Last Saturday January


This week we began reading The Fall of Arthur, but before we started our new book there were a number of diversions. The first was Laura’s disturbing revelation, illustrated by a newspaper cutting, of a fashion among footballers for tattoos using the Tengwar. Laura had tried to translate the text shown on the arm of one Aguero, but without success. Ian looked up the matter online and discovered that the tattoo purported to read ‘Kun Aguero’ (Kun being his nickname or childhood name). Ian then discovered that Fernando Torres also has his name tattooed on his arm in Tengwar. If they ever get lost in Lothlorien and can’t remember who they are some passing elf will be able to reassure them of their identity!

In response to Laura’s alert to the 50th anniversary of the city status of Southampton, and the fact that Tim had noted by email that this year is the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Southfarthing / Tolkien Reading Group, we discussed the possibility of doing something special to celebrate these anniversaries. After much debate it was proposed that we might at provide ourselves with a logo or livery to celebrate our 10 years, and as Ian confirmed that 2016 would be the centenary of Tolkien’s return from the trenches in WW1 we also decided to offer to host the Tolkien Society seminar in that year.

At last we got on to our new book, and both Tim and Laura commented on the number of speculative books about King Arthur and the battles he fought, based on absolutely no factual evidence. As Tim observed, enthusiasts suggest he might have been a former Romano-British dux bellorum skilled in Roman tactics – if he had been anything other than a figure of Welsh myth.

In a less controversial direction, Chris remarked that he liked the poem – an opinion generally supported. Laura commented that she felt the impulse to read the poem aloud because of its strong patterns of alliteration. Laura also noted Tolkien’s use of heroic similes, also known as epic or Homeric similes: long detailed similes of which Milton was the great exponent in English. They frequently begin ‘As when …’ and occur in The Iliad as well as in Paradise Lost.

Laura went on to note the absence of Percival from the knights named by Tolkien as members of the Round Table. Ian observed that Peredur in The Mabinogion is the forerunner of Percival, but agreed that he is not a ‘romantic’, ‘chivalric’ knight in the Welsh version.

Tim noted that in The Mabinogion Arthur and his court are Dark Age warriors. They also exist in more mythic contexts.

Angela turned our attention to a phenomenon noted previously in our reading of Sigurd and Gudrun, as Tolkien uses phrases and concepts we recognised in LotR. In this case canto I, line 138: ‘they heard a horn   in the hills trembling’ – a distinct pre-echo, as is ‘Foes before them,   flames behind them’.

Chris observed that some images were clearly so embedded in Tolkien’s mind that they keep recurring in his work. We discussed examples of such images and Angela proposed that Mordred’s lust for Guinevere gave the lie to the perception that there is no sex in Tolkien’s work. Laura added Grima’s lust for Eowyn, while Angela suggested Morgoth’s lust for Luthien. Chris noted that in canto III, 65-6, the ‘black shadow / o’er the courts of Arthur’ recalled Grima’s effect on Theoden.

Tim was quietly rereading canto I, l. 63-5, finding these lines very powerful ‘…folk fled them   as the face of God, / till earth was empty,   and no eyes saw them, / and no ears heard them in the endless hills.’

I picked this up, commenting that where we were used to the pagan or non-religious framework in Tolkien’s work, because of the background material with which Tolkien was working it was relevant for him to include references to God.

Chris noted that in canto V, l. 37, the emphasis on pity was also carried over into LotR and reiterated in the characterisation of Aragorn. Angela and I saw it as such an important virtue, especially in the context of kingship that it was rather different to echoes or repetitions of phrasing and poetic cadence. Chris asked if any major study has been done on echoes of the recent poetry, edited by Christopher Tolkien, in the later fantasy. I did not think so, but could see great scope for such research.

As Ian pointed out, Arthur and Sigurd and Gudrun are a completely different literary form, not just because they are poetry but because they are not pseudo-history like LotR, but have a basis in the real world. Ian proposed that they were a development out of his establishment of an academic self, showing his knowledge of poetry and the source texts. Then The Hobbit skewed his interest into fantasy.

Chris observed that if the reader reads deeply into LotR they will find all the Arthur and Sigurd and Gudrun material in there.

Angela noted that canto IV l.124 echoes Aragorn’s return: ‘Thus came Arthur … at early morn / at last returning … to his lost kingdom’, while Laura remarked that in the same canto, l. 168 the description of the invading Saxons read like a conventional description of Viking ships arriving.

Laura observed the inclusion in poem at several points of the familiar ‘beasts of battle’, while Angela noted references to crows, a motif again repeated in LotR.

Laura remarked that Lancelot’s withdrawal and refusal to join Arthur in the battle read as though he was ‘sulking in his tent’.

I then asked if anyone thought there was any obvious influence of Anglo-Saxon in the poem, apart from the alliteration, which could be seen as drawing on the 14thC alliterative revival, the basis for the Gawain verse form among others. Tim and Laura picked out the term ‘sea-horse’ as a kenning for a Saxon ship. Laura the proposed that Arthur’s decision to attack the Germanic invaders on their own territory might be seen as an instance of A-S ‘ofermod’ – the pride Tolkien ascribed to his academic life to earl Beorhtnoth on account of his strange decision at the battle of Maldon. Laura wondered too about Mordred’s arrogance, but I thought her analysis of Arthur’s conduct more persuasive.

Angela observed that Arthur trusted Mordred enough to leave him as regent in England while away in Europe, in much the same way that the White Council trusted Saruman for many years during which he was already plotting against their interests. Angela also noted that while Mordred has a persuasive tongue, like Saruman, with his outspoken servant he is violently abusive and threatening.

Laura noted that Merlin does not feature in the poem, so the occult is absent. Tim remarked that 2 ‘historical’ stories of powerful men became conflated in various stories.

Laura then observed that the poem has added interest in its references to real places such as Romeril (Romney) and Angel (where the Angles originated).

We ended our afternoon agreeing to read pages 73-122 – ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’  for our next meeting.

January 2014: First Saturday


Well, we’re back! After our Yule break we resumed our discussions, beginning with a serious debriefing following our group visit to the film in early December. However, we took a moment to commiserate with Pat’s knee-problem which kept her from joining us, and with Kathleen who is currently in hospital. Somewhat depleted with Ian otherwise engaged, we nevertheless voiced our discontents with the film, and found little to approve in the adaptation, apart from Martin Freeman’s performance. We also considered some of the newspaper material generated by the film.

Before we continue: please see the end of this report for a change to our future reading.

When we turned out attention to our reading of the last part of Sigurd and Gudrun – The Lay of Gudrun, and its Commentary – Angela began the discussion with her observation of the gruesome ending of the Lay when Gudrun gives her husband Atli wine served in the silver-bound skulls of their sons. The wine is their blood mixed with honey.

It was noted that when she tries to drown herself later the waves cast her back and Julie and Mike commented that this is in the tradition of water rejecting the sinner – a device familiar from the ‘swimming’ of witches. However, once Gudrun has expressed her sorrow that her grief-induced madness brought about the deaths of her sons the waves take her and her story ends.

I thought the killing and ingesting of the children had echoes of Greek myth, and of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Laura observed that the skull-goblet motif was reminiscent of the story of the legendary Weland Smith, in which Weland is captured, lamed, and forced to work for his captor. In revenge he kills his captor’s sons and turns their skulls into goblets. Weland Smith is depicted on the Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket

The Weland story was famous throughout Europe at the time.

Chris noted that the first half of Sigurd and Gudrun is mythological, while the second half is based in history, but linked into the myth.

Tim observed that the structure echoes the methodology of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, which attempts to establish an historical foundation for kingship in Britain by reference to legendary and mythic characters.

Laura remarked that the whole story appears to reiterate a universal, but not religious, motif of the hero who will save the race in its greatest hour of need. As Britain has Arthur, Sigurd is to fulfil that role in the Northern version, at the Ragnarok.

Angela observed that Tolkien adapted this motif in his story that Turin would return at the end of days to kill Morgoth.

Chris then drew attention to the many echoes of elements of Sigurd and Gudrun to be found in LotR. Laura observed that Tolkien may not have remembered all the instances of earlier use because the original source material in Northern myth would have been so familiar to him from his studies and interests as to become part of his being.

Angela then noted that in the description of Gudrun weaving, she weaves an image of Odin in a blue cloak. Angela remarked that after the downfall of Sauron as Gandalf travels north with Galadriel wearing a blue mantle over his usual grey garb.

Laura picked up the similarity between Gudrun wandering in a grief-stricken state and other instances in Tolkien’s work of elvish and other women wandering in woods.

I commented on the way Tolkien creates the impression of Gudrun’s perception time passing in contentment during her grieving recollection of her life before she met Sigurd. This is achieved economically through the repetition of ‘gold and silver’ in stanza 21.

Laura noted that the last 2 lines of this stanza introduce Gudrun’s terrible dream by contrast. This is then elaborated in the next 2 stanzas. She complains to her terrible mother*:

A wolf thou gavest me

for woe’s comfort,

in my brethren’s blood

he bathed me red.

The wolf is Atli the Hun, to whom she is to be given unwilling in marriage, and this will indeed lead to the death of her brothers Gunnar and Hogni.

*[I wonder if Grimhild is really as terrible as she seems, or a politically aware woman and strategist who uses all the means at her disposal to maintain the security of her domain, including coercing her daughter into politic marriages.]

Gunnar’s death in a snake pit was our next topic. Laura remarked that the snake that kills Gunnar is not some exotic monster, but a monstrous-sized adder. We commented again on the alteration in English of the spelling of the snake’s common name from ‘nadder’ to ‘adder’. And Julie observed that there is a river flowing through Salisbury still called the Nadder apparently on account of its sinuous form.

From language we turned back to the grim details of the story as Laura and Angela both commented on the cheapness of life among the slaves or ‘thralls’. Although this could be just a storytelling device, the killing of those who buried Atli reminded us of the stories of the killing of Egyptian slaves who interred the Pharaohs, which again could be a myth! The killing of the thrall Hjalli the swineheard reminded us only of the brutality of existence in the early medieval period.

Changing the tone of the discussion, Julie remarked that she thought that Grimhild, Gudrun’s terrible mother, re-emerged into European story as Snow White’s Stepmother!

Laura then remarked on the way Gudrun lists in detail the 5 harms she has suffered. I commented on the way Tolkien avoids the use of witchcraft in the process of Grimhild’s determination that Gudrun would marry Atli, although she used it to dupe Sigurd into marrying Gudrun. Between mother and daughter Tolkien seems to prefer to imply Grimhild’s psychological power and Gudrun’s inability to resist it.

Angela drew our attention to the many references to eyes, some dark and ominous, others like Gudrun’s shining and beautiful. Angela noted Tolkien’s frequent use of glances and looks in all his work, including Galadriel’s glance that the Fellowship cannot withstand (except Aragorn).

As we moved on to consider the Commentary and Appendix Laura picked up the Anglo-Saxon word waerloga the source of the later word ‘warlock’. This led us into a long digression on how the Anglo-Saxon word, meaning ‘faithless’ came to be associated with the demonic and witchcraft. After consulting Mike’s ‘palantir’, and the OED we were really no wiser! But Sir Walter Scott seems to have popularised the old Middle English version of the word.

After deviation into the background history of the legends given story form in Sigurd and Gudrun we concluded our discussion of the book and agreed to move on to The Fall of Arthur. For our next meeting we will read pages 17-70 inclusive. And following my misunderstanding of the third in our list of texts for this year, we will in fact be reading Unfinished Tales – NOT The Book of Lost Tales 2 – which we have already read! Apologies for the earlier misinformation and any confusion caused.