We began this week’s meeting by welcoming back Mike and Julie and welcoming for the first time Eileen, who is new to the group and to Tolkien. Angela and Chris were not with us but sent comments on our reading: ‘The Quest for Erebor’, and ‘The Hunt for the Ring’. We did not have time for ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ so that is held over for the next meeting.
And so we began with Pat’s query concerning Elendil’s tomb – why, she asked, is it black if Tolkien always associates black with evil. Most of us pointed out that this is a generalisation that does not hold up when examined closely, and that in some cases Tolkien uses whiteness to signify evil, such as Saruman’s use of the white hand as his ‘heraldic device’.
Laura observed that in Chapter 42 ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the mariner Ishmael considers that ‘anything that is terrible seems even more horrifying when it has a ghostly whiteness.’
Mike suggested that the blackness of Elendil’s tombstone was symbolic of his fate at the hands of evil. Mike went on to consider the distance a horse could travel in one day and had discovered that it was possible to achieve 40 miles, but one Arab breed is reputed to have been able to manage 100 miles.
Ian remarked that there could be totemic significance in a horse and rider being able to cover extraordinary distances, and to the amount of land covered.
Mike compared the great distances to biblical characters living hundreds of years, and Tim wondered whether some stories involved one rider with a relay of horses.
I then asked how it could be that Azog could brand Thrór after their battle at the East Gate of Moria? Laura and Tim conjectured that the orcs might have had mobile braziers for the reforging of weapons broken in battle. Mike suggested that Azog might have carried a blade engraved with an orc symbol, and Tim questioned whether orcs actually wrote, while Mike thought they might sign themselves with something like an X.
Laura remarked that Azog’s act showed orc understanding of different cultures.
Pat then asked about the mention of the Elves’ New Year, what was the date. We found the answer in the Notes to ‘The Quest’: April 6th. Tim observed that it is also the start of the financial year!
I then mentioned that I found it interesting that Gandalf uses the Shire as a place to rest. Laura observed that he was clearly aware that the Rangers were on patrol on the borders.
I asked too what kind of disguise Gandalf might have adopted in order to get safely in and out of Dol Guldur? Laura wondered if he might have reverted to his unclothed Maia form, while Tim thought he might have adopted a ‘Sherlock’ kind of disguise – not doing anything spectacular or radical, but making subtle changes. Mike thought Gandalf could have exploited any trade into the fortress and disguised himself as a tradesman, and Tim thought he might have been disguised as a tinker – able to mend weapons and pots. Tim also noted that Dol Goldur was in the process of being rebuilt at the time. And Mike suggested he might have used his wizard’s power of influence through his voice, telling the orcs on watch: ‘This is not the wizard you are looking for’! We all liked that.
Laura then thought it odd that Gandalf suddenly remembers the key and map Thrór gave him as he travels through the Shire. I thought it was because until that time Gandalf had been seeing only the problem from a ‘southerly’ perspective, and worrying over the threat from Dol Guldur to Lorien and Rivendell. Even when he began to worry about the potential alliance between Smaug and the power in the fortress it was from that orientation. His need to take out the dragon became part of his need to protect the 2 Elven powers.
Tim put it more concisely when he identified Gandalf’s thinking as initially strategic, but then became tactical, as he realised the map and key would allow him to attack the dragon from an unexpected direction.
Laura thought it poignant that Gandalf didn’t recognise the value of Thrór’s gift. Julie wondered why Thrór still had it after so long in the dungeons of Dol Guldur, why hadn’t he been searched? Tim suggested that maps and keys could be small things, and not obvious. But Ian reminded us that the map was made on parchment.
Mike then directed us to Gandalf’s problems of persuading Thorin to accept Bilbo on the quest. We remarked on the language used as Thorin refers dismissively of Bilbo as Gandalf’s ‘darling’, and Gandalf says that he had been ‘attracted’ to the hobbit when he was a youth, meaning he appreciated the hobbit’s potential early in life.
Laura observed that we know that what appears as Gandalf’s ‘chance meeting’ is really no such thing, and Angela and Chris noted that this chapter also reminds us of the events going on in parallel with the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, namely Dáin Ironfoot and Brand fighting their own battle against Sauron’s forces. Julie noted that all the battles are encouraging gamers to take more notice.
I questioned the rejected passage in which Gandalf admits that it was annoyance at Thorin’s disdain for hobbits that made him decide to put them together. This seemed to me like a bad way of making decisions, and most unlike the Gandalf we are used to. Mike remarked that initial irritation did not rule out later mature consideration.
Laura wondered if his irritation was a consequence of a Maia taking on bodily form – with the form came the weaknesses, and we considered again why Gandalf took the form he did. Laura though the aged form was least threatening, and Tim reminded us of Gandalf’s threat to Bilbo to ‘uncloak’. Mike added the biblical reference from the transfiguration of Christ: the disciples have to bow before the brilliance of the light of Moses and Elijah.
Eileen observed that Gandalf is able to manipulate Thorin and the power of his mind takes effect through reference to the consequences of ignoring his advice. Eileen also noted Thorin’s ‘racism’ in his comments about Bilbo, and Angela and Chris remarked on ‘The Dwarves’ general contempt for the hobbits (as displayed by Thorin, Glóin and Fili), even though they don’t really know anything about them.
Mike drew our attention to the specific vocabulary Tolkien uses when Gandalf speaks of Gollum’s ‘torment’ in Barad Dûr, and Mike observed that the word has diminished in significance. Tim wondered if the word signified the use of more sophisticated techniques for interrogation in BD than the rack and thumb screws kind. Tim wondered if psychological techniques were implied.
We then went through the process of untangling the double negative of Gandalf’s comment that ‘Sauron did not underesteem the powers and vigilance of the Wise’. And Pat noted the use of the unusual word form ‘stolider’.
Pat also wondered why such a point was made of Bilbo remaining unmarried, and Mike remarked that the unmarried state was very much part of the early Inklings culture as far as C.S. Lewis was concerned. Julie commented that Bilbo nevertheless had plenty of relatives, while Laura remarked that Bilbo was saving himself for something he did not recognise (as Gandalf notes).
Tim then remarked on the increased horror of the unclad Riders, and I said that I had found the details of the Black Riders’ movements in the Shire deeply disturbing – actually knowing that it is Khamûl, the Witch King’s lieutenant, who confronted the Gaffer, and as Julie noted, also Farmer Maggott, is both more terrifying and a more powerful sign of the strength of both hobbits, but it was also remarked that it is a measure of their innocence that they are not cowed by the horror of the Riders.
Julie wondered at the terrifying power of Sauron over the Ringwraiths, and Laura considered how nervous messengers from Mordor must have been when confronting their presences in Minas Ithil and Dol Guldur.
Mike remarked on the way Tolkien sets out the process of Saruman’s jealousy over Gandalf, noting that this is an exposition of the decline of Saruman’s personality. Tim commented that Saruman envies Gandalf’s strength, and Laura wondered if the tension between the 2 wizards picked up the small politics of Oxford academic life as Tolkien knew it.
Mike noted that the films don’t explain Saruman’s malice against the Shire that Gandalf loved.
Ian observed that this kind of character development is not in LotR but Tolkien had to write it out in additional works.
Tim noted that Saruman going disguised into the Shire parallels Gandalf going disguised into Dol Guldur, and Ian observed that comparison needed to be made between the risks each wizard confronted. Angela and Chris noted ‘Saruman’s sneaky visits to the Shire disguised as Gandalf and his corruption of the Bracegirdles and Sackville-Bagginses. The events which led to the situation in The Scouring of the Shire obviously began a long way back.’
And so we ran out of time. Our next reading will be ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ and ‘The Drúedain’. We had noted some of the comments sent by Angela and Chris, the others are included here.
Quest of Erebor
This is good back story and good at “filling in” the characters. I chiefly noted the following:
- Thorin’s arrogance. Reminded me of Boromir – see p.430 when Gandalf tells him he must go on his quest in secret with: “no messengers, heralds….” – reminiscent of Boromir blowing his horn on leaving Rivendell.
- Very forthright arguments between Gandalf and Thorin.
Overall it was interesting to hear the story of the beginning of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point of view rather than Bilbo’s.
Hunt for the Ring
What a complex lot of events and undercurrents underlying the story we know so well!
- Gollum being captured and tortured by Sauron, then released and caught by Aragorn
- Saruman’s servants waylaying Sauron’s, with Sauron being aware of this but not letting on
- The Dúnedain spying on Sauron’s servants
- Sauron learning of the “dream” verse
- The interception of Wormtongue and the squint-eyed Southerner by the Nazgûl
- The Lord of the Nazgûl’s role in stirring up the Old Forest and the Barrow-wights
I think the attack on the Dúnedain by the Nazgûl is a very grim episode. These were the toughest guys in Middle-earth and yet “their hearts misgave them “and all were killed or driven off. The trauma and shame of the survivors must have been considerable.
The description of Aragorn’s journey with the captured Gollum (900 miles on foot in 50 days over a lot of difficult terrain!) perhaps explains why Aragorn’s attitude to Gollum at the Council of Elrond was less than compassionate. It must have been impossible for him to get any sleep without tying Gollum up. This is not to mention the lengthy search – in the most noxious and dangerous parts of Middle-earth – which preceded the capture.