Last Saturday in November

22.11.14

This was our last reading meeting before Christmas! Our next meeting will be given up to our visit to see the last of the Hobbit films. Ian and Julie could not be with us today, and Carol as usual sent her comments which I will include in the main report.

We began with a brief overview from Eileen and Pat of a TV programme on World War One poets that featured Tolkien. Some of us had missed it for various reasons. Those who have computers will catch up, and it will probably be repeated anyway so we will all be able to follow Eileen and Pat’s recommendation that this review of the influence of the war on Tolkien is better than expected.

When we moved on to our nominated chapters Laura reminded us that the vandalising of Bag End by the young treasure-seeking hobbits at the end of Chapter 1 had shocked us during a previous reading with the unexpected implied violence of the action. Tim noted that the negative aspect is also shown to be present in the Shire at this early stage in Ted Sandyman’s attitude. Carol commented on Frodo’s attitude to Sam when Gandalf threatens to turn him into a toad that it was not nice. [It is yet another example of a ‘violent’ response, although there are certainly extenuating circumstances.]

It was noted, though, that the ‘vandals’ were all from ‘good’ or well-known families.

Pat then raised the matter of the Ring affecting characters according to their ‘stature’. Angela responded that the Ring is most dangerous to ambitious characters. Carol also picked up this issue when she commented that it is less dangerous to Bilbo and Frodo than to some others because Hobbits don’t covet empires and power; because they are simple folk. In this context, Tim observed that Isildur was not a bad man, but the Ring has ‘agency’.

This led us to briefly wonder how Deagol came to fall out of the fishing boat – was he pushed – if so by what? As we got stuck into the customary debate about fate/chance and free will, Mike proposed that (1) the operation of what looks like fate or chance may be likened to the operation of a pinball machine – where many paths may be taken but the end result is never in doubt – the ball ends up at the bottom, and life ends in death, and (2) we are dealing with a work of fiction with gives the linear development of internal event according to the author’s plan. Carol commented that the gossip of the hobbits placed the blame for Frodo’s wandering on Gandalf, and indeed trouble does come of it, and it is surprising how accurate hobbit staidness is. She also commented that the conversation at the Green Dragon was reminiscent of modern discussion on the existence of UFOs.

Then I asked why we keep debating this topic of chance/fate and free will. Carol had commented that perhaps Elves move us deeply, and that in her view little nudges are given from the West, but it’s up to individuals to take advantage of the nudges. Laura replied that LotR does not feel like a fiction, and Tim added that the Road motif is the key to this. Carol had also commented that the Road song introduces the first real drama into the book with its hints of dangers to come.

Eileen went on to remark that we can identify with the struggles of some characters. We all congratulated her on becoming absorbed in the story!

Chris then observed that with our knowledge of the Valar [and with the Elves hymn to Elbereth], it is impossible to deny a ‘higher’ influence. Mike remarked that this backstory produces infinite depth. Angela noted that no one knows what will happen after the Dagor Dagorath  (“The Last Battle”), and those of us who had read LotR many times before agreed that we were all discovering new things as we read.

Pat remarked that LotR begins with a great number of characters, and Eileen agreed that so many characters can initially be off-putting, many undeveloped at least at first sight. Tim proposed that with so many Tolkien was following his artistic method and ‘painting the background’.

We returned to the matter of the effect of the Ring according to a character’s existing propensities when Pat picked out Frodo’s comment to Gandalf ‘What a pity Bilbo did not killed Gollum when he had the chance’, and Gandalf’s reply. I remarked that the Frodo and Gandalf use the word ‘pity’ in different ways. Frodo say ‘What a pity…’ using ‘pity’ colloquially to express his fear and shock. Gandalf used the same word with its full denotation of moral virtue.

Tim added that in this Gandalf resembles a pedant exposing meaning. It was remarked that Tolkien differentiated the uses of the word when he capitalised in Gandalf’s response to Frodo. Angela noted that this pedantry is more elaborate in The Hobbit when Gandalf ‘interrogates’ Bilbo’s simple ‘Good morning’.

Carol had commented that Frodo’s initial response to Gandalf’s history of the Ring: ‘How terrifying!’ seems a bit superficial, and also that it is Frodo’s ignorance of Gollum at this point that prompts him to abstract Gollum as an object.

Laura returned us to the matter of moral stature when she observed that Bilbo’s mercy is inherent and a protection against power of the Ring.

We then got hung up on the origins and significance of the narrator’s report of Bilbo going off ‘into the blue’. None of us knew the answer so I went and got the relevant OED volume (handy being in the Library!) but it was no real help, so Laura asked in the context of Frodo’s restlessness – who were the wayfarers he met?

Mike proposed they were Dwarves and Elves, and I wondered to whom they were supposed to be strangers? Maybe only to other hobbits, but not necessarily Frodo. Tim noted that the comment read like reported speech.

Eileen observed that Elves don’t generally mingle, or offer advice. Carol commented that the Elves caused all the trouble and are then deserting Middle-earth – which she finds both sad and selfish. Tim however, described them as refugees.

Eileen then remarked that the name ‘Baggins’ seems oddly humorous. Mike noted that Tolkien couldn’t change it without rewriting The Hobbit, where the name was suitably jolly in a story meant for children. Laura noted that Tolkien differentiates between Bilbo and Frodo (who is more serious and esoteric than Bilbo) even though they share their surname.

Chris changed our focus at this point as Gollum had entered our debate: Chris asked whether Gollum’s grandmother was the source of his problems. Mike agreed that overstrictness breeds deception. Eileen suggested that under unfavourable conditions it could be a survival technique.

Laura added that neither Gollum nor Frodo have living parents – creating a link between them. Angela observed that in spite of everything, Gollum retains a bit of his own mind.

Mike then took us in a darker direction when he asked us to consider Gandalf’s involvement with the ‘rendition’ and torture of Gollum. We discussed the difference between what seems to be the physical torture of Gollum in Barad Dur and the psychological pressure to which Gandalf seems to subject him. Chris pointed out that the conduct of the characters does not imply the author’s outlook, and that there is no indication of Tolkien agreeing with either practice. Mike added that it is depicted as ‘what people do’.

By this time we had run out of time and needed to consider our next reading. Laura pointed out that we had not addressed the chapter ‘Three’s Company’, so we agreed to discuss the chapter(s) some of us had already read, which included ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’, as well as reading ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ and ‘The Old Forest’. This should keep us going until our next meeting, which will be in January as the December meetings are taken up with our trip to see the film, and then Yule.

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First Saturday November additional

Carol’s comments on the previous reading: The Prologue
‘Concerning Hobbits’
…’love peace and quiet and good tilled earth…’ Tolkien is almost writing about himself in the first half of this paragraph.  We later learn that hobbits like beer and pipe-weed, again Tolkienesque.  Tolkien once wrote in a letter that he was a hobbit, liking all the above and fancy waistcoats.
 ‘being fond of simple jests’ – JRRT again.
I know Mirkwood is derived from the Elder Edda but I’ve always thought it one of the great descriptive names for a forest, long before I knew about Eddas. and sagas.
So far, the prologue mentions lots of unexplained things from the past, just one e.g. ‘the kings of men that came over the sea out of Westernesse’ and if you want to find out more, you’re going to have to read the book!
‘Concerning Pipeweed’
 At the time this was written smoking pipe-weed was quite acceptable. Pipe-weed doesn’t seem to be as addictive in LotR as in real life because the fellowship goes long times without smoking and Bilbo, in old age, has almost given it up. Jackson had to portray smoking in his films but very low key and deprecatory. o pipe-weed I miss you!!
‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’
Ok, a reflection of Tolkien’s idea of ideal government – anarchy or very little of it – which might work in a small country where most inhabitants didn’t break the law. Tolkien believed that non-constitutional monarchy was the best, all fine well if you get a decent king like Elessar. The Shire stratified and deferential and though it’s generally kind, it’s still class-ridden.
‘Of the Finding of the Ring’
Tolkien mainly concentrates on the riddle game with Gollum and Bilbo’s finding of the ring because it is crucial to the future of Middle-earth, both the finding and the mercy showed towards Gollum by Bilbo.  The word ‘luck’ is used several times in its being Bilbo who finds the ring. More of this in ‘shadow’.
NOTE ON THE SHIRE RECORDS
Could this section be considered a spoiler because it talks of Middle-earth after the quest to get rid of the ring.  Some bits of it I find unspeakably sad.  I’d just like to note of all the books mentioned, nothing is fiction. All the beings of Middle-earth at this time don’t seem to have made-up stories from their imaginations.  Neither do they seem to have have drama and only Sam makes slight reference to ‘a play-acting spy’ later in the story.
The Fellowship of the Ring  Book 1 Chapter 1 ‘A Long-expected Party
This title mirrors ‘An Unexpected Party’ as the opening chapter in The Hobbit
‘riches…now become a local legend.  Legend and story are very important themes in LotR amd it begins right here in Hobbiton.  For once hobbit dislike of anything out the ordinary and maybe jealousy will prove to be right. Bilbo’s ‘prolonged vigour’ ‘will have to be paid for…it isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it’.
Parts of this chapter are a bit whimsical like eleventy-first birthday but we need a bit of whimsy before the gruelling quest which is to help save this whimsy. I often wonder if Tolkien made the hobbit coming of age 33 because he was 33 when he became an oxford prof. Or, Jesus died at 33. and 22.9 because TH was first published on 21.9.37
C.S. Lewis said there was too much of hobbit talk but I love this conversation at the Ivy Bush. It shows the hobbits’ clannish nature and dislike of anything unfamiliar – hobbits who live on the other side of the shire, the old forest, boating, written in italics on p.35.
Nepotism seems to be the way of getting jobs in the Shire and is not frowned on like it is now. ‘i’d not long come prentice to old Holman (him being my dad’s cousin)…
Tolkien weaves back-stories very well. It’s not mere exposition; there’s a reason behind all the telling of this family history – because Bilbo’s party makes everyone want to know about him and his relatives again.
O dear, there’s just so much to quote. Sam, mad for the old stories and knowing how to write, thanks to Bilbo, and the Gaffer warning him this will lead to trouble but if you ‘desire dragons with a profound desire’ and are curious be prepared for where it might lead you – the road.
Tolkien’s still in hobbit mode, having children as his audience and also himself I think with all the food, gaiety, presents and fireworks still being anachronistic in comparing the dragon firwork to an express train. He liked dragons but not trains.
‘an engrossing entertainment’ – a bit of Tolkien humour and punning. Ditto Proudfoot/Proudfeets.
The Springle-ring, the only dance mentioned in the whole of LotR and subject of lessons at Oxonmoot.
‘I don’t know half of you as well as I should like and like less than half of you as well as you deserve’. It does in fact work out as a compliment though it took me years to fathom it out. However bilbo does go on the insult – one gross.
Bilbo VANISHES much to everyone’s chagrin.
Bilbo showing signs of reluctance at leaving the ring behind and Gandalf showing some of his latent power.
Gandalf’s temptation to seize the ring. Others will also be tempted.
The first version of the road song – pursuing it with eager feet. That has been the first real drama in the book with indications of dangers to come.  Now we go back to a bit of flummery.

First Saturday in November

8.11.14

It was a full house for our meeting this afternoon, and very lively. We looked forward to our annual trip to the cinema to see the next instalment of the The Hobbit film trilogy, and were introduced by Laura to the concept of ‘echo tongues’ as used in some modern fiction, before we began our third(!) group reading of LotR. We were naturally starting with the Prologue and Chapter 1.

Eileen, reading LotR for the first time, remarked on the amount of humour she found in these first parts of the text, as well as the lovely descriptions of scenery, but was surprised by the tension between Bilbo and Gandalf. Eileen also commented that she thought Tolkien was playing with his readers in the way he set this up. Mike noted the very hobbit-like humour emerging at times in Chapter 1.

Tim agreed that there is ambiguity for the first-time reader in the relationship between the hobbit and the wizard.

Mike commented on Tolkien’s use of different narratorial voices in the Prologue, where it is more ‘scholarly’ and didactic, and the story itself where he suits the voice to the character. Pat remarked that he differentiates the characters as people differ in society. Laura noted the specific kinds of characters we meet in the Ivy Bush.

Tim then reminded us that Tolkien did not write this story! Bilbo wrote the original and Tolkien translated it. This led to various recollections of other writers who used this ‘found manuscript’ device. We mentioned M.R. James, Lovecraft, the Flashman series, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

As we discussed Gandalf, Ian surprised us with his observation that Gandalf arrives in the Shire with a cart load of munitions! Pat commented that Tolkien created fireworks she didn’t recognise and there was some nostalgic recollection of simple fireworks we remembered. Angela remarked that Tolkien must have liked fireworks. Mike wondered if the volcano described was (presciently) Mount Doom. Tim and I thought it was Erebor while Ian thought its identity was ambiguous.

We briefly tackled the traditional question of the ‘express train’, but having thrashed out this anachronism during previous readings, Ian’s observation that this image was “the closest Tolkien could get in his translation of the ‘original’ description of the noise, power, and sight of the dragon” went unchallenged.

Pat then questioned the way in which the transmission of the Ring is dealt with and Chris commented that two ‘Powers’ are vying for influence over it. Laura suggested that this made the Ring neurotic!

Noticing that the Ring was not originally on a chain when Bilbo found it, Tim proposed that its chaining by Bilbo to keep it from slipping off was also symbolic of the Chaining of Melkor.

Laura then extended the idea the Ring being under external control and suggested that the hobbits might be understood as Iluvatar’s ‘sleepers’, quietly existing and protected until they were needed.

Eileen wondered if there was a hidden agenda behind the characterisation of Gandalf, and Mike suggested that he was part of a constant iteration in the story of ‘something beyond’ what is apparent.

Pat compared the thematic motif of the journey which is a physical representation of always moving beyond. Mike thought this was perfectly précised in the ‘Road Goes Ever On and On’ song, especially in the last line: ‘And wither then, I cannot say’.

Angela then referred us to the Appendix and its information that the external guard on the Shire was doubled after the Birthday Party. Ian remarked that this implied a need for the hobbits to be kept inside, even suppressed. Mike added the ominous analogy of the suppression of the working classes, since the Shire folk are primarily farmers and small craftsmen.

Pat considered the matter of the presents Bilbo gives, and wondered if the sarcastic or perhaps spiteful messages accompanying them were related to the influence of the Ring on the otherwise kindly hobbit. Mike noted that the gifts are highlighted in capitals in the text, and Ian suggested the presence of rhetorical figures such as alliteration implied the significance of the gifts at a level beyond the companionable. Chris did not agree that the Ring influenced the present giving.

Eileen approved of the sharp edge to some of Bilbo’s messages because it adds another facet to his characterisation and Mike agreed that Bilbo is an adult and his flaws link him to us.

Tim thought that Bilbo’s presents were an unburdening as he leaves, compared to the Ring which he really wants to keep.

Mike noted that the relationship between Bilbo and the young Frodo is a sign of the times – there is no hint of moral darkness in it.

Pat then asked, as Gandalf does not get a present, what we would give him? Julie proposed a tobacco jar. Tim suggested ‘ a cartful of problems’, while Ian suggested ‘Frodo’. This is indeed finally the answer to his cartful of problems!

Laura observed that the chapter itself moves from fun to something darker, and Ian remarked that the Prologue in fact introduces doubt with references such as ‘mere luck’ and ‘luck (as it seemed)’.

Tim then wondered who the Authorities are that are mentioned in the Prologue as judges of the rules of the Riddle Game. I thought they could have been very ancient, because Gollum knows the rules of the game. Mike thought they were probably the drinkers in the Ivy Bush – keeping up knowledge of the Rules whenever they were instituted.

Pat returned to the influence of the Ring on Bilbo, asking if it was the motivating power behind Bilbo being able to find his way through the tunnels under the mountain because it ‘needed’ him to get it out. Pat also wondered if it was the reason why Bilbo lied uncharacteristically.

Julie observed that the Birthday happens around the time of the Equinox – a time when light and darkness are in balance. She also wondered if Frodo’s ‘fidgeting with something in his pocket’ during his interview with the Sackville-Bagginses was a sign that the Ring was beginning to influence him, that it was already out of its envelope and in his pocket.

Tim ended our session with the observation that the ending of Chapter 1 is poignant.

Our next reading will be the next 2 chapters up to ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’, although some of us may read further.