It was remarked that we had almost a ‘full house’ this afternoon. Apart from this, the meeting was special in that there were so many matters to discuss and comment on this afternoon that I began by making an informal Agenda for myself so I didn’t forget anything!
First on the list was a welcome back to Angela and Chris and many enquiries about Angela’s injury. Then swiftly, congratulation to her in person on the publication of her new book on Aragorn. The copy she brought along looks wonderful, and absolutely huge – a tribute to all her research.
Thanks were then due to Laura for providing an abundance of cake as a welcome back feast ensued. The idea of feasting raised the question of our next Tolkien get-together, and it was decided that this should be a birthday event rather than a Yule event. Details will hopefully be finalised at the first meeting in December.
This itself reveals that our second November meeting will be slightly different – not one for the usual discussions but one hopefully at which we will at last meet up with some of the young writers from Derbyshire.
Our final extraordinary topic was a ‘debrief’ from the Tolkien/Hobbit Event at the end of October. Pat reported the enthusiasm of a number of members of the public. I mentioned the possibility of a full-scale ‘symposium/seminar/conference’ sometime next year and this received a good deal of interest. Pat and Kathleen were particularly interested in the possibility of some kind of children’s hands-on event, and everyone contributed thoughts and ideas regarding a scholarly event. Time and energy would seem to be the main constraints and more discussion will be essential. Chris has since kindly sent a detailed plan for a possible 2-strand event.
Eventually, we got on to the chapter we had been reading, which was ‘The Tale of Eärendel’ (sic).
Anne had already mentioned that she had a problem with the structure of this chapter and everyone felt it was not very readable in the customary sense, being a series of very early versions of some elements of what would later become the Eärendil myth as it appears in The Silmarillion. In these early versions even the spelling has not yet changed, but remains in the form the name has in Old English.
Pat got us away from textual technicalities when she commented on the amount of diamond dust the covers Eärendel and his shoes in the early versions, and she wondered why everything was so dusty, and why diamonds. I suggested that it was (1) because he was in the West and in Valinor and places associated with it (like Kor) everything was built of precious stones so that any dust would be precious. (2) The idea of the Blessed Realm is conveyed in its mythic preciousness by the idea that not only is the environment composed of precious stones, but even the dust is precious. I offered the comparison of Christ’s sapphire chariot in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Mike objected that the early versions do not show any rationale for Tolkien’s choice of one version over another. Laura remarked that the idea of the Old English Eärendel the brightest of all stars, sent for the aid of humanity, was a favourite concept for Tolkien.
Ian wondered what mythical concept Tolkien was aiming at, and Mike proposed it was a cosmic vision.
Julie observed that Eärendel covered in diamond dust reminded her of the Eldorado myth and the stories of sacrificial victims being covered in gold and gems before being drowned in acts of veneration of the gods.
The multiplication of texts without great variety suggested to me that all those elements that didn’t change were the ones that were most important to Tolkien’s vision. I also suggested that in these early versions there is no hint of the silmaril that Eärendil would later wear on his brow as he sailed the heavens. In these versions from c. 1914/15 the means by which he will shine is the diamond dust all over him. Only later, when Tolkien has worked out his place in the wider mythology will he be assigned the silmaril that blazes on his brow. And Tolkien states in one text that he has to work out the way to fit Eärendel into his mythology and this has to fit ‘the Elvish linguistic situation’.
We went on from the prose to consider the various alternative poetic treatments of aspects of the basic story, some of which got lost or adapted later. Anne said how much she liked the first four lines of version I of ‘The Happy Mariners’:
I know a window in a western tower
That opens on celestial seas,
And wind that has been blowing round the stars
Comes to nestle in its tossing draperies.
Pat remarked that the watcher in the Tower of Pearl looking out in this and the following version reminded her of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’. Mike, however, thought a fragment of the second version read like something from ‘Omar Kyyam’, and he cited especially the lines: ‘where far away constellate fountains leap, / and dashed against Night’s dragon-headed doors’.
Anne went on to wonder whether, in ‘The Bidding of the Minstrel’ Tolkien is influenced briefly by the ‘wine-dark sea’ of the Iliad. The phrase she noted was ‘Weaving a winelike spell,’ It is associated with seafaring and singing (or chanting), and Tolkien the classicist would have known his Iliad, but maybe this is too brief a phrase to be taken as influence?
Laura observed a very clear borrowing direct from the Old English of Beowulf in the description, in the same poem, of the ‘ringéd stem’ of Eärendel’s ship. The Old English is hringstefna and describes the prow of the ship used for the funeral of Scyld Scefing. She went on to call attention to the used of ‘Chant’ in this poem in ‘Chant us a lay of his white-oared ship’, and noted that ‘chant’ is the origin on the word ‘shanty’, as in sea shanty, so it is neatly appropriate for speakers to request the minstrel to ‘Chant us a lay…’.
Angela then remarked that Aragorn ‘chants’ the story of Luthien and Beren on Weathertop. He then gently chides Bilbo in Rivendell for reciting his poem about Eärendel in the house of his son Elrond!
Laura then explained that having looked up the phrases ‘East of the Moon, west of the Sun’, that open the poem ‘The Shores of Faery’ she discovered they came from one of the fairy stories collected by Andrew Lang, one of Tolkien’s favourite authors.
Given the non-narrative nature of the texts we were dealing with, we found a good deal to say, and the poetry created some variety. We discovered we are almost at the end of BLT 2 with just the final chapter to go ‘The History of Eriol or Ælfwine’.
As we hopefully have the ‘Long Expected Visit’ next time, we will discuss this chapter at our first meeting in December, when we will also decide on what to read next.