Last meeting in January


This afternoon was our last foray into Njal’s Saga, and it had proved inspiring to some of us and an unwelcome challenge to others. Nevertheless, it sparked a good deal of debate and discussion.

I started the discussion by observing that I had, for a while, found the constant description of the blood feuds tedious in the repetition of the violence: not another arm of leg hacked off! Mike responded by remarking that he did not think it was gratuitous violence and that in many instances there is a parallel recognition that it is integrity that makes this society work. Mike then went on to comment on the use of the present tense in the middle of past tense narrations. The use of this ‘present historic’ tense to emphasise narrated action was mentioned, and Mike added that it seemed like a technique associated with oral story-telling, and that it indicates a kind of changed scene.

Chris observed that it is difficult to know how to interpret some uses of language when working with a translation.

Laura then remarked that she had read the English word ‘booth’ and assumed it was an English equivalent for a word in Icelandic until she discovered the Icelandic word itself: búđ, which has more or less the sound of the English word. Angela reminded us that Tolkien uses the word ‘booth’ just before Aragorn leads his men through the Paths of The Dead. Chris wondered if the Scottish ‘bothy’ comes from the same root.

While on the topic of Icelandic vocabulary and Anglicising, Mike wondered if the word ‘Althing’ was an anglicised word, but some of us assured him that it is direct from Icelandic and untranslated.

Laura thought the saga had throughout a fairy tale feel to it, largely due to the use of formulaic repetitions. The one she cited particularly was the consecutive challenges regarding Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin in whose presence his companions are asked ‘Who is that man fifth in the line…’. Each remark is embellished with some unflattering observation and a comment on him looking ill-starred or unlucky, to which he responds with insulting words. This repetition seems more like a story-telling convention than a recollection from real life.

Mike and Laura then went on to observe that in the post-conversion period in the second half of the story there is no sign of Christian anxiety over death and dying, it is taken as a part of human existence.

Mike added that there seems to be little attention paid in the story to personal and interpersonal feelings, but Chris remarked that grief is often mentioned and described.

Continuing the theme of the representation of attitudes towards death Chris noted the account of Gunnar singing in his tomb which takes place before the Conversion. This might be compared with the account of men hearing Skarp-Hedin singing in the burnt-out ruins of Njal’s homestead, when they wonder if he is singing dead or alive? He is in fact dead.

Laura picked up the superstitions surrounding death in the text when she commented that she had not come across the word ‘fetch’ as a noun before. I was aware that it denoted a vision a person sees of themselves which means they are about to die. Ian looked up the derivation of the idea and found it belonged to Irish and Norse tradition but in the Norse it was specifically female. This led us to wonder in which direction the influence lay, because there was so much traffic between Iceland and Ireland.

Chris then wondered if the blood feud tradition still exists in Iceland. It was conjectured that this ancient tradition might underpin Irish violence and Chris commented that blood feuds are still part of society in the some Mediterranean countries. Laura mentioned that some Icelandic detective novels cite blood feuds as motives for the murders they depict.

I had been fascinated by much of the language in the saga, while making allowances for the problems associated with translation. Of special interest were the many lively insults, but I also suggested that the frequent use of attributes as a means of distinguishing one person from another of the same name suggested a closely integrated society. I went on to suggest that this use of attributes seems strangely absent from most of Tolkien’s work as a way of indicating a close-knit society such as the Shire. Chris and Angela responded by observing that many hobbit surnames could be seen as attributes that became adopted unchanged by successive generations, thus accounting for the Proudfoots, and the Brandybucks who were formerly Oldbucks until the family moved west of the Brandywine. It was conjectured that Will Whitfoot might have had white feet, or maybe an ancestor did? Angela pointed out that Thorin Oakenshield retained the use of the attribute, and I realised this was very apt as all the dwarf names came from Icelandic literature.

We leave the special fascination of northern European literature now to move on to begin reading Humphrey Carpenter’s book on the Inklings. We will read the first 3 chapters of Part 1 for February.

January 2013 First Meeting

For the first meeting of 2013 we had almost every one together and the afternoon began with a ‘debriefing’ after our group visit to see The Hobbit film. Anne and I expressed almost unalloyed delight, but that was not the dominant feeling.

Julie began by observing that the naming of the sick hedgehog ‘Sebastian’ was a bad intrusion of real-world hagiography. It might also be bad taste to name a prickly hedgehog after the saint who was killed with many arrows. Of course in The Book Radagast the wizard is not named and there is no hedgehog of any kind. This was one of the more gratuitous insertions by the film writers.

Laura objected to the general characterisation of Radagast, feeling that the writers had missed the possibility of the St. Francis analogue (or even St. Kevin), in favour of something that was ‘Radaghastly’.

Julie and Laura objected to the level of dwarvish crudity that was quite unnecessary and demeaned the characters.

To balance these objections Anne and I both loved the first appearance of Galadriel in Rivendell. Even though, as Angela pointed out she is never there in The Book, it was then generally felt that the transference of the White Council to Rivendell at the time of the Dwarves’ visit was not infelicitous. Objections were raised to the presence of Saruman and Laura disliked Gandalf’s deferential attitude, but Mike thought that Gandalf deferring to Saruman at this point (in the film) builds up a contrast with Saruman’s later treachery that has (confusingly) already been seen in the LotR films. It was also felt that this ‘White Council’ enables the understanding of a particular bond between Galadriel and Gandalf, as they communicate telepathically.

Pat felt the dwarves looked too large and too much time was spent on them during their time at Bag End, but Chris thought that time was needed in order to build up some degree of individual characterisation. Mike also thought it was needed in order to build up to the ‘Washing Up Song’, so the audience believed the dwarves might indeed crack the plates and share Bilbo’s anxiety. Laura missed the dwarves coloured hoods but agreed with other comments that keeping Tolkien’s description would have run the risk of ‘Disneyfying’ them.

Julie commented on Gandalf’s joke about forgetting the names of the 2 blue wizards that there was actually a legal angle to this that wasn’t a joke, because they are named in Unfinished Tales and PJ did not have the licenses and permissions required to cite material from this book.

Mike led us into more positive considerations when he approved of Martin Freeman’s version of Bilbo because the characterisation ‘matures’ through the film, and because MF sensitively underplays the character. Pat also approved of MF as Bilbo, while Julie noted the way the character in the film listens to Thorin’s song and the performance conveys Bilbo’s complex emotions at this point.

Laura remarked that Smaug’s first appearance was well suggested by not being shown explicitly. From the description, Diane remarked that the suggestion of the dragon reminded her of the illustration of Glaurung’s devastation in The Children of Hurin.

Angela and Laura remarked that Azog (the white orc) is actually out of sequence chronologically according to The Book.

Chris and Angela questioned the revelation of the Morgul blade, and its connection with Angmar’s grave, since he is later wounded by Merry. I thought he was already ‘undead’, i.e. dead but still operative through the power of Sauron’s will. The effect of Merry’s knife and Eowyn’s action are not, I think upon reflection, actions upon a physical body, but the symbolic breaking of two distinct taboos conferred upon the Witch king, but I never got round to saying this at the time.

Laura and I both missed the speaking troll-purse and much discontent was expressed over the whole troll episode. Laura particularly disliked the use of Bilbo as a handkerchief. I thought it smacked too much of Harry Potter and the troll, as well as having overtones of Jurassic Park and the dinosaur with a cold. Laura observed that often PJ seems unable to shake off his background in films conveying the immature humour aimed at teenagers.

We had quite tussle between us all over the identity of the actor playing the Goblin King. I had been convinced that it was Stephen Fry, Mike and other members objected that it was Barry Humphries. Mike eventually confirmed this via something very like a palantir but smaller!
It turns out that we must wait to see Stephen Fry as Master of Laketown.

Angela and Laura were impressed by Thranduil’s magnificent reticence as he turned from the wreck of Erebor. I objected to him riding a moose, and it more seriously was felt that riding such an antlered beast would be impractical in a wood.

Eventually, we turned to our reading for this week and launched into Njal’s Saga.

Anne’s immediate response was ‘Bring back the Notion Club Papers! Laura observed that the saga is indeed a very different style to Tolkien’s own work, and that the genealogies are hard and specific to the interests of the writer and his audience. They are, however, very much in the vein of Tolkien’s many genealogies.

Diane pointed out that everyone mentioned in the saga is real and can be located in the Landnamabok.

Laura, Angela and Diane all noticed that because of the limited range of names used in Iceland at the time attributes are also added, and Diane observed that the sequences of names are much like the sequences Tolkien uses in The Silmarillion. Angela commented that at least Tolkien gave his most of his characters individual names (except in the Appendices!)

Laura remarked that she liked the lascivious queen of Norway!

Chris noted the presence in the saga of the loyal dog called Sam, and observed that Tolkien gives ‘his’ Sam similar characteristics.

Diane and Angela remarked on the motif of the foresight of death in the saga. We did not note the similarity with the ranger who also has this foresight at the entrance to the Paths of the Dead.

Laura drew our attention to the inclusion in the saga of supernatural events such a Gunnar singing in his tomb.

Diane observed that Tolkien is not nearly as violent in his books as the society recorded in the saga. Angela thought he provided more emotional depth. Laura balanced Diane’s observation by remarking that orcs catapult decapitated heads into Minas Tirith. Pat remarked that this was the order of the day in medieval sieges.

Laura then noted the number of nasty women in the saga. Diane added that they are constantly inciting their menfolk to violence.

Anne objected that the saga shows no character development or literary merit, and Mike thought it read like notes for oral storytelling.

Laura wondered if there was any Icelandic fan-fiction based on it.

Diane challenged a perception that the depiction of the characters in the saga lacked emotion by observing that when Glum slaps his wife she bursts into tears because she loves him. It has to be said that other slapped women are not so delicate in their responses!

Pat and Diane liked the inclusion of poetry in the saga and Laura noticed the use of many kennings.

Angela remarked on the frequent theme of luck and compared this to observations made about Bilbo’s luck. Diane also noticed this theme in LotR. Continuing thematic likenesses, Angela noticed that in the saga as in LotR, foster-fathers are important.

Laura proposed that there was an unexpected lack of any sense of seasonal dark in this Icelandic tale. I suggested that the constant unelaborated references to people going home, or staying ‘for the winter’, indicated that nothing much was happening during the period of cold and dark but there were frequent descriptions of people in ‘the home meadow’, or in the woods or farms, indicating outdoor activities in summer, quite apart from the annual trip to the Althing. Mike extrapolated this idea in his observation that Queen Gunnhild invites an Icelander to ‘stay the night’, and he stays for months. Diane remarked that the Icelandic summer lasts from April to October.

Diane and Laura noticed that one character insults another as a ‘red-elf’, and I noted that one woman insults another by drawing attention to her ‘turtle-back nails’.

And so we ran out of time and had to decide on further reading. I proposed that we should finish the saga with an eye to noting its literary merits, and Anne asked if we could tackle the Inklings Biography. As the sagas were so important to Tolkien I then suggested our reading should be:
finishing Njal’s saga,
moving on to the Inkling Biography,
then reading Egil’s Saga.
That gives us time to get the books!

Happy reading!