First Meeting in April


We met today without Mike (nursing a cold) and Ian (at the Tolkien Society AGM), and Julie was able to join us again. Carol had sent comments for next time because I think I must have told her we would not meet on the AGM Saturday. However, I will add in her comments were appropriate, and the rest will appear at the end of the meeting report as usual. Our meeting did not begin with the usual AOB because under the new regime in the Library we don’t start until 1.30, but we met beforehand in a local café for our usual exchange of information. It proved very convivial and when we assembled in the Library we got straight down to our discussion of the rest of ‘The Passage of the Marshes’ and ‘The Black Gate is Closed’.

Laura opened proceedings with her observation of Sam’s observation concerning Gollum when he calls him both ‘Nasty creature’ and ‘poor wretch’. Laura remarked that it is as if Sam is speaking of both Gollum and Smeagol.

Tim thought Gollum’s subsequent question ‘Trust Smeagol now?’ was very creepy.

Angela noted Gollum’s sharp response to Sam’s complaint that everything ‘stinks’, and Laura observed that he’s still very much the hobbit at that moment.

Laura went on to comment that in spite of being underground for centuries Gollum is still very attuned to the above-ground environment. Tim thought in this Gollum was ‘cat-like’ being so attuned to his surroundings. There were brief murmurs of discontent from the ailurophiles in the group.

Eileen thought that the description of the Marshes leaves readers feeling as if they can smell it themselves.

Angela noted that the ‘little candles’ indicate the release of methane, and a discussion of marsh gas and the ghostly faces followed.

Angela noted that this was likely to be the place where Aragorn caught Gollum because Aragorn describes him at the Council of Elrond as being ‘green and stinking’.

Laura thought the place of the encounter must have been hard for Aragorn because some of the dead faces were those of Men.

Tim checked his edition of Hammond and Scull and found that they gave 2 potential sources for the ‘dead faces’ idea. The first is the well-known horror of the Somme battlefield where dead bodies lay unburied and rotting in flooded shell-holes, the other was an account of Goths who died when a bridge collapsed. I added that a similar image is used in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.

Carol also commented ‘the tricksy lights, candles of corpses – one of the more identifiable things of Tolkien’s biography – no man’s land WW1’

I then asked if we should understand that the ‘candles of corpses’ die out at the approach of the Nazgul, quelled by the coming of the Undead? Angela pointed out that as the Nazgul come it gets very cold. We had just been rationalising the production of marsh gas and noting that its production results from the decomposition of organic material which produces the heat which may account for the spontaneous combustion of the gas. Cold will inhibit that combustion.

After a foray into physics Laura observed that Frodo now feels the terrible weight of the Ring, and Eileen remarked that Gollum can sense what Frodo is going through.

Laura then suggested that the wind that heralds the coming of the Wraith is described as hissing and snarling, and it does not pass over but circles, increasing the terror. Tim remarked that it affects the atmosphere. Laura commented that the description of the atmosphere in terms such as ‘the flying wrack’ is both very poetic and dreadful.

Eileen noted that Gollum takes Frodo to the Gate even though he knows it is impassable. Laura thought he is being disingenuous, but Eileen observed that Frodo and Sam are now in his control.

Chris, however, remarked that in the pit Gollum would not have killed Frodo then, and Laura added that he knew Sam would have killed him.

Tim commented that we all have our internal dialogues but Gollum speaks his thoughts aloud after being alone so long. Eileen thought this was also the reason for all his repetitions, living alone he is in the habit of reinforcing key ideas to himself. Tim thought this reinforcing was like a mantra.

Carol commented: Sam listening to the Gollum/Smeagol debate (split personality / addiction?) fantasises what he’d do if he had the Ring – eat fish every day. Sam does much the same later on – making Mordor into one huge garden. Of course Sam realises it’s only a trick and Gollum never gets the chance. Sam hearing this has consequences later on at Cirith Ungol. Tolkien condemned Sam for this – wrongly I think. Then ‘she might help’. Sam wonders, as do we on first reading, who ‘she’ is. ‘she’ll’ meet her nemesis in Sam. This has been the ring conferring power according to its current possessor – fish/gardens.

Julie observed that much of Gollum’s language is like nursery-language, the kind used for small children. I picked up this point and questioned whether this might signal a kind of regression on Gollum’s part to a time and situation where he had been happier. Laura commented that it may have been the kind of language he had once used to gain forgiveness when he was in trouble with his Grandmother.

Angela and Laura noted his remembered delight in storytelling and the power of oral storytelling for the recollection of ancient history as Gollum recalls the old kings. Tim thought this showed Gollum’s coping strategy – in a long unhappy life he has his ‘happy place’ in this nostalgia.

Carol commented: ‘Gollum still has some normal sensibility. He used to like tales and speaks now almost in regret that he won’t ever sit by the river again and listen to them’.

Eileen and Laura observed that Gollum has physically changed, and Angela remarked that if everything is part of a ‘divine plan’ then Gollum is one of the sacrifices. Laura added that Gollum is as complex as any of the other characters, while Eileen commented that Frodo’s pity, a kind of ‘turning the other cheek’, is because of the empathy he has for Gollum, not entirely because of Gandalf’s teaching.

Laura the remarked on the shock of seeing Sauron referred to as ‘He’, capitalised after the traditional method of referring to God. Laura went on to note that Sauron is characterised not only as the ‘Eye’ but as the 4-fingered Hand.

Tim noted that ‘the Eye’ is metonymy, taking a part to stand for the whole – like referring to ‘the Crown’, meaning the monarchy. There followed a general discussion of the physicality of Sauron, and Laura wondered whether He would take full physical form again if He regained the Ring. Tim remarked that He would need a physical hand in order to wear the Ring.

Laura then noted the bathos of the long description of the horrors before the Morannon followed by Sam’s remark ‘I feel sick.’ Eileen noted that at other times Sam’s wit and humour break up the horror.

Laura drew our attention to the description of the iron gate of the Morannon and wondered about it grinding open. Tim noted than accounts of the wrecking of modern ships refer to the ships ‘screaming’ as the metal is rent and crushed.

Laura then observed that the description of the taking over of Mordor relates to what happens when good men don’t keep watch, and Tim quoted the saying that ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’ Eileen noted that Tolkien seems to have been considering contemporary contexts, and Tim remarked that Tolkien was writing LotR during World War 2.

Chris then asked Eileen how she responded to Frodo’s speech of warning to Gollum that is not about ‘the danger we all share’. Julie noted that Frodo uses the word ‘unwisely’, and Tim remarked that he is now no longer the ‘hobbit in the pub’. Laura added that the change in Frodo is seen in his more formal language.

Tim suggested that Frodo and Sam are in a certain way now part of the ‘king’s army’, therefore Frodo is now in the role of officer and Sam is his batman. Laura noted that Tolkien write of his admiration for the ordinary soldier in one of his letters.

Eileen noted that Frodo’s speech not only affects Gollum – Sam is surprised by it.

Carol questioned: Is Frodo just threatening Gollum with death by fire out of bravado or does he unconsciously sense something in the future?

Chris then questioned why Gollum refers to ‘nice birds’, referring to sea birds. I wondered how he knew about sea birds. Tim observed that it is second-hand knowledge from talking to ‘many peoples’, and Angela remarked that Sam knows about Swertings. Laura thought hobbits were probably armchair travellers.

Chris noted that it is hard for Frodo and Sam to get Gollum to tell them the new route into Mordor and suggested Gollum digresses is if he’s reluctant to speak, but perhaps this is in fact Smeagol resisting Gollum.

Angela remarked that the hobbits sitting near Mordor echoes Merry and Pippin ‘sitting on the edge of ruin’ outside Orthanc.

Chris noted that Gollum’s language now changes to become more lucid and Tim remarked that at the Council of Elrond Gandalf reports Gollum becoming more lucid under interrogation. Tim wondered if this change takes place as Gollum spends more time with other people.

Angela observed that for the first time Gollum learns the name of his captor when Frodo refers to Aragorn’s suspicions about Gollum’s escape.

With that we ran out of time and decided that at our next meeting we would finish off ‘The Black Gate’ and we would also prepare ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’.

Carol’s Comments

Chapter 2 The Passage of the Marshes

‘Topography as history with knobs on – the Battle of Dagorlad and the seige of Barad-dur at the end of the 2nd age when this part of the ring trouble started’

[Apologies to Carol because I should have added this comment into the last report.] Even Gollum has his rhymes and the description is very apt, ‘the cold hard lands’ is very simple – aab ccb. Simple as the riddle rhymes which he repeats again thinking of ‘Baggins’ – aa bb. Does it show Gollum still has some civilised values, some humanity?

Practical Sam thinks about feeding 3 instead of 2. Needn’t worry, Gollum can’t abide elf food. It seems that anything elvish is anathema to Gollum – the rope, lembas, even the trees of Lorien. Is he so corrupted that anything pure is poison to him? A real mixture, eh?

Chapter 3 The Black Gate is Closed (mirrors the black gate opens)

Sam chunnering on about what the gaffer would say if he could see Sam now and the comment about the very ordinary act of having to wash in that extraordinary place and situation. Sam doesn’t do it consciously but it certainly keeps Frodo going sometimes to be reminded of ordinary things.


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