Last meeting in May

24. 5. 14

We were continuing with our reading of Narn i Hȋn Húrin, and Carol’s comments are included as an appendix; but we began with excitement and celebration because we had almost all obtained our copies of the new Beowulf translation and Sellíc Spell. No one had had time to read very much, but I was gratified to see the translation had been done in proper scholarly fashion, i.e. in prose. Tim recalled Tolkien’s comments on translation that he had included in the Introduction to Wrenn’s edition of Beowulf and Ian conjectured that readers who are unfamiliar with the academic convention of translating poetry into prose may well be surprised that the great expert in Old English did not attempt to translate into the OE long line poetic form.

Please Note: With Beowulf in our hands, we decided to break off in the middle of our reading of Unfinished Tales and move straight into reading the new book, that is our reading for the next 3 weeks at least (this month has 5 Saturdays so we will not meet again for 3 weeks).

As we put aside our lovely new books with the embossed dragon on the front to turn to other matters, Ian remarked that he has noticed an unusual cluster of visits to his blog site for the Leeds Blue Plaque. http://blueplaque-tolkien-in-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/.  All the visits seem to be from the USA and we conjectured that a class had been set an end of year project, or maybe conference-goers attending the Leeds IMC had been looking up places of interest. Whatever the facts, it shows the value of Ian’s blog.

We at last moved on to the story of Túrin, and Tim noted that Christopher Tolkien interrupts the story after Túrin and his outlaws move into the dwarf caves with Mȋm. Suddenly readers are directed to the continuation of the story in The Silmarillion, and to an Appendix to the story before them, given at the end. As Tim observed, the editorial technique makes the reading of the story generally rather ‘bitty’.

The unfinished state of the material on the Unfinished Tales was a matter for comment throughout the afternoon.

I asked if anyone else had found the story hard to get through? Mike replied that it read like Tess of the D’Urberfields in the woods! Laura observed that it is a tragic tale, but not much is said about the fate of Niniel’s baby which is killed in her suicide.

Mike thought that the problem lies in the basic need for good to win, which the Narn does not satisfy, but Laura and Tim suggested that because Glaurung has been killed and thus Morgoth’s control is at least interrupted, then good of a kind does prevail.

This gave rise to a debate between Laura and Mike over the unknown extent of Illuvatar’s overall plan.

There was general agreement on the richness of the writing. Mike considered the description of the river ‘grinding its teeth’ cleverly compact.

Tim remarked that Turin is a Frodo-like sacrificial hero, although he is doer not a thinker like Frodo.

Julie thought Turin was a Coriolanus-type warrior. I remarked that Turin never seems to me as ‘sympathetic’ as Coriolanus.

Ian commented that from ‘The Coming of Glaurung’ there seem to be many unexplained misfortunes, but also considered that events and situations were being ‘spun’ by Melkor expressly to torment Hurin. Mike noted that there is no reminder of this. Ian picked up his previous point remarking that the reader sees what is given by the author as Hurin sees what Morgoth permits.

Laura then wondered if Morgoth intentionally sacrifices Glaurung. Mike thought that the author avoids limiting interpretive and structural possibilities by saying too much.

Mike also revealed that he had found a laugh! Turin and Hunthor are clambered along of the Teiglin Gorge with Glaurung above them, Turin praises Hunthor for his help. Simultaneously Hunthor is hit on the head by a falling rock and killed. Grim humour indeed.

Mike then wondered why Niniel/ Nienor does not cover up the apparently dead Turin. Laura remarked that she has now had her ‘Romeo’ moment.

Tim observed that the story is very much a work in progress as shown by the fact that there are so many versions of the Turin story. Laura remarked that in comparison to the Narn, the version in The Silmarillion feels very ‘thin’.

I asked if there are many versions, and we are participating in interpreting the meaning, does that make the story of Turin a genuine myth. Mike did not think so, because there is no development on from Tolkien’s original. Julie, on the other hand, thought there were signs of independent development in the form of fan-fiction. Ian objected that Tolkien’s myth cannot be played out in the real world in the way that Greek and other myths can be seen to.

Tim observed that the story needs to be free of copyright, like Shakespeare – Mike added.

Changing tack completely, Ian noted that Tolkien’s ‘word-bombs’ – unexpected or anachronistic words – are used to wake us up by referencing other works and real world relationships.

I then asked if anyone had come across more information about the mode of Elvish verse called Minlamed thent / estent in which the Narn is said to have been originally written. It was thought that it was a fictionalising of the different kinds of poetry for special occasions, and the different forms of writing used for different kinds of sagas.

I also introduced a very grim thought when I asked if it was possible that the reference to the outlaws killing orcs and hanging their bodies on trees could have been influenced by the infamous World War 1 photo of a body draped in a tree following an explosion. Julie thought it read like the actions of gamekeepers who hang dead rooks and crows in places where they will deter others of the same kind. But, Julie thought, it could also be regarded as a war crime. Laura thought the dishonourable treatment of dead orcs was because they were ‘just’ orcs, so it was not dishonourable to treat them in that way.

Please note- we move on to Beowulf now, reading up to page 36, or further if time permits.

Carol’s Comments

THE COMING OF GLAURUNG

I’m glad Hunthor chides Dorlas because Dorlas proves craven in the end and Hunthor sets out Brandir’s plight perfectly.

pp.131-2 this section between Brandir and Niniel, like the rest of it, is bitter. Niniel is going headlong to meet death and poor Brandir is unmanned. In hard time, gentleness and healing are thought little of, more’s the pity, and especially in a man.

 

THE DEATH OF GLAURUNG

 

p.133 Dorlas pays in more than shame. ‘watched a white star far above…’ – there’s always the star above danger, reminding that some things can’t be touched by evil. See also Sam going across Mordor.

p.134 even though Hunthor dies he lives long enough to save Turin from falling and therefore finishing the job.  If for nothing else, fate seems to have brought Turin to this point to kill Glaurung and at least rid the world of a great and wicked danger. But at such a human cost…

p.138 Nienor’s tragic realisation. Her end is worthy of an opera. The whole story is worthy of an opera.

The death of Turin

p. 142 although it’s too late, I’m glad Turin repents of his words and actions against Brandir. All the main player pay dearly.

 

 

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First Meeting in May

10.5.14

This week we were missing Chris and Angela who are on holiday, as well as Mike, but the rest of us discussed future plans and were updated by Ian on his latest research project. Carol had sent comments and as usual those that are not embedded will be found at the end of the meeting report.

And so we turned to the Narn i Hín Húrin. Ian observed that with regard to the death of Urwen in the story, the daughter of Joseph Wright, Tolkien’s very influential tutor, also died in childhood, raising the possibility of an echo here.

Ian also suggested that in the representation of the lame servant Sador there was apparently a touch of light relief, although the character turns out to be important to the story.

Tim remarked that Sador functions as a father figure to Túrin, and Carol observed “I like the exchanges beween Sador and Túrin, they’re the closest we come to ordinary domesticity and love. Henceforth Túrin’s life will be turmoil.”

Carol noted that several things are raised in Túrin’s conversation with Labadal: man’s mortality v. elves immortality, should both live in close proximity; being so close to elves has raised men to greater levels but there’s always that chance of envy of their immortality as we see later in Numenor. Túrin is not showing his feelings, I can relate to that: showing feelings opens vulnerability. So far so good – but Túrin isn’t yet being an obdurate *!*!!*.

Laura thought this story of the children of Húrin reads like a post-apocalyptic novel, that Túrin is clearly a depressive, and that joining the robber band seems contrary to his elite status, but we thought the robbers, though vile and violent, were the kind of people who would be survivors in the ‘post-apocalyptic’ environment in which Túrin has grown to adulthood.

Carol commented that Morgoth’s curse on Húrin’s family is dire, and what Morgoth says about the dire curse on the family comes about, but could Túrin have turned that aside with wiser decisions, not that he knew that Morgoth had cursed his family. Is the curse Túrin’s obstinate nature just bringing out the innate, like Morwen’s. Who’s to say but it damned well annoys me.

Ian described the whole situation as grim, and Tim remarked that this was a case of the survival of the fittest.

Laura extended her earlier motif to suggest that Thingol and Melian sheltered in Doriath with the Girdle functioning like a nuclear bunker.

Ian noted that Elves only collaborate with other groups and races as it suits their particular interests, and he likened this to the situation revealed in Icelandic sagas, where collaboration is usually for advantage.

I added that Morwen, Húrin’s wife and Túrin mother, reminded me of Bergthora, Njal’s stern wife in Njal’s Saga. Carol wondered, ‘why is it that Rian and Gloredhel die of grief? Sad yes that their husbands have died in battle but why couldn’t they carry on? What about the children? Morwen does carry on but she’s hard. “alms were bitter to Morwen.” Thank god her children made her less proud.

Laura changed the cultural parallels when she observed that Túrin in many ways resembles Shakespeare’s unique tragic hero Coriolanus, including in the multiple changes to his name. Tim also compared Aragorn’s many names, and Julie added Gandalf’s different names given by different races. Julie added that even Frodo is named differently by the different races he encounters.

Further parallels between Túrin and Coriolanus include their relationships with stern mothers, the absent warrior father, and, I suggested, the motif of changing sides, as Túrin joins up with the outlaws, and Coriolanus joins the Volsces. Tim observed that Túrin is in the tradition of Shakespearean tragic heroes.

Laura wondered whether Túrin was just a miserable child or whether his dour state is a sign of Morgoth’s influence already affecting his life? Carol remarked that Morgoth’s curse on Húrin’s family is dire, and what Morgoth says about the curse on the family comes about, but could Túrin have turned that aside with wiser decisions? Not that he knew that Morgoth had cursed his family. Is the curse, Carol asked, Túrin’s obstinate nature just bringing out the innate, like Morwen’s? Who’s to say, but it damned well annoys me.

Tim also wondered whether it was just ‘nurture’ rather than nature, as he is the son of a lost father, a stern mother, is then fostered far away, and later outcast from his home as his family is torn apart by invasion. Laura observed that it is typical of a war situation.

Carol observed: “I like Sador’s definition of a thrall: ‘a man who was a man but is treated as a beast.’ and the rest of his remarks are very accurate and scary.”

Ian commented that the pattern of war and invasion in Beleriand represented in the story and its consequences may be characteristic of an island view as opposed to a continental attitude.

Laura then drew attention to the references to an ‘ill wind’ and the ‘pestilence’ it brought that killed children, noting the resemblance to the plagues of Egypt and the last one that slew the firstborn. We discussed other similar instances of plagues targeting children or younger people and Tim noted that Robert Browning’s poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ drew on stories of the mortality of children due to plague.

Both Tim and Julie thought Túrin was much like the usual morose teenager, and Tim enlarged on this by likening Túrin to the young Egils, although it was allowed that his saga shows that Egils did grow more politic with age. But with Laura, he agreed that some other characters take to Túrin.

Laura balanced this by commenting on Saeros’s jealousy, and as Tim and Ian noted, this Elf mocks Túrin as ‘woodwose’. Ian observed that Sador had been a woodworker, and Laura remarked that Beleg the Elf, Túrin’s friend, was skilled in woodcraft. There was some discussion as to whether this made Beleg the Middle-earth equivalent of Bear Grylls but Tim likened him to Ray Mears – less given to being outlandish.

Carol commented: if Morwen hadn’t been so proud and gone to Doriath with Nienor, Túrin’s final doom of inadvertently marrying his sister would have been averted. Enter snake in the grass Saeros. The episode with Saeros is good. Shows Saeros for what he is, especially the remark about the women of Hithlum running about naked. Bad move! And I think Túrin’s most restrained throughout this whole episode, but he’s too stubborn when it comes to going back to be judged by Thingol.

We changed tack at this point to consider Tolkien’s problem with great waves, and whether this was an instance of folk-memory, or whether Tolkien communicated his preoccupation to his son. Julie noted that he had travelled to England by sea as a child.

Returning to our main topic, it was noted that when Túrin as a child names Sador – Labadal – this would be considered politically incorrect. Laura added that Brandir was also crippled, and I wondered why Tolkien included two characters with similar problems in the same story. Carol remarked, however, “I always feel pity for Brandir. He’s in love with Niniel and there could be some jealousy there. Even so, he’s not valued for his healing arts and certainly not for being lame. But he’s wiser than most of his colleagues and senses something not quite right in Turambar. But such are the times and the values: martial skill valued over gentler activities but it was a tough time in which to be alive.

Ian went on to compare the episodic form of Egils’ Saga with that of the story of Tuor, and Laura noted the use of ‘saying’ in the story with are specific to it, i.e. they are not Primary World sayings, or proverbs.

I was surprised to see Morgoth claim to be the Elder King when challenged by Húrin, and Tim confirmed that Manwë was the Elder King, thus making Morgoth a liar and aligning him with Satan as ‘father of lies’. Carol observed that Morgoth’s arrogance is great. “In a sense he is king of Arda because Manwë seems to have washed his hands of Middle-earth while Morgoth is involved, if only for domination and evil. Húrin must have been made of stern stuff to endure what Morgoth thrust on him and not go raving mad but none of the Valar come to help him which must have enforced what Morgoth said about being the arbiter of the fields of Arda.”

Carol noted that the Doriath episode includes nice background on the dragon helm and Thingol’s armoury. Then, as we considered the episode with Mȋm I remarked on the use of ‘dwarf visors’ derived from the dwarf smiths’ protective helmets. This of course gave rise to the customary ‘elf and safety’ comment, and to Ian’s observation that on the ‘American Chopper’ TV programme protective helmets are visored and decorated.

Carol noted: this surely is an unfinished tale as it doesn’t tell of Mȋm’s betrayal of Túrin and his gang, but Mȋm lives by expediency and owes loyalty to no man, especially those who killed his son. I always feel rather sorry for him

Laura remarked on the explicit xenophobia of the treatment of the dwarves by Túrin, the outlaws, and other races. She also noted Mȋm’s echo of the Anglo-Saxon rage over the name changes imposed by the invaders, in his bitter comment on the way the Elves changed all the names. Laura also wondered at the use of the word ‘chines’ to describe ravines near Mȋm’s cave. Based on the local use of the word for geographical features on the Isle of Wight and near Bournemouth, she wondered if the word had Jutish origins. Having investigated, I discovered 2 definitions:

Chine 1. Spine, backbone, back, meat from the back [<Old French eschine = backbone <Germanic]

Chine 2. A deep or narrow ravine or fissure [Old English cinu]

By this time we had run out of time and hastily agreed to finish the Narn for our next meeting.

 

Carol’s additional comments:

First a question: why do people in Middle-earth name their children to rhyme with their own as in Húrin/Túrin, Huor/Tuor?

When Túrin meets Beleg for the first time, Beleg’s doom is settled too.

 

Túrin among the outlaws: ‘Neithan the wronged’, the first of Túrin’s a.k.a.s.

 

Túrin still has common decency in rescuing the woman from Forweg but still doesn’t take her side. These are stern times.

 

Beleg tells Túrin to meet him in Dimbar – foresighted? for so it turns out.

 

Of Mȋm the dwarf

Remember Húrin is seeing all this happen and will avenge himself on Mȋm before the end. Fair comment from Mȋm about resources: ‘we do not teach men to find them [roots]…for men are greedy and thriftless.’ Yeah!

 

When he crosses paths with Tuor and Voronwë, Túrin seems to bring disaster wherever he goes.

 

The coming of Túrin to Brethil

So he’s come to the scene of his final disaster. Funny the orcs recognise the black sword but not the woodsman. So he takes the name of Turambar, master of fate (by fate mastered).

 

The journey of Morwen and Nienor to Nargothrond

Morwen being pig-headed: Rian died of a broken heart because Huor was killed at the Nirnaeth; Morwen’s the opposite. Is there no happy medium among these women? Still, walk a mile in their shoes…!

 

The hunting of the wolf, referring back to Beren and Carcaroth and Mablung, like the venture even less.

 

‘fey are you both’: Silly proud women. I just don’t understand Morwen’s mindset or perhaps family was pulling very strongly; ditto Nienor. Puzzle! Now though it isn’t a matter of family pulling them into danger. Glaurung has just created some of his havoc and everyone goes every which way in his confusion – truly Morgoth has cursed Húrin’s family and this time nobody can alter that. I would pass out coming on Glaurung as Nienor does.

 

Glaurung-Mablung-Nienor: a picture of absolute desolation. It’s all so doom-laden. Morgoth knows how to torture without using physical means. Trouble is, even when he’s bound outside Arda eventually, evil doesn’t stop.