Last meeting in January

As always, Carol sent her comments for our nominated reading ‘The Road to Isengard’ and ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, and some of these are added in this  report, but as we did not get very far into our chapters, I have held over most of them for next time.

We began the afternoon with Ian’s detailed report on the recent article on the use of phylogenesis in the analysis of folk tales and what he sees as its application in the study of Tolkien’s works. The new research which links language and the spread of story motifs, is as he argued, the latest development in the long line from the Grimms in the 19th century via the Stith Thomson Motif-Index and many others.
I proposed that Ian’s conclusions suggested that Tolkien was working in a series of ancient motifs. Laura proposed that Tolkien was unable to escape his professional knowledge of philology. Eileen remarked that Tolkien seems childlike (not childish, she stressed) in his delight in language.
Ian observed that professionally Tolkien ‘invented’ words – the ‘asterisk words’ posited by philologists – as part of his work, but Tolkien goes a step further and invents languages.
We eventually got started on our chapters when Laura noted that they provide a change of pace and an injection of humour to great effect, much as Shakespeare changes pace in his plays. Laura commented that the chapters offer a sense that ‘we’ could win, but then disturbs the calm with information about the hourns, who are perhaps more sinister than Old Man Willow, and able to move and destroy.
Eileen, echoing Carol, queried ‘Are the hourns trees? Tim and Laura both responded that they are ents that have become more like trees. Tim added that ents can seem benign, but as a force of nature they can be violent. Huorns are less controlled than ents. Angela suggested that perhaps ents going bad as huorns were on the way to being as bad as Old Man Willow, but not yet.
Tim and Ian playfully suggested that the huorns’ darkness implies that they are ‘stealth ents’.
Angela and Tim remarked that the huorns are well done in the extended version of The Two Towers film.
Eileen noted that Legolas see eyes, and Laura wondered if these were the eyes of ents.
We turned then to a discussion of Gandalf’s reference to ‘miserable orcs’. Angela proposed that the word ‘miserable’ was used as a derogatory adjective, not a as a description of their unhappy/sad condition, which Laura suggested. Ian tried to discover in the online version of Joseph Wright’s Dialect Dictionary what Tolkien’s exact use of the word might be. This source introduced the meaning of ‘miserable’ as something worthless, without value. It was proposed that this word depends on the onomastic complexity of the story. ‘Miserable’ is the closest translation of an Elvish word rendered into Common Speech!
Ian went on to note that the Stith Thomson Motif-Index includes the ‘Giant in the Bottle’ motif which includes the association of demon and tree – something relevant to the opposition of orcs and trees.
Carol commented: ‘ents…out of the shadows of legend.’ All the way through LotR legends come to life, stepping out of song and the green grass. a children’s tale, fanciful, easily dismissed as nonsense. Like Celeborn’s warning not to pooh-pooh old wives’ tales, because here they are in the full light of day walking the earth. It’s also about a way of thinking that we’ve lost. Children keep it to a certain age and perhaps less developed peoples. It’s about thinking mythically, animating Mother Earth, respecting her. Science has knocked a lot of that out of us and dismisses myth and legend as childish fancy. But if we thought more mythically perhaps we wouldn’t be in ecological crisis. Instead we have minds of ‘metal and wheels’, go mechanical and disrespect Nature.

We too noted that Tolkien includes many references in The Two Towers to the process by which historical reality becomes myth, legend and story. This led into a discussion of Treebeard’s claim to be ‘oldest of all living things’, as Gandalf calls him. Naturally this turned to the paradox of Tom Bombadil who also has this claim. Tim astonished us when he proposed that Tom’s freedom from external control suggests that far from being a channel for the power of the Valar (as Gandalf is), Tom may be a physical expression of Iluvatar on earth, who limits his own influence. Laura suggested whimsically that this made Tom Iluvatar’s avatar! But Tim’s suggestion would explain how Tom knows everything.
I had observed the significance of Tom’s songs, which are very simple in their lexis but powerful in their effect. This led Tim to reinforce his suggestion about Tom/Iluvatar when he noted Tom’s intimate connection with music/Music, as Tom’s song IS power. Carol was also credited with noting the possibility of a connection between Tom and the Original Music when we discussed this matter in an earlier reading of the book.
I had also noted the power of Tom’s simple song which destroys the barrow and the Wight, and Eileen suggested that Tom knows the Wight’s ‘dialect’ because it was originally and inhabitant from a distant kingdom.
Laura noted that the Ring has no influence over Tom, although both Gandalf and the Elves fear its influence over them.
Tim then revised the Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical question when he asked ‘Does Tom physically ‘appear’ if no one’s there to see him? This was in response to my observation that Tom is heard before he is seen by the hobbits, and his song(s) seem to be an announcement of his presence as ontologically different from other life-forms around him, and one that has power over many of them.
Returning to the topic of ‘oldest’, Laura wondered about the order of races in Treebeard’s list and whether they are to be taken as a true chronology. Tim responded that perhaps the designation ‘oldest’ depends on who writes the records, and the original records (The Silmarillion) were written by the Elves.
We ended with Angela’s observation that Aragorn tends Gimli’s cut after the battle in spite of the fact that he must be exhausted, and wondered if his care is driven by anxiety over the possibility that such an orc wound might be poisoned, as he observed of Sam’s scalp wound after Moria.
We did not set any further reading as we have barely begun to discuss the Isengard and Flotsam chapters.

First meeting in 2016

Back again after the distractions of Yule, we met to finish off the chapters ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ and move on to ‘Helm’s Deep. Carol sent her comments, intended for the previous meeting but included here. However,  we began the afternoon by considering the current abundance of modern revisionings of medieval texts, myths and history in TV programmes such as The Last Kingdom, Beowulf, and Game of Thrones. I was in agreement with Tim, who argued that if these programmes encourage a few people to get to know the original medieval texts and myths they could be considered worthwhile.
We began our meeting proper with Chris asking Eileen what she thought of Eowyn. Eileen replied that she didn’t yet entirely understand the character and her role.
Laura observed that the description of Eowyn herself is very much from a male point of view. Both Laura and Angela remarked on the eroticism of Aragorn’s response and description of her, her’s to Aragorn and her potential fate if Grima’s influence over her uncle continued. Laura also posed the question – was Eowyn previously intended as a bride for Theodred.
Carol had commented on the status of women with reference to Eowyn writing ‘firstly Theoden doesn’t regard Eowyn as being of the House of Eorl until reminded and secondly nobody asks her if she was to be ‘as a lord to the Eorlings’ while the men are away fighting.
Tim responded that we would be applying 21st century attitudes and values to a pseudo-Anglo-Saxon environment. Angela observed that a king certainly has the right to appoint a regent. Ian added that it would be understood as a duty in this pseudo-Anglo-Saxon society, like the duty of the Queen or lady of the hall to bear the cup to her most honoured guests, something Eowyn does apparently without complaint.
Laura noted, however, that Eowyn is a shield maiden. And Tim noted that Theoden appoints Eowyn as de facto steward of Rohan until he returns. An interesting echo!
Laura observed that Anglo-Saxon kings could appoint their heirs, and kings could be chosen, as in the case of Harold, who was voted into office by the English witangemot (council of wise men). Tim noted that in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain Arthur passes on theright to rule before he finally sails for Avalon.
Angela remarked that Eowyn also has the duty of looking after the ailing king.
Eileen remarked that Gandalf appears in the Meduseld episode like a fairy godmother, enabling Theoden to do things.
Ian observed that the song Aragorn chants is taken from the ubi sunt passage in Old English poem The Wanderer which itself is a rewriting of the ‘vanity of vanities’ passage from Ecclesiastes. Thus under the influence of Gandalf Theoden banishes the Old Testament gloom instigated by Wormtongue.
Eileen remarked that under Gandalf’s influence Theoden gets back both his physical and mental strength.
Chris and Carol noted Theoden’s resolution that his potential end should be ‘worth a song’, and Laura noted the echo of the Anglo-Saxon warriors’ desire not to be forgotten after death. Carol described it as “the northern theory of courage that has no room for despair.”
Tim then noted the spelling of ‘froward’ as a description of Eomer was correct although it had been erroneously corrected in various editions of LotR (including the 1994 edition I currently use!)
Tim also drew our attention to the impressive last lines of ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ with the comment ‘Wow!’
Chris and Angela observed that at Helm’s Deep it takes ‘men’ (plural) to sound Helm’s horn. Laura thought the sounding of the horn had something rather supernatural to it in the way it is perceived – as though Helm himself sounds it.
Chris remarked that Gamling knows the Dunlending language and understands their grievance. I noted that this contrasts with Eomer’s youthful dismissive attitude to their language. Tim commented that the Dunlendings had been ‘sold down the river’ by the Gondorians’ gift of their lands to Eorl and his people, and Chris observed that Saruman exploits the Dunlendings’ grievances. Carol commented: “I’ve said this elsewhere, who can blame the Dunlendings for their hatred of Rohan and Gondor. Who lived here before elendil arrived?”
Tim then noted, to our cheers and applause, our favourite description of battle formation when ‘Aragorn and Legolas went in the van’. This puzzled Eileen, and was explaine., while Laura expanded the reference when she declared ‘Behold the white driver!’
Recovering from our whimsicality, Chris, like Carol, remarked on the growing friendship of Gimli and Legolas. Tim observed that it takes the form of banter and competition. Carol also noted “give me a row of orc necks and room to swing and all weariness will fall from me.” Gimli gets very gung-ho and bloody-thirsty at times but he’s a warrior with a cruel foe.
We then turned to Carol’s comment that Saruman’s ‘blasting fire’ suggests gunpowder, which Gandalf probably also used for his fireworks, but he used it to delight and not to kill. Tim also noted the difference between Gandalf’s and Saruman’s uses, while Ian thought that there is a comment on the naivety of the reader who thinks that gunpowder could be used only for peaceful purposes, and that it in Gandalf’s hands it is not widely available technology. I thought it Tolkien was differentiating between good and bad uses of technology.
Ian remarked that its use at Helm’s Deep saved Tolkien resorting to supernatural intervention. Carol had commented: “Tolkien has been accused of fortuitous 11th hours interventions but what counts is that not knowing help is at hand Rohan fights on”.
Tim and Ian noted the shock of the bang. Angela observed that it happens at the parley and Laura wondered why Aragorn attempted to parley with orcs anyway? Angela remarked that it is because the Dunlendings are there and Aragorn is given them warning, and Laura agreed that it could be a parley man-to-man but could not be man-to-orc. Carol commented “Aragorn’s speech ending: ‘you do not know your peril.’ Is it bravado or does he ‘know’ something?” Tim noted that Saruman’s orcs have his arrogance, and that Aragorn’s ‘power and royalty’ suggest his ‘uncloaking’ as Gandalf does at times.
Laura noted that orcs are daunted by Anduril, and Chris observed that it must have had its own power within the wider culture. I proposed, however, that what we are looking at is a story operating on several levels and the power of Anduril in the hand of Aragorn, and the description of Aragorn’s own ‘presence’ could be understood as ‘poeticised’ descriptions created by the storyteller – the writer of the Red Book of Westmarch in the first instance – in order to commemorate the first victory in the War in suitably heroic terms, but in a record written at second hand.
With that contorted thought we ran out of time and decided that next time we would try to finish Helm’s Deep, but meanwhile we would read ‘The Road to Isengard’ and ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, although this might be rather ambitious.