasters of information that prompt the reader’s interest, and that the list of kings emphasises Aragorn’s nobility and lineage.

Tim then noted that the 13th king refused to ‘lay down his life’ and this was part of his general rebelliousness.

Angela observed that the 5th king, Tar-Meneldur, resigned his kingship in favour of his son Aldarion because he realised he was not up to the job.

Laura then noted that Aldarion’s daughter rejected her father’s connections with Gil-galad, but Angela remarked that this showed the extent to which she was influenced by her mother Erendis. I thought it showed that she had no grasp of ‘foreign policy’ and Angela observed that it showed that she was lacking the influence of her father.

Angela went on to notice that Aldarion’s daughter Ancalimë gives rise to a number of female rulers, and a number of daughters who refused to rule.

Laura remarked that the sceptre of Numenor was the sign of the right to rule as it was in Egypt and is in England. Angela observed that this is the sceptre brought by Elrond to the coronation of Aragorn.

Laura then noted that there is a mention of Sauron’s presence later in Numenor, but it is not  developed. She also remarked that by noticing the length of each ruler’s reign it is possible to see the life spans of rulers diminishing.

Ian considered that the great life spans are an effective way of constructing a sense of great spans of time passing.

Laura then remarked that the story of the queen Tar-Miriel is worthy of a book on its own. While Angela joined her in observing that Tar-Atanamir the Great (the 13th king) was dragon-like in his greed. Angela added that the 12th, Tar-Ciryatan, bullied his father out of the crown.

I was interested in the cultural situation during the reign of Tar-Ancalimon when Elvish fell out of favour in the Royal house except for the royal titles which were still in Quenya ‘out of ancient custom rather than love, for fear lest the breaking of the old usage should bring ill-fortune’. I took this to indicate that the dilution or loss of meaning of an historical tradition leads to superstition.

I then questioned why Tolkien created so many versions of some of the most important elements of his stories – even ones already published, or otherwise regarded as completed. Ian suggested that the various versions represented what Tolkien regarded as improvements, but that he was always writing in small chunks. In the case of ‘Galadriel and Celeborn’ the various version might be understood as ‘frames’ which could then be put together.

Laura observed that Tolkien clearly lived with his head full of ideas which needed to be expressed. Ian added that Tolkien recognised that his languages needed stories in which they could ‘live’.

Moving on to ‘Galadriel and Celeborn’, I noted that Galadriel, as one of the Noldor, is described as having been a pupil of  Aulë  and we had previously observed that Aulë’s pupils all tended towards rebellion of various kinds, following (apparently) their master’s original act of disobedience in making the Dwarves. Carol commented:  “Sauron like others who grab power – Saruman, Feänor e.g. – in that he is associated with Aulë who also overreaches himself in creating the Dwarves but unlike the others, comes back into Eru’s fold.”

Tim declared Galadriel to be a rebel, while Laura suggested that at least she was honest with herself when she rejected the pardon of the Valar. Angela added that when she is described as ‘fighting alongside Celeborn at the Kinslaying’ she sounds like a warrior but the concept of fighting probably indicates something other than armed activity.

This led us on to considerations of female warrior elves (!), which then led to the conduct of Thranduil in the second Hobbit film.  Carol had commented that in Appendix B ‘The Sindarin Princes of the Silvan Elves’: “I like it when you get little snippets not found elsewhere or rarely, like Oropher as Thranduil’s dad. Oropher dies at the last alliance.” Angela noted that in the story Thranduil is shown to be clearly traumatised by his participation in the Battle of the Last Alliance.

Tim observed that Appendix E gave a detailed analysis of the names ‘Galadriel’ and ‘Celeborn’ in various forms. Angela then raised the unfortunate matter of Celeborn’s Telerin name, which is given as ‘Teleporno’. Obviously Tolkien could not have known how the final syllable of this name would come to resonate with unpleasant modern significance. This reminded us that we had noted other instances where some elements of Tolkien’s terminology, used at a time when they were entirely proper and innocent, have since changed their connotations, most notably his use of ‘queer’ – peculiar, and ‘gay’ – merry and lively.

Carol commented:  “Interesting this section, names are very important. Is it right that if you know someone’s/something’s true name you have power over them? Treebeard says that names are like a story, they grow and change as we do, hence different names for different stages of life, e.g. Túrin.

Ian then asked why we thought Christopher was so bothered about his father’s non-statement about what happened to the 7 Rings in spite of giving details about Sauron’s raid and theft of the 9 after torturing Celebrimbor. Tim reminded us of the earlier observation that Tolkien needed to record all his ideas, while Julie remarked that in real life we find many variants of histories and myths, and a lack of coherence.

Carol had commented on the story of The Elessar: “The use of ‘the one’ flummoxed me for a second equating it with Eru but it obviously means the one ring. This section doesn’t really grab me but I will say in the mode of ‘real’ legends the story of the Elessar is capable of different spins, like for e.g. different versions of Arthur.”

Julie then went on to observe that reference to the Numenorean fleet approaching Eriador serves as a pre-echo of the Black Ships, when the identity as friend or foe is not known.

Having run out of time, we quickly agreed that for our next meeting we would read the chapters ‘The Gladden Fields’ and ‘Cirion and Eorl’.

Carol’s comments follow here:


Nowt much to say really about the monarchs of Numenor except to remark on the descent of the use of regal powers – mercy, justice etc, but we know all about that.


‘the role and importance of Galadriel only emerged slowly’ – the creation of the backstory to Lorien etc.

I like this little tale of Galadriel’s refusing a strand of her hair to Feänor to put into the silmarils but 3 Ages later she gives 3 strands to Gimli from a race supposedly very antipathetic towards Elves.  I also like the use of ‘unfriend’ with regard to Galadriel’s and Feänor’s relationship, like ‘unlight’ referring to Ungoliant.

‘Concerning Galadriel and Celeborn’

Mention of them having a son Amroth (eventually of Dol) but this is nowhere mentioned in LotR where they only have one child, Celebrian, Arwen’s mam.

Lots of other 2nd Age history – the fall of celebrimbor and co; the setting up of Rivendell; Sauron’s rise and fall and festering hatred. Interesting but no great comment like the stories of individuals.

Galadriel’s coming to Rivendell with Celeborn seeking Celebrian whom she find there. 2 thing: this is probably when Elrond meets Celebrian and Celeborn returns to Rivendell after Galadriel has departed at the end of LotR and from where supposedly he rides from for the havens at an unspecified time. Can never understand why he hasn’t gone with Galadriel.

‘Amroth and Nimrodel’

Another ill-fated love story, very airy-fairy romantic. In today’s ethos of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, it all seems a bit elasticated, even for me who’s views now seem old fashioned.  They debate, get separated, lose each other. If Nimrodel loved Amroth why the hell didn’t she just marry him?

About Elves being beardless – Cirdan is described as having a beard!

Of all the names and interpretations of names for Lothlorien my favourite will always be Laurelindorinan, ‘land of the valley of singing gold’ (Treebeard) (Llanfer…gogogo eat your heart out) it just makes you want to find it and live there. Gorgeous.

‘Appendix C The Boundaries of Lorien’

I like the way Tolkien use s the prefix ‘un’ in unusual ways, here in ‘undeep’ meaning shallow. see above.

‘Appendix D The Port of Lond Daer’

Just a general comment about deforestation – men just don’t seem to be able to help themselves. Trees are easy pickings because they can’t fight back. Not even Ents could have stopped the massive destruction.

Comment about the ‘courage and hardihood required’ for Boromir’s journey to Rivendell not being fully mentioned in LotR. Could be because Boromir vaunts it so much, enough to make even Bilbo sarcastic.

Last Saturday in July


Our meeting this afternoon was a little depleted, with Tim, Julie and Mike all busy elsewhere, as befits a hot summer Saturday! We needed windows open and fans at full power in the seminar room. Anne has also been out of action after a nasty encounter with a comfy chair, but Pat was with us again, having braved the uncertainties of the buses.

Our nominated reading was ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s imaginative re-creation of the original folk story underlying the Beowulf poem, but before we turned our attention to that, Ian updated us on the remarkable computer model he has created of ‘Thackley’, the house built for Joseph Wright in early 20th century Oxford, and thus the house in which Tolkien had tutorials with Wright while an undergraduate. We all congratulated Ian on his detailed work on the 3D walk-around model, and hope he will consider making it accessible to a wider audience at some point.

Angela then launched us into our chosen text with her observation that the prose ‘Sellic Spell’ and its shorter companion piece in verse ‘The Lay of Beowulf’ were both easier than the Beowulf translation itself.

Ian remarked that ‘Sellic Spell’ has a touch of Roverandom about it, reading like a useful version of the Beowulf story for children, as well as showing where the OE story comes from. Laura described ‘Sellic Spell’ as the afternoon version, suitable for a matinee! Ian commented that the change of names delivers a very different story.

Pat picked up the idea of names and expressed her delight in the names in ‘Sellic Spell’, in their translated form they can be seen to be very apt as Beowulf becomes Beewolf (i.e. ‘bear’), Unferth becomes Unfriend, and Hondscio becomes Handshoe (i.e. glove), and Grendel becomes Grinder. Each name defines the special ability or quality that defines the character, e.g. Handshoe has a special attribute in his gloves with which he can complete extraordinary tasks. Pat specifically noted how Beewolf’s strength was specifically that associated with a bear – strength of hand and arm.

Laura observed that although the 3 characters have special characteristics, it is Beewolf’s strength that lasts better in ‘Sellic Spell’.

Ian noted that this could not be the case in the OE Beowulf because that deals with the aging process.

Laura thought the names in ‘Sellic Spell’ were more Anglo-Saxon than in Beowulf.

Ian noted that this reminded him of Egil’s Saga and the bear-like strength of Skallagrim. Angela remarked that Beewolf reminded her of Beorn in The Hobbit.

Pat then noted the number of times distinctive trios of names are found in Tolkien’s works, as with Beewolf, Unfriend and Handshoe, but also many in LotR, of whom she named Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli, but we recognised many others.

Laura commented that she was interested in the invented detail that Beewolf was found as a child living with bears, and compared this to the present-day fascination with children said to have been found living among animals.

Chris then startled us with his question about the form of ‘Sellic Spell’ – does it constitute an example of Tolkien writing fan-fiction? This really made us sit up and think. There was some concern to define what we identified as fan-fiction. Ian thought there is a difference between a writer working a folk-tale mode and those just extrapolating from existing work, because a folk-tale is a composite by many different ‘authors’.

I wondered if we should not consider LotR a kind of fan-fiction if we were identifying that mode of writing as merely extrapolating from existing works because we can so easily identify the presence in LotR of many sources.

Chris added that where folk-tales show a need to develop a motif along similar lines, Tolkien was always writing his own version.

Pat noted an instance of Tolkien’s individual development when she drew attention to his insertion of Unfriend’s his length of rope in the episode of the Mere. Although this is completely absent from the Mere episode in Beowulf Chris noted that it does have echoes in LotR when Sam uses his rope on the Emyn Muil, and Angela noted the similarity between the waterfall described in Tolkien’s version of the Mere episode and the Window on the West in LotR.

Chris observed that there are many more similarities between LotR and ‘Sellic Spell’, right down to the level of shared phrases.

Pat noted that there are more extended use of runes in LotR than in ‘Sellic Spell’, where they are only used for names on swords. Ian was puzzled by references to Hrunting being given, cast aside, then returned, and this led on to Pat wondering who the old sword in the cave had belonged to.

Angela noted that there are references to the state of being ‘unfriend’ in The Silmarillion.

Pat was interested in the difference between possible examples of ‘magic’ in ‘Sellic Spell’, such as the melting of the ancient sword, and the construction of ‘wizardry’ in LotR. Sadly we did not develop this complicated topic, but we did give further thought to Pat’s observation that the baleful light in Grinder’s eyes goes out once he has been beheaded. This sequence is not the same as that in the OE poem, but Laura observed that the poetic ‘Lay of Beowulf’ shows Tolkien trying out a different version of Grendel/ Grinder’s eyes.

I then confessed to a late-breaking moment of enlightenment when reading Christopher Tolkien’s comments about the formation of the ‘Sellic Spell’ text. What I read was

“The manuscript C was closely followed by a careful typescript ‘D’ that in all probability I made at the same time as my typescript of the translation of Beowulf.”

For years CT’s dedication to editing and publishing what his father left has impressed me for the selfless effort involved. But suddenly I realised the extent to which CT has always had a vested interest in the editing and publishing process because he had been so constantly involved as his father’s informal amanuensis. In effect, it seemed to me, CT’s efforts to get his father’s remaining works published are also an acknowledgement of his own participation in the developmental process.

Ian observed that in these last books that he has edited CT has been less constrained about his involvement, and Angela wondered if CT’s preoccupation with his father’s work had contributed to the failure of his own first marriage.

Having finished the Beowulf book, we agreed that for our next meeting we will return to Unfinished Tales and pick up our reading with ‘The Line of Elros’ and ‘Galadriel and Celeborn’.




First Saturday in July


We continued this afternoon with our reading of the Beowulf translation. To begin with Ian updated us on his review of the significance of the publication of the three latest Tolkien works: Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur and Beowulf. I then diverted us slightly back to our last meeting and Tim’s response to Pat’s question about the significance of ‘twisted gold’ in the text – Tim had suggested that it implied an added value. While reading for other reasons, I had come across a text that I thought shed some light on this:

Emilie Amt’s book on women in medieval Europe includes examples of the wills of Anglo-Saxon women and in one of these is a woman named Wynflæd (d. c. 950) who bequeathed to Eadwold (a man) ‘her gold adorned wooden cup in order that he may enlarge his armlet with the gold’.

Tim remarked that perhaps the increasing of a man’s ‘beag’ (armlet/arm-ring) in this way approximated the adding of ‘ribbons’ to medals – a sign of personal worth rewarded rather than mere monetary value.

Ian suggested that the gift implied added status for the man, while I thought it might also signal to others his place in an important relationship, since the woman was wealthy enough not just to bequeath the gold-covered cup, but had the status that allowed her the privilege of making a will – not something many women could achieve.

Laura thought there was an historic dimension implied in the making, and reworking, of jewellery, establishing a connection with ancestral skills in society.

Ian directed our attention to Tolkien’s long commentary on the place of Christianity within the Beowulf poem. I remarked that the whole section read rather as though Tolkien was ‘evangelising’. Ian responded by observing that Tolkien was arguing for the way his students should approach the text, and that the poem was originally educating its audience in the mixing of Christianity in the heroic age. We noted that the translation pre-dates Tolkien’s seminal essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.

Laura turned our attention then to the matter of the comparison between the 2 queens the virtuous Hygd and the cruel maiden Þryđ (Thryth) who then becomes the perfect queen when married to the right man. Angela suggested that this was the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ motif, and indeed Klaeber noted as much in his OE edition of the poem.

Laura noted that the Commentary reveals the problem of the ‘difficult bits’ of the poem – lines and sections which resist definitive translation and which are shown to admit various possible translations.

I mentioned that while reading and checking various bits of the translation against the Klaeber OE edition I had come across the term hysteron proteron. Investigating it revealed its classical Greek origin as a rhetorical device in which the natural order of chronological events is reversed. Ian suggested the example ‘put on your shoes and socks’ – logic tells us we can’t put socks on after putting on shoes. The Beowulf poem includes not only this rhetorical device, but further reading shows it to be full of others, some of which can be seen to influence Tolkien’s prose in LotR. Angela recalled an example of hysteron proteron in the chapter ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’ when Aragorn had ‘neither rested nor slept’. Ian, using his palantir, discovered the website Silva rhetorica which confirmed the definition of hysteron proteron.

Part of the difficulty of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation, where the syntax is indeed strangely contorted, must be due to his wish to retain the underlying significance implied by the original use of rhetorical devices. These are detailed in a Christian context in a work by Bede, although Tolkien probably knew them anyway from his early training as a classicist.

Ian observed that, as in the poem, Tolkien reuses various terms and, as in the poem, that reuse brings in additional significance from the external sources. If a translator oversimplifies a translation some of that is bound to be lost.

Laura then asked if we should not give some thought to the dragon? And quoted Tolkien’s assertion that ‘a dragon is a dragon’, but that the dragon might also be seen as old age – the one thing Beowulf the hero cannot overcome – the final defeat. Time wondered if the dragon fight was a metaphor for Beowulf battling himself and his reputation in old age, while Ian wondered if the dragon represented the Geats themselves.

Ian observed that in the final battle Wiglaf is the human hero in place of Beowulf the mythic hero who was also the totem of his kingdom, holding it together, but who can no longer exist in the newer world. Ian went on to note that Beowulf’s slaying of the dragon is not wholly welcome because he dies and leaves his people open to attack by the Swedes.

Laura commented that Wiglaf’s last speech of rebuke to the men of the household who could not face the dragon reminded her of the old retainer’s ‘mod scal þe mære…’ exhortation at the end of the Battle of Maldon – an injunction to stand and fight or face inevitable destruction. Beowulf’s Geats will be overrun by their Swedish enemies because Beowulf dies as the English will be overrun by Vikings (also mostly Swedes!) at Maldon.

Tim noted that after the dragon is killed many twisted armlets are discovered and Laura described the investigation of the barrow as like an Anglo-Saxon ‘Time Team’ as the Geats excavate many ancient objects from it. Ian added that there is then a realisation that this is a bad move as they finally rebury the treasure.

This led us to finding clear links with Tolkien’s stories when Tim remarked on the discovery of the ‘ancient blades’ in the Barrow-wight’s mound and Angela noted the discovery of the Elven swords in the troll cave in The Hobbit. Tim noted that Beowulf’s sword Nailing fails in his last conflict as Narsil fails Elendil in his confrontation with the great destructive force that was Sauron.

Laura remarked that the blade of the giant sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel’s mother melts away as does the blade of the Morgul knife used to stab Frodo, and Angela noted the same melting of the blade of Merry’s sword after he stabs the Lord of the Nazgûl. We considered the difference between the 2 instances of melting.

Chris observed that the treatment of swords in LotR and TH suggests the societies represented in those stories are ‘deskilled’, because there is a constant reliance on old swords and ancestral artefacts.

Ian thought this implied the need for special attributes in order to be able to wield those special items.

Chris added that there is plenty of ‘new weaponry’ such as catapults and ‘dynamite’ (Saruman’s blasting fire), but these weapons do not have ‘status’.

Laura observed that for the Anglo-Saxons any marvellous sword of ancient ancestry ‘might’ have been forged by the mythic Germanic smith Weland.

I had drawn attention to a Bilbo and Frodo moment in the translation where a corslet, sword and ring are passed by an old warrior to a younger one, and Ian remarked that when weapons are given as gifts the relationship between the donor and recipient is protected by the giving.

Ian noted that dire consequences were associated with dragon treasure in the poem so it was returned to the earth and stories were made about it instead.

Angela also noted that the dragon is said to have burned itself, and Laura remarked that Beowulf gets hot under his masked helmet, which reminded her of the Sutton Hoo helmet with its mask (OE grima), which may have belonged to Rædwald.

Tim then thought he spotted a ‘fox’ moment – in the translation/poem when the raven is mentioned. I noted that the raven is in association with the eagle and the wolf and together they are the Anglo-Saxon ‘beasts of battle’.

Chris observed that the pessimistic tone of the Beowulf poem and translation fits perfectly with Tolkien’s other work which does not specialise in happy endings. Ian remarked that this pessimism represented northern acceptance of ‘how things are’ – there is no salvation in the pagan northern tradition [something Tolkien picks up and deals with in Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics], and Laura noted that there is no sense that Beowulf is going to heaven in spite of all the biblical references.

After an afternoon’s wide-ranging and quite intense discussion (at times), we agreed that for our next meeting we would finish reading the Commentary and the ‘Sellic Spell’.


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