Last Saturday in October


This week we set out to finish off Unfinished Tales. Mike sadly was not well enough to be with us and Eileen could not join us. As usual Carol sent her comments by email, and Julie emailed a few additional thoughts after the meeting which are included at the end of the discussion of the palantiri.

We began the afternoon with Ian’s update on his latest visit to the Bodleian and the additional information it provided for his latest project.

Laura launched the discussion of the final chapters of UT – ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’ – with her observation that both chapters are rich in details.

Carol commented on ‘The Istari’: this is one of my favourite sections, especially on first reading, learning more about Gandalf and co.: ‘whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal…or to seek to rule…’ I call this the Istari’s prime directive as in Star Trek, not to interfere with different races – against their wills or not. Even the Valar have to learn lessons. This is a prime example of the allowing of free will without ‘endeavour to dominate’.

Laura also commented that Tolkien knows ‘human’ nature, even if some characters are not precisely human. She was directing our attention to the way that Varda ‘promotes’ Olorin (Gandalf) during the council of the Valar when the Istari are being chosen. The result is that Saruman bears a grudge against Gandalf ever after.

Chris remarked that Cirdan recognised Gandalf as more powerful, and Carol comments: What would have happened if Saruman had been given a healing ring of power? Would it have nudged him to better conduct and averted his jealousy of Gandalf’s having Narya?

We all commented on the strange wrangle over which Istari travel together, including Saruman’s scorn for Radagast, and the pairing of the 2 blue wizards. Julie recollected that Saruman travelled into the east with the blue wizards.

Tim noted that Gandalf is humbler on his own account as against Saruman’s pride in his own status. Carol, however, had commented: ‘he was not proud’ – (Gandalf) – ever so slightly, see his white horses at the Fords of Bruinen and his reaction when telling Frodo. We discussed this point and it was concluded that this was not so much pride as delight in creating a fun effect (because it was strictly unnecessary. However, Angela pointed out that the white horses are effectively an insult to the Black Riders.

Angela saw this as the reason why he shows such empathy with hobbits, Men and others, because he has his own fears and anxieties.

Tim remarked that this was perhaps the result of a Maia taking physical shape, leading to the giving up Maia power.

Laura then proposed that maybe each wizard’s staff is a necessary part of their physical being ‘containing’ some extension of Maia power passed into it. Ian suggested that the staff was the sign of their ‘infirmity’ in Middle-earth.

Angela took an example from the Harry Potter stories, where it is important to match the wizard to his/her wand. Julie reminded us of the use of Aaron’s staff when Moses confronts Pharaoh. Ian qualified this by remarking that in LotR no wizard’s staff is ever transformed.

In the context of the importance of staffs (staves) Angela noted that Denethor breaks his staff, but this may be understood as a staff of office. Pat added the example of Prospero breaking his staff in The Tempest, and I remembered the breaking of a staff of office in Richard II. We did not explore the relationship between wizards’ staffs and staffs of office.

Chris then questioned why Tolkien was working on defining the Istari in 1954? I directed everyone to Christopher’s Introduction to the UT book which suggests that it was part of Tolkien’s method of working, especially as he was at the time creating an Index for the first edition of FotR and TT and frequently gave detailed Index entries, although nothing as long as the material that makes up the Istari and Palantiri chapters. They do, however, replicate the way he worked when creating his Index entries.

Laura then remarked on the fact that the Maia were already gendered in Valinor. This led Tim to wonder whether any of the other Istari were female? He also questioned whether Radagast had a staff, since there is no mention of one.

Angela drew our attention to Saruman’s comment on the ‘rods of the 5 wizards’, and concluded that Radagast must have had one.

I was interested in Saruman’s eventual fate, as his physical form was destroyed and dissipated, and I asked whether this meant that he would be denied access to Mandos. Angela and Chris both confirmed that his ‘essence’ went west and then east. Tim concluded that he was thus banished from Valinor.

We noted the care with which the Valar consult over sending the Istari as Tolkien reflects on the mistakes they had made. Manwe also (probably) consults Eru about this – Christopher includes these his father’s tentative and unresolved ideas, but this led Julie to wonder what mechanism was used to contact Eru. Chris and Angela noted that Manwe was always able to do this.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s choice of the name ‘Eru’ meaning ‘the One’, in these references and wondered why this name? Tim pointed out the definition ‘Eru who is called Iluvatar (All-Father) in Arda’. Julie remarked that Iluvatar is a title like ‘Adonai’ in the New Testament, rather than a name.

We went on to consider Gandalf again as Angela observed that Gandalf’s liveliness is ‘veiled’ in grey. Julie noted that grey is a colour associated with elves, and Laura remarked that the wizards’ colours go back to their origins in Valinor and the Valar whose Maiar they are.

Angela remarked that Gandalf has the red ring, signifying the flame of his spirit within. Tim reminded us that Gandalf is a servant of the secret fire. Chris then wondered why Saruman assumed primacy. Tim responded that he was both the eldest and the first ashore in Middle-earth. Tim also wondered if the Valar perceived the possibility of Saruman’s turn to evil and thus sent him first while they sent Gandalf quietly later to do the real work – making Saruman a stalking horse.

Chris observed that this prompts sympathy for Saruman.

Tim added that both Saruman and Sauron were mentored by Aule, and Julie noted that Aule was an equivocal presence by reason of his disobedience in creating the dwarves.

I asked everyone’s opinion of Tolkien’s brief pondering in a text of 1972 that Gandalf was ‘the last appearance of Manwe himself’. Julie considered the special relationship between Gandalf and the eagles, and also proposed that if Gandalf had been Manwe in disguise Sauron would have perceived the deception.

Laura then asked what we thought happened to Radagast – did he pass over the Sea, or did he fail because he was naive?

Tim remarked that Tolkien clearly didn’t know cats when he described the relationship between Queen Beruthiel and her cats. We all agreed that no felinophile would suggest that cats could be anyone’s slaves.

As we moved into the Palantiri chapter Laura noted that Denethor was jealous of Aragorn and Tim observed that this echoes in Faramir’s poor relationship with his father.

We all discussed Carol’s observation of the origins of the palatiri: when he’s riding with Pippin to Minas Tirith Gandalf slightly implies that Feanor made them as he’s musing on ‘seven stars and seven stones and one white tree’. Whatever Feanor has done wrong, in this passage Gandalf still reveres him.

Pat wondered how Saruman made an ‘innocent’ stone evil. Time replied that it was ‘by the way he used it’.

Angela remarked on the use of the remaining palantiri for brainwashing and reading thoughts. Laura noted that Sauron as a Maia was strong enough to control both the stone he has and its contact. Angela added that a stone was dangerous to use if it was in contact with Sauron, but Aragorn had both the strength of mind and the benefit of legitimate ownership.

Laura commented on the fact that the palantiri had largely been forgotten and noted that the exact number of them is not known, so there must have been more.

Pat asked if there had been something in the stone during the contact described in TT, but it was Pippin’s curiosity that led him to encounter Sauron.

Chris observed that it was odd, or convenient, that the stone Pippin finds lands just right. Carol comment that the palantiri were unbreakable. Indeed when Grima chucks the Orthanc stone down on Gandalf and misses, and it hits the steps, it’s the steps that crack.

Julie emailed her additional comments on the palantiri: I didn’t mention this at the meeting, but I was struck by the description of the Stones as being made out glass.  As they were black I should think this meant volcanic glass, i.e. obsidian.  This has occult connotations when used for making weapons but as a “seeing” instrument a lot of people into crystals would say that it is no use at all, as glass does not have a crystalline structure and therefore can have retained no “earth energy” (which is apparently vital if you want a sphere to have this function), unlike crystalline rock!  Just a thought.  (And the crystalline rock has to be untreated, I recall.  Crystals which have been heat-treated to improve their colour – something which routinely happens – are allegedly rendered inert by this process.)

With that we had finished Unfinished Tales. Our reading for next time is the Prologue and Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings.

First Saturday in October



Unfortunately this afternoon we were missing Julie (making Christmas puddings!), and Mike and Tim – both languishing with illness, but the rest of us had a busy afternoon. Tim, like Carol, sent comments by email which are included as appropriate here.

Before starting the discussion, Ian updated us on the fate of the pinus nigra, Tolkien’s favourite tree in the Oxford Botanical gardens which lost 2 of its major limbs during the summer and had to be cut down.

Eventually we turned our attention to our nominated reading: ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’, and ‘The Drúedain’, having briefly touched on some of its major elements ahead of Laura’s arrival, thus Laura picked up the point Eileen had mentioned – that Grimbold and Elfhelm, the 2 marshalls of the Riddermark, had compromised and co-operated although they had different ideas.

Angela, Eileen. Laura and I found the detailed strategy Tolkien describes in the battles rather difficult to engage with, and Eileen was surprised that no time was given to mourning for Theodred. We variously suggested that there was no time in such a dangerous and embattled situation, and Laura remarked that it probably represented real battle conditions such as Tolkien would have known from his time in the trenches. Laura added that Theodred is later buried in one of the barrows at Edoras, when there would have been time to mourn properly.

Ian went on to observe that the title of the volume we have been reading – Unfinished Tales – is not really accurate in the case of The Battles of Isen because this is less an ‘unfinished tale’ than an ‘Untold’ tale until now.

Laura picked up the matter of Theodred’s death when she noted that there is something mystical and/or supernatural about the way Theodred is left for the time being as if in defence of his home territory.

Chris wondered why the full story of the Battles was not included in LotR. Angela and Ian suggested that their inclusion was not structurally necessary to the development of the story.

Tim commented by email that ‘It develops events that are referred to in “The Two Towers” – I can’t tell from the notes (and may have overlooked such a note – and I haven’t got round to checking in HoME) but I wonder if Tolkien ever intended at some point to include it in LotR.’

“but the shield wall held” the battles of Isen might not be the main ones fought in the War of the Ring and left out of the main text but they are great battles nonetheless.  The Rohirrim are stern fighters and without these battles, however much defeat is suffered, they nevertheless contributed to Saruman’s final defeat in the Rohirrim’s bravery, staying power and experienced fighting. A bit like the Alamo holding back Santa Ana’s army in Texas till Sam Houston could get his act together.

Laura observed that there is no feeling for Theodred, except that Saruman targets the prince especially as a tactical move – taking out the head/commander.

Carol commented by email: ‘somewhere else in the book ‘little mistakes’ are mentioned that lead eventually to the enemy’s defeat. Here we have an example of Saruman not following through after Theodred’s death and invading the Westfold immediately: hubris’.

I suggested that Saruman’s tactic may also have been expected to weaken Theoden, who was already undermined by Grima’s influence. Laura noted the potential additional impact of Saruman’s recruitment of the Dunlendings and Angela remarked on their vengeful attitude towards the Rohirrim.

Carol commented: ‘the appendix [to the chapter] is well-written, interesting and gives a lot of otherwise unknown background. But the question does arise about the original inhabitants of Calenardhon, i.e. the Dunlendings. Superior race comes in and the natives suffer.  Who can blame the Dunlendings? and Saruman exploits this. As is said after the battle of Helm’s Deep, not in 500 years do the Dunlending forget their grievance against Rohan and it isn’t too great an exaggeration for holding grudges as witnessed in religious divisions, some longer than 500 years.

Angela went on to comment that Peter Jackson includes the Battles of Isen in his films and has been praised for this.

Laura wondered if Saruman’s forces employed a bad tactic using wolf-riders in the same as horses – which feared them.

Tim commented ‘The chapter reads very much as a part of a greater military history of the Rohirrim, in tone and content. (I meant to sit down with my Middle-earth Atlas and try to work out the details of it visually).

I could imagine it being one chapter in a long chronicle preserved by bardic tradition by a succession of bards – “Hwaet! Theodred waes god eorl” sort of thing (please excuse my rough Old English!) – and perhaps later by Gondorian scribes at Minas Tirith.’

Laura observed that throughout the Battles Tolkien’s understatement registers the horror of his own war experiences.

We moved on to consider the chapter on The Drúadain, and Angela remarked that although this race is described as ‘unlovely’ that are also said to be much respected and loved. Laura thought the description of the Drúadain reiterated Mongolian characteristics, although their glowing eyes added a mystical dimension.

Tim commented: ‘This chapter comes across very much as a pre-history, with an archaelogical/anthropological feel to its description of these primitive yet sophisticated people. Again it adds more detail to the race of “Wild Men” who keep to themselves. We encounter Ghan-buri-Ghan and his folk the Woses in RotK when they guide the Rohirrim through Drúadan Forest.’

Carol commented: ‘the Druedain are very earthy aboriginal peoples with seemingly the power of the Maiar to transfer part of themselves into inanimate objects – like Sauron and the Ring.’ Laura observed that Druedain philosophy linked to this which meant that the transference of power involved some reciprocity.

Laura and I wondered if Tolkien had in mind the Neanderthal people, I noted that they are described as painting as well as carving, and Laura remarked that their stout build was reminiscent of the prehistoric ‘Venus’ fertility carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,000 B.C.E.– 25,000 B.C.E.)

I wondered if we should understand the orcs as being superstitious in their avoidance of the wooden carvings the Drúadain made of themselves sitting on orcs which they placed at strategic places. Laura thought this was perhaps a sign that the orcs were being more practical in their dealings with the secretive and dangerous Drúadain.

However, Carol commented: ‘again we get reference to a ‘lesser’ people being ‘harried. Seems par for the course for some ‘progressive’ stronger white men whenever they’ve encountered the native population. The Drúadain have just the qualities needed for when Armageddon comes + Ray Mears.’

Eileen remarked that orcs certainly seem to be aware of the Drúadain insults.

Chris observed that the Drúadain are sensitive to changing winds like hobbits, and like them are linked to the earth. Angela remarked that they are not hobbits in their preference for drinking water and Laura suggested that in this they seem entish.

Chris then wondered why Tolkien invented the Drúadain, apart from Ghân-buri-Ghân? Angela thought it was filling in the backstory, while Laura proposed that Tolkien was depicting the diversity of the earth-dwellers. Laura also noted the great service provided by the Drúadain to other peoples, and she thought there was a resemblance between them and Tom Bombadil. Ian, however, thought this was not the case, but Laura explained that she thought they were closer to the elements – like Tom.

Angela then noted that there had been Drúadain in Numenor, even though they disliked voyages.

Eileen remarked that Drúadain laughter is contrasted to their ‘gutteral voices’, and considered this to be a comment on real communication. Chris observed that Drúadain language is not linguistically mixed with other languages of Middle-earth and that this may have been Tolkien’s reason for including them.

Ian thought this reflected Tolkien’s interest in languages, and Angela noted both Christopher and his father’s discursive work on languages.

Tim had already commented that ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’ is a very dramatic piece with a lot of rhythm to its language – describing the orcs assailing the Westfold: “They came on at great speed, and suddenly all the host burst into flame, as it seemed. Hundreds of torches were kindled from those borne by the leaders of troops, and gathering into their stream the forces already manning the west bank they swept over the Fords like a river of fire with a great clamour of hate.” (UT p.469 1998 edition)

Ian went on to observe the synchronicity of the Isen battles and the Drúadain episodes and Carol had also commented ‘here we get synchronicity with the main text of Theoden and co. also riding for Helm’s Deep and the ents ransacking Isengard.’ Synchronicity seems to evolve here as a theme.

Carol commented on a note to the chapter in which Elfhelm is said to have explained the sound of the unseen Drúadain to Merry: “nice bit of etymology going on here – a bit English folklore”. They are described as ‘woses’ [from OE wudu wasa ‘woodwose’], but also as Púkel-men from OE púcel ‘goblin, demon’.

For our next meeting we shall be reading ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’, and that will finish the book. This means that in December we shall begin reading The Lord of the Rings!