Last Post in August

25.8.12

Our meeting today began with questions and recollections about the Return of the Ring conference. Lots of interesting snippets about papers attended, people encountered, and artwork enjoyed. It was good to have (almost) everyone back again, if only briefly, as Oxonmoot coincides with the second meeting in September.

Our text for today was as much of the chapter in BLT 2, ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’, as we had time for. Some of us had read it all!

Julie started the discussion wondering if Turin was really a Man or an Elf. We were justified in our perplexity by Christoper Tolkien’s editorial comment on the instability of the text on this point. His father simply had not yet made up his mind in these early versions of the story (c.1919) how to assign this major character, so sometimes he is an Elf and sometimes he’s a Man.

Apart from this instability, Laura remarked that ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’ is a great story, like a Greek tragedy in the use of perpetual ‘doom’. She picked out particularly Urin’s fate to be forever looking down on the endless misery to which his family is subjected.

I thought this was a particularly poignant form of torture – nothing physically violent but racking the mind instead. Mike picked this point up with some enthusiasm and related it back to the familiar Christian idea of the ‘dear departed’ who look down on the loved ones of their earthly existence. This he deemed cruel, and some of us joined in the condemnation of this long-standing ‘consolation’. Mike wondered why anyone would want their relatives watching their every move, and Angela proposed the distress of seeing children doing all the wrong things. We seemed to agree that such supernatural surveillance would be unwelcome in both directions.

Anne then raised the matter of the sadistic dragon and we spent some time discussing Glorund’s (sic) ability to speak. We noted other dragons in legend with this ability and Laura directed attention to Fafnir in the Volsunga saga who speaks. I observed that this is a left-over attribute from the fact that he was once a giant. It was remarked that Glorund speaks as the mouthpiece of Melko, rather than in his own right. The connection with Norse mythology led Anne to ask if the incest-motif pertained also to Turin and Nienóri. While acknowledging this to be the case, we omitted to mention the other more significant incest-motif of Kullervo and his sister in the Kalevala – the Finnish compilation of folk-tales. Tolkien acknowledged this to have been an influence.

Anne then asked why Turin’s name changes, and why Tolkien constantly adds more and more names to characters. This of course led to a long discussion in which it was pointed out that characters may be known by different names according to the race with which they are or have been interacting. It is, however, Turin himself who takes the name Turambar in order to shake off the doom that follows him. Other characters also rename themselves or are renamed according to events in their lives. We gave examples.

Laura went on to point to a cultural phenomenon that also bears upon this point. As she said, anyone educated at a good school as Tolkien was, and at the time of his schooling, would have had drilled into them the absolute necessity of NOT repeating words in essays, so synonyms and an ever-extending vocabulary were essential. I added that Tolkien loved words anyway, and Julie noted the delightfully ‘earthy’ names used for the Shire-folk before going on to observe that the multiplication of Turin’s names allows the dragon to trick Nienóri/ Niniel (later Nienor). He can say that ‘none who named himself Turin went hence alive’.

Anne noticed that in many of his names, Tolkien frequently uses double ‘n’s. I had only just been reading a text in which he said that he found ‘n’ a particularly pleasing sound, along with some Welsh combinations of letters. Phono-aesthetics is not a well-known branch of study, and we don’t usually venture into this sort of territory.

On a different topic Anne wondered if there was a problem with the construction of the text when she noticed that in one part of the story Turin kills the odious Brodda, but a few pages later Brodda is referred to as if he were alive. Laura untangled the apparently inverted chronology when she pointed out that what looks like a misplced reference is in fact the story of how Brodda committed the theft for which Turin killed him.

While we were looking at instances of ‘insult’ at feasts I mentioned that I thought the behaviour of the Elf Orgof was reminiscent of the conduct of Unferth towards Beowulf at the feast Hrothgar gives. Beowulf is not challenged with being ‘uncouth’, but Unferth insults him as Orgof insults Turin by making fun of his wild appearance.

Chris picked up the difference in appearance in a different pairing of characters remarking that the Orgof/Turin difference is picked up more precisely in the different appearances of Boromir (princely, if a bit muddy) and Aragorn (shaggy and weather-beaten).

Anne went back to Turin’s assault on Orgof at the feast, and described an ‘Agatha Christie moment’, when Orgof fall, dragging the tablecloth off the table. Kathleen picked up the aftermath of this disorder, asking what was the significance of Turin seeing the spilled wine on Orgof’s hand. Angela suggested that it was the fact that it was spilled that was significant – connoting the spilling of blood.

Laura then noted that in the mythic society being described in the Turambar story disability is treated with disrespect. The character Tamar is lame and in extreme anger Turin names him ‘thou club-foot’.

Laura also noticed another link to Beowulf in the way Turin’s men all desert him eventually, although she pointed out that at least Wiglaf stayed with his lord in Beowulf, while Turin is left entirely alone.

Anne and Mike brought up the matter of Turin kissing Beleg on the mouth after he has accidentally killed him. Anne wondered if this was in fact a sign of repressed sexuality, while Mike wondered if it was an act prompted by the need for forgiveness. I thought it might be analogous to the medieval Christian oscularum pacis or kiss of peace possibly with some connection to the medieval anxiety about dying unshriven. It was permitted if a man was dying in battle that any other warrior could hear his confession and absolve him. Angela drew a fine distinction between the kiss Turin gives the dead Beleg and the kiss on the brow that Aragorn gives Boromir while he is still alive. This might be a sign of lordship, or forgiveness.

The topic inevitably drew us to other instances in which male characters weep or kiss, and Mike suggested that rather than these being (potential) indications of repressed sexuality, they indicate moments of emotional vulnerability. Anne contrasted such moments with the early 20th century demand for keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’.

Laura led us back to consider the nature of orcs in this story, when it is said that ‘a band of the goblins of Melko go cunningly and very light’ (my emphasis). This is not what we are used to from LotR where they crash about in hobnail footwear. Laura put forward the fascinating proposition that maybe these goblins of Melko are lighter than the later orcs because they are at this early stage closer to their elvish genetic origins.

Julie then noticed that in this story Tolkien used Orc and goblin interchangeably, much as Elf and fairy are used interchangeably.

Laura then drew attention to the death of Glorund, which she thought was magnificent in the way it is described. She picked out especially: ‘…the huge spires of his contortions were terrible to see.’ There was general agreement that it is impressive writing.

By this time another afternoon had flown by, aided by the chocolate brownies brought by Mike, and we agreed to move on to the next (very long) chapter, ‘The Fall of Gondolin.’ It is really too long to take in one go so we decided do it in 2 parts. Part 1 will end at the end of the paragraph that precedes the line ‘Then Gothmog Lord of Balrogs gathered all his demons …’ We shall have 1 meeting in September to do this first part, but then Oxonmoot will coincide with the second meeting in September, so the second part of ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ will be our reading for our first meeting in October.

First August meeting

11.8.12

It was good to see everyone (only Vicky was absent) at the meeting, and to catch up on various things to do with The Return of the Ring conference, Ian’s new research interest, Angela’s almost-completed book, while munching through Laura’s LotR birthday cup cakes! We did eventually get down to our discussions, and this week we were starting The Book of Lost Tales 2, and the opening chapter ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’.

[A word of explanation, when a name is given below in the form e.g. (later Melian), this means that in late published versions of a story with which we are most familiar this is the name we find, not the versions used in this text.]

Angela began with the observation that when the young Elf Vëannë begins the story saying: ‘I will tell thee the Tale of Tinúviel’, this is almost exactly what Aragorn tells the hobbits when they are oppressed by the darkness on Weathertop. We had noted at our last meeting that some elements of the earliest versions of the Silmarillion stories came down into the published version virtually unchanged, but that there should be a pre-echo of LotR was rather surprising.

Pat took us on to consider a small and interesting detail that Timpinen (Tinfang Warble) travels in a boat drawn by swallows, and she wondered why these birds rather than the more usual swans, or gulls. Laura remarked that swallows are great travellers, and that is apt, but on checking again, what we missed was that Tinfang is described as ‘the breath of the summer’, and it is as he leaves the Lonely Isle in autumn that swallows draw away his boat – a clever interpretation by Tolkien of the departure of swallows that signals the onset of autumn.

Pat then challenged us with her question concerning Tinúviel, why does she dance among hemlock, which is poisonous? I recalled seeing, probably in one of Tolkien’s letters, his justification that as far as he was concerned all umbelliferous flowers were the same. Laura noted a fairy tale element in the way Tinúviel hides from Beren under the leaves of the plants, and Julie thought this raised problems about how big she is supposed to be. Angela thought surely not of the size we would think of from Tolkien’s later descriptions of Elves as rather taller than Men. It was observed that Elf and fairy are used apparently interchangeably in this early text, and size doesn’t seem to be firmly established in Tolkien own mind.

Pat posed another question at this point, asking how Beren, a member of the hated race of Gnomes in this early version, managed to get through the barrier that would later be known as the Girdle of Melian? I suggested that the fairy elements of the story involved us in not asking for a strict kind of logic to be maintained, but as in other fairy stories, things happen because they must, not because they are rational. Angela commented that in The Silmarillion there is mention of a ‘greater Power’ that oversees Beren’s passage into Artanor (later Doriath). Pat remarked that there are instances of the strong influence of the Valar in this early text too.

Angela also went on to observe that in Tolkien’s stories women are almost always described as wearing white. But in this story Gwendeling/Wendeling (later Melian) wears filmy black garments ‘jet-spangled’. We thought this might be attributable to Tolkien’s youth at the time of composition. I was surprised by the statement that Gwendeling was a ‘sprite that escaped from Lórien’s gardens’, and we all expressed surprise at this construction of a rebellious spirit.

Anne wondered whether there was any connection between the name Gwendeling and the name ‘Guinevere’. I could not recall any, except that the ‘Gwen’ part means ‘white’, and Guinevere’s name in the original Welsh versions of Arthurian legend is Gwenhwyfar.

Laura picked up the story of Gwendeling’s life with Tinwelint (later Thingol) and the statement that they “very long indeed were king and queen of the Lost Elves of Artanor or the Land Beyond, or so it is said here”. Laura thought this way of expressing their reign was beautiful and very much in the fairy tale style.

Laura also noted the description of Tinúviel as the ‘twilight lady’, which locates her significantly between times.

Anne wanted to know the significance of the use of ‘thrall’, in comparison to the term ‘enthrall’. We concluded that a number of words of this kind have changed their significance as belief in magic died out. Thrall being originally a term for a slave, ‘enthrall’ meant originally to ‘enslave’ – a purely negative sense, which has now lost its power. Laura cited the example of someone who is ‘enchanted by a glamorous woman’. To enchant once meant to put a spell on, while ‘glamour’ meant ‘occult/ magical’.

After this foray into diachronic meaning changes Pat observed that there is a parallel between the meeting and wooing of Gwendeling and Tinwelint and that between Beren and Tinúviel.

Anne picked up a further linguistic matter, wondering why Tolkien gives 2 versions of Gwendeling’s name, sometimes using ‘Wendeling’. It was observed that different branches of the Elves use these variant forms. Christopher Tolkien adds a note to explain that originally his father had used ‘Wendeling’ throughout, but changed it twice more in various versions.

Laura noted that Gwendeling rebukes Tinwelint when he opposes Beren, but does so in private, while Galadriel also rebukes Celeborn’s harsh condemnation aimed at Gimli, but she does so in front of everyone. Tinwelint clearly forgets or ignores how he had felt about Gwendeling in his opposition to Beren, but this paves the way for what is essentially a fairy tale ‘task’ – the search for a silmaril.

Changing the subject from Elves to cats, Anne was interested in the architecture of Tevildo’s castle which has no doors on the ground floor, and no windows. Laura was of the opinion that cat-flaps were in use, and cats jump very well anyway. I suggested that like any really ancient fortress, a door halfway up a wall was more defensible because it had to be accessed by ladder, which could be drawn up in case of attack.

Mike remarked on Tevildo’s feline doorkeeper who was in need of a snooze after carrying Tinúviel. Chris pointed out this was the effect of the magic garment she was wearing. Pat remarked that people travelling on animals reminded her of the Narnia stories. Laura thought there was a good deal of Tolkien ‘getting at’ cat behaviour, which Angela recast as him taking a swipe(!) at them.

Pat took us back a bit in the text to wonder at Tinúviel being allowed a spinning wheel while in her tree-house prison. We noted its association with the garment that causes drowsiness, and Laura reminded us that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fell into her long sleep.

Julie continued the fairy-story theme, and commented on the avoidance by Tolkien of the exact Rapunzel motif. Tinúviel lets down a rope made of her hair but not for Beren to climb. She climbs down it and escapes. Angela noted that as in our last session, hair continues to be strong and useful.

Chris wondered why Tolkien so carefully provides a justification for the lie Tinúviel tells Tevildo. The little story teller intervenes at this moment to say “yet have I never heard that any of the Eldar blamed her therein nor Beren afterwards, and neither do I.” Mike proposed that it echoes the sentiment behind St Augustine’s justification of the ‘just war’ – it is justifiable if it is needed to avert a greater evil.

After this serious moment, Mike noted a rare instance of Tolkien creating a joke around Beren’s inability to sound like a cat when sewn into the skin of the slain cat-lieutenant Oikeroi. Tinúviel tells him “…thou hast the air of a very noble cat if thou but hold thy tongue.” Mike was also amused by the account of Beren’s dislike of having his tail pulled by Tinúviel.

Pat went on to remark on Tevildo’s magic golden collar, and wondered if it was an early concept later picked up to become the One Ring. Both confer power, and hold ‘magic spells’.

Angela and Laura observed that Tevildo is in fact and ‘evil fay’, and not a real cat. Laura also thought that the name ‘Oikeroi’ looked Greek, while the long version of Tevildo’s name in the second version of the story looks Welsh: Tiberth Bridhon Miaugion.

I was surprised to see that the name ‘Tinúviel’ had originally been given in a Welsh form ‘Tynwfiel’. Laura noted that since the gold collar was given by Melko this must mean that he owned Tevildo. Angela then wondered if the great cat was microchipped!

Pat thought Tinúviel’s dance before Melko highly reminiscent of Salome, and she wondered if indeed flattery does work on tyrants. Mike and Julie were convinced of this.

Laura liked the moment when Beren outfaces Tinwelint declaring that the silmaril is indeed in his hand, but the hand is in Karkaras. I liked Beren’s degradation of the value of the silmaril as he says “it is but a little thing found by the wayside, for once methinks thou hadst one beyond thought more beautiful, and she is now mine.”

With some of us attending RotR between now and our next meeting we agreed to read as much of the next chapter ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’ as we each have time for.

July’s only meeting!

28.7.12

We have had what seems like a very long break from our discussions, although it was only 1 meeting that was cancelled on account of the Olympic flame and the traffic congestion we anticipated. It was nice to see everyone again after the break, although we missed Ian, Julie and Mike who were all otherwise engaged. We welcomed back Laura after her brief sojourn in the local Houses of Healing, and there was some discussion of matters relating to the attendance of members of the Southfarthing at the forthcoming Return of the Ring Conference.

I also asked for clarification regarding what to do about the compilations of early blog reports, and Chris reminded me that it had been proposed previously that they should be offered as a resource on the Tolkien Society Education web pages. I can report now that this has been done, the webmaster had transformed them into a pdf, and a link is now on the Education Pages.

Eventually, though, we turned to the reading. But that was no simple matter because we decided to revisit the chapters that only Mike and Anne and I had considered at our last meeting, thus delaying our move into The Book of Lost Tales 2, but that should mean that we will all be able to begin this together! Therefore – our last discussion in July was about the last 2 chapters of The Book of Lost Tales 1.

Laura began with the observation that although in the chapter ‘The Hiding of Valinor’ the Valar are even more otiose and unwilling to engage with the state of the wider world than in The Silmarillion, the quality of some of the writing is still of a quality to raise the hairs on the back of the neck, and she cited particularly the statement “and the Valar went not at that time forth to conquer Melko, and the greatest ruth was that to them thereafter, and yet is, for the great glory of the Valar by reason of that error came not to its fullness in many ages of the earth, and still doth the world await it.” The italics show the part Laura picked out as especially lovely.

Anne then questioned whether this particularly archaic and elegant linguistic register had been invented by Tolkien. I replied that he would have known how to create this effect from his academic scholarship because the manipulation of word order that can be seen even in this short passage is reminiscent of medieval and renaissance ‘high style’ which was itself derived from Latin texts. Tolkien’s knowledge of this archaic form ‘from the inside’ as it were is what, I believe, makes his prose style so convincing, in contrast to the self-conscious archaising of writers with a less profound knowledge of early styles of writing.

Pat remarked that she had been concerned that we would be starting BLT 2, because she has a deep aversion to cats. She was more comfortable with the final chapters of BLT 1 except that ‘Ulmo’s deep-sea car’ puzzled her. We all contributed to explaining the use of ‘car’ as the shortened form of ‘chariot’ which is often found in e.g. Shakespeare’s and Spenser’s writing. Laura and Kathleen both thought they caught echoes of C.S. Lewis in some parts of the text.

There was some discussion of the strangeness of Oromë’s ‘thong of gold’, especially as it was made in part from strands of Vána’s hair which he had begged. The making of a ‘rainbow bridge’ (echoes of the Norse Bifrost) from this long lash was only one of the things we remarked upon, but it led us to consider the retention of some early motifs throughout the long years of Tolkien’s development of the legendarium.

Angela was surprised at the use by the Valar of Ungoliant’s webs of darkness to obscure their land from prying eyes, as we thought these webs would have been infected with her evil and thus be repulsive to the touch of the Valar.

We spent rather a long time considering the mythic and folk elements in the construction of time as three aged men take the Valar by surprise. Chris and Laura drew attention to this as an example of what the Valar don’t know, and have to accommodate.

Pat commented on the personfication of the Sun and The Moon, and I noted that they were both conceived as vessels guided by spirit beings, so the personification as metaphor has an ‘earlier stage’ which, I thought, implies a justification for concepts such as ‘a wandering Moon’.

Pat and Laura noticed in ‘Gilfanon’s Tale: The Travail of the Noldoli and the Awakening of Men’ the motif of the diminishing of the ‘fairies’, and its echo in the later story that Elves have diminished as the power of Men has grown. Christopher Tolkien notes the ambiguity of the passage as he tracks his way through various versions, drafts, and manuscripts. This very fragmented chapter shows a work in progress and is again interesting for what can be seen to come down to finished publications, and which ideas were changed or rejected.

Anne asked why the elven drink limpë continued to be denied to Eriol, and Kathleen remarked that it was too strong for mortals.

We agreed to read the first chapter of The Book of Lost Tales 2 for our next meeting, with a special dispensation for Pat who has already encountered Tevildo and Oikeroi. For someone who has an aversion to cats, these are quite a challenge!