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.