The Birthday Weekend – 22nd September – Hobbit Day USA


Bilbo and Frodo’s Birthday, in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit – what a conjunction! With half the group at Oxonmoot or, otherwise occupied, 5 of us met to discuss the differences between The Tale of Gondolin in the Book of Lost Tales 2 and the same story as it appears as a chapter in The Silmarillion. There was a good deal to say even though it was our second meeting on The Tale.

Pat began by observing that the Tale has a kind of ‘musicality’ to it that is entirely missing from the chapter in The Silmarillion, which in contrast very abrupt. She thought that generally the prose of the Tales so far was more beautiful than other versions of the same stories.

Anne agreed, adding that the prose of the Tales is more lyrical and ‘literary’ than that of The Silmarillion.

Kathleen remarked that the version in The Silmarillion reads more like a report. I thought it showed the ‘stripped-down’ style I associated with accounts of mythology.

Pat commented that The Silmarillion does not include any really lovely prose, and Anne remarked that she was not so impressed with ‘literature’ in it.

Kathleen was more specific when she commented on the use of a beautiful vocabulary in the Tale. I had noticed an interesting insight into Tolkien’s perception of linguistic aesthetics in the list of names given in the Notes. Tolkien’s ideas about phono-aesthetics are quite well known and he provides evidence of this through descriptions of 2 names. From his comments on the name ‘Gondolin’ we learn that the ‘Gnomes’ (so-called at this time) used this name for their city and it means in their language ‘stone of song’. This is a figurative use of ‘song’ and was used to signify that the stone was ‘carven and wrought to great beauty’. The clear existence of figurative language in the vocabulary of these early Elves must signify their development of poetry, and also implies their perception of finely carved stone in terms of harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. I mentioned that this reminded me of fine in Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Icelandic and Celtic interlaced carving and illumination.

The second example of Elvish/Tolkienian aesthetics follows immediately in the Names list under ‘Gothmog’. This captain of Balrogs has the name Kosomoko in early Qenya = Gnomish Gothmog. A variant form in the tale of The Coming of the Valar in BLT 1 is Kosomot.

The difference in form accompanies the difference in parentage and function, but of more significance is the remark interior to the story that ‘The Eldar named him ‘Kosmoko or Kosomok(o) but, ‘tis a name that fitteth our tongue no way and has an ill sound even in our own rougher speech’.

The perception of the difference in aesthetic quality between Elvish names and those of the servants/sons of Melko is less surprising than the remark by the speaker Elfrith that his people’s language is ‘rougher’. Given that the form of his name is Anglo-Saxon, emended from the more Elvish ‘Elfriniel’, Tolkien appears to keep up the fiction that there is a distant link between his Elves and the Anglo-Saxons, and distinguishes between their respective languages on grounds of aesthetics. At least that’s how I interpret this. Other interpretations would be most welcome!

After our diversion into linguistics Pat brought us back to the text of the Tale with her observation that Ulmo seems more powerful in The Silmarillion than in the Tale. He still performs his vital role of directing Tuor towards Gondolin, but without quite such an impressive ‘epiphany’.

Anne commented that Christopher Tolkien must have been a great organiser to have assembled all the disparate parts of his father’s writing into so many volumes of posthumous publications while Tolkien was the great creator. Anne then qualified this when she remarked that all Tolkien’s major works are pervaded by a sense of weariness – every main character suffers this in some form a good deal of the time. We conjectured that this related to Tolkien’s own life, which was clearly exhausting on many occasions as he juggled creative writing with teaching, research, domestic responsibilities, even war duties for a while, so he must have been permanently tired. It was suggested that setting his creative work aside would have eased his burden, and the fact that he continued to create suggested to us that he was a driven man.

Pat then compared this putative profile of Tolkien with the fantasy output of C.S. Lewis, suggesting that Narnia, for all its battles, has the feeling of much less struggle.

Changing tack, Anne went on to point out to us an ‘Icarus’ moment, when Melko is said to have captured many of the eagles and tormented them to get the secret spell of flight from them. When this fails he has their wings cut off in an attempt to make great wings for himself.

It is not the only echo of ancient Greek legend that we have noted in the story, and Anne described it as evidence of Melko’s ‘hubris’.

Pat was charmed to find Legolas Greenleaf mentioned in the story. We spent some time considering the number of balrogs, and their attributes, Glorfindel (replaying the old controversy over whether there were 1 or 2 in Middle-earth), and noting the repetition of names in the Third Age, such as Gothmog (lieutenant of Minas Morgul), and Ecthelion (father of Denethor).

Anne picked out what she described as a ‘tourist detail’ in the description of Gondolin with its squares and fountains and the palace.

Pat was interested in the fogs and vapours that filled the great vale around the ruined city, as it is expressly said that there had never been such phenomena before. We agreed that the great fires caused by the dragon machines had combined with the waters of the fountains and little streams that ran from the great rock and created the atmospheric novelty. It is also the means by which the remnant of the Elves can escape even in broad daylight across the open vale without being seen. Pat summed it up perfectly when she described it as a ‘cloak of invisibility.’

I thought the ending of the Tale showed far more emotion than the coldly business-like ending in The Silmarillion. The end of the Tale reminds us that we have been listening to an extended oral account of Gnomish history that touches its audience deeply:

Then said Littleheart son of Bronweg: “Alas for Gondolin.”

And no one in all the Room of Logs spake or moved for a great while.

And so we had to call our discussions to a halt too. Our reading for next time remains the next chapter of BLT 2 The Nauglafring.

First September Meeting


Our meeting was slow to start as it began with matters relating to the Society, the films, and the prospect of new members coming to the Society as a result of interest generated by the films, but we finally got back on track.

Our topic for the afternoon was the chapter ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ in The Book of Lost Tales 2. Once the ‘Any Other Business’ had been set aside, it was quickly noted that the chapter closely resembles the story as it is found in The Silmarillion, although some elements are left out, others are put in, and there are other changes to details.

As Laura pointed out, one of the more noticeable changes is the absence of the 7 gates into hidden realm. The secret passage is not as complex as in The Silmarillion, and so the wonderfully detailed descriptions of the gates are missing.

Pat was impressed by the great musicality and variety of sounds included in this version. A distinction was noted between the musical sounds of nature while Tuor is in the wild, and his own playing of the harp, and the more ‘Wagnerian’ and martial sounds used to characterise the later part of the story. Anne described them in terms of great Wagnerian ‘themes’ – piling up imagery.

Laura continued the analogies when she remarked that Tuor is a Siegfried figure, but unlike the Germanic hero, Tuor mellows with time.

Mike approved of what he described as a ‘fast-paced story’, and there was general agreement that this story was enjoyable to read, but Mike was not so pleased with the 7 names of the city of Gondolin – yet more names!

Pat was again impressed by the highly visual description of Ulmo, and both Anne and Mike suggested that when Tuor speaks to Turgon it is as if Ulmo’s thoughts are channelled. However, the way Ulmo commands Tuor to speak to Turgon: ‘Words will I set to your mouth there’ is reminiscent of God’s instructions to Moses before he confronts Pharoah: I will…teach thee what to say.’

Laura also noted that this encounter between Tuor and Ulmo includes a kind of ‘Annunciation’ prophecy as Ulmo speaks of a child that shall be born of Tuor.

Mike commented that the city of Gondolin provides a very glamorous setting at the start of Tuor’s life there, and Julie observed that Turgon is not like Thingol of Doriath in his welcoming of this Man. But Mike pointed out that Tuor does not arrive to demand Turgon’s daughter as Beren visits Thingol to request Luthien’s hand in marriage. With Tuor and Idril the attraction grows after he has been accepted by Turgon her father.

Pat and I remarked on the quality of Tuor’s voice which amazes the people of Gondolin because it is ‘deep and rolling’ while their voices are ‘fair as the plash of fountains’. As Pat pointed out, the description of Tuor’s voice echoes conventional descriptions of the Sea, and again links to Ulmo.

Anne was interested in the way Tuor withholds information from Turgon and wondered how the outcome would have changed if he had not done so. In this context – the construction of the escape tunnel, she also observed that it reminded her of Colditz.

We considered the practicalities of disposing of vast quantities of rubble that must have been dug out to create this new secret tunnel. Ian finally remarked that often people see things happening but just don’t ask about them. I suggested that being a ‘legendary tale’ this was the kind of detail that can’t be asked.

Mike diverted us to more thoughtful matters when he questioned Tolkien’s apparently uncomplicated pairing of beauty and goodness and ugliness and evil. I agreed that it seems simplistic, but I thought that in fact ‘goodness’, or ‘virtue’ within the confines of the stories is never quite as perfect as it seems no matter how beautiful a character may be. Even Luthien, the most beautiful Elf ever to have existed, was from one perspective wilful, rebellious, and deceitful. Arwen, her descendant, similarly follows her own choice, to the distress of her father, and her grandmother was no less rebellious. I also cited the example of Aragorn, who, while not ‘beautiful’ was virtuous.

Ian then remarked that the key to this might be Frodo’s observation that he would ‘feel foul and seem fair’ if he was wicked. This, Ian suggested, is a sign of how mixed up the moral qualities have become in the Third Age, so moral identity is less easy to judge. The further back you go, Ian suggested, the clearer the division appears after the mixing of LotR.

Among the archaic vocabulary Tolkien includes in this chapter, Mike queried the use of ‘rede’ – to advise, and asked if it was connected with ‘read’ (in the ordinary sense). I thought it would not be, but upon checking discovered that Mike was indeed correct: ‘rede’ and ‘read’ both derive from OE ‘rædan’ – to advise.

Pat then directed our attention to the description of Tuor when Idril first sees him, and Mike suggested that it has an erotic edge, but as he observed, Tolkien was a young man when he wrote this version. Ian checked and found that it would have been composed while Tolkien was recovering from his time on the Somme. As Laura observed, he had got himself a ‘blighty one’, and made extraordinary use of his convalescence.

Anne was surprised that she had found herself deeply involved by the battle for Gondolin, as she usually finds battle unappealing. Laura remarked that the mechanical beasts of war were like the tanks of World War 1 because they contain Orcs and are very dangerous to those inside, as well as to the defenders of the city.

Ian remarked on Tolkien’s writing of the sounds and sights of war with the accuracy of experience.

Pat drew us away from these practicalities with her observation that on one page detailing the various battalions of defenders colours are mentioned 20 times. We spent some time considering the range of colours – Ian suggested they were not the full spectrum, and Laura found the precise descriptions unappealing. I remarked that the finely described devices and liveries reminded me of the importance in the Middle Ages of heraldry, and the heralds’ need to identify all the knights and their followers.

Julie thought the gold and silver tassels included in one livery would be hazardous in a battle

Pat was impressed by little Eäredel’s bite which put Meglin at a disadvantage momentarily. But Anne was concerned by the earlier description of the infant, which sounded to her as if it was seriously anaemic: ‘this babe was of great beauty; his skin was of a shining white’. I thought this conformed to an ancient idea of nobility.

Mike picked up the occasional use of the verb ‘egg’, and wondered if it was related to the noun. Ian checked and cited the Norse origin as ‘egg’ = to urge on, and found in the process the famous example from Caxton’s preface to his Eynedos which shows the problems of dialect forms.

Anne thought the relationship between Tuor and Voronwë resembled that of Frodo and Sam, though not everyone seemed persuaded of this. Voronwë is certainly not as deferential as Sam, but there is a pattern of supportive companionship.

Glancing at my notes, I am startled to see an entry for myself that seems to read ‘great measles’, instantly prompting medievalist conjectures about Tolkien including leprosy in the text. A moment’s consideration reminds me that these are actually ‘great weasels’, one of the predatory animals that encroach upon the borders of Gondolin along with the ‘sons of Orcs’. [Note to self – handwriting practice!]

However, the great weasels reminded both Laura and Julie of Toad of Toad Hall.

Anne commented that Idril reminded her of Cassandra in her increasingly gloomy prophecies, and Laura remarked that Turgon would then echo Priam, and she found this appropriate as Turgon focuses on defending the beauty and wealth of his city. Laura further observed that Turgon utters a serious complaint against the Valar. There is no reverence for them.

Anne remarked on the ‘spell of bottomless dread’ with which Melko controls his slaves and vassals. It sounded to me like the most terrible kind of brainwashing.

Laura was disturbed by the concept of the machine/dragons that screamed when injured by defenders of the city in the pitched battle, and she wondered to what extent they were ‘alive’. I suggested it was just the sound of metal contorted under any kind of extreme pressure. Ian proposed 2 possibilities, (1) that the creatures were ‘cyborgs’, sentient but mechanical, and (2) that they were steam powered. Julie thought that some where indeed alive, and Laura pronounced this to be yet another of Melko’s cruelties.

It was generally agreed that this story was an easier read than some we have read recently, and yet it did not provoke the same intensity of discussion as some of those. It was almost as though we all enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions and found less to challenge than usual. Maybe it reflects Ian’s earlier comment on things being simpler and more straightforward at this very early stage in the composition of the legendarium. It seems as though it was perhaps mostly too beautiful, with less tension and uncertainty than we are used to.

We have a month’s gap before our next full meeting. Some of us will meet on 22nd Sept while some will be at Oxonmoot. Ian helpfully proposed that those meeting in the Southfarthing should compare The Silmarillion account of Gondolin with the one we have just read.

For our first meeting in October we shall read the next chapter: ‘The Nauglafring: The Necklace of the Dwarves’. A glance at Beowulf and the episode of the Brising nacklace may be worthwhile.