September: First Meeting

Our meeting this afternoon was not entirely as planned as we did not concentrate in quite the usual fashion on our 2 chapters – 11 and 12.
We began with an update from Ian on his latest research project. It came complete with video, photos and an Ordinance Survey Landranger map so we could see the area with which his research is concerned. It will be exciting to see how it proceeds.
We followed this with a review of the TV programme ‘The Wipers Times’, which was very relevant to our current reading.
When we began our discussion of the chapters, Pat commented on Tolkien’s references to Edith, especially the famous account of her dancing among the hemlock at Roos. The depth of his feelings is clear from his later letter to Michael. Pat then compared this to the poem ‘O tell me, little damozelle.’ A long debate followed on the style and significance of this short poem. Pat went on to suggest that, on the one hand, no hint of Edith appears in LotR, but on the other hand elements of Tolkien’s feelings for her appear in descriptions of all the women in the story.
Kathleen strenuously did not agree with Pat’s assessment of the romantic little poem, maintaining that it did not seem to be in keeping with Tolkien’s other work. If ‘O Tell me’ is compared to other poems such as ‘The Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl’, and many later ones, it is a rare evocation of personal, lyrical sentiments.
Tim commented that Tolkien’s yearning for her represented every soldier’s yearning for his own ‘Edith’.
Ian extended the discussion to observe that LotR deals with archetypal characters, including its women, while ‘O tell me’ is personal address to a specific person. They are written from the perspective of different motivations.
Carol had sent her comments on these chapters, and among her observations she also mentioned ‘O tell me’, and drew attention to Wiseman’s approval and opinion that Tolkien’s poems ‘will kill the dear old XIXth century altogether.’ Carol, however, found it old fashioned and very much of the XIXth century in comparison to T.S. Eliot and Wilfred Owen. We observed that from the perspective of the young men at that time Tolkien’s poetry may well have seemed like a break with the past and only in retrospect, with our own familiarity with later poetry, do we see Tolkien’s poetry as closer to the 19thC than to the astringency of e.g. Owen and Eliot.
Laura remarked on the criticism of high romance in comparison to Tolkien’s determined medievalism. Julie wondered how the 4 young men could still contemplate writing ‘fairy’ poems , but Anne suggested it spoke of their desire to transcend a terrible reality.
Ian then told us that his simmer reading had been Robert Graves’s ‘The White Goddess’, and on the strength of this proposed that in order to understand the writing we need to understand the environment and its effects on the writers. As Ian observed, letter 276 gives Tolkien’s opinion on hearing Graves lecture.
Tim added that there is clearly a difference between poetry written during the war and poems written about the war. He cited the difference defined by G.B. Smith’s ‘Who battled have with bloody hands’.
Anne added to the range of poetry that emerged from the TCBS while in the war zone when she asked how such a poem as ‘The Burial of Sophocles’ could have been written in the trenches.
We had spent more time on other matters than the prepared chapters, and so we may need to revisit them next time (28th Sept), but our reading for that meeting will be the Epilogue and Postscript to the book, which has proved to be a most informative and thus enjoyable read, even though much of the subject matter has often been so mournful.
With this in mind, I remarked that for me almost the worst detail was the fact that Tolkien’s illness, trench fever was caused by lice and such a parasitic infestation seemed a dreadful assault on well-educated young men. As Anne said, it was degrading, but as it was generally commented, that saved his life. And that reminded me of the many times in LotR when an apparently horrible situation turns out to have a beneficial result!

Carol’s full comments follow:
Chapter 11 The Lonely Isle

‘blighty’ – hindi – foreign, European. jrrt home and in Brum with Edith. Garth describes shell-shock. Surgical gamgee tissue: gamgee dressings are still used on horses. G.B. Smith seems to hero-worship jrrt a bit to my way of thinking. Footnote p. 207 Ecthelin – (later) Ecthelion perhaps, but with gender changed.

p. 208: poem ‘O! tell me…’ is a nice poem but so so different and old fashioned when compared to Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’, or Owen. Twee? naive? Trouble is I like ‘thees’ and’’ thous and also ‘being etherized upon a table’. I don’t really follow Wiseman when he says that jrrt ‘will startle our generation’ with his poetry and that his poems ‘will kill the dear old xix century altogether’. jrrt’s poems still seem 19th c. to me. it’s Owen and Eliot who will startle. but is Wiseman being naive and insular?

p. 209: ‘dull duties of billetting officer’ – rather that than frontline soldiering surely?
p. 210 poem: ‘shapes in the mist’ …is a good verse but ‘ye’ spoils it. [Tim, I think, in the meeting mentioned that this might be gas! Ed.] I like the last line ‘Listen, the guns are loud tonight’!
2.211: ‘a German howitzer had fired somewhere to the east, 4 miles or more away.’ Sometimes Garth comes out with single lines like this that just encapsualte a point. This was a faceless, anonymous war in which soldiers could be killed miles away – and look at the situation today – 100s of miles for a modern missile. Scarey! And that shot did eventually get G.B. Smith, doing something unwarlike, away from the front line and yet still he gets it.

p. 213: talks of ‘hard’ k, t, and p, and ‘softer’ g, d, and b. I’ve always thought the latter hard and the former soft. Wish I could show you in pitman shorthand where say c and k, and g share the same mark, a horizontal line, but ck is light while g is bold. same for t and d – vertical line, and p b i can show with \. incidentally k is pink and g is purple – softer and bolder cognate colours!!
p. 214 He’d got the hard core of the Gondolin story as early as 1917 and very little changed to the published Sil. 60 years later.
p. 215 ‘The Well at the World’s End’ is a funny ossity, written in mock archaic. Interesting, like Beren and Luthien, Ralph and Ursula wander through strange topography and ‘marry’ in the wilds. Interesting read and I enjoyed it at the time but have never gone back to it.

Chapter 12 Tol Withernon and Fladweth Amrod

Becoming small to enter the Cottage of Lost Play is like Christianity’s becoming as a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
p. 226: ‘the room of the log fire for the telling of tales’ = hall of fire in LotR. I think all this is in part a pleas for the return of imagination, of mythic thinking. Everything seems so mechanical, industrialised with fairies etc. relegated to childish thinking. But out of the mouth of babes etc – intuition, play. ‘What is this life is full of care/we have no time to stand and stare’: we’ve lost our connection to the earth leading to our exploitation of it. But all life is sacred and disconnection aids the rape.

p. 229: remark about the Anglo-Saxons writing down few of their old lays – scholarship in the past has pooh-poohed anything that wasn’t written down and really we should be looking to the north rather than Mediterranean countries for our heritage and character. Most of our everyday language is A-S or Germanic based – 80% according to Melvyn Bragg so jrrt shouldn’t grieve too much over 1066 because our language and laws are largely A-S. Greek, Latin and French based words are the basis for academic language, not used by the majority. ‘Wise’ is A-S, ‘sagacious’ is..? ‘Each language represents a different vision of life.’ True, and obviously bemoaning Americanism – Churchill said that the U.S. and the U.K. were separated by the same language. But language is an ever-changing and evolving thing. Much as we may bemoan ‘modernisms’, Eliot’s and Owen’s poetry used more ordinary language, even though at the time Eliot got elitist.

Like Smith and Wiseman, I’m glad jrrt kept being ill.

p. 234: againt complaints of life being dull – surely they could endure dullness rather than being blasted in the trenches. I know which i’d prefer.
p. 236: I hope you’re all getting a flavour of what it’s like to live on ‘the gale-battered coast’ of N.E. England, whether Holderness or Scarborough. Toughens the fibre!!
pp. 238-9: the now iconic roots of Beren and Luthien – Edith dancing and singing among the hemlock at Roos. Lovely!

Despite going off into ‘fantasy’ writing, all jrrt is doing is transferring WW1 to distant times. While Owen was writing ‘realism’ when you think about TSil it’s almost all conflict. Even though I relate to Owen’s realism, jrrt’s verses and tales are nonetheless real but distanced – who can condemn that? (The escape of the prisoner!!) jrrt never liked writing about conflict and somewhere I read that he had to steel himself to write the battles in LotR.

p. 249: makes me smile ‘Tolkien’s old friend T.W. Earp’ -twerp! not a word much used nowadays but a gentle way of saying fool. Wonder if they connected it?

End of chapter – it’s all so incredibly sad!