First in January (2017)

14.01.17

We were almost all together for our first meeting of 2017. Even Julie happily managed to avoid wintry weather and the the endlessly strike-bound trains to join our discussion. This revisited ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ before starting ‘The Houses of Healing’. Carol’s comments are included in the report.

Ian picked up where we left off before Christmas with his observation that Gandalf enacts a virtual coup when he decides to whom the governance of Minas Tirith should temporarily devolve. He oversees the defining events on the battlefield and updates his allies on major developments they have not witnessed.

Eileen remarked that Denethor blames Gandalf for the loss of Faramir – effectively blaming everyone but himself.

Angela noted that Denethor resents Faramir not bringing the Ring to him.

Chris observed that Tolkien himself favoured one son over the others and wondered if this was underlying the motif of the favouring of sons, and foster sons in the form of Aragorn/Throrongil. Angela added that perhaps Faramir reminds Denethor too much of the young Aragorn.

Chris then noted that Boromir is not a strategist, but Angela added that he is caring towards those who are weaker, specifically the younger hobbits.

Chris went on to comment that both Faramir and Frodo had intellectual upbringings under the influence of father-figures, but not their fathers.

Ian observed that the chapter includes various ‘returning king’ motifs, including the approach of the Lord of the Nazgul, who still wears his crown on his disembodied head. Although Gandalf prevents his entry in to Minas Tirith, Denethor sees a king at the gates – not the actual king – but still a king. Then Denethor looks in the palantir.

Eileen noted a different aspect to Denethor’s behaviour and personality when she remarked that he sits by Faramir but cannot tell him he loves him.

Laura, on the other hand, commented that Denethor acts like one of the kings of old who could decide when to die.

Ian remarked that Denethor has a problem with letting go. When Faramir doesn’t bring back the Ring, all he has is the Stewardship, but then he abdicates responsibility. However, Ian expressed sympathy for Prince Imrahil and observed that Tolkien only looks at personal dimensions and the events that affect them, not at the politics. Nor is there any judgement of actions.

Laura remarked that it could be argued that Denethor was a poor steward for a long time in not being active. Ian observed that there were not a lot of people left in Minas Tirith at the time, and no apparent insurrection against poor rule.

Angela commented that as a young man Denethor had been a great man until overcome by pride and despair.

We moved on at last to ‘The Houses of Healing’ and Carol commented: “I like this bit with Merry at the start of this chapter, one of the bits that’s always left out of adaptations, like Pippin and Beregond. They’re little personalising bit in the great events of the time.”

Chris observed that the first lines of this chapter follows on directly from the last of ‘The Pyre’, and Julie wondered about the inverted syntax of the first sentence. I suggested that as in some of Gandalf’s speeches Tolkien arranges the syntax so that the most important or significant aspect of a sentence, observation or statement, comes first. I felt that this creates a powerful transition linking the chapters and creating a poignant metaphor. The last sentences of ‘The Pyre’ read:

     With that he [Gandalf] turned away and went with Pippin down towards the lower city. And even as they hastened on their way the wind brought a grey rain, and all the fires sank, and there arose a great smoke before them.

‘The Houses’ begins:

A mist was in Merry’s eyes of tears and weariness when they drew near the ruined Gate of Minas Tirith.

Julie wondered why ‘A mist’ was syntactically misplaced, but in this position it links to the ‘grey rain’. This is immediately qualified when we are told that it is in Merry’s eyes, but he is not experiencing the rain that Pip and Gandalf feel, this mist is from tears and weariness. This sets up a metaphor – as the mist in Merry’s eyes is tears, so the grey rain for which we may initially have mistaken it, becomes infused with the image of tears, and the grief that prompts them.

Chris extended this notion of resonant language when he proposed that Merry’s feeling of stumbling along a tunnel to a tomb is an echo of Frodo and Sam’s experience in Shelob’s lair. Laura commented that the tunnel image is often reported in near-death experiences, and Ian suggested that at the approach of death, life shuts down sight as perception draws in.

Laura picked up a similar echo in Merry’s question to Pippin ‘Are you going to bury me?’ because Merry crippled the Witch King with the knife he had taken from the Barrow. Laura also observed that Theoden and Eowyn are brought into the city in pomp, but Merry is alone and overlooked.

Angela noted that he has just been ‘well’ overlooked, and Eileen commented that Merry tells Pippin it’s not bad thing to be overlooked. Julie remarked that he had been told to stay behind so no one was looking for him.

I wondered if he was overlooked in both situations because he was still wearing his elven cloak.

Carol comment: “Enter Ioreth and her adages. ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer and so the rightful king could ever be known.’ ‘men may long remember your words, Ioreth.’ She might be an object of some humour but she has more sense than the book-learned. Wasn’t Boromir warned not to despise old-wives’ tales?  Goes for us all”.

Chris remarked that Gandalf has a ‘blind spot’ about the lore of the ‘hands of a healer’.

Angela commented on Aragorn’s appearance as a beggar, and thought that Gandalf too had been described as a beggar.

Laura noted that Imrahil is shocked by Pippin’s greeting to Aragorn. Carol commented that Imrahil is on his dignity, and here Aragorn shows his diplomatic mettle and doesn’t chastise Imrahil but says that his house will be named Strider, in the high tongue Telcontar. Because Aragorn’s been around a lot and not stuck in one place, he’s become more flexible.

Julie observed that when Aragorn brings athelas to Faramir its fragrance is different to that perceived by Eowyn, and different again to that perceived by Merry, each presumably the most characteristic of their native natural environment. Carol also commented that the scent of kingsfoil is different to different people, what they most like the scent of, adding “the smell of athelas in Eowyn’s room is that of Rohan and in Merry’s is that of the Shire”.

We finished our meeting having agreed to return to ‘The Houses’ next time, and to read up to the end of Book 5 in case we have time.

 

December

10.12.16

We met today with some sense of relief as the problem with which we have wrestled since our last meeting, that of the reassigning of meeting space that impacted on the Tolkien group, has been resolved at least for a while. We were missing a few of our number, but Carol sent her comments and the rest of us turned our attention to ‘The Pyre of Denethor’.

Ian was concerned with the opening of Mausoleum door which Beregond holds, physically and metaphorically, and he noted that the narration of the physicality of the action is delayed while the focus remains on Beregond’s defence of the door.

Ian also likened the Mausoleum to a panic room, but Laura questioned whether it was the place where kings had gone to die. Also recalling Aragorn relinquishing his life, Angela reminded us that there were the Houses of the Kings and the Houses of the Stewards.

Chris and Angela remarked on the encounter between Pippin and Gandalf predicting bad things to come, and I added that there is a sense of ‘dramatic irony’ about Gandalf’s remarks because we the readers already know what has happened.

Carol in her comments, and Ian, remarked on the structuring of the reference to cockcrow and the arrival of the Rohirrim. As Carol notes “Now we go back to day-break and the arrival of the Rohirrim” and Angela noted that Tolkien steps back 2 days in the narration. Ian observed that in sequential chapters, the same events have no linking narration, but are registered through separate perceptions of events by different characters from different perspectives. And when Gandalf is said to have ‘beheld all that had befallen’, this is a reminder to the reader that we have already seen it.

Laura commented that time is circular here.

Ian remarked that key words in the narration trigger responses in readers, and Eileen commented that there is a feeling that things can be guessed in advance. She also noted that Pippin finds the change in Denethor difficult, but that Pippin also changes. Chris observed that Pippin has seen Denethor sending Faramir out, so he knows the background to the change.

Laura considered Denethor most interesting because of his jealousy, his misjudgement of Boromir, and the loss of his wife.

Elieen returned us to Faramir and Denethor’s madness, deriving from his guilt over Faramir, which needs resolution. Laura and Angela noted that Faramir is educated, a strategist, and principled.

Ian noted the difference between Denethor and Theoden, who has lost his only son but responds to Gandalf and goes to war. Ian also commented that Pippin the hobbit is not inclined to follow orders, but when Gandalf decides who should take the key from Rath Dinen, this represents a ‘coup’.

Laura remarked that Denethor is seeing the end of the world in his warped perception. Angela extended this idea by observing that even if Sauron is defeated Aragorn will supplant him.

Ian and Angela noted the need for disobeying orders. Angela remarked on the justification for disobedience, without which Faramir would have died.  In her comments Carol extended this when she observed: ‘and never in after years…’ another hint of survival. Because Gandalf decides to save Faramir, probably, Theoden dies but it gives Eowyn and Merry the chance to kill the Witch King. Theoden as part of the old regime has to die along with Denethor to make way for Faramir and Eomer who are of a different mettle, not softer but with more understanding. From fractured families, they now have the chance to create new whole families and lines.

Laura observed that travelling out and experiencing things is more informative about reality than staying in a tower.

With that we ran out of time and had to the wet and gloomy afternoon outside. We still have not quite finished ‘The Pyre’, but hopefully we will be able to get into ‘The Houses of Healing at our next meeting scheduled for 14th Jan 2017.

I add the last of Carol’s comments here although we have not reached this point in our discussions, but it relates to some of the matters we discussed today:

“Tolkien gives Denethor a very ignominious death in suicide. As a Catholic Tolkien would have regarded suicide as a mortal sin; and when LotR was written, suicide was also against the secular law. Denethor had despaired against everything, due mainly to daring to look into the palantir and be penetrated by Sauron. No songs will be sung for him, only the image of ‘two hands withering in flame’, while Theoden is laid to rest in honour in the citadel, covered in cloth of gold with an honour guard. It isn’t if you die but how you die!!”

Last meeting in November

26.11.16

Those of us who managed to meet today, only 5 of us, did so with a major issue on our minds as the problems associated with our use of the seminar room in the Central Library have resurfaced 4 months before we might have expected. We are faced with relinquishing one of our meetings per month from April, or seeing the Poetry Reading Group lose its opportunity to meet. Reactions among the Tolkien group ranged from incandescent rage to grim predictions of worse to come as the cuts bite deeper. In spite of the general sense of injustice, we agreed on making complaints about the inconsiderate way we and the Poetry group have been treated although we are long-standing participants in the life of the Library. I will post updates on this situation as it develops, but we were agreed in our discussion yesterday to try to help Poetry continue, even though we may have to restructure our meetings.

Eventually we got round to our ‘proper’ discussion, although it was hard to change gear from such pre-occupying matters.

Laura reminded us that we still had things to discuss relating to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which is why Carol’s comments do not appear, having been included last time. Julie hopes to add her comments here soon.

So I started things off by observing that the chapter seems to be one of those in which Tolkien clusters references from many other texts, particularly here, references from King Lear, Macbeth and The Battle of Maldon.

Ian responded by likening the chapter to a large palette where he paints with a light touch, not with the intensity found in other chapters where external references are used for rhetorical effect, and that the chapter becomes a ‘battlefield of myth’, using stories created from the language of England.

Among the references we noticed in the chapter Laura likened Eomer’s encouragement to the Rohirrim after Theoden’s death to the famous speech by the old retainer in The Battle of Maldon ‘hige sceal the headra, heort the cenre / mod sceal the mare, thu ure maegan litlath’.

Ian noted that the chapter includes characters we are concerned about and that our interest in Merry and Pippin increases our sympathy for Gondor. Nothing in the east engages our sympathy, and even Frodo and Sam are removed by their mythic quest.

Laura reminded us the there is an ominous classical echo in the image of black sails, and Ian commented that they are added to the palette of references.

I proposed that Eomer’s elegiac command counsel to his men ‘Mourn not overmuch. Mighty was the fallen …’ does not read like the encouragement of a war leader in the heat of battle and in great grief, but reads more like the construction of suitable words by a later minstrel, in an echo of the supposed origin of the Maldon poem, made in commemoration of the heroes of the battle but were not an exact representation of words spoken.

Laura and Angela recollected the two individuals to whom ‘Gothmog’ refers, and on a different tack Laura noted ultimate source of the significance of the white horse among the Anglo-Saxons.

I remarked that in this chapter the change to a more biblical register emerges at times, although it will increase later. Laura noted in a similar vein that there are echoes of the biblical story of Jericho in the cacophony of trumpets around the walls of Minas Tirith. And that Aragorn’s statement to Eomer ‘Thus we meet again …. Did I not say so…’ is reminiscent, she thought, of the reminder from Jesus to his disciples after the Resurrection of His words before the Crucifixion.

Laura went on to observe that Aragorn’s arrival is wonderful with its gorgeous heraldry.

After an afternoon that was rather blighted by non-textual discussion we found time running out and so we will have to return to ‘The Pyre’ and ‘The Houses of Healing’ next time.

First meeting in November

12.11.16

Our meeting today was rather depleted as weather and other matters intervened, but after what seemed to me like a very long time away, 5 of us gathered again and discussed ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’. We were scheduled to read 2 chapters, but our discussions were so detailed that we barely managed to get through one.

Chris opened proceedings with the observation that at school we were taught never to begin a sentence, let alone a chapter with ‘But’. As Angela noted, this oppositional beginning refers back to the end of the ‘Siege’ chapter, and we found it effective in its impact.

Eileen thought the start of the chapter throws the reader, making them question things, and that Tolkien asserts what he wants to write, not what the reader may expect.

Angela remarked that it was necessary structuring.

Laura remarked on the shift from the ‘river of green and gold’ that is the arrival of the Rohirrim to the black horror of the Lord of the Nazgul, and pointed out that in the first paragraph there is an echo of Gandalf’s comment in the snows of Caradhras ‘his arm has grown long’. Now it stands in opposition to the ‘defeat’ of the Witch King as a reminder of Sauron’s pervasive influence.

Chris thought the paragraph confusing as ‘fortune’ refers back to ‘his Master’, but the paragraph ends by restating the identity of the Lord of the Nazgul. Laura noted the power of triple naming as a rhetorical device in his triple naming ‘King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgul’.

We then debated  the history of the Witch King and Angela observed that the Nazgul appear in the Second Age, then the Witch King moves into Angmar in the Third Age.

Laura led us out of Angmar and back to the Pelennor Fields when she commented on the old warrior confronting the black serpent on scarlet, and Tolkien’s love of heraldry. Here the black and scarlet, along with the scimitars connote foreignness. Laura observed that this echoes the story of the Anglo-Saxon capture of a Viking raven standard, which horrified the attacking Vikings. The importance of the loss of a leader and a flag was noted, and Laura went on to remark that this episode feels very ‘Old Testament’, with God opposing optimistic heroism.

Eileen remarked on Theoden’s recovery from Wormtongue’s negativity and thoughts characteristic of being a victim, and that Theoden was not just ‘throne-ridden’ but psychologically damaged. Laura suggested that getting back on Snowmane would have helped him recover because Snowmane was his warhorse, and when reunited with him Theoden goes back to being the great war-leader he was previously. Eileen remarked that this suggests a change in the brain and Angela commented that it may have released endorphins.

Chris noted that his recovery was the result of Gandalf breaking Saruman’s spell. Laura added that Wormtongue was his agent, and Chris remarked that Wormtongue was given the chance to repent but did not.

Moving on the to climactic action, Laura noted that Tolkien creates a very 3-dimensional description with his detail of the smell of the Ringwraith’s beast. Angela noted the similar detail in the description of the stench of Shelob.

Laura remarked that Eowyn is brave just to talk to the Ringwraith and compared his cruel response to the torment of Hurin confined to a mountainous seat by Melkor from which he can only see the results of his errors.

Carol commented, “Sometimes Tolkien really tells it like it is: ‘he will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the lidless eye.’ It’s awful!

Angela observed that Sauron’s punishments are permanent mental torture.

Carol commented: “ ‘not by the hand of man…’ Dernhelm really earns ‘his’ spurs and Merry overcomes great terror to help.

Carol picked out ‘no living man shall hinder me’!! and Chris commented that as Eowyn doesn’t know about the prophecy regarding the Ringwraith she is even braver in confronting him.

I wondered about the emphasis on despair in this chapter and questioned whether Tolkien is considering various responses to it. Is Eowyn’s victory that of the greater despair of lost love over the despair that characterises the undead form of the Ringwraith who only serves his master’s ambition? Or is Eowyn the figure of despair given active aspect and opposed to the stasis of the Rignwraith incapable of growth and change, or suicide.

Laura pointed out the etymology of ‘despair’ < spero (Latin, I hope), so despair = to be without hope.

Angela noted that when Aragorn visits his mother it seems that she is dying of despair.

Chris proposed that Eowyn would have gone into battle even without Aragorn’s rejection, and Laura remarked that she’s protecting her King. Chris added that the description of Eowyn’s eyes as ‘fair and fell’, echoed the description of Galadriel during her brief temptation as ‘beautiful and terrible’. Chris noted that the Ringwraith is overtaken with hatred for Eowyn and doesn’t do what he threatens.

Laura commented on the difference between Theoden’s quiet acceptance that he will join his ‘longfathers’ and Denethor’s final despair.

Carol commented: “’so passed the sword of the barrow-downs…’ That sword has been forged for such a purpose as killing the Witch King. And it came to Merry out of the past so that he could help in that killing. Lovely bit. The actual killing of the Witch King is some of Tolkien’s best writing; every time I’m here, urging Merry and Eowyn on and heaving a sigh of relief when it’s all over.

Chris noted the potential ‘spoiler’ as the Ringwraith ‘was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world’; and another clearer indication of that the future is assured in the description ‘Green and long grew the grass on Snowmane’s Howe.’

After an afternoon of quite detailed discussion we still had not begun ‘The Pyre of Denethor’, so that is held over for our next meeting, and we will read ‘The Houses of Healing’ for that as well.

 

Carol’s comments:

Chapter 6 ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’

This cluster of chapters is my favourite because of the heroism, despair, joy, fighting against the odds against evil and coming through by the skin of their teeth, only to have to face another and final battle where there is even less hope, but still they fight on.

The baddies can use dirty tricks when sheer skill and bravery are defeating them. Without a sky-borne Nazgul, Theoden would probably have survived. Poor Snowmane.

Within 2 pages absolute defeat and despair turns to absolute joy. I think for the first time I’m really beginning to see Tolkien’s masterful prose – funny being as I’ve been reading it for over 40 years. But the twists and turns of the battle leave me gobsmacked. Another eucatastrophe. I’m rereading this for a purpose, to really appreciate with writing and diversity of writing.

‘hope’s end’, ‘heart’s breaking’, ‘ruin’ – Eomer and the Rohirrim though utterly overwhelmed, will fight to the last man.

‘thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us…did I not say so at the Hornburg?’ Like I said back then, it’s one of my favourite moment when Eomer and Aragorn meet again. So Aragorn made it over the Paths of the Dead. This is far better than bringing the Oathbreakers to Minas Tirith.

‘so long afterward a maker in Rohan said in his song of the mounds of Mundberg…’ another hint of survival. The music Stephen Oliver put to the poem in the radio serial makes it one of the most poignant in the whole book.

 

 

Wessexmoot 2016

Wessexmoot 2016 – 22nd October

Our long-planned moot took place, sadly without Carol, Rosemary and Tim, who could not be with us this time. They were much missed and remembered particularly in a dedicated toast to absent friends once we had finished the more structured part of the afternoon and moved on to a rather more alcoholic venue. Because of the ‘moot’ this report takes a rather different form to the usual ones.

The schedule for the afternoon itself began with a presentation by Ian of the paper he gave at this year’s Oxonmoot, on Joseph Wright in Oxford. Wright was influential in Tolkien’s student life and their friendship extended to Tolkien being an executor of the wills of both Joseph and his wife Elizabeth. Ian’s research has revealed minor and quite major misrepresentations of aspects of Wright’s biography.

We were also treated to Ian’s Powerpoint presentation which showed among other things his reconstruction of the Wrights’ house in Oxford (long torn down) which he had created using Minecraft, the online building tool. The house was important in Tolkien’s life as it was the venue for hobbit-sized Sunday teas during the years when Wright was his tutor.

For Ian, the highlight of his presentation at Oxford was spotting the Tolkien scholar Dimitra Fimi in the front row of his audience, and then discovering she had tweeted her approval. We all showed our appreciation in a more traditional manner, with applause and questions.

Our next presentation was from Chris on a work very much ‘in progress’. He is working on Tolkien and Insularity and his research is directed towards examining why so many locations in Middle-earth guard their isolation so carefully, and how this is eventually broken down. Chris suggested that basically Tolkien is arguing that isolationism doesn’t work.

Mike added another dimension when he directed attention to Gan-buri-Gan’s plea for his people to be left in peace. Was isolation achievable, Mike queried, only when a society was too primitive or resource-poor to bother with? The rest of the group asked other questions and expressed encouragement and enthusiasm for the research to be developed further.

Our final presentation was from Laura, who gave us a summary of the Anglo-Saxon talks she had enjoyed at a recent History Weekend in Winchester. She spoke with great approval of Michael Woods’ lecture on King Alfred, and with equal enthusiasm on Tom Holland’s lecture on Aethelstan and the making of the Angelcynn. It is often forgotten that Aethelstan was the first king to unite all the realms of Anglo-Saxon England.

Once we had left the Library and settled ourselves in the Frog and Parrot across the square, our discussions continued in a more informal style, although with no less rigour. Mike prompted me to think further about one aspect of my current research that I have not so far considered. Angela mentioned that she is taking the publication of her book on Aragorn in new directions, and Chris and I held on to our opposed views on the possibility of Gollum’s redemption. I tried to persuade Chris to write a formal response to the essay that was published in The Inklings Journal where I argued that based on textual evidence and anthropological theory Gollum could never achieve redemption. Chris’s views ably challenged mine and would enhance the debate on the characterisation of Gollum and its moral dimensions.

Having worked up an appetite and enjoyed a few aperitifs (or coffee in my case) we made our way to what has become our usual dinner venue and continued the evening until we had finished ‘filling up the corners’. Happily, no one, as far as I know, had to be taken home in a wheelbarrow!

Our next reading remains as we agreed previously, ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ and ‘The Pyre of Denethor’. It seems particularly apt that the Battle chapter coincides with our meeting on 12th November, Remembrance Weekend, in the year of the 100th anniversary of Tolkien’s participation in the Battle of the Somme.

First in October

8.10.16

With Chris, Angela, and Tim away, the rest of us met this afternoon to finish discussing ‘The Siege of Gondor’ and ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’. As usual we did not get very far into this second chapter but found a good deal to say about ‘The Siege’. Carol’s comments follow, when not included in the main report.

Laura began our discussions with her observation of the ranking of the seats in the hall of the citadel; the throne remains empty, Denethor sits below in a chair, and Faramir is seated in a ‘low chair’. Laura also noted that Faramir’s report of meeting Frodo and Sam serves to recap that part of the plot for the reader.

Eileen remarked that Faramir is more intellectual than his father.

Carol commented on the ‘cheering and crying of the names of Faramir and Mithrandir’: Denethor wouldn’t like that but he didn’t go to the rescue of his son.

Mike remarked that a character like Denethor would see Gandalf as a threat as he is only the Steward and could be held to account for his actions, and asserted that it is possible to extrapolate Denethor’s psychology.

Eileen observed that Denethor does not behave in a kingly way, and Mike commented that his insecurity is based on his less than kingly power and that this is the reason for his desire in madness to take Faramir into death with him because he has been a witness.

Laura  noted that Denethor, like Sauron, and to some extent Saruman, stay within their strongholds so they have no real grasp of what is really happening. Mike added that they all rely on third parties for intelligence-gathering.

I questioned Denethor’s motivation in questioning if Pippin can sing. Laura thought it was perhaps a form of psychological abuse and Mike remarked that Denethor plays with words and exercises a petty kind of power over subordinates.

Eileen observed that Denethor takes Pippin into his service and we discussed the motivation of both the Steward and the hobbit. Laura remarked that she had thought it might have been due to the intervention of the Valar. Mike thought Pippin was implicitly pressurised by Denethor to declare his fealty during their audience, while Eileen proposed that perhaps Pippin awakens something in Denethor by linking back to Boromir, and that Denethor is made up of human contradictions. It was also noted that Pippin doesn’t know of Boromir’s treachery.

Mike and Laura both noted the Christian significance of the cockerel crowing, Laura adding that it echoes the idea of the traitor doing good he does not intend.

Julie observed that the pattern of confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog, even down to some of the vocabulary, is repeated in Gandalf’s confrontation with the Lord of the Nazgul.

Mike and I wondered if the Lord of the Nazgul, being undead and having no physical form is anything more than a cipher for Sauron.

As we moved into ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’, Laura remarked on the strange use of the word ‘bivouac’, that it is of Swiss/German origin via French and meant a night watch in the open, having nothing to do with tents, and the circumstances of the encampment in this chapter are evocative of camps in World War 1.

I then wondered if the description of the Druadan made them sound like small versions of Ents. Mike thought they seemed more like trolls. Ian observed that Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin that trolls are perverted Ents.

Mike noted Gan-buri-Gan’s stories of his people before the arrival of Men and wondered if they were the ‘aborgines’ of Gondor. Laura remarked that Gan does not approve of the ‘Stone-takers’.

Carol commented: Ghan-buri-ghan, a pukel man come to life. Every sort of human has a part to play in Tolkien’s war from the highly sophisticated Men of Dol Amroth to what we  would call an underdeveloped people, the woses. Each has something to offer and Tolkien makes the point that though the woses seem simple-minded, they are far more savvi than appearance would suggest.

I remarked that lots of things that seem ancient or legendary are discovered to be still in existence as if the past is not over and gone in Middle-earth. Ian commented that in our world our perceptions are governed by a lack of observation.

Mike noted that Tolkien adds 3 dimensions to his world by its infinite depth of history, and Eileen observed that it is as if déjà vu is manifested. Mike added that Tolkien creates an horizon and lets you know there may be more beyond it but does not explain it.

Ian remarked that things the trigger the subconscious in the real world have to be made explicit in literature, except in allegory.

After an afternoon of quite intense discussion and thought we reached the point where we had to take further thought for our next reading. As we have our Wessexmoot next time (22nd Oct), we will not be reading for that day but for the first meeting in November. We agreed to read ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ and ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ for that meeting.

After noting the mention of ‘hills of slain’ in the text, I said I would look up the Irish significance of a place of similar name. This I have done, and include a link to one of a number of sites other than Wikipedia – http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/slane/

Carol’s Comments

Chapter 4 The Siege of Gondor

Having recently experienced several gloomy, low-clouded days I can appreciate at bit of what Minas Tirith is going through under Sauron’s fume but how much more so  with Sauron’s malice behind it. All sent to demoralise.

In his narration of Faramir’s deeds, then going to his aid, Beregond is showing the kind of devotion that Pippin will shortly experience for Faramir, a captain who goes back to save his men. Brave heart indeed.

‘yet for Faramir his [Pippin’s] heart was strangely moved.’  Here a mere hobbit is a better judge of character than a high Gondorian.

Poor Faramir, having to face the ignimony of his father’s undeserved rebukes and heart-wrenchingly to be wished dead in favour of Boromir, in front of people too, and decorum allows no retort. Then ‘Famamir’s restraint fave way…’ well, if this is losing restraint, Faramir’s a man of steel. then he gets told ‘stir not the bitterness in the cup…’ he can’t win.

The small hope of Sauron opening war sooner than intended and what caused it – Aragorn and the palantir, giving Frodo hope and scope to continue while Sauron has his eye drawn towards Gondor.

Faramir: ‘I will go and do what I can in his stead – if you command it.’ ‘I do so.’ ‘Then farewell…but if I should return, think better of me!’  ‘That depends on the manner of your return!’ What can one say about this exchange? It’s cruel and heart-breaking. In his father’s eyes Faramir just can’t compare to Boromir. It’s about the saddest exchange in the whole book.

 

‘not by the hand of man shall he fall’: Glorfindel’s prophecy of long ago that the Witch King won’t die by being killed by a Man. We’ll soon see if that’s true.

 

It’s gruesome having decapitated heads flung into one’s midst, and frightful to have to see, but Tolkien makes sure that some of these men don’t die anonymously and are recognised. It’s very poignant. In the midst of the horror, the ordinary things that these men did are remembered.

 

The enemy is doing it’s level best to crush Minas Tirith without a fight. ‘The nazgul came again…’ It’s getting to seem pretty hopeless.

 

Elrond was against Pippin’s going on the quest but so far he and Theoden have’saved’ Boromir from a fate worse than death. And now I think Pippin is in Minas Tirith for the purpose of saving the brother, Faramir, from death itself.

 

Even in realisation of how badly he’s treated Faramir, Denethor will still kill him if he can. I don’t care how much Sauron has drained him through the palantir.

 

‘men are flying from the walls and leaving them unmanned.’ I think ‘unmanned’ could have 2 meanings: leaving  the wall without men and leaving men despairing and doing nothing.

 

‘but from my word and your service…’ here Pippin behaves far more honorably than this scion of Numenor, a young hobbit not yet come of age who’s behaved rather stupidly in places, shows us the meaning of fealty.

 

Ithis time of trouble, Tolkien covers overy angle of war: the personal in Denethor and Faramir, the battle Pelennor fields, and the houses of healing.

 

‘ever since the middle night…’ is a great piece of writing, building up tension and despair. ‘the drums rolled…louder…Grond they named it…Grond crawled on…the drums roared wildly…rolled and rattled.’ (shake rattle and roll) the reptition upping the ante. Then the gate breaks and ‘in rode the Lord of the Nazgul…’ This has to be the end, hasn’t it?  then ‘horns, horns, horns.’ Heroic! This is one of the most joyful bits in the whole book and even after reading it countless times and knowing the outcome, it still leaves me breathless.

 

 

 

 

 

September

We only had one meeting this month because Oxonmoot intervened, but we met again on 24.9.16

We missed Ian, Mike, and Tim at our meeting this afternoon but Carol sent her comments as always and those that do not appear in the report are added as usual at the end. The chapters we were discussing were ‘The Muster of Rohan’ and ‘The Siege of Gondor’.

Eileen began our afternoon when she remarked on the unnatural feel in the ‘Muster’ chapter, and Laura added that even the natural seems unnatural.

Laura went on to remark on the process of ‘monstering’ the enemy through propaganda.

Eileen and Angela both commented on Merry’s pity for the pukel-men, and Laura noted that with them Tolkien appears to be depicting pre-stone-age people.

Julie compared the description of the pukel-men with the shape and age of the so-called Venus of Willendorf.

[An image is available at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/prehistoric-art/paleolithic-art/a/venus-of-willendorf]

Carol commented: “the pukel-men, another legend that will come to life shortly”.

Angela remarked that she thought Denethor the most scary character in the book, while Laura commented that there is a wonderful contrast between Theoden and Denethor.

Eileen observed that we see how hobbits hang on to friendships, and Laura remarked that Merry thinking about Frodo and Sam reminded her of the ‘small steps’ phrase. I noted that the separation of Merry and Pippin enables them to grow.

Eileen also noted that Merry does not share the language of the Rohirrim and is therefore not part of the group.

Eileen deplored Denethor’s abuse of Faramir and Chris remarked that there seems to be an echo of the relationship between Tolkien and Christopher in the special relationship between Denethor and Boromir. Angela reminded us that in his youth Aragorn had lived in Gondor and Denthor’s father had favoured the young visitor at their court over his own son, inciting partiality and jealousy.

I drew attention to the narratorial comment on Merry at the start of the ‘Muster’ chapter that he felt ‘borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth’. I wondered if it also referred to Tolkien’s own sense of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the world he had created. Julie added that it was unusual to hear Middle-earth named in this way.

Carol commented that “from Merry’s point of view, I can understand his longing ‘to shut out the immensity’ of the montains ‘in a quiet room by a fire’. This just isn’t Kansas, or the small domesticity of the shire and it could be overwhelming”.

Chris observed that the description of the landscape makes it seem as if it is alive. Julie wondered if the description of mountains ‘marching’ means that they seem to be moving, or whether it indicated that they appear to be on the ‘marches’ – the edges.

Laura remarked that in the 3rd paragraph of the chapter the description is poetic Chris added that in the fourth paragraph Merry, looking up, sees only stone in various forms, and compared this to the vistas Frodo sees on Amon Hen.

Laura remarked that the description also reads like speeded up geological time as stones are cracking, and Merry gets a sense of that time.

Angela turned then to the reference to the ghosts of the Oathbreakers and the Dwimorberg. Julie observed that the ancient guardian of the Gate who crumbles into dust is a rather Monty Python moment.

I wondered why the ghosts went out of the north side of the Dwimorberg until Angela pointed out that they come out when some disaster threatens.

Angela and Julie then noted that the word ‘fey’ is used of both Aragorn and Denethor.

Chris remarked that the errand rider who brings the red arrow is very diplomatic in his exchanges with Theoden, and Laura wondered if it was Sir Walter Scott who wrote the novel The Black Arrow. In fact it was Robert Louis Stevenson. Carol commented that Hirgon reports the current Story.

Eileen remarked that the Rohirrim are not ready for war, but Laura thought Tolkien was representing the realistic complications of war. Chris commented that Hirgon the messenger does not appreciate how the Rohirrim fight.

Moving briefly into ‘The Siege’ Laura noted that Denethor’s comment to Pippin that hearing the songs of a ‘land untroubled’ would be a reminder of why Gondor has fought on so long. This echoes Aragorn’s similar statement during the Council of Elrond on the Rangers’ long watch over the Shire and Bree.

Eileen observed that Pippin not only notices the change in himself but the changed perception of time due to unreality.

Before we completely ran out of time we agreed that at our next meeting we would finish discussing ‘The Siege of Gondor’ and go on to ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’.

Carol’s Comments

Chapter 3 ‘The Muster of Rohan

‘now all roads were running together to the east…’ despite the length of the chapters and the leap-frogging, all this occurs over just a few days. In fact, from Parth Galen to Mount Doom is only about 3 weeks.

 

‘come, master meriadoc…you shall not stand.’ Compare how Theoden treats Merry to how Denethor treat Pippin. At the moment I just recall ‘and wait he did’, Pippin for Denethor while Denethor is in council.

 

Baldor is the skeleton encountered by Aragorn and co.

 

The only time Theoden tells Merry to do anything it is to stay behind.

 

‘from dark Dunharrow in the dim morning…’ is one of my favourite songs from the Radio 4 serialisation. Stephen Oliver really gets the mood with his music.

 

Merry and ‘Dernhelm’ flouting Theoden’s orders will turn into a felix culpa.

 

‘foes assailing their eastern borders, of orc-hosts marching in the wold of Rohan’. It must have taken Eomer some strength of will not to turn aside but all will not be lost in Rohan.

 

Last meeting in August

27.8.16

On August Bank Holiday weekend five of us met to discuss ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’. We noted Omer’s contribution to the last blog by way of Comments, and Angela has responded to them. It is always fascinating to learn more about the parallels between Tolkien’s work and other mythic and folk traditions. As usual Carol sent comments and those not included directly can be found below.

Chris led us into our discussion with his comment that ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’ mirrors the ‘Minas Tirith’ chapter in the atmosphere of doom at the start and the growth of Merry and Pippin independently, and each swearing allegiance in their own way.

Carol comented: ‘no dawn’ ‘bitter spring’, it seems pretty hopeless doesn’t it? Never really struck me before but these chapters are pulling the thread to one point, the Pelennor Fields.

Laura noted, however, that there is also a contrast between the chapters in the characterisation of the rulers. Chris expanded on this, defining Pippin’s act of fealty as motivated by his wounded pride while Merry swear to Theoden out of love.

Carol commented that Merry’s dubbing is a lot less formal than Pippin’s with Denethor and agreed that fealty is given from love not awe. Denethor won’t be a father to Pippin as Theoden will to Merry. And Denethor certainly won’t sit at the same table as Pippin to eat

Eileen remarked on Merry’s isolation among the Rohirrim but Angela noted that Aragorn and Theoden both take notice of him. Laura added that both hobbits once separated feel like ‘baggage’ being carried around.

Eileen then commented that this is a very suspenseful chapter, including yet another flight by the Nazgul. Laura added that the suspense also mounts until the dismounting of the Rangers, and Eileen remarked that it adds to the readers’ fears that Aragorn and the others feel fear.

Angela then remarked on the degree to which Eowyn loses here restraint. Laura observed that she can’t accept Aragorn’s apparent disregard for battle and renown.

I wondered if Eowyn has a crush on Aragorn? Laura and Angela both thought her reactions are more like first love when she discovers there is something more important than her. Chris observed that she’s had a lot of emotional turmoil already, citing the death of her cousin Theodred and disgrace of her brother because of Wormtongue’s interference.

Laura thought it must have been odd for Ellandan and his brother to see Eowyn showing such an interest in Aragorn.

Angela remarked that at the feast, Aragorn’s ‘It is not madness…’ speech is a real conversation-stopper.

Carol commented: Eowyn thinks she’s in love with Aragorn and has slight pause when he says his heart dwells in the north. I think her wish to go to war isn’t only because of Aragorn. She talks of ‘skulking’ in the hills and really nobody asked her if she wanted the job of guiding her people.  She wants action because she’s intelligent and strong, capable of much more than keeping the home fires burning. Aragorn just adds to this. Those crucial words: ‘all your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the home,  for the men will need it no more.’ These are progressive words coming from a man of Tolkien’s generation and the feminist in me says ‘Yeh’. But when she says she’s ‘not a serving woman’, this is what royalty is. Although richer and more powerful, a good monarch or princess is a servant to the people, a shepherd, a protector, guide. But she is bound by duty and patriarchy where one has to ask permission of uncle or brother in her case. She feels sidelined because she’s a woman and this will drive her to desperate measures.

Laura concurred that Eowyn’s opposition between duty and renown ignores the responsibility of a princess or lady of rank to put duty first, and Angela pointed out that Aragorn has constantly done his duty without renown.

Angela went on to remark that the ghosts are dead as distinct from the Nazgul who are not, and that in the presence of the ghosts of the Oathbreakers we really feel Gimli’s fear. Carol commented that ‘seen from Gimli’s point of view: he is shamed and quaking at the knees.’

Laura observed that Gimli alone is blinded by the darkness, and Eileen wondered if he was left at the back because he’s a dwarf. Chris thought he was perhaps in a trance, and Angela proposed he was disoriented by fear.

Angela also noted that there is the same disorientation of time, when the Company leave the Paths of the Dead – two hours before sunset – as there is when the Fellowship leave Moria – two hours after noon.

Angela observed that the Dead were the original inhabitants of the land and were not Numenorean, and she wondered whether the silver horn is the one Isildur used originally to summon the Oathbreakers.

Both Eileen and I remarked on the particular form of Aragorn’s words at the Stone and Laura thought them reminiscent of a church service. Chris and Angela noted his use of ‘ye’ as a subordinating form of address appropriate to both Aragorn’s lordship over them, and their criminal status.

Laura noted that there is a sense of prophecy in the chapter, in remarks such as taking a ‘path appointed’, and Carol observed that Aragorn the legend rides into another legend. She noted also Aragorn’s declaration: ‘but I say to you, Eomer, that in battle we may yet meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor should stand between’, remarking ‘This is one of my favourite sentences in the whole book. It’s heroic and prophetic and I love it when the prophecy comes true.’ Carol also commented: There are hints of Gimli’s survival. And where there’s water there’s life, the tinkle of it wakes Gimli from his nightmare.

Laura went on to observe that the word ‘booth’ is not out of place, deriving directly from the Icelandic word, as found in e.g. Njal’s Saga.

Eileen observed that there are many human aspects to the chapter, including loss, love, inclusion and exclusion making it moving.

As we ran out of time, and bearing in mind the absence of many members of the group at Oxonmoot, we decided to read 2 chapters for our next meeting at the end of September: ‘The Muster of Rohan’ and ‘The Siege of Gondor’.

 

Carol’s comments:

The Passing of the Grey Company

The description of Roheryn ‘rough-haired…no gleam of stone or gold’ and Aragorn as he is covered with a plain grey elven cloak, somehow makes the likes of Eomer seem very dandyish with his horse plume etc but the horse plume does act rather like a standard showing who’s side he’s on. I’m not a great one for ostentation but both Aragorn and Eomer lead by deeds whatever Eomer may wear.

We will hear the story of the skeleton of a ‘mighty man’ in the next chapter.

The stone of Erech, why did Isildur bother to bring such an unwieldy thing from the wreck of Numenor? Here topography as history.

 

Omer’s comments on end of The Two Towers

Our friend and colleague Omer has sent the following comments:

(a) I tend to agree with Tim’s view about a ‘military’ or ‘camp ‘ language , w r to the language of the Orcs. As you might probably know, Urdu- our Pakistani national language – was born in the medieval times, during the early Muslim conquests of India by several invading tribes from the North and North West eg the Turks, Afghans, Mongols/Muguls etc. These invaders used to garrison their mercenary armies of mixed Central Asia/Afghan types (with a small number of local Hindi mercenaries too) in special camps, usually outside the main cities like Delhi and Lahore; and since all sorts of commodities etc were to be provided to these warriors, by local merchants and farmers etc, a sort of mixed patois developed, which included a Hindi base with Turkish and Persian and Pushto/Afghan words, later on also a smattering of Arabic. This developed into a proper camp language or ‘lingua franca’ and was designated as ‘Urdu’ in fact a Turkish word meaning ‘camp’. Compared to Hindi and its associate languages and dialects, it was a somewhat harsh-sounding language, with more gutturals (which become flattened out in Hindi) and resembled, in its early manifestation, languages such as Gaelic or German. Over time, as the Hindi influence grew , the language became softer and more refined (as we note in the 18th-19th centuries with the growth of Urdu poetry in Delhi and Lucknow) — but the essential and basic ‘rough and ready’ character still remains in the common Urdu (Urdu i Aaama or the Ordinary Camp) vis a vis the later high/refined Urdu (Urdu i Mualla, or the Exalted Camp). I always imagine Orcish to be somewhat like the early rough Urdu. A hodge-podge language of all the tribes between the Indus and the Aral Sea.

(b) the comments about Shelob and the bottled starlight/Elvish light brings to mind an old folk tale here in this region, of ‘Nikka Pai” a younger son/brother of a farmer, who has to go down to the Underworld/Hades to rescue his elder brother from the demons who have taken him , in order to fulfill a promise to their parents. As he is a good-hearted and pure-spirited lad, and loyal to his elder brother and devoted/obedient to his parents, of course, Divine Help comes his way; he meets a saint or mystic ‘Baba’ (elder/old man) who gives him a mystic phial, of ‘Heavenly light’ . This has the power to bring positive force/energy to the owner/user– in the Underworld, we are told, all positive energy/force is sucked away, and people become dull and even lose their colour, they become ‘grey’ like the dead ones; but the Heavenly light phial can bring back this positive energy and drive away those demons and negative forces that thrive in the darkness. Strange echoes of both this Tolkien incident/scene and of the Dementors, in the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling — in fact, my youngest son, Hissam, reminded me of this, as he was reading Harry Potter and had of course listened to this story in his childhood.

Carol’s comments

With apologies for not including these in the main blog, here are Carol’s comments for the Minas Tirith chapter.

Minas Tirith.
The short paragraph of the lighting of the beacons of Ered Nimrais is heroic, with Shadowfax giving his all. Although misplaced, the lighting of the beacons in the film is one of the most memorable in the film. The film is about exaggeration while Tolkien is about understatement.

Do they pass the bearers of the red arrow?
For once Gandalf is praising Pippin and Pippin almost refutes it. Arrival at the Rammas Echor.
Pippin’s first sight of the tower of Ecthelion: Tolkien description herioc and clean.

Starting to use archaic words: tilth, oast, garner, league, fathom, thence, twain, verily, kine, now that the Story has arrived at the heart of heroism and sophistication, far from the rustic Shire where they eat ‘taters’.

‘as frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien’ – we now start getting brief alignments between stories. the dead white tree, symbolising a dead line of kings so thought but it’s treated like a person and still honoured even in death. So much so that it will be laid to rest in Rath Dinen. Now they enter ‘the house of stone.’ Compare Meduseld.
Does Gandalf ‘see’ Aragorn’s unexpected mode ofarrival at Minas Tirith. Pippin’s still surprised at the
> mention of ‘kingship’. Gandalf’s comments are apt. ‘monoliths of black marble’, just epitomises Minas Tirith – cold, stoney, stern.
‘the mightiest man may be slain by one arrow…’ sometimes Pippin really surprises us and here he is diplomatic to a fault. He rises to the occasion even though Denethor has said he has no time for halflings. Did Denethor see Pippin in the palantir?
‘Pippin never forgot…’ implies that he survives. Again back to archaic forms – Peregrin son of Paladin rather than Peregrine Took. How are women known? In Iceland they still use ‘dottr’.
Denethor’s concerns are blinkered to Minas Tirith whereas Gandalf’s concerns are far wider. Like he says, even if Minas Tirith perishes, say Frodo destroys the ring but too late to save defeat in battle for the west, then Gandalf’s work will be a success if only given fragile new beginning. Gandalf and Denethor spark-off about the return of the king. What does Denethor know of Aragorn?  Stewarship not Dominion.
That laugh of Gandalf’s when they’re just at the start of what will probably be total defeat for the west – is it because either way he’ll soon be going home?
Beregond is one of the few characters acknowledged as having any family, though no mention of a wife.
‘the Darkness has begun. there will be no dawn.’ Darkness with a capital D. it’s been a gloomy end to the chapter with far less men coming to Gondor’s aid and now the fume from mordor. All points to little hope, ditto the next chapter.