Last Meeting in October


This week’s reading was third on our list of matters to address, even though we were finishing the Introductory matter to Sigurd and Gudrún and moving on to ‘Upphaf’ and ‘Andvari’s Gold’, the opening sections of The Lay of the Völsungs, the book’s first section, to which Carol again contributed her comments – included mostly after the meeting report.

Laura brought in the spectacular picture of ‘counter-measures’ being deployed by a helicopter above HMS Dragon. The likeness to Smaug over Laketown was tantalising.

Ian then gave us a fascinating report on his visit to the Bodleian Library in order to take his current research to the next level, but of course, that remains confidential until completed.

Eventually we turned our attention to defining the nature of our smial reading group, a matter that became necessary in response to developments on the Internet. But it was an interesting exercise to think about what we do – which is to read!

And so on to what we do – our reading for the afternoon:

Ian had checked the audio aspect of his Icelandic course and gave us a definitive indication of the pronunciation of Sleipnir – Odin’s horse. As we heard, in Icelandic the ‘ei’ has a hard ‘a’ sound, so the name is indeed pronounced ‘Slape-nir’.

Everyone had taken notice of the 6 patterns of stress and unstress that define the structure of lines of Old Norse poetry. These patterns replicate those in Old English, but as we noted, the rest of the poetic structure is quite different. Remarkably, Old Norse poetry, as Christopher Tolkien explains, and as his father replicates it, was divided into stanza.

We noted in addition that Old Norse poetry, as Tolkien himself explained in a lecture included in the book, does not bother with the expansive details found in Old English poetry, but is very concise. We took the example of stanzas 6 and 7 of ‘Upphaf’. The newly created world is threatened by ‘giants’ (the usual opponents!) and “the sun trembled”. The next stanza explains how the Gods plan to fight and heal and rekindle the light. Nothing in the stanza has detailed the actual loss of the light – that is to be understood and interpreted by the reader/listener who is made a participant in the storytelling process by the absence of detail.

Ian, Tim and Angela all remarked on the usefulness of the Commentary given by Christopher Tolkien at the end of The Lay of the Völsungs. Angela added that it was useful to read the Commentary first before reading ‘Andvari’s Gold’. Laura noted that the Commentary helpfully explains the difference between Tolkien’s poem and its Old Norse and Germanic sources.

I then asked what everyone made of the instances of repetition in the 2 sections? Laura picked out the description of Odin as old grey and huge when he walks among mortals, but I had in mind a couple of earlier instances such as the opening lines of both our chosen sections: ‘Of old was an age’. Though the second lines are different, or maybe because the second lines are different, the repetition seems to indicate both looking back to mythic time, and the progress of time after creation. The second instance was the repetition of the Gods who ‘of doom and death / deeply pondered’. Repetition within 9 stanzas of the first mention emphasises threat to the Gods and the sense of instability in the created world.

Laura drew our attention to Stanza 1 and the moving final line after the description of the vast nothing before creation, rounded off with the observation ‘an abyss yawning / and no blade of grass’. Laura remarked on the stark contrast between the images, especially the human scale of the absence of grass. Tim commented on the echoes of the void in Genesis, and in The Silmarillion. Carol was more specific when she noted that ‘unwrought…an abyss yawning…The Great Gods then/began their toil,’ reminded her of Tolkien’s own creation story of the Valar.

I then asked if stanza 5 in ‘Upphaf’ raised the possibility that Tolkien alludes (unwittingly perhaps) to a cosmology or metaphysics in which every positive thing created automatically generated its own negative? The lines I questioned are:

Dread shapes arose

from the dim spaces

over sheer mountains

by the Shoreless Sea,

friends of darkness,

foes immortal,

old, unbegotten,

out of ancient void.


Ian responded by citing the atomic theory of opposites – which Tolkien could well have known.

The option was also expressed that ‘though separate, nothingness has to take shape too’.

Angela questioned the concept of ‘unbegotten’, and Tim cited the concept of ‘yin and yang’ in which opposites are required for balance. Chris observed that the shapes that make up the ‘Dread shapes’ are not defined as good corrupted.

Chris and Ian thought the concept of the Other thus defined in the stanza was not like the concept of evil in The Silmarillion. But Ian added that the ‘uncreated’ Other is represented there in the form of Ungoliant.

Carol picked up the quote and commented ‘they lived in laughter…Dread shapes arose…’ is a reminder of the marring of middle-earth.

Laura moved the discussion on to stanza 12 and the image of the ‘shadowy ship / from shores of Hell’ which ‘legions bringeth / to the last battle’, comparing this to the arrival of the Dead in the Black ships commandeered by Aragorn in RotK.

Angela and Laura also attempted comparisons between the gods named in the poem and those in the Silmarillion material, finding similarities but also differences, particularly between echoes of Thor and his hammer and Aule and Tulkas, and between Frey and Freyia and Aule and Yavanna.

Laura then observed the ‘deathless one’ who is to be a serpent slayer is also a warrior and although there is a clear messianic cast to the description, it is more akin to the Jewish concept of a Messiah who will be a warrior, rather than a Christian messiah.

Angela directed attention to the Commentary in which the serpent-slayer, clearly to be Sigurd later in the Lay of the Völsungs, is compared by Tolkien himself in terms of Túrin who would not only kill Glaurung, but would return from the dead at the Last Battle to kill Morgoth.

Angela also picked up Tolkien’s comment that Túrin would also kill Ancalagon the Black, which was a surprise to us all because we all thought Ancalagon was already dead.

Angela then questioned the theme in the second section Andvari’s Gold of the cursed gold from the river, and we remembered that in the second Book of Lost Tales there is an account of Beren’s battle against the Dwarves in which much treasure is lost in a river in Beleriand and cursed because of the violence associated with it.

After an afternoon of diverse discussion we gave thought to our next reading and agreed to read the sections on Signy and on Regin, plus the sections in the Commentary that relate to these.

Carol’s comments


p.62: the Seeress predicts Ragnarok, echoes of ‘New Jerusalem’.

p.65 ‘for one they waited/the World’s chosen’  does this have Christian overtones? Is it like Beowulf, written by a Christian looking back with regret on an heroic past? Like a new world arising out of the Ragnarok. [Ed. I think we have to distinguish between the original, and this being Tolkien’s version before we make up our minds.]

ANDVARA-GULL (Andvari’s Gold)

p.66 Loki isn’t evil as such. He’s the Trickster who moves things on. Many mythologies have a trickster figure. p.68 ‘fell’ as in clothing – beast-fell? p.69 ‘ruth’ we only use ‘ruthless’ now but ruth is pity and mercy. Introducing the cursed ring.


First Meeting in October

Today we changed our reading from the fascinating biographical details of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War to Tolkien’s own writing, as edited again by Christopher, in Sigurd and Gudrun. We were reading up to the end of section 4 of the Introductory material. Carol’s comments, where they are not included here, can be found at the end of this report in full.

Angela began our afternoon’s discussion with the comment that it seemed as though we were in for something much the same as usual in the sense of a familiar method of working, because Christopher points out that his father again wrote many versions of the Sigurd and Gudrun story, from which he has ‘compiled’ or selected the published text.

Ian took a more critical position when he directed our attention to the way Christopher reproduces one of his father’s lecture’s ‘An Introduction to the Elder Edda’. Ian thought Christopher had missed an opportunity to locate the lecture in relation to Tolkien’s later creative work, as the first version of it was given in 1926.

I realised I’d been so entranced by the chance to read one of Tolkien’s actual lectures that I had not read around it critically at all.

Laura remarked that she had enjoyed the historical details that emerged from our reading, and the found the explanation of the difference between Old English and Old Norse styles informative.

Both Laura and Angela noted the details of the complex differences between Eddaic and Skaldic poetry, and the changes in their use. They were actually inverted at the hands of later commentators.

Julie observed that up to the end of section 4 there is an assumption that the reader knows the background Norse story and its characters already. Ian added that it implied a need for the approval of like-minded academics, and showed the difference between the young professor as compared to his later more mature creative self.

Chris remarked that Tolkien also seemed quite bitter about the treatment of philologists whose work on unveiling the wonders of Norse poetry has been disregarded.

Ian detected in Tolkien a need to get his ideas and those of the poetry out to a wider audience.

Led by Laura’s initial comment we discussed the lack of knowledge defined in Tolkien’s lecture of our northern heritage and culture. We acknowledged that we still tended to be more familiar with classical Mediterranean culture.
Mike conjectured that in part this might be traced back to the Synod of Whitby and the subsequent dominance to the Roman form of Christian observance. This had the effect of marginalising northerness by constructing it as heretical in all senses.

Ian remarked that a northern focus was lost through successive invasions, while Mike wondered if the far northern weather and environment was conducive to a fortress spirit which preserved the old myths and legends.

We followed this discussion by addressing Carol’s questions about the pronunciation of Fafnir and Sleipnir. Various options were considered based on German or Norse pronunciations. Ian offered to check his Icelandic course, Mike checked his ‘palantir’, and that offered one pronunciation we approved, and one we dismissed. Diane said later she would check her Old Norse dictionary. In the interim we opted for ‘Fafneer’, and considered the version Mike found which was ‘Slapeneer’.

I introduced the topic that Tolkien addresses, of the way stories imported from Burgundian and Hun sources ‘received in exile their finest treatment’. Laura picked this up in the context of The Silmarillion, remarking on the way Tolkien takes the creation myth and rewrites it with his own creative aesthetic. Ian commented that he avoided the Greek model.

Laura then noted that Christopher’s and his father comments on the great age of migrations and their dissemination of cultural ‘treasure’ seems to be reflected in the migrations of the Elves, and the transmission of their creation and other stories. On the matter of literary treasure and their transmission, Carol notes that when the Codex Regius containing the Elder Edda was returned to Iceland crowds and crowds welcomed its return. Carol also commented that ‘in a sense Christopher Tolkien discovering and editing his father’s mss is rather like discovering and editing the old mss – a kind of dual discovery’.

Following on from the matter of migration and cultural transfers, Carol picked up the reference in the text and remarked ‘now that’s interesting – Odin was originally Gothic. Wouldn’t pretend to know how to tell he’s not Scandanavian originally. She added: ‘just a word about the use of runes for writing – the runes haven’t vanished (apart from Tolkien and The Hobbit) but are used nowadays in foretelling the future. You’ll find rune cards in any new age shop, and Odin isn’t forgotten either as a branch of modern paganism is Odinic. Carol also notes that ‘there has indeed been a revival with the rise in all sorts of paganism now that Christianity’s in decline. Tolkien might just have got a flavour of this before he died and it still puzzles me that a conservative Catholic Christian could be so enamoured of the ‘heathen’ north.’

Chris picked up another of Tolkien’s embedded opinions, when he noted Tolkien’s comment on the catastrophic Cotton Library fire which nearly cost us Beowulf (and destroyed the Battle of Maldon). Tolkien observed that Beowulf ‘escaped, just – for the embarrassment of later Schools of English.’ We noted that at the time of the lecture Tolkien and Lewis were determinedly taking on the status quo in the Oxford School of English and trying to ensure that more early literature was included in the syllabus (1927).

I then remarked that I had not connected the wealth of kings with the rise of northern poetry in the way Tolkien expresses it in the lecture. Ian observed that poets represented knowledge and the command of knowledge was power, while Mike remarked that poetry was part of the magnificence of a court. The general view was then that kings derived additional status from being wealthy enough to keep poets who did not produce goods but culture.

Angela likened the situation with early kings and poets to the renaissance kings and their patronage of the finest court painters.

We had earlier noted the difference between Old Norse poetry with its intention to ‘hit you in the eye’ compared to the more expansive Old English long line. I was not surprised that Tolkien chose the short Norse line for his poem, but I was surprised by his comment that it ‘looks better’. Laura observed that the short form fits with the style being ‘punchier’.

Having considered the groundwork, our expedition into the poem begins next time as we pick up at Section 5 and read to the end of ‘Andvara Gull’, allowing ourselves time to consider the Commentary on this.

p.4 ‘using modern English fitted to the Old Norse metre’, brief glance doesn’t seem on metre. Will have to compare with Lee Hollander. p.6 Hollander uses the old modes like fornyrđislag each mode representing a different subject matter in on poetry. See also Bertha Phillpotts. ‘the old 8-line fornyrđslag stanza’. ‘the “oldlore metre”.’
Introduction to the Elder Edda
p.17 when Tolkien talks of reading the lays in ‘filtered form’ is he remembering his liking for Andrew Lang’s child rendition. I think it was reading Lang’s version as a boy that got Tolkien ‘desiring dragons with a profound desire’.
Let’s see if the group feels that ‘almost demonic energy after reading the poems – in English, not Old Norse, because he’s obviously talking about reading the poems in the original!!
p.26 I found the Prose Edda quite boring. Even being a poet I could hardly read it. Found Marie de France equally boring – heresy! Perhaps. I’ll reread and see if I can redeem myself.
[In response to a passing reference Carol remarked] ‘can’t imagine Tolkien using a biro let alone red. Fountain-pen man, or even dipping pen and ink. Nice little insight’.
p. 46 It’s interesting reading about the poetic forms. When I was at university I did an essay, in a fire and ice module, on the different poetic forms relating to some form of Norse myth. Can’t remember off the top of my head what each signified but I must have got it right at the time because I pulled a 1st and my only overall 1st with the exam. Brag boast but I was quite proud of that because it wasn’t easy.
Looking at the 6 patterns of stress, I spoke them out loud and it comes out falling in tone as it does on the page. Try saying out loud: the ‘knights in’ is the same as ‘tyger’ – the opposite of iambic – ‘the roar’. Christopher Tolkien says it – ‘trochaic’ as in Blake’s ‘tyger’. But ‘vowells alliterate’ – I thought that was assonance. [To clarify this point, in Germanic verse including OE long line and Old Norse, all vowels in initial position in words alliterate together. Christopher Tolkien gives the example from his father’s work:
Of old was an age / when was emptiness
the o of old, the a of age and the e of emptiness all alliterate.
Assonance is a later technique deriving from Latin and Old French in which internal vowels are the same in the last stressed syllables of lines. This has developed in the use of the same of similar vowels in words anywhere in a line for particular poetic effect.]
Notes on the poems by the author
It’s a while since I read the Elder Edda but reading Tolkien’s commentary, it’s just struck me that Norse gods interfere in human life just as much as the Greek gods. Naughty!
I’m now recommending other sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs, Jesse Byock, Penguin 1990
Edda and Saga, Bertha S Phillpotts, D.B.E., Litt.D, Thornton Butterworth Lts, 1931. Byock gives a good account of the historical figures behind the Sigurd and Gudrun lays and is a prose rendition and probably easier to read to get the bones of the story. Phillpotts is a very old book and you probably won’t be able to lay you hands on it but if you do it’s just a good general all round read. It comes in a series called Home University Library which had loads of titles for those wishing to learn but unable to go to university.
The Poetic Edda Lee M Hollander, Univ. of Texas, 1999. Hollander dwells more on the poetry, history, and provenance and styles. His is a poetic version in the original styles but of course in translation. I like Hollander because one gets a flavour of the original.

Last Meeting in September

It was a shame that Anne, Julie and Mike could not join us this afternoon because it began with lots of cake (thanks to Angela and Laura) which prepared us nicely for a post-Oxonmoot debriefing. At one point it was remarked that the Southfarthing had made a good show of taking over the gathering as so many of us had been involved in different ways. But we had not neglected our reading, and eventually began our discussion of the final chapters of John Garth’s book. Carol too has been reading and her comments are included at the end of this report.

Laura observed that these final chapters, the Epilogue and Postscript, are very helpful for the concise way they put the timeline of Tolkien’s writing together.
Ian told us that he had just finished reading Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which, he thought, shows the great difference between Tolkien’s approach to myth and that of Graves and other contemporaries – just as Garth states.

Laura picked up Garth’s discussion of the way the Great War instituted the decline of the acceptability of Germanic philology at Oxford, and how disconcerting this must have been for Tolkien who treasured his own Germanic lineage, but more so perhaps because he would have understood the debt philology owed to its origins in Germanic scholarship. Laura also noted references to Tolkien refusing to turn to Romance languages and culture.

Ian had been considering the process of ‘remediation’ and suggested Tolkien was himself a remediator in his handling of sources and influences.

We turned to the consideration of reflections of northern mythology and legend in the legendarium and Laura noted that Thor ‘becomes’ Tulkas in early versions, as he tends to go around hitting other characters. I thought that in his early incarnations he belongs with the other strange ‘gods’. Angela picked out Makar and Laura suggested his fierce sister Measse was a transposed chief Valkyrie.

Tim then remarked that the published form of The Silmarillion is a dilute version of the material as it was originally conceived.

Laura went on to comment on Tolkien’s shifting attitude to tiny fairies. Although he uses this form in some early work he declared ‘a murrain’ on Shakespeare for his version.

While considering preferences in this context we strayed into considering faux pas in the various films. Kathleen remarked that she was easy to please and enjoyed the films for what they were.

Changing direction, I asked whether anyone agreed with Tom Shippey’s observation (quoted by Garth) of an ‘unrecognised touch of hardness’ in Tolkien because he does not give Beren and Luthien a happier or gentler ending? Laura rejected the suggestion, saying that if he had been, he would have been more cruel. Ian commented that story ending was not suggestive of Tolkien’s hardness but of a repeating theme of tragedy and other forms of hardness.

Both Laura and Angela picked up the terrible fate of Finduilas, and a greater hardness displayed as Turin is bound in the dragon’s evil hypnotic grip. Angela also recalled the psychological torture of Hurin. Ian then asked ‘What is the alternative?’ Soft endings would be inappropriate.

Laura thought ‘hardness’ was not the right word. Ian observed that original myths dealt with how bad life can be, and how good it can be. Hardness becomes diffused over time, but Tolkien’s treatment shows evidence of ‘raw’ myth. Laura likened this to the often raw power of the sagas with which Tolkien as so familiar.

Chris changed our direction at this point with his observation of Garth’s assessment of the immediate post-war literary response and its rejection by many veterans, who resented the way it, and their part in it was being misrepresented. Tim added that the onset of Spanish flu had prolonged the suffering and dying, while the returning soldiers found unemployment waiting so that in such bleak times there was a need for entertainment and putting the war aside because there was now no taste for it.

Laura remarked that it was hard for those returning from the war when they were disrespected, and Kathleen noted that returning nurses were expected to complete their civilian training even thought they had been working under extreme circumstances.

This was the social context in which Tolkien was developing his legendarium.
Angela went on to challenge another of Shippey’s statement, this time that from 1916 onwards Tolkien was ‘preoccupied with the theme of death’. She thought this was not the case.

On a less gloomy note, Chris remarked on Tolkien respect for the ‘batman’ class, for the intelligence of the other ranks who served as runners in the trenches. Chris thought this perhaps explained why Sam the gardener eventually became mayor.

Having finished this elegantly informative book we have decided now to return to Tolkien’s own writing so our next reading is the recent Sigurd and Gudrun. We will read up to the end of Section 4, which is introductory material.

Carol’s Comments
Epilogue: a new light

One of the things that makes this book good is Garth’s minutiae of detail, re Gilson’s military manual contribution. The book is good in both academic terms and in readability. Death without hope – very northern.

p.258 ‘liquid light’ makes me think of lava lamps. Re Wirilome (Ungoliant) ‘unholy “denial of light”‘ – Ungoliant is described in TSil as creating an ‘unlight’. p.254 Music of the Ainur – medieval music of the spheres? p.259 Primeval whale Uin – later Osse’s wife Uinen? p.262 Tinwelint and Gwendeling, early names for Thingol and Melian seem a bit not-thought-through, but then they are early. p.254 ‘the crux of Tolkien’s narrative: the moment when the small but resolute confronts the demonic embodiment of tyranny and destruction’ – later Sam and Frodo. Garth quotes On Fairy-Stories and the eucatastrophe but Tolkien’s stories don’t have happy endings, except perhaps TH before LotR was conceived. p.265 Talk of Rob Gilson hearing a nightingale on the western front reminds me of Sam seeing the star above Mordor – a small glimpse of hope. Sam survives, Gilson doesn’t.

p.271 ‘the procession of paratactic clauses…cranking up the tension and foreboding before the denouement…became the hallmark of Tolkien’s writing…’ see the arrival of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields. And films do it too – upping the ante. p.288 never really regarded Graves as WW1 poet – I Claudius, The White Goddess – which I’ve read!! Sassoon may have set the mode but Owen is a far better poet. My favourites are ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and The Parable of the Old men and the Young’.

p.289 Hugh Brogan: “Tolkien was engaged in ‘an act of deliberate defiance of modern history’.” too right!! And if Ezra Pound is anything to judge by, quite right too. Mad man. Don’t see the point of being obscure just for the sake of it. p.292 ‘obliteration of faerie’ – it’s a basic human need, something ‘other’ and as organised religion has declined, faerie is one of the things that’s taken it’s place. p.293 ‘accusations of escapism’ – ‘they’ can ‘accuse’ all they like. Nowt wrong with a bit of escapism. ‘general opiate for millions of readers’ – why not – it’s better than crack. And Garth goes on to quote Tolkien on escapism.

p.298 after reading the Peter Pan paragraph these crass words come to mind – ‘age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’ – heard at every remembrance day service for years and I am thinking how those poor dead boys would have loved to have been ‘condemned’ by age. p.300 The question of evil, I don’t believe in evil as the product of man’s fall, or Satan’s fall. I don’t believe in a theological evil. I’m with the Buddhists – in The Lord of the Flies it’s the absence of a civilised controlling power, like mob rule or vigilantism. Nobody is born ‘evil’ but different socialisations can lead to different actions – saintly through to devlish and everything in between. Difficult one. ‘even Sauron was not evil in the beginning’ the absence of good?

p.301 how can there be any other authority for WW1 except ‘the disenchanted version’. It was obscene. p.304 ‘Tolkien’s world is literally enchanted’ – has been sung into being. Tolkien once said that LotR was about death and now I am older I agree with him. LotR is about buying a bit more time for Middle-earth in which to sow and reap, be born and die, and propogate the species. It isn’t happy, only a brief heroic glory to fight for these things.