Last Post in August


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.

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