First in August

10.8.19

Only four of us met this afternoon because everyone else was in Birmingham for the major Tolkien conference, but we had our own small ‘moot’, characterized by its difference from the primary reading in which the whole group engages when all together. Laura named our meeting the Hart Hall Moot, because our chosen text for the afternoon was Beowulf – perfectly apt reading and discussion in the context of The Hobbit, and because Eileen doesn’t know the Old English poem and is new to reading The Hobbit.

We began with observations concerning the relationship between pagan and Christian elements in the poem. Laura had brought one of her beaded recreations as an example of the inter-relation between the two belief systems that had been co-existing during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was a little amulet pouch beaded in the colours associated with the Sutton Hoo hoard and hung with a small Thor’s hammer (the proper sort, not the Avenger’s kind!), and she pointed out that the pouch would also have contained a Christian cross.

We considered the development of the poem from its oral origins and the place of oratory in the oral society it represented. Laura noted that Beowulf is not characterized by the humility that defines the virtuous individual in Christian society. We discussed psychological benefits of the warrior’s vaunt and the humiliation incurred when warriors cannot live up to their vaunts – something we see in Hrothgar’s complaint that his men boast of the deeds they will accomplish against the troll – but they fail to live up to their words. Beowulf, on the other hand, completes what he boasts of doing. Laura offered a comparison between Beowulf and General George Patton, whose own hubris was legendary.

We do not see vaunts to the same extent in Tolkien’s work, although where they occur they serve to highlight the virtues of humbler characters, or the folly of hubris.

We went on to consider the importance of swords, and the unexpected preference for old ones over shiny new ones. Tim remarked on the difference it would have made if Aragorn had chosen a new sword rather than the reforged ancestral sword. But the primary benefit of an old sword, as Ian pointed out during a previous reading, and as Tim reminded us, was that apart from the significance of its historical lineage and associations, if it remained intact after many battles it was a strong weapon.

Laura commented on the fate of Unferth’s sword, which melted when it wounded Grendel’s mother. As she pointed out to Eileen, Tolkien echoes this in the fate of the Morgul blade, which melts away. I added that Merry’s Carn Dum sword similarly melts when it wounds the Lord of the Nazgul, and that Beowulf needs to use the giant sword to kill Grendel’s mother and cut of Grendel’s head.

I moved on to consider a comparison between the dragon sequence in Beowulf and Tolkien’s handling of the onset of a dragon. It seems to me that Tolkien’s vocation of the Desolation of Smaug is more powerful than the fiery retribution of the dragon after the slave taken the cup in Beowulf. Eileen thought that the Desolation would have been horrifying to Tolkien, who was ecologically sensitive.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s echoing of the description of Heorot with its golden roof and walls hung with tapestry in his depiction of Meduseld. She also noted the similarity between the greeting of the ‘Coastguard’ and the reaction of the Doorwardens at Meduseld where there are clear echoes in the leaving of weapons, and the judgement of virtue.

Laura also compared the role of the Coastguard in Beowulf with the arrival of the Vikings in Dorset in 787, and the riding of the shire reeve to meet them, with fatal consequences in that case.

When Laura noted that the structure of politics in Beowulf revolved around the making of alliances, Tim compared this to the alliance between Gondor and Rohan.

Tim went on to note the role of early medieval Irish monasteries in the saving of literature and culture after the Romans left, by gathering and copying all kinds of important texts.

Laura then likened Beowulf’s companions to the Fellowship. She allowed that Beowulf’s companions are largely undifferentiated, but linked by their loyalty to him, and to their king, as the members of the Fellowship are bound together by the concept of loyalty, and that this was something Tolkien certainly knew from the Pals companies of WW1. Tim noted that the idea of small group who had a mission together and a primary loyalty to one another was a familiar theme in mythology such as the Odyssey and the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Laura remarked that Beowulf includes many pre-echoes of disaster.

As we began to run out of time, I observed that OE poetry characteristically uses kennings and I asked if we thought Tolkien could be said to include kennings in his work. I couldn’t think of any. Tim, however, wondered if the ‘Straight Road’, in reference to the road to the West after the Fall of Numenor could be considered a kenning? We did not arrive at a definitive answer as we ran out of time, in fact we had over-run our time quite significantly!

After an afternoon of quite intense discussion we continued our ‘moot’ over a nice cup of tea and a snack, eschewing our usual alcoholic refreshment and dinner on account of the bad weather. We will no doubt make up for this deprivation on another occasion!

 

 

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Last meeting in July

27.7.19

This blog begins by picking up the discussion at our previous meeting of maps and particularly of the Dwarf map as reproduced in editions of The Hobbit. Omer, our ‘virtual’ group member in Pakistan, sent another contribution to the list of mapmakers when he wrote:

In some ways, I am also reminded by this map of Al-Idrisi the early Muslim cartographer and his map making — maybe those maps were not very ‘correct’ in terms of geographic layout or North-South alignments but they still gave a unique world view and lots and lots of regional details and histories etc.

I feel Tolkien was influenced by the medieval map makers in his own map making, indeed ‘world making’.

Maybe, you would like to know a bit more about Al-Idrisi and his work, and I am giving a very basic link below:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Idrisi

 

Thanks to Omer for a fascinating addition to this discussion.

At our latest meeting we missed Angela’s presence in person but happily Chris brought her comments so she was with us in spirit. Carol is still recovering from illness so we don’t have comments from her this time.

Laura began our afternoon’s discussion with her observation that the opening of Chapter 2 is very Edwardian in its domestic details, except that Bilbo does not seem to have the customary ‘woman what does’ – the charwoman or daily help.

Ian noted that nowhere, except in the garden, is there any mention of domestic servants, which is a telling omission so this is not a representation of ‘normal’ Edwardian life.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo seems to take a pride in his home and regards his life as very fulfilling. Laura commented that he has to have everything just so and no one could do such a good job. Tim thought he was an example of a bachelor doing it for himself.

Chris observed that Bilbo was not as happy with his life as it may seem because he goes off on his adventure.

Eileen noted that he nevertheless has a great love for his home, as well as an endearing innocence.

Laura remarked that nothing had changed in the Shire, and that suited Bilbo. Eileen proposed that this was not necessarily a sign of stagnation but of control.

Angela had commented that Chapter 2 links to the start of The Lord of the Rings with many allusions and references. Although it is not expressed, the travellers must go through Bree, and the castles Bilbo sees are those seen on the approach to Weathertop. The bridge over which they pass is the old Last Bridge, the stone bridge on which Aragorn finds the beryl gem which he takes as a good sign. Bilbo’s observation that in these lands there was no king provides (now) a tantalising allusion to things to come, while one of the petrified trolls will have a bird’s nest behind its ear in The Lord of the Rings.

Eileen then remarked that she found the Contract letter a brilliant piece of humour.

I thought the language does not sound at all like Thorin, but Laura proposed that dwarves are businessmen who know the value of everything.

Ian agreed that it doesn’t sound at all mythic but ‘real world’.

Eileen noted the use of ‘cash on delivery’, but pointed out that the letter doesn’t specify what has to be delivered.

Ian remarked that it hasn’t been stated yet, but Chris observed that it means that Bilbo will get one fourteenth of anything they find.

Laura commented that Thorin only tells Bilbo a bit about the plan and adventure, and Tim remarked that Bilbo wouldn’t go if he was told all the horror they might encounter, but besides this, Tolkien won’t give the story away to the reader.

Chris noted that Gandalf knew Bilbo would do the job, and Ian suggested that Tolkien himself was a ‘burglar’ of ideas.

Chris went on to point out that Bilbo only becomes a burglar after being named so. I was interested in the fact that he lives up to the name he’s given.

Tim observed that the Contract is expressed in legal language and for Tolkien-the-philologist this was just another kind of language which is also a kind of common language.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo is not given time to think.

I thought the precise reference to a ‘pocket handkerchief’ sums Bilbo up at this particular point. I also remarked that I liked the sentence ‘the mischief had got into the fire’, and Laura compared this to the evocation of Loki in Germanic/Norse myth, where he is the trickster spirit of fire.

Tim then wondered if Gandalf’s white horse in this story is Shadowfax. We all thought it could not be.

Chris thought it typical of Gandalf when he comments at the end of the troll episode that he had been ‘looking ahead’ and came back because he had also been ‘looking behind’.

Laura proposed that the way Gandalf tricks the trolls is reminiscent of fairy tales and that the episode reflects the grim tales published in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

We turned to the matter of the trolls’ speech, which Tim described as ‘mockney’. Eileen thought the use of such ordinary vernacular was quite liberating as it is used for fun. I commented that it reminds me of the ‘canting’ language popular in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century which developed from the obscure communications of a criminal underclass. Tim thought colloquialism could encompass various dialects.

Laura remarked that the ‘jargon’ of the trolls makes the episode less horrific, and went on to comment that trolls aren’t English in origin (except The Three Billy Goats Gruff) so Tolkien has imported them from Scandinavia. Tim observed that rather than trolls, we had giants, and reminded us of the story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth of the arrival of Brutus the founder of Britain and his Armoricans, and their battles against the incumbent giants.

Ian observed that the troll never loses its basic characteristics and its spirit remains, thus the modern online trolls are channeling the spirit of the mythical ones.

I thought this modern manifestation will give a new meaning or feeling to the younger generation’s reading of this episode. Ian noted that our editions of the story had already been altered by Tolkien as he revised successive editions.

Moving on, Laura noted that dwarves have some magic as they weave spells over the troll gold they bury.

And with that return to the story, we ran out of time. As half the group will be at Tolkien 2019 in Birmingham on 10th August those of us remaining will prepare for later adventures in The Hobbit by revisiting Beowulf.

First in July

13.7.2019

Six of us assembled. We were temporarily without Ian and Carol’s comments (owing to her being unwell) but we first considered the matter of advertising for new members, and adverts are now in place as far as possible. Tim and Claire (who was on a flying visit) had kindly agreed to help with placing the ads.

So we moved on to begin the discussion of The Hobbit, postponed from previous meetings. We only dealt in any detail with the Map and Chapter 1.

Tim began by asking why the Map at the start of the book is oriented as it is rather than with North at the top.

I suggested it related to the map’s primary or cultural purpose, which was to record the way of finding the Door in relation to other landscape features.

Chris wondered if it was because this orientation makes it easier for publication? Angela, however, thought it could have been altered.

Laura compared it to the Mappa Mundi in Hereford cathedral which is oriented around Jerusalem because that was the focus of Christendom. This then posed the question ‘when did the orientation of maps change’.

Tim thought it was the result of explorations by historical figures such as the Portuguese Henry the Navigator, and Arabs like Ibn Batuta, who made more detailed maps.

After our geographical deliberations, I asked if the authorial interventions in the text created a problem? Laura considered that it fits with the knowledge that the story originated as a narration to children, and with the comfortable Edwardian context evoked by the narrative itself.

Eileen and Angela both agreed that the interventions were acceptable in a children’s book, although Eileen remarked that it would otherwise seem patronizing.

Everyone considered that the interventions were more acceptable as written evidence of oral storytelling.

Tim pointed out that the book is notionally written by Bilbo and pretends that he is speaking an original oral narrative.

Angela went on to comment on the inclusion of ‘lasses’ in the list of adventurous hobbits, but Laura added that although Belladonna Took is included, the narrator explains that she never had any adventures after she married.

We turned briefly to the matter of anachronisms, and Tim noted that Bilbo’s words, as author, have to be ‘translated’ for us, and anachronisms such as the ‘pop gun’ are equivalent to a ‘best guess’, or best attempt by the ‘translator’ to render the original in terms we can understand.

Eileen remarked that she found many of the characteristic traits of Bilbo endearing and enjoyable, citing his reluctance to go with the dwarves, and continuing reluctance to be away from home. She compared this to the reluctance of children to do things.

Tim picked up Gandalf’s pedantic response to Bilbo’s ‘Good morning’. And Laura noted the detailed description of Gandalf’s clothing, wondering at the nature of the ‘silver scarf’ and whether it was a gift from Galadriel, another example of her weaving! Angela questioned whether it was made of mithril?

Tim remarked on the scale of the feasting in Bag End, comparing it to the ‘lashings of…’ in other children’s stories, but in fact perhaps recalling the kinds and amounts of food that might not have been always available to the family.

Eileen commented that the stores in Bilbo’s pantries made her think he would be alright in the event of No Deal! More seriously, she wondered whether Tolkien was writing during a time of food scarcity.

Laura and Angela noted that Mabel Tolkien was impoverished after her husband’s death and Tim proposed that Tolkien may have been harking back to his own childhood.

I thought, after the fun and extraordinary variety of the feast, the poem changes the mood of the chapter. Tim observed that the change begins with the dwarves’ music. Laura commented on the mix of instruments and Angela remarked that the clarinet was first used by Mozart.

Tim proposed that only small harps would be carried around and Laura suggested they would be like Celtic harps or the lyre-like Anglo-Saxon harps.

Laura remarked that the singing in the film owed something to Russian Orthodox music, while Tim noted that in the film that music is closest to the book.

Tim also remarked on the moment when Bilbo is no longer under the ‘spell’ of the dwarvish song and ‘shudders’ as he comes back to his own reality.

Angela observed that Frodo is similarly torn between home and adventure.

Tim wondered if it serves as a premonition for Bilbo of dragon wrath over the Shire, if it is disturbed, which itself prefigures the Scouring of the Shire and the effect of Mordor.

Laura observed that Bilbo’s repetition of ‘struck by lightning’ when he trips is gibberish because he is under stress.

Jumping ahead, Angela remarked on the dwarf artisans of Dale and the acknowledgement of their return in The Lord of the Rings, and Eileen commented that she was surprised at the inclusion of Gollum in this story. Chris and Eileen briefly discussed whether Gollum kills only for food, and whether it was only imps, or full sized orcs.

With that we ran out of time. Our next meeting will continue with Chapter 2.

 

 

 

First in June

8.6.2019

Sadly, once again, only 3 of us were able to get together for today’s meeting, and as Carol is also unwell at present she has not been able to send her usual Comments. Nevertheless, we had a lively meeting. However, the inevitability of time creating changes of circumstance that are bound to affect the group prompted me to divert our discussions for a while from our reading/re-reading of The Hobbit to consider whether the time is coming when we should widen participation in the group, along with it remit.

This is a matter that will require some serious discussion in its own right once we are all together again. As Ian and Eileen both pointed out, the sustainability of the group is affected by the number of its members when we get to the unfortunate matter of having to pay for the room we use. There are likely to be a number of possible ways forward, and the three of us were looking forward optimistically.

As preliminary options, Ian suggested that we might devise a highly flexible but nonetheless structured programme of topics for reading and discussion based on Chris’s excellent compilation of our past blogs, choosing things that would be of interest to a wide range of people, not necessarily only those with our long-standing passion for Tolkien’s works.

Ian added that we meet in a city with substantial medieval history and architecture and this could be part of a whole new package relating Tolkien to medieval literature within a medieval environment.

Eileen remarked that she was just looking for literary stimulation when she came along, but the group’s enthusiasm became infectious and now she’s as lost in Middle-earth as the rest of us!

Ian added that he had noticed a flyer in a bookshop because it had a dragon on it, so any publicity needs pitching in a way that attracts the right kind of attention. It also needs to include certain keywords, such as ‘stimulating discussion’, and Ian and Eileen came up with a slogan: ‘Bring along a book, a sense of humour, and an open mind’.

This was as far as it was reasonable for us to go with our initial brainstorming. The proposal to expand now needs to be considered by the whole group together and individually, but at the very least I would suggest that we need to consider how we take our own reading forward once we have finished The Hobbit.

Ian, Eileen and I then turned our attention to The Hobbit. I remarked that the runes at the start are not just phonetic symbols but as runes they come loaded with various kinds of significance for us, irrespective of their function in the story.

Eileen observed that for her, they took her back to an ancient time, both within and outside the story. They are another of Tolkien’s languages, and their use divides ‘tribes’.

Eileen also went on to express her delight at the humour in the story. She particularly mentioned Bilbo’s comic bewilderment, and found more humour in the story than in other Tolkien texts we have read. She even found the goblins funny, and questioned the differentiation of goblins in TH from orcs in The Lord of the Rings.

I thought it had to do with Tolkien structuring the stories for different age groups.

Ian compared the situation with the Harry Potter stories and proposed that Tolkien uses familiar terms so as not to alienate young readers. But in The Lord of the Rings he uses ‘orcs’, which are still goblins, but named in such a way as to enhance their ‘otherness’ for other readers. At all times goblins/orcs are the same kinds of creatures.

Eileen felt that in TH the goblins are depicted with more black comedy. Ian thought they were more ‘impish’.

This led Eileen to compared their comic depiction with the equally (she felt) comic characterization of the trolls who argue over how to cook the dwarves and Bilbo.

Ian observed that this elides the reality that they are talking about actual cannibalism!

I thought the comedy lies in the incongruity between the horrible intention and the argument over the methods.

Eileen remarked that reading TH as far as she has gone has put The Lord of the Rings  into focus.

Ian observed that Tolkien translated medieval ideas of story into modern form, using childish language to introduce the story, but he evolves the style as the story develops.

I noted that his use of styles of language in it is very varied, from the crude colloquialism of the trolls to rhetorical/poetic, to the conversational-paternal.

Ian picked up this point when he noted the use of ‘oozy’ at the very start, but that by the end the language of the story has become more conceptualized.

I referred to one sentence that I found particularly illustrative of stylistic development: at the start of Chapter 4 the narrator says:

‘It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.’

Ian described it as multi-dimensional. I thought its structure was highly rhetorical and Eileen thought it poetic. I felt it was also mimetic of sequential experiences which could have been expressed in a more ordinary way. This structure emphasizes each experience by isolating it semantically, but relating the last 3 terms by conjunctions to draw out a feeling of weariness with yet another kind of difficulty to face.

Eileen thought that the developing style argued that this is not really a book for children. I agreed, although the style makes it a book one would wish children to get to know.

Ian observed that the reader and writer both go on the same journey.

I specifically asked Eileen, as it’s her first reading of the book, how she responded to the songs of the Elves in Rivendell because these are not always well received. She replied that she loved them! For her they showed another side to the Elves as they sang merrily to welcome the travelers.

I also asked Eileen how she felt about the language of the trolls, because Tolkien apparently rather regretted their linguistic characterization. Eileen thought it suited them.

Ian then looked up ‘booby’ in an online dictionary and found the kinds of definition we might expect, but he also found that it was characteristic of the vocabulary of East Anglia and the entire south of England from Kent to Devon. So everywhere but Mercia! Could this be an authorial comment?!

And so the afternoon came to an end for us. We will continue with The Hobbit at our next meeting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last in May

  1. 5. 19

After some unavoidable delays, at long last we got round to discussing the Tolkien biopic at this last meeting in May. We have no comments from Carol because she hasn’t seen the film yet.

Our discussion started with Tim’s observation that the film is not a documentary and that Biographies have long existed for anyone wanting straight biographical details.

While giving due consideration to the film’s use of symbolism and fictionalizing of the Somme battle, I said I was astonished that, in the context of the reality of war, Tolkien had been able to use some of his experiences, as he acknowledged, in his fiction.

Eileen suggested that on the other hand the fiction shows his need to write out those experiences. Tim expanded this when he remarked on Tolkien’s focus on other things as a coping strategy.

Laura remarked in this context that Tolkien had been included in a programme on war poets, even though his poetry was quite different to that of poets like Wilfred Owen.

Laura also commented on the film’s depiction of the filth of the trenches and Tolkien’s illness when he caught trench fever.

Chris thought that the film’s depiction of Father Francis Morgan was well-handled and explained his attitudes to crucial moments in Tolkien’s life. Ian added that Father Francis was played by an Irish actor which played to a trope of the priest-type for the sake of the audience rather than showing Father Francis’s Spanish descent.

Ian suggested that the film revises the misleading image we are used to of Tolkien as an older man – images that came to the fore in the wake of the publication of The Lord of the Rings. He added that the depiction was of a world prior to the writing of The Hobbit and still in the 1920s, in which values were different. On the other hand, at times contemporary values were overlaid onto those of the early twentieth century to make them more accessible to modern audiences.

Ian also remarked on the use of lots of reflections in the film – in water, in glass, in mirrors – and that these define it as a reflection of events and a critical interpretation.

He further observed that parallels are set up between the TCBS and the Fellowship in the context of war, but that Tolkien’s time at Great Heywood and Cannock Chase were omitted; and that the presentation of the relationship between Tolkien and Joseph Wright was less biographical and more representative of relationships between tutors and students generally and the need for discipline.

Laura picked up this scene and remarked that in reality Tolkien had read Wright’s Gothic Primer when he was at school. Ian commented that the film makes the significance of Joseph Wright and his Gothic primer into drama.

Laura also noted that contrary to photos of the time, Tolkien wasn’t shown on screen with his Second Lieutenant’s moustache.

Tim observed that the film did not give blow by blow accuracy, but gave the biographical details a mythological cast in keeping with Tolkien’s own technique, and Tim compared this to many myths which have a grain of truth from the ancient past, such as the myth of King Arthur, who may have been a real warrior, but any truth underwent sequential development.

Laura then raised the point that Tolkien came to fame as an older man, especially in America, and his adoption by the student community at a very troubled time, and by all sorts of hippy culture may have contaminated the sense of his worth as a writer in this country. Angela commented that at university in England in the late 60s she was already aware of Tolkien’s popularity among some students.

Angela went on to remark that the film could have made more of the poverty in which Mabel Tolkien and her sons found themselves on account of her conversion to Catholicism, and the consequent help provided by Father Francis. Ian noted that the introduction to the lodging house to which the orphaned boys are moved refers to religion.

Chris thought that this doesn’t come out clearly in the film, and he proposed that film-makers don’t like to deal with religion these days. Ian replied that Father Francis points out Tolkien’s lack of money and therefore his need for a career, and thus the need to concentrate on his studies not marriage.

Ian turned our attention back to the war scenes with his observation that as we know in the trenches Tolkien suffered trench fever so the hallucinatory sequences function as the effect of the fever. They are therefore not an account of any actual bit of the war. Ian wondered whether survivor’s guilt on Tolkien’s part was emerging in The Lord of the Rings. Again, this is a reflection of the creative environment of the book.

Chris made the point that the film is not blow by blow referencing of the book or the film adaptations, but that it picks up references from them.

At our next meeting, the first in June, we will begin our discussion of The Hobbit.

First in May

11.5.19

This is going to be a very brief blog report as there was, in the end, no meeting yesterday. For all sorts of very legitimate reasons everyone except Eileen and me had somewhere else to be, so Eileen and I met for half and hour and then we also dispersed.

If we had all been able to meet we would have discussed the Tolkien film, and maybe ventured into The Hobbit. As things stand, we shall simply move the film discussion and the start of The Hobbit to our last meeting of May.

This is the first time the group has been depleted in this way and to this extent, which is not bad over the course of some 15 years. For so many members to be able to meet regularly twice a month during all that time testifies to the commitment, come rain, shine, and snow, and our deep love of all things associated with Tolkien, including the texts known to have influenced him.

So our next meeting will cover the film (for those of us who have seen it), and the delightful beginnings of Bilbo’s encounter with Gandalf and the dwarves.

Last Meeting in April

27.4.19

In the teeth of a howling gale, and to the accompaniment of equally howling police sirens, 6 of us gathered to complete our reading of The House of the Wolfings. We missed Tim and Julie, and were diverted from an immediate start by the need to take into account the release of the new biopic of Tolkien’s life, and the consequent consideration of a group cinema visit to continue our practice, established with the release of The Hobbit films, of watching Tolkien films together. This has proved cathartic in the past, so much better than fuming silently to ones-self over directorial decisions judged to be crass, ill-informed, or just simply wrong!!! I have to mention rabbit-powered transport, and the appearance of a giant ‘war-moose’. Other objections have been made, and make me personally wary of the new film, so the company of friends with whom to share highlights (hopefully) as well as complaints should offset any discontent created by the new film. At least the presence of Derek Jacobi in the cast list lends some optimism to the prospect.

Having agreed that we will convert our next Tolkien RG meeting to a film visit, we turned again to the Wolfings.

Laura began our deliberations with the observation that it is possible to see the common influences between Morris and Tolkien, although the quality of Morris’s writing is not up to that of Tolkien.

Eileen remarked that the last poems spoken by the Wood Sun were more moving than the other poetry in the story, which, she felt, merely fragments the prose. Eileen enjoyed the love story but not the constant emphasis on battle tactics because the reader got closer to the characters.

Laura noted that you just know doom is coming, and there is a constant movement towards fate. She felt the story of the dwarf mail and the dwarfs themselves were much more like those in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as was the deceit of the dwarf by the Wood Sun. It leads to a curse, as in Tolkien. Laura was also precise in reminding us that although Tolkien’s plural is dwarves, Morris’s plural is the ordinary ‘dwarfs, because Tolkien was a philologist and Morris wasn’t.

Laura also felt that the story offers a more sympathetic view of the Goths than is usual, and that the story blends in the myth of the valkyrie and the supernatural.

Eileen commented on the importance of the ‘thicket’ as a place of seclusion, safety, ambush, and refuge.

Laura noted that the Roman captain, only named as such, is flawed, while on the Goth side there are different leaders. All act according to external pressures.

We all then considered the topic of the depiction of women in warfare. In the story they are messengers and eventually warriors, and we compared these depictions with the historical activities of Æþelflæd and Boudica. I mentioned that recent research has concluded that Viking women could also be warriors.

Eileen observed that the Wood Sun seals Thiodolf’s fate, and this is perhaps a depiction of the power of a woman over a hero. Laura questioned whether it is rather a sign of his weakness? Chris remarked that Thiodolf was always going to die, and Laura qualified this by recalling that he needs to die in battle.

I proposed that Thiodolf is ‘special’, someone whose destiny is Other, and supernatural, like the heroes in the Ring Cycle, and bearing in mind the time in which the story was written I felt there was even a hint of the Nietzschean Ubermensch. Laura went on to suggest that Thiodolf’s relationship with Wood Sun was possible for them but not for the Goths in general.

We observed that the Hall Sun is the child of Thiodolf and the Wood Sun, and Angela noted that Tolkien’s Elves don’t marry in time of war, or have children at such times.

Laura remarked that although Tolkien’s life spanned the late Victorian, Edwardian and mid-twentieth centuries, he was a Roman Catholic and so he would have understood the concept of sexual abstinence. In comparison, although Morris was born and lived in the repressive Victorian era, he was also part of the pre-raphaelite circle among whom there was a degree of sexual freedom that was extraordinary for its time. Ian noted that Morris lived in a world with servants, as did Tolkien, but in Tolkien’s time that world was falling away and individuality was growing.

Ian observed that for both Tolkien and Morris the underlying structures of the societies in which they grew up and worked had some similarities and although Tolkien was brought up in religious morality, both lived in societies that saw the awakening of new attitudes. Both men rejected industrialization but in different ways. In their writing, Morris’s Wolfings is more stratified, using an historical elements with the addition of a mythological dimension. Tolkien’s writing, on the other hand, is more complex, a more subtle blending of history and myth.

Laura remarked that Morris was writing a story but Tolkien was writing a whole world mythology, and Chris commented that Morris bases his story on real facts.

Ian proposed that Tolkien in his academic capacity was committing heresy by creating languages because he was a professional philologist. His work is immersive, and he opened up the world to fantasy fiction, but Morris shows the use of history and myth before that.

Laura observed that Tolkien switched from Classics to Germanic studies early in his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, but she drew our attention to Morris’s use of many Middle English words as well as an unusual dialect word in the phrase ‘doddered oak’. This, she discovered, is a dialect form meaning ‘shattered’, ‘decayed’, and is related to ‘doddering’. It did not necessarily have the sense of walking unsteadily on account of decrepitude, because upon consulting Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track Laura found the idea that very ancient trackways had been laid out by ‘dodmen’ using sighting poles such as those depicted in the hands of the Long Man of Wilmington chalk hill figure in Sussex.We noted in passing that ‘dodman’ had become a dialect term for a snail.

On that suitably philological note we ended our meeting, agreeing that those of us who can make it will go and see the Tolkien film on the afternoon of our next meeting, and that at our last meeting in May we will begin reading The Hobbit.