Meeting – June 23rd

My first thought for this report was ‘what a funny old meeting!’  and so it was from one perspective because only Mike and Anne and I were able to attend, so it was not at all like our usual gathering. Hence, no actualy blog report, rather a reminiscence about a very interesting afternoon’s conversation.

We all admitted as we went out separate ways that we had expected to be on our way home after about an hour – just long enough to have a coffee together and run out of things to chat about. Far from it! we found so much to talk about that we were almost chased out by the librarians. It was nearly 3.45 before I even remembered to look at the clock. Now that might not seem odd if you don’t know that right above our meeting room stands the mighty Tower of Ecthelion (actually the Civic Centre clock tower) with a bell that chimes across the city every quarter of an hour!

The conversation became deeply engaged for a while in considering whether it is possible to see some latent effect of the wider linguistic and philosophical environment in which Tolkien was working at Oxford. We pondered whether he could have been entirely ignorant of the work of e.g. Wittgenstein, and A.J.Ayer. This topic came out of our consideration of the possible effect on his education at all levels of the work of e.g. Jung and Nietzsche. There is at least one attempt at Jungian analysis of some of Tolkien’s work but that is not perhaps the same as finding a direct influence. The case with Nietzsche is naturally more complex and we didn’t take that very far.

There was a great deal more wide ranging discussion even though we missed the rest of our friends, but I didn’t get round to making any notes.

We confirmed that we would not meet again until 28th July to avoid The Torch. We will take some time at that meeting to finish off The Book of Lost Tales 1, before hopefully moving on to The Book of Lost Tales 2 . It will probably be enough just to look at the first chapter of this.

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First Meeting In June

10.6.12

We were joined today by Carol and Rosemary, making for a rather celebratory feel to our meeting, and to add to the special nature of the day, the sun came out!

We were looking at Chapters 7, on the Flight of the Noldoli and 8 on The Tale of the Sun and Moon, and both Carol and Rosemary remarked that they did not enjoy them because they seemed to them too long-winded especially in comparison to the later versions of both stories in The Silmarillion. Ian commented that while TSil shows us the work of an older writer, these versions give depth of detail for the later work. This was a theme we revisited during the afternoon.

Laura remarked on the way Tolkien’s search for a vehicle for both his invented languages and his love of Faerie can be more clearly observed in these early versions. She went on to draw attention to the strange prophecy concerning the fall of Gondolin which none of the Elves understands because it has yet to occur; the point being that it was already part of Tolkien’s plan. When Laura then suggested that a pre-echo of the Inklings could be seen in the exchanges between the Gnomes Gilfanon and Lindo concerning who should tell the Tales, Ian objected to Laura’s observation on the grounds that when Tolkien wrote these chapters there was no such group as The Inklings! True if the pre-echo had been Tolkien’s intention. Not exactly true for us.

Rosemary got us out of the problems of chronological logic by noting the very different kinds of vocabulary used in these chapters from that used in the same chapters in TSil. Mike, Carol and I observed the way language and mythmaking were both being analysed throughout the chapters. Carol went on to note that both language and myth are elements which bind peoples and cultures together. Mike, Carol and Laura expanded on this by commenting on the importance of both for national cohesion and sense of identity.

Carol commented on Tolkien’s interest in Finnish, pondering the likelihood that this was because it was not like Indo-European. Ian looked up some significant dates and found that Sanskrit’s affinity with Greek and Latin had been posited in 1786, and the Rosseta stone had been deciphered in 1799 – we were exploring the background to the apparent explosion of interest in both philology and mythology in the century before Tolkien, and which underpinned his education. The spread of languages not related to Indo-European was addressed by Diane and Mike who both noted the effect of massive migrations across Asia and into Europe which led to the dislocation of similar language groups.

Laura and Carol then remarked on the frailties of the Valar, Carol citing particularly their remarkable selfishness when they only eventually consider that other parts of Middle-earth might like a bit of bright light too. Diane commented that the weeping Valar recalled the weeping Norse gods who are faced with the loss of their immortality when the giants take Freya as recompense for their building work.

Carol then commented that in relation to the tale-telling in the Cottage and the marvellous and mythic elements in the tales, Tolkien recognised the passing of an English rural society and its similar tale-telling traditions.

I asked what everyone made of Yavanna’s informal title as ‘mother of magics’? and Carol observed that her tree-making is certainly magic. Diane proposed that quite apart from any aptness within the story, the phrase sounds good, has a kind of ‘glamour’ to it, and therefore seems like a youthful choice.

Diane went on to question the assertion by Yavanna that the trees and the ‘magic sun’ can only be made once. Mike suggested this defined a level of external control beyond which the powers of the Valar cannot go.

Mike then went on to note that the making of the sun is a long account of disasters and disappointments as things go wrong, and he wondered why Tolkien chose to structure it in this way. Diane suggested he was writing a dialectic before creating a final draft, and it was observed that this allowed him to work through many potential problems and cover all the bases before editing everything down to a more condensed and effective form in the later Sil.

Chris commented on the ‘depleted’ condition of Palurien (Yavanna) as a result of her creativity, and drew parallels with the ‘depletion’ of Sauron who put a great deal of his power into the One Ring. This theme of depletion through exertion of power, Angela suggested, can be seen in the concept of Morgoth’s Ring which is not like Sauron’s ring, but is the defensive perimeter Morgoth creates in Middle-earth.

Laura then noted that the Valar were surprised that the sun was so hot and bright. Ian whimsically suggested they should have made sunglasses first! I thought the description of the minor Valar Urwendi and her maidens stepping into the firey bath in preparation for piloting the sun reminded me of Rider-Haggard’s She. And Carol commented that we can see the writing of a young man in the description of the naked maiden.

As we started running out of time, I asked for everyone’s responses to The Man in the Moon poem that ends the Sun and Moon chapter. It is a very early version of a poem of the same name in the collection The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Laura observed that the first stanza of the early version, reminded her of Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’; especially perhaps ‘He was girt with gold and inaureoled / With gold about his head. / Clad in silken robe in his great white globe / He opened an ivory door / With a crystal key, and in secrecy / He stole o’er a shadowy floor.’ 

The rest of Tolkien’s poem is highly entertaining, but I noted that he seems to have had a fascination with the idea of ‘aureoles’ at this time, as the word occurs again in the slightly later poem ‘Perro and Podex’ (Boot and Bottom), which was the first incarnation of the Troll Song sung much, much later by Sam. Carol reminded us then of the way in which Aragorn is depicted in terms of ‘The Light of the World’ when he visits Minas Tirith before taking up the crown after the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Mike explained that haloes only came into pictorial fashion after the 4th century because Constantine has been a sun-worshipper. In an effort to hedge his bets over the matter of religion the sun-halo was introduced in depictions of saints and deities.

Kathleen posed the final question of the afternoon when she asked if there really was a house with many chimneys near to Great Haywood in Staffordshire, similar to the House of a Hundred Chimneys in Tavrobel? The character Gilfanon is said to come from ‘Tavrobel’ which was Great Haywood in Tolkien’s original concept for tying real places into his story of the Elves. We were surprised at Christopher Tolkien’s admission that he had never got round to visiting the place in spite of its connections with his parents and could not enlighten us, but Ian Googled and found that Shugborough Hall near Great Haywood as 80 chimneys!

With that definitive link between life and legendarium we ended our meeting. Our next reading will be the last 2 chapters of The Book of Lost Tales 1, with any appendices we have time and energy for. After that we shall move smoothly on to The Book of Lost Tales 2.

Last Report for May (late)

26.5.12

Apologies for the lateness of this posting. It includes at the end the comments Omer sent in April, so this should now bring us up to date.

We began with lots of ‘Any other Business’ as Ian updated us on his involvement in the Leeds Blue Plaque project and the Sarehole event of last weekend. He also proposed setting up a Twitter account for the Southfarthing, and raised the matter of Tolkien Reading Day – already!

I passed on the news from Carol and Rosemary that they are planning a visit. For technical reasons to do with Google, I also let everyone know that I would have to post blogs on WordPress from now on and Ian said he would link southfarthingmathom.blogspot.com to SouthfarthingMathom2012.wordpress.com.

With all that out of the way, and in spite of the police family day outside, complete with Chinese dragon dancers, drummers, and small children trying out the air-horn on the attendant fire engine, we did our best to get on with our discussion. The chapters were ‘The Coming of the Elves and the Making of Kôr’, and ‘The Theft of Melko’.

Laura said she had woken up during the previous night with the inspiration that something about our reading reminded her of H.Ryder Haggard’s She. When she looked it up she realised that in this story the ‘plains of Kôr’ are, like the Kôr in Tolkien’s tale, a place of great age.

Angela observed that after the mention of snakes last time, in our current reading there were whales – another unusual animal in the Tolkien bestiary. Chris wondered if fish came into the category of pre-existing creatures. Angela reminded us of Ulmo’s ‘fishy car’ – an interesting mode of transport.

Continuing the maritime theme, Laura remarked on the unusual degree of tension between Ulmo and Ossë, who are constantly at odds. She also thought the ‘gods’ in this early version have human flaws much like the ancient Greek and Norse gods.

Ian observed that in the alteration of the characterisation of the Valar from this early form to the later form in TSil we see a development of ideas from the Greek model to Tolkien’s more thoughtful forms.

Mike suggested that we see the development of characters according to catalysts for change. The coming of the Elves was the catalyst for changes to the Valar; later Men and hobbits served as catalysts for changes to the Elves. Mike also noted that in the early version the ‘gods’ are active.

Ian proposed that the reason for Tolkien creating so many versions of his stories was to account for these changes and developments.

Mike remarked that the difference between what was pre-existing and what was created in the music was the difference between spirit and matter. We had wondered about the range of pre-existing creatures mentioned by Tolkien and how this fitted with the Music. Mike suggested that while Ilúvatar created the notes, he left these to the Valar to arrange. [This was a thoughtful line of argument which needs to be recorded, but I have incomplete notes and so the logic has become lost – apologies for this.]

Kathleen said she had found all the personal names confusing, and Angela remarked that their difference and novelty makes The Silmarillion seem easier!

Angela was interested in the 700 seagull means of moving the swan ships, and this led Laura to note that many myths exist concerning human closeness to animals and ability to communicate. Mike regarded the human desire to communicate with animals as morally dangerous. Ian thought there had perhaps been a time when we communicated better with other animals until our development of ‘culture’ intervened. Laura reminded us that in prehistory we had been prey animals. Ian extended this to suggest our species’ need for us to communicate danger, and a resulting intellectual separation.

Discussing similarities and differences, Laura went on to noted that in these chapters there is no mention of Aulë creating the dwarves. Angela observed that Tolkien uses the same motif of jealousy incited by Melko.

Mike wondered if the Valar could be seen as the makers of their own misery because they keep the Elves as ‘pets’. Their arrival even causes Manwë to get so excited he becomes unwary in his judgement of Melko, and Mike drew a parallel between the effect of the serpent in Eden and the effect of Melko in Valmar – both incite ‘better’ beings behave in ways that become humiliating to them.

Laura, Kathleen and Angela all agreed that Manwë came across as reasonable in his judgements, although Laura qualified this by describing Manwë’s approach to Melko as laissé faire.

Chris changed the tone of the discussion with his observation that Tulkas is disobedient. This prompted Ian to declare this Vala a great character. His active part in opposition to Melko was approved and we turned to the vexed question of the treatment of Melko’s herald, who is thrown off the top of Taniquetil. Any assault on a herald was strictly against the rules of chivalric conduct, but Angela thought this episode in ‘The Theft of Melko’ may have been the pattern for the beheading of the Mouth of Sauron by ‘Aragorn’ in RotK the film. Ian noted that Herodotus had set out the rules of conduct in classical times.

Angela then remarked on the confrontation between Ungoliant and the Elf with his sword steeped in Miruvor. It is not the same nectar-like drink here. I commented on the patterns of the encounters between the Elf and Ungoliant (here given 4 different names including Gwerlum). The Elf shears of one of her legs in the first encounter, then Melko grabs the knife from him and stabs it into the Tree, Silpion, which fails and dies from the poison of her black blood on the blade. The pattern for Sam’s maiming of Shelob, and the Ringwraith’s wounding of Frodo with a poisoned blade both seemed to me to have passed down the decades from this early version.

I drew attention to some of the consequences of Melko’s violence, most impressive for me was the reference to Varda riding out with Manwë and carrying a star as a torch to light the way as the Valar hunted down Melko. The reference to the brother and sister warrior ‘gods’ Makar and Meassë was more amusing. As Angela noted, they ride with the Valar, at this time. Previously their allegiance had not been clear. They were not very helpful however: the narration reads: ‘ either Makar was too late or Melko’s cunning defeated him – and the mind of Makar was not oversubtle.’

Laura noted that the ‘gods’ of the ‘underworld’ such as Mandos and Vé did not take part in the hunt.

Laura went on to comment on the creation of gems by the Elves, and was joined by Angela in remarking on the combination of light and colour that make up the Silmarils in this early version. Angela went on to note that the creation of gems almost exhausts the materials out of which they are made, and she saw this a very modern insight. Laura saw it as a reflection of human greed while Kathleen commented that the gems always bring out the worst in people.

Mike posed the question: did Melko only want the gems because others wanted them? Ian responded by wondering why Melko, the personification of evil, would be attracted to beauty, and proposed that the motivation desire for created things because he could not create anything, but the Elves can.

Mike then noted Tolkien’s apparent blindspot about the general infrastructure of Elven and Valar society. Angela observed that some infrastructure was included in LotR because mention of Sam running a bath means that there must be plumbing and hence plumbers! Sam is a reminder that there were gardeners, and we know about postmen too, but there is no such practical structure in the Far West. But it was of course noted that practical matters are not the material of mythology.

After a busy afternoon, we agreed to continue our reading with Chapters 7, on the Noldoli and 8 on the Sun and Moon – quite a lot, but that only leaves us 2 more to go.

Here follow Omer’s comments. He wrote on 27th April:

The latest blog (152) brought to mind several ideas/connections such as (a) the element of greed in Smaug; (b) giant-slayers in myth (of which we have some too), and (c) the theseus/Athenian cycle, the black sails and Denethor – as Theseus’s father also plunged down in despair from a high place, in the tradition of the royal house of Athens. Also worth mentioning is that, supposedly, the first king of Attica was Cecrops – half man, half dragon! Tolkien’s works open up so many complexities!