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.