Last Meeting in February

28.02.15
For the first time in ages 10 of us gathered to continue accompanying Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin on their dangerous journey into Bree and beyond. Carol joined the quest by email as usual. Some of her comments are in the report, the rest are added at the end.
Angela began our discussion with her remark that the ‘Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’ chapters include a good deal of xenophobia with guarded comments among the characters about ‘outsiders’ and ‘Southerners’. Laura wondered if this was Tolkien’s vision of insular reaction to the arrival of the Saxon tribes.
Tim observed that this was an extension of the concept of an insular society which in LotR includes Hobbiton. The insularity there might be compared to the situation in Buckland, although there is very little sign of interaction with the world outside the Shire here too, and even the Old Forest is ‘insulated’ from outside influences. Tim also noted that there are more different kinds of people in Bree but it is still an insular community.
Angela noted that Bree is protected by Rangers, but while the inhabitants of the Shire don’t know about the protecting Rangers, the folk of Bree know the Rangers but not their function.
Ian commented that the Breelanders think the Rangers are vagabonds, and though the Big Folk are part of their everyday lives, they still think of Strider as an outsider.
Eileen remarked that at this first reading (for her) she doesn’t know if the Rangers can be trusted, or Strider.
I raised Carol’s point about topography of Breeland and beyond being the history of Middle-earth, telling obliquely of the Last Alliance. Tim commented that the hobbits experience a ‘Tour Guides’ during this early part of the story as a succession characters lead and educate the hobbits in the wider world and its history.
Ian compared Tom Bombadil, who can tell the hobbits everything, while Strider relates extracts of historical epics to them because he’s part of the ongoing epic, but Tom IS the narrative, having lived it.
Laura observed that we don’t know anyone from 3,000 years ago in England, but in Middle-earth historical figures from that ancient date are known. Ian commented that this is because there are immortal beings able to remember and transmit.
I then mentioned the gatekeeper’s recognition of the hobbits by their Shire dialect, and Angela and Julie both noted that Sam’s suspicions of Strider are in part aroused by the fact that his mode of speech changes during the first evening. Angela wondered whether Sam’s distrust of Strider was due to his limited experience.
In answer to Carol’s wondering who climbed over the gate, we noted that Harry Goatleaf was not a good gatekeeper because both Strider climbed over the gate and the he let Black Riders through.
Ian noted that there are 3 time during which the oddness of the appearance of the Shire hobbits is commented upon, including by the passing fox in the Shire.
Laura remarked that the Prancing Pony chapter is humorous, adding new characters, and Angela cited Butterbur’s observation that ‘There was too much of that Mr. Underhill to go vanishing…’ Ian thought the chapter adds drama.
Tim commented that this chapter is Frodo’s first use of the Ring in public. Angela reminded us that he had used it in Tom’s house, and Tim added that Bree is its first perilous use.
Laura remarked that the Ring has perhaps become a character in its own right now the Black Riders are in the vicinity.
Laura and Tim both turned their attention to the Cat and Fiddle Song, and noted that the song creates its own history, and that Bob, Butterbur’s help, has a cat.
Ian thought the song was a cute way of taking a bit of folklore and appropriating it to his own ends.
Laura then wondered if Fatty Lumpkin could have been the model for the Prancing Pony inn sign, or is Fatty a descendant of the Mearas? Angela remarked that Fatty does not seem to be a mortal horse. Tim raised a possible connection with Orome the hunter and thus the Vala most associated with horses. Then we wondered why Sam called the pony ‘Bill’, and Tim replied that it may have been to signify that Ferny was no better than a pony.
Eileen wondered if Sam throwing an apple at Bill Ferny might not have fired up Ferny even more, considering his apparently wicked character. Tim thought Sam’s reaction to Ferny’s snide insults was the apt response to a bully. Eileen observed that this is the first time Sam fights back.
We then considered the gatekeeper as Julie remarked that the gatekeeper has been consorting with Ferny. Mike commented that a gate implies a different set of rules and someone in charge, like the city-states of ancient Greece. Ian compared the gate into the Old Forest, and remarked that the Bree gate seems to indicate administration and organisation but there is no sign of this, only a general wariness.
I wondered whether Strider’s admission that he has ‘rather a rascally look’ is just a sign of his hard life, or whether it is something he cultivates. Angela replied that he may be intended to give the Breelanders something to look at! Tim observed that it is better to go unwashed in the wild so as not to be noticed.
When I asked Carol’s question relating to Tom’s, and now Strider’s use of the 3rd person when referring to himself, Ian considered ‘Strider’ to be a character guide and he thought that like ‘Tom Bombadil’ it signified that he was not a ‘white knight’ hero, but each was still accepted as a guide. Angela thought it connoted Strider’s vulnerability, while Eileen thought the use of an alias distanced his persona. Mike expanded on this by suggesting that when Strider refers to himself in the 3rd person he is acknowledging this as a persona with a separate role.
Tim suggested it hinted at the affectations of kingship, and I digressed by mentioning that in Elizabethan times the theory of ‘the King’s Two Bodies’ separated the physical body of the monarch from the monarch as head of the body politic and conveyer of the legitimate blood royal.
Ian suggested that Strider’s variable identity reminds us that Tolkien did not know what would come next once the hobbits reached Bree.
Carol’s question ‘why is Bill Ferny like he is?’ produced a variety of replies:
Ian replied that we get our opinion of him from what we are told. Julie said some people are just like it, while Eileen wondered if it was because he was consigned to the margin of the village, living close to one of the gates. Angela remarked that Strider knows Ferny as a spy.
Laura then observed that these chapters are full of ‘sayings’, like Butterbur’s ‘one thing and another …have jogged my memory, as the saying goes.’
Julie than asked a question I had wondered about ‘why do the Black Riders take so long to get from the ferry to Crickhollow? Tim suggested it was because their horses needed to rest. I thought it was because they needed to search Buckland. Tim then discovered Tolkien’s explanation in his Companion to LotR in which Tolkien explains that stealth is needed and the Riders have to wait for night to approach the house.
Laura raised the matter of the Black Breath and wondered how it worked and what it was for? Mike thought it was like a truth drug or a hallucinogenic drug.
Laura also wondered why, when he knew how unreliable Butterbur could be, Gandalf left such an important letter with him to be sent on to Frodo. Eileen wondered if the delay was more than just Butterbur’s forgetfulness. Tim thought it showed the consequences of a simply breakdown in communications, and Laura reminded us that Tolkien had been a communications officer during the First World War.
Tim then wondered whether the Black Riders didn’t like loud noises because they disperse at the sound of shouts and the horn calls of Buckland. Angela noted that these chapters are full of soft sounds associated with the Riders. Pat, who had joined us late but with enthusiasm, compared the magical sound of Tom’s song. Tim observed a future echo in the sound of the cockcrow, and its positive effect both in Crickhollow and in Bree.
In response to Carol’s suggestion that the opening of the ‘Knife’ chapter is the only time the narrative diverts from the main push forward. We considered whether it was a digression but Julie commented that it explains Frodo’s dream in Bree of the horn blowing. Angela proposed that it fulfilled the need for a backstory to Fatty’s heroism. Ian noted that the ‘Fear Fire Foe’ is matched at the end of the chapter by the revelation that the Black Riders can ‘smell blood’.
As we didn’t get very far with our discussion of the ‘Knife in the Dark’ we agreed to finish this next time and read ‘The Flight to the Ford’ so as to finish Book 1 before going any further.

Carol’s additional comments:

Trust a hobbit (Merry) to gain ‘one crumb of comfort’ from the disastrous delay caused by the loss of the ponies – and more than a crumb!

I like this episode with Ferny and Sam – a bit of levity before going into the wild. In the end things will work out proper between Ferny and his ‘poor old pony’.

First meeting in February

14.02.15
We began our meeting with ‘any other business’ as usual, including my own discovery that a local street had once been known as Bagrow, and that 2 fields had been known as Greater and Little Bucklands. It seems, however, that lots of places have areas known as Buckland – nicely traditional!
Eventually we got round to our reading this week which was ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, ‘The Prancing Pony’, and ‘Strider’. Carol had sent her comments which are included in the body of this report, although we didn’t cover as much material as Carol! But her additional comments will be included next time.
In fact we addressed some of Carol’s points first as she commented from last time: Tim’s got a good memory remembering Tom as part of the song of creation. It was probably me that made the comment and i’ve said it again, there’s something in Tom’s ability to know the tune – vibration – of things and I can’t quite get my head round it. Any ideas? I think it’s important.

Carol also noted that Tom Bombadil mainly wears primary colours, and the group’s response was the observation that these are ‘originary’ colours, those from which all others are made. It was also observed that Tom’s primary colours contrast sharply with Saruman who breaks the unity of white into many colours.
While analysing Tom’s colours Angela noted that apart from his initial clothes, his face is red. Julia added that he includes white in the form of the swan wing-feather.
We went on to consider Tom’s ability to control his environment and Angela observed that in the long poem of the Adventures of Tom Bombadil we learn that Tom learns his methods of control over other things.
Tim returned to colours when he remarked that as the hobbits leave Tom’s house the colours worn by Goldberry echo the colours in the description of Frodo’s dream of a ‘far green country under a swift sunrise’, itself to be echoed later at the end of the tale, as if Goldberry reassuringly pre-echoed that ending.
Laura contrasted Goldberry’s clear call with the terrible cry of the Black Riders.
Tim returned us to a previous consideration of the strange relationship between Tom’s house and time which the hobbits feel as a different ‘zone’, while his reluctance to leave his ‘country suggests that its boundaries function as a kind of ‘portal’.
Chris wondered how Tom knew about Barliman Butterbur? Angela suggested it was through the elves, and Laura noted that in this part of the book there are lots of travellers passing information. Eileen then questioned the speed with which messages seem able to travel.
Eileen, reading the story for the very first time, also noted that many characters appear to have differing agendas.
As we move into ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, Laura had brought along a picture by Tolkien dated 1928 of an image from a nightmare suffered by his son Michael. It showed a window with patterned curtains drawn back to show a night sky, and a huge, vaguely skeletal hand stretching across the left-hand curtain. Julie questioned the date of the old film ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ about a disembodied hand.
Eileen observed that the progress of the hobbits over the Downs, as in the Old Forest, suggests that the hobbits are trying to stay on the right paths, physically and metaphorically, even though they do not.
Laura noted that evil wights had entered the ancient barrows, but Angela pointed out that the barrows themselves are not evil.
Eileen remarked that the atmosphere of the chapter almost becomes a character in its own right.
I explained that it has been argued that the wight owes some of its characteristics to the Icelandic myth of the haugbui – a revenant that is also capable of singing. The example cited is from Njal’s Saga, where Gunnar is heard singing in his grave by his sons. Laura observed that the wight’s incantation has power, but not for good.
Chris then questioned the matter of the splintering blade, and Angela quoted Strider’s ‘all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King, and both she and I thought it splintered on account of the influence of the Witch King on the wight.
Laura then wondered about the sword laid across the 3 hobbits’ necks, and wondered whether Frodo was left out because he was the last one taken into the barrow, or whether it was because of the Ring – and an influence that didn’t want Frodo dead – or an influence acting for good? Laura also wondered if the white clothing and gold adornments of the 3 hobbits was a kind of ritual so that the wight could gain control of them.
Eileen added that the number 3 continually had significance in various religions.
Tim directed our attention then to the description of the hobbits rejoicing in the morning light and air outside the barrow like someone who had long been ill and bedridden, and he wondered if this description came from Tolkien’s own experience of extended periods of illness during the Great War.
Eileen then wondered if Tolkien himself had had nightmares as a result of the war because the imagery in the book reads as so real. Laura replied that later bits of the book will confirm this.
Eileen noted that in spite of the book being categorised as fantasy it feels real – we all agreed enthusiastically with this! And Julie explained that the book reads as an historical reconstruction, fleshing out things that might have happened.
Eileen returned to the matter of paths and wondered if the barrow feels hellish for Frodo, because he didn’t stay on the path appointed for him. Chris noted that Frodo makes an important choice between using the sword to help his friends or using the Ring to save himself.
In view of the fact that they are constantly left out of adaptations of LotR, Chris wondered what the point was of the ‘Old Forest’ and the ‘Fog’ chapters, because they don’t add to the plot. Eileen suggested that character development takes place, and Tim replied that the chapter mark the first real encounter with the kind of evil the hobbits have been told about.
Chris objected that in the next chapter the hobbits don’t seem to have changed very much, but Laura likened the experience to a team-building exercise. Chris replied that the hobbits don’t act as a team in Bree. Laura proposed that Tolkien shows that danger lies not very far from Hobbiton.
Carol commented that the ‘Fog’ chapter sets history in topography, ‘the memory of the old kings…faded into grass’ – the burial mounds – still around in the rangers. Stories in the landscape, mighty in myth. See encounter with Eomer about ‘old kings…faded into grass’ springing out again.
Angela remarked that Merry seems aware of ‘being in the past’ with the spear ‘in his chest’, as he experiences the Prince of Cardolan’s spirit.
Tim observed that the hobbits take the same journey east as Bilbo, but that was a straightforward narrative and The Hobbit misses lots of landscape and history, and the number of different dangers that lurk in their world.
Tom Bombadil’s rapid response to Frodo’s song led Chris to suggest that Tom was expecting the wight to catch the hobbits, and Julia wondered, if Frodo had forgotten the rhyme, would Tom have left the hobbits to their fate?
Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore this topic in detail but before we dispersed we agreed that we would pick up next time the chapters we didn’t have time for at this meeting. So for next time we will be reading ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’, ‘Strider’, and ‘A Knife in the Dark’.

Last Meeting in January

22.1.15

Our last meeting in January was only missing Mike, who was otherwise engaged. Our reading had been ‘The Old Forest’, ‘The House of Tom Bombadil’, and ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ – in fact we barely touched on this last chapter, so it will be discussed next time. As it was, we had plenty to talk about with just the first 2 chapters.

Angela began our discussions with her observation that from the time the hobbits leave Farmer Maggot’s house sound and vision are subdued. There is greater emphasis on silence, low sounds and obscurity in the mist and fog. Natural for autumn, but the soft sounds make everything creepier.

Pat came straight to the point when she asked if the Ring was inciting the trees in the Forest to behave as they do – and is the Ring the most powerful force in Middle-earth. Resounding replies of ‘No!’ all round.

Ian went on to comment that the true nature of the power of the Forest has largely been forgotten except in Crickhollow, and the Forest has had time to brood on its own malice. It is Old Man Willow of his own volition who waylays the hobbits.

Eileen noted that the hobbits are forced to follow that paths the Forest itself wanted, and Angela reminded us that the trees are said to hate anything the goes free.

Julie moderated the discussion by noting that the Withywindle is not evil [in spite of its implication in the near-drowning of Frodo]. I wondered if the River was under the influence of Ulmo and his Maia.

Angela noted, however, that the valley of the Withywindle is a place of somnolence, and compared it to the River in Mirkwood that puts Bombur to sleep when his foot touches it.

Ian suggested that Tolkien distinguishes good and evil from what is only bad – what he calles ‘ill’, thus the Forest exercises its own nature, and the hobbits are the trespassers.

Laura then asked ‘what about Yavanna?’. Ian still maintained that the Forest was simply doing its own thing.

Pat remarked, following on from her comments last time, that there is an emphasis on Merry in the Old Forest chapter, and his particular character is demonstrated.

Eileen added that Frodo seem confused in the Forest, so Merry leads the party, and Frodo is constantly surprised that so many people know what he doing, including, so it appears, Farmer Maggot and Tom.

Chris wondered if the Ring was responsible for what seems like Frodo’s more acute hearing when he is the first to hear Tom singing?

Eileen then asked if Tom was not too good? Ian responded that Tom is not concerned with what’s happening, he’s happy but unconcerned. Eileen then observed that Tom is optimistic but ‘too sudden’ in his appearance, and then his house is otherworldly. Ian remarked that following Tom is like following Lewis Carol’s white rabbit, is it a trap? Having been scared in the Forest, this question is raised, but Tom is of the moment. Ian was about to develop a whole theory about time in relation to Tom and the Old Forest – more of this shortly!

Chris remarked that Tom knows the hobbits are coming, and Angela added that he had been in communication with Farmer Maggot, and with the elves. Angela and Tim noted that Barliman Butterbur is also known to Tom.

Tim reminded us that during our previous reading of this chapter many years ago we considered whether Tom and his song are part of the Song of Creation.

Julie noted that Tolkien as narrator call it a ‘nonsense’ song and then qualifies this, asking ‘is it?

Laura observed that it may function like the Kyrie Eleison – sung or spoken because it is recognised or believed to be language of great power even though it may not necessarily be understood.

Tim then noted that Sam is the first person to shake himself out of the stupor induced by the Willow, and try to rescue all the others.

Angela then remarked that Tom knows all this history of Middle-earth and especially the Shire and the Barrow Downs.

Laura wondered why Goldberry does not have a larger role. Tim observed that Tom and Goldberry represented the elements of earth and water, and that they have physical form but were not necessarily ‘human’. This reminded some of us of the Maiar who could choose the form in which they clothed themselves. Tim observed that the specific dynamic between Tom and Goldberry adds mystery.

Ian returned to his interest in time and remarked that trees and humans had different perceptions of time, therefore in the Forest the trees control time. Laura raised the matter of Tom’s garden, and Ian remarked that it is the place where Tom and Goldberry could be together, and he associated them with the separate concepts of time as known to the classical Greeks, in which Chronos signified time flowing, while Kairos signified the instant. This relates to Goldberry the River-daughter ‘flowing’, while Tom is the ‘instant’. But both are supernatural.

Chris wondered if Tom was in fact an early creation by Eru? Ian noted that Tom’s influence and help is limited in extent and he himself will not pass certain boundaries, and Pat found it interesting the Tom keeps to his own country. It was noted that various characters in the early chapters express a restricted knowledge of a wider world, and Angela observed that Sam seems never to have travelled further than 20 miles from his home until he sets out with Frodo.

Laura commented that the description of Goldberry surrounded by waterlilies is like a pre-raphaelite painting.

Chris drew attention to the description of Tom’s house and wondered if there was any significance in its east-west alignment. It was observed that this was the usual alignment of churches. Pat remarked that it was aligned to natural time and the passage of time from daybeak to sunset. I suggested that Tom, unlike almost everyone else, was not bothered by the significance of the east, although he knew about it. All the doors in Bree faced west, and even the Barrows should be passed on the west side.

Laura questioned, on the basis of what Tom sings about collecting the last of the waterlilies and not going deep into the Forest until spring, whether he hibernates through the winter?

Eileen thought she perceived Tolkien’s particular liking for nature, and we all agreed this was the case. Ian cited letter 159, in which Tolkien expressed this deep interest. Laura observed that Tom’s relationship to nature contrasts with that of Saruman.

Eileen also noted that Tom wants to give the hobbits good advice for their onward journey, in contrast to the elves’ reluctance to offer advice. She also wondered if the mist over the Forest and the fog on the Downs connoted the inability to think as well as to see?

At this point we were running out of time and had to consider our next reading. As we had hardly touched on ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ we agreed to discuss that, and to read ‘The Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’.

January: First Saturday

10.1.15

Our first meeting of 2015 was unfortunately lacking Julie, Mike and Ian, but there were still 7 of us to debate our extensive selection of chapters. As we had no meetings in December we were reading ‘Three’s Company’; ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’; ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ and ‘The Old Forest’. As usual Carol sent her comments, and these are included where possible. Additional comments on topics we did not cover are added at the end.

After taking care of various extraneous matters, such as noting some significant anniversaries in 2015, including Magna Carta, we turned our attention to our reading and I began by noting the moment when Sam stamps out the fire he and Frodo lit to try to force Old Man Willow to release Merry and Pippin. Only during this latest reading did I consider the fact that Sam is not wearing anything on his feet because he’s a hobbit. Even allowing for the leathery soles of hobbit feet – noted by Angela – stamping out a fire still seems hazardous! Laura, however, observed that people practice fire-walking without harm. My remarks also drew agreement from other people that they too, even after many readings are still finding new things in LotR.

Laura elaborated on this by remarking that she was struck by the number of references to turnip fields, and she wondered if all the turnips were being grown for humans or as animal fodder. She also wondered if Farmer Maggot was actually farming fields of mushrooms. (She also noted that St George’s Day mushrooms grow in her garden, which I had never heard of, but apparently they appear around St George’s Day in April and so are not the usual autumnal kind, but are apparently very tasty.

The matter of mushrooms developed into a multi-facetted discussion with reminiscences and further consideration of the practicalities of growing mushrooms before the process was industrialised. Laura thought Maggot may have turned cattle onto his turnip fields to graze, which in turn provided the fertiliser for the mushrooms which Frodo had plundered in his youth.

Tim developed our consideration of the names of Maggot’s dogs, when he pondered whether Black Riders don’t like dogs? Angela observed that for Farmer Maggot trespassing was a problem.

We considered the forms of Frodo’s fear, and Eileen noted as she read these chapters the creation of a palpable sense of fear. Carol noted the first of some very close shaves for Frodo. A few more minutes and the ring could have been discovered, then a second time that Frodo’s had a near miss of discovery. Carol observed: sure, it’s a Nazgul but why can’t it detect the close proximity of the ring? Are they not back up to their full power yet? Or is their power diminished when separated?

Although Carol commented ‘I love the domesticity in Maggot’s parlour – convivial, good food and drink, just the way Tolkien would have liked it – before the storm, Eileen thought there were too many references to food and was getting irritated by this impression of greedy hobbits. Without giving too much away, I tried to explain that food serves many purposes throughout the story, showing sociability, hospitality, ceremony, and different forms of food add characterisation of individuals and races and additional context.

Eileen then remarked that she wondered what Gandalf’s agenda was, given the way he behaves towards Frodo. Carol had also noted that according to hobbit gossip, Frodo’s selling up ‘to most it suggested a dark and yet unrevealed plot by Gandalf’. How right hobbit gossip is. Carol went on to note that Gandalf’s unexpected absence is news that worries Gildor.

Pat commented that the Shire seems so isolated and insular. Meanwhile a lot of spying is going on. Tim added that the hobbits are living in a protected bubble, and that these initial impressions are what Tolkien wanted.

Chris reminded us that Tolkien was writing a sequel to The Hobbit and his perspective on the characters and setting would be different to the way characters and settings are initially viewed by any reader coming to LotR without that prior reading. Tim remarked that the Prologue to LotR is important reading because it fills in some of the ‘backstory’ from TH.

Laura referred us to the Black Rider’s call, remarking on the fine description – and noted the way the BBC radio adaptation retained the tension of Merry’s approach. Carol commented that ‘hoofs on the road ahead…’ is another of Tolkien’s little red herrings and he milks it.

Laura commented that the Black Riders seem incompetent in their searching methods. Tim remarked that they have impaired vision (during daylight) and other senses. Pat added that little importance seems to be given to the strange rider at Bagshot Row, and Sam delays saying anything, which seems strange. Angela suggested this was because Sam thinks the Gaffer gets confused, and Sam himself is preoccupied with leaving.

Laura raised the matter of the Black Riders sniffing, remarked that she had originally been disappointed that they actually spoke. She went on to wonder if their strange speech is the result of the fact that they don’t actually speak aloud very often. I had been pondering the matter of the way their speech is described. The Gaffer says his caller ‘spoke funny’, and I wondered if this was because all the Black Riders were originally from foreign places, even Angmar probably had its own dialect. As Chris observed they must have been using the Common Speech, but I thought they might be speaking with foreign accents, as well as hissing.

Carol commented on the nice juxtaposition of the Shire countryside and the wail of the Nazgul, and we all remarked on the spine-chilling impact on us as readers of the Black Rider’s call. Eileen also shared Carol’s opinion that Tolkien describes topography very well and interestingly – he’s there and takes us with him.

The multiple use of words alliterating on ‘B’ was discussed. Carol noted that the digression of the description of Buckland adds a bit of hobbit backstory. I commented that many ‘B’ references are related to the settling of the Oldbucks, later the Brandybucks, east of the River. Other ‘B’ names certainly belong to different contexts.

Chris wondered if the end of the ‘Conspiracy’ chapter marks the beginning of a more adult story. Carol’s comment is surely pertinent in this context when she remarks: ‘I like the bath song and Pippin’s making fountains. I always imagine Tolkien encouraging his children to do stuff like this at bathtime, much to Edith’s chagrin. After all, he wouldn’t have been able to do it much when he was a kid’.

Carol went on: ‘Frodo’s sea-longing will eventually come true. One of his prophetic dreams. Pat wondered if there was a link between Sam’s earlier promise to the elves and this dream. Chris observed that both are in their own ways prophetic.

Laura then drew attention to Gildor Inglorion’s comment to Frodo that others dwelt in the Shire before hobbits, and will do so ‘when hobbits are no more’. Laura wondered then whether the ridges in the Old Forest were the equivalent of the earthworks of Neolithic and Iron Age peoples in the primary world, evidence of much earlier settlement. Eileen remarked that it was thought-provoking that the land doesn’t belong to anyone. Tim noted that Native American peoples regard themselves as custodians only of the land.

Angela commented that among all the races of Middle-earth, hobbits are the only race whose origins are never explained.

Both Pat and Eileen discovered a distinctly Shakespearean feel to the description of Frodo waking in a bower at Woodhall. Carol, however, noted: no such bower for Sam.

Angela remarked that Merry is very organised and practical.

Eileen wondered if there was any connection between Gollum’s gulping and the sniffing of the Riders – non-verbal expressions of character, perhaps? But we reverted to discussing the speech of the Riders before running out of time.

For our next meeting we agreed to read ‘The Old Forest’; ‘The House of Tom Bombadil’ and ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’.

Carol’s Comments:

Sam’s ‘tall, shapeless, felt bag, which he called a hat': we never hear of Sam’s hat again. Similarly, the fox passing… I always remember this snippet. I like it and I’m sorry the fox never discovered any more. I like foxes too.

The 2nd version of the Road Song from (i) ‘pursuing it with eager feet’, to (ii) ‘pursuing it with weary feet’. The road is a metaphor for life/story.

We meet elves for the first time, and singing a hymn to Elbereth. The last is repeated as Frodo leaves the Shire at the end of the book. Mirroring? Who would like to meet elves under starlight and to speak with them and spend the night? It’s magical and wishful thinking. It’s as if the hobbits entered another dimension when the mists part and there’s lantern light. By ordinary time it must be very late but the hobbits stay up eating and talking and are still fresh the following morning.

‘…if I could grow apples like that…’ a hint that Sam survives and he would describe his experience of meeting elves for the first time in terms of gardening. The encounter marks the beginning of the making of Master Samwise and ‘Frodo looked at Sam rather startled…’ With the elves Sam encountered a situation that drew him out into seeing a wider horizon. Before he’d thought it was just elves he wanted to meet but in their company he’s realised that his life is bound for more than that. I love Sam.

But the elves selfishness is reiterated by Gildor. They are no longer concerned with the troubles of Middle-earth but they caused it by forging rings in the 2nd age. But I still wish elves really existed.

The Brandywine is a boundary, as are many rivers, both factual and mythical – Styx, Jordan, with ferries crossing them to other places and lives, just as Sam feels.

So a Nazgul traced them to the ferry and a question never really answered by Tolkien was why Nazgul were afraid of running water.My only inkling is that witches are supposed to be afraid of crossing running water – why, again, I don’t know. And how have the Nazgul managed to cross so many rivers on their journey from Mordor to the Shire? Probably more scared of Sauron and going back empty-handed than of running water.

Pippin’s comment, ‘Sam is an excellent fellow…’ is a bit condescending. He’ll outstrip them all before the end, similarly with Fredegar’s fear of the Old Forest. He’ll fight greater fear before he’s finished – a hobbit in a pinch.

Last Saturday in November

22.11.14

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 Dagorath  (“The Last Battle”), and 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’.
NOTE ON THE SHIRE RECORDS
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

8.11.14

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

25.10.14

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

 

11.10.14

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.

http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-08-15-farewell-tolkiens-tree

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

27.9.14

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.

 

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