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.
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.