Last meeting in March

The following are the minutes of the latest meeting that were kindly taken by Tim, who has included website links where appropriate.

Present: Angela, Chris, Ian, Laura, Tim (minutes)
Apologies: Lynn, Eileen, Julie, Mike, Pat
We few, we happy few, convened in the Librarians’ Room today, since the Seminar Room is apparently being decorated. Lynn was due to attend a lecture today so she was unable to join us, although we understand from Laura that Lynn has been unwell, so we were all wishing for a speedy recovery. All our fellow Southfarthingas who were unable to come along today were of course missed.
The general theme of this week’s meeting was to be the theme of this year’s Reading Day: friendship. In true Southfarthing tradition, we were well provided with cakes, courtesy of Laura, to go with our tea and coffee.
As a precursor to the general discussion, Ian shared some of his ongoing research with the rest of the group, which is as always fascinating. He described a recent press release concerning the Tolkien Gordon Collection at the University of Leeds Library, consisting of papers which include a poem by Tolkien, ‘The Root of the Boot’, which we have recently encountered in its later form – in our reading of Flight to the Ford – as Sam’s ‘Rhyme of the Troll’. The following is a link to the original manuscript:
http://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-tolkien-root-of-the-boot
Ian informed the group that it could be sung to a traditional tune, which the site identifies as The Fox Went Out. It was published in Songs for the Philologists in 1936.
http://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/378421/the_root_of_the_boot
The collection consists of papers which document Tolkien’s early academic career at Leeds. (Brotherton Library, Alaric Hall, Catherine Butt). It appears that this draft of the poem was written in circa 1922, appearing in another form thirty years later in The Lord of the Rings.
Ian read the poem out to the group. There were recognisable elements when compared to the version in TLotR. Tim was intrigued by what the tune would be like.
Ian also talked about Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, which was published in six volumes between 1898 and 1905.  Wright (1855-1930) was Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University between 1901 and 1925. He tutored Tolkien when he was at Oxford and was an important early influence.
The group was shown a print of one page showing the entry for hobbit, being a Welsh word for a measure of weight for corn, beans, et cetera, as per the link below:
https://archive.org/stream/englishdialectdi03wrig#page/184/mode/2up
The discussion moved onto the theme for the day: friendship. It was remarked that the meeting itself was an example of friendship, of friends coming together to sit round eating cakes (we ate plenty between the five of us today!) drinking coffee and talking about Tolkien and his works.
Ian raised the example of the developing friendship between Thorin and Bilbo.
Angela referred to the developing bond between Legolas and Gimli, and Aragorn – the Three Hunters (cries of “Let’s hunt some orc” and “Forth, the Three Hunters”); Treebeard and Pippin and Merry; Gandalf and his friendships with Gwaihir, Shadowfax, Treebeard and Aragorn.
Friendship was also likened to brotherhood. Laura observed that friends will get you out of trouble.
Tim noted the changing relationship of Frodo and Sam by the end of the story, from master and servant to equals and friends.
Ian described the redefining of the roles of Aragorn and Boromir. It was also mentioned how Boromir was isolated and isolated himself from the rest of the Fellowship.
Tim had been considering the relationship of Tuor and Voronwë, described in detail in Unfinished Tales, wondering if it could be seen as a friendship when Voronwë was acting as Tuor’s guide to Gondolin. Chris agreed it could be. Tim also referred to the friendship between Túrin and Beleg. The latter was like a father to Túrin and searched for him in the wilds when Túrin was living as an outlaw, dying at his hand.
Angela observed that there are several examples of man-elf relationships. She referred to the interaction of Legolas and Aragorn after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
Chris asked the group: Did the Ring have a friend?
Laura raised the matter of the One Ring’s relationship with/links with the other rings of power.
Ian talked about C.S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves in which Lewis explored the nature of love and identified four categories for love:
Storge – affection;
Philia – friendship;
Eros – romance;
Agape – charity/God-love/unconditional love
Chris reminded the group that we might also consider false friendships and cited Sauron’s relationship with Ar-Pharazôn in Númenor. Other false friendships featuring deception and betrayal include: Saruman’s relationship with Denethor and Gondor; Saruman and Gríma; Théoden and Gríma
Someone posed the question: Were the Nazgûl friends or work colleagues?
It was speculated that one Nazgûl might say to another: “When we’ve knocked off I’ll give you a ring.”
We discussed the next session.
The Tolkien Society AGM will be taking place on the same weekend as the next meeting of the Southfarthing is due, Saturday 11th April 2015.
Laura, Ian, Angela and Chris will be attending the AGM in Arundel. The remainder of the group could still meet that day, if we are all willing, or we could hold over our study of Book Two, Chapter One, Many Meetings until Saturday 25th April 2015 when everyone would be available. Tim said he would propose the options to Lynn by e-mail.
After a very lively, fascinating and varied discussion, we had arrived at a quarter to four: the Fellowship concluded its business and broke up to headed off into the daylight until the next time.

First Saturday in March

14.3.15
We were missing Mike and Laura this afternoon. However, it was great to be able to congratulate Julie in person on achieving her MA. We discussed the matter of Tolkien Reading Day and confirmed that the group would take the TRD topic of Friendship for discussion at our next meeting.
Our reading this week was to finish Book 1 which meant revisiting ‘A Knife in the Dark’ and adding ‘The Flight to the Ford’ to our discussion. Carol sent comments as usual, but as our discussions did not cover quite the same aspects her comments are added.
We began with Pat introducing us to her research into the significance of Tolkien’s use of ‘Underhill’ as Gandalf’s alias for Frodo on his journey and the frequent mention of ‘under hill’ in both the chapters concerning Tom Bombadil, and the earlier ‘Adventures of Tom Bombadil’. Pat had wondered what this concept of ‘under hill’ signified, and proposed that it was connected with travel.
Julie remarked that in The Hobbit the rhythmic pattern ‘overhill, underhill’ is used, and Ian picked up Pat’s idea of travelling and proposed that it connoted a journey into the spirit or into fairy story and might be seen as having links to the Sidhe (shee), the Celtic fairy world, because – following Verlyn Flieger’s suggestions – Frodo, coming out of fairy-tale traditions, is also coming out of the Sidhe traditions.
Angela noted that Underhill is a common name in Bree, and indeed the Underhills in the Prancing Pony try very hard to work out what relation Frodo must be to them.
Ian observed that Frodo’s ‘underhill’ name is not functional after Bree, but Tim proposed that ‘Underhill’ still defines the quest as secretive.
Pat’s observation had produced a long and detailed exchange of ideas.
Eileen then moved the discussion on with her observation that Frodo and his companions constantly go through gaps while the Black Riders take the high ground.
Pat, Ian and Eileen all remarked in the various biblical echoes in ‘The Knife in the Dark’. Eileen was particularly concerned at the total of 30 silver pennies paid and offered by Butterbur for the ponies lost and bought – an echo of the 30 pieces of silver given to Judas. Among other biblical echoes we noted that cockcrow in Crickhollow marks the turning of the tide against the attacking Black Riders. Tim remarked that this was Tolkien’s rewriting of the biblical significance of the money and the cockcrow which were linked with betrayal, but in this chapter they are linked to positive actions.
Chris picked up the matter of the silver pennies and asked where was the mint if there was no king? I thought that the pennies did not have to be new, but might have been in circulation for a long time.
Pat went on to consider more poetry with her observation that Strider chanted the song of Tinuviel, and that this chanting has a calming effect which drives back the hobbits’ fear.
Tim remarked that chanting was part of the bardic tradition, while Pat thought that chanting acted like a meditation, while Eileen thought it had an effect like a spell.
Julie was interested in Strider’s statement about the song – that it was sad but ‘healing’. Ian noticed that this reference to tales in the history of Middle-earth being fair but sad comes from a character within the same story. Ian also noted that Strider prevents Sam and Frodo from speaking.
Tim commented that it seems like a case of ‘if anyone’s going to tell a tale, it’s me!’
Ian then noted that there is a significance about pauses in the text, as when Strider pauses, and when Frodo doesn’t speak when the group encounter the trolls.
Tim went on to consider the drama of the Black Riders’ attack, as well as the danger of Strider and the hobbits being up on Weathertop, which was very exposed but a necessary move. Angela observed that they needed to check on Gandalf.
Pat wondered how the stone was interpreted as an omen, and Ian thought it signalled an instance of the interweaving of chance and story structure. Pat thought Tolkien was planting ideas.
As we moved on Tim observed that the elves of Rivendell did not know Strider was with Frodo. Tim also observed that the Troll Song seems to be written in a Midlands dialect. Eileen thought the Song was a change to lightness after great fear before the story moves into uncertainty over the Black Riders.
I wondered if the description if Asfaloth as an ‘elf horse’ meant it was a particular kind of horse, and Julie suggested a relationship to the mearas. Tim noted that elf-horses only carry those they want to carry, and Angela wondered how a horse could carry a rider particularly smoothly.
Our discussions had been so detailed and wide-ranging that we ran out of time and agreed that next time, being the meeting closest to Reading Day, the group would take Friendship as its topic for discussion and leave beginning Book 2 until April, when ‘Many Meetings’ will be our reading.

Carol’s Comments
One of my defining moments in the whole book – Sam singing of Gil-galad, Sam, the youngest son who succeeds. The little gentlehobbits, Merry and Pippin, don’t know about Gil-galad, but the lowly servant does. Also history in song.

They discover the results of the flashing lights of a few nights ago. Was it Gandalf?

This poem, ‘Tinuviel’, part of a tale of the First Age. Its rhyme scheme is difficult; ann-thennath Strider calls it. I’ve tried to write a poem in the same mode and it took me a long time to get it reasonable. At this time, the first-time reader doesn’t know the significance of the story to the current situation.

This is part of an excellent potted history of Middle-earth’s main dynasty and what happened in the later part of the First Age and beyond. Tolkien seems to be outside himself in writing passages like these. They seem to flow far more easily as if he’s remembering something long embedded in his psyche. He’s also longing for those times – I think. It is also one of the ways of telling stories within stories.

This attack in the dell is scarey stuff with no 11th hour rescue. The group have to defend themselves against pure evil, described as ‘black holes’. Tolkien wouldn’t have known about astronomical black holes but the description suits the Nazgul perfectly – passages into non-existence, robbed of body and soul.

‘all blades perish that pierce that dreadful king.’ See Merry and Pelennor Fields. The athelas – first signs of Aragorn as king and healer

They’re now treading more recent historical topography – Bilbo’s journey. Tolkien inserts history from all periods at various times to give depth and authenticity to his world, as well as its being the backstory.

Sam’s troll song: please read all the poetry – its diversity is amazing. Secret selves are being slowly revealed in Aragorn and Sam. His secret life is a bit more obvious than Aragorn’s and is another step in his development.

The run-up and the encounter with Glorfindel: this last bit of Book 1 is gripping stuff, a very exciting chase. The Nazgul are beaten for the time being but leave Book 1 not knowing if Frodo will survive.

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.

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