First meeting in July


We were a very small group meeting this Saturday as holidays and other engagements took their toll on our numbers. However, we few, we happy few … still only got through 1 chapter before running out of time. A little of our time was spent considering the matter of the BBC History Weekend to be held in Winchester in at the start of October because some of us are interested in the relationship between Tolkien’s work and the history of the ‘long’ Middle Ages.  However, that was not a matter that delayed us long.

Our appointed reading for the afternoon had been ‘Shelob’s Lair’ and ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’. As it happens we hardly got out of the Lair! Carol had sent her comments for both so I will reserve those relating to the ‘Choices’ chapter until next time.

Laura began our discussions by drawing parallels between Tolkien’s experiences in the foul-smelling and claustrophobic trenches of the Somme and his description of the tunnel leading into Shelob’s Lair. I mentioned having heard about tunnels under the battlefield, and Laura introduced us to the terminology of trench architecture.

Tim noted the description of the different kinds of darkness in Moria and in the tunnel. Eileen thought this darkness and stench was like a description of Hell. I remarked that the darkness even seems to create a barrier between Frodo and Sam for a while. Tim noted that like Moria, there is a fork in the path in the tunnel, but unlike Moria, Gandalf is not with them to work out the right way.

Tim also observed that the hanging things in the tunnel are reminiscent of things hanging down in ghost-train rides.

Carol commented: “other potencies there are…” ‘Sam’s right to think of Tom Bombadil but his thought of him and mine are quite different. Tom and Shelob are 2 of those characters who are not troubled by rings. Tom is at the start of their journey and largely benign, on the edge of a benign settlement – the Shire. Shelob is almost at the end of their journey, vicious, on the edge of a vicious settlement – Mordor. Their respective abodes are reflected in their natures. Tolkien wouldn’t pair them off consciously but at a pinch I could, characters not affected by rings yet total opposites.’

I remarked that the recollection of Tom begins a chain of thought leading to the recollection of the light. Tim noted that Sam thinks of Galadriel but questioned whether this is Sam on his own, or is this Galadriel ‘beaming in’ her influence?

Eileen wondered why Sam is not influenced by the Ring, and I suggested that it is his loyalty to Frodo that ‘protects’ him, but I also offered the theory long held by my daughter, that it is Sam’s close association with the earth, as a gardener. All those beings who have a similar close association show a similar resistance to the Ring – Tom – living in close contact with the Old Forest, and even Galadriel, who has her own orchard.

Laura questioned this possibility on the grounds that gold itself comes from the earth as ore, but I commented that it has been ‘alloyed’ with Sauron’s evil, because we are told that the ring ‘contains’ a good deal of his power. Tim then observed that as the gold for the Ring came from the earth so it must be returned to the earth in the Cracks of Doom in order to purge it back to its basic elements.

Eileen then directed our attention to a new reference to more watching eyes, and we all discussed the matter of the dominance of surveillance as a theme in LotR. Tim noted that this time they are disembodied eyes, which raises its own questions – in this world of Middle-earth we don’t always know what kind of creatures eyes belong to.

Tim went on to observe that darkness is said to recede from the light of the Star-glass, as if the darkness flees from the light.

Laura then observed Tolkien’s reliance on the pure power of words again with the ‘Aiya Earendil …’ invocation.

Carol commented on the Shelob story – ‘tracing back history to the poisoning of Telperion and Laurelin by Ungoliant – Shelob’s mam – Cirith UNGOL etc.’ and noted that ‘even spiders have their back-story’. We also discussed the nature of Ungoliant and Shelob, and for Eileen’s benefit recalled the various versions of reasons why Tolkien uses spider-creatures.

I remarked on the tension Tolkien creates in his handling of the hobbits’ escape from the tunnel when he ends a paragraph with the observation that Shelob had many exits. Laura commented that Tolkien is playing with the reader like a cat with its prey, even as he uses the ‘cat’ reference as a description of the relationship between Sauron and Shelob.

Laura also noted that one does not usually think of orcs as ‘unhappy’, although they are referred to as such. We considered that it probably described their unfortunate condition but Tim remarked that they are indeed ‘unhappy’, because they grumble about what they have to do – like digging more tunnels. Laura observed that she found this rather touching because they are not robots.

Eileen objected that she was under the impression that they were evil. Tim replied that they are always obeying orders.

Laura turned our attention back to Shelob when she remarked on the motif of eating and noted that Shelob is the personification of gluttony, intent on eating everything. Tim commented that Ungoliant follows this concept to its ultimate mythic conclusion by finally devouring herself. Laura noted that Gollum described Sauron as intent on ‘eating all the world’, but Tim added that while Shelob’s primary characteristic is gluttony, Sauron’s is domination.

With that we ran out of time and hastily agreed that next time we would discuss ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’ and we would read the first chapter of The Return of the King – ‘Minas Tirith’ – in case we run out to things to say about Sam and his choices!

Carol’s Comments from ‘The Stairs’ onwards. We also recapped this chapter briefly.:

Frodo now displays what Tom Shippey calls the Northern Theory of Courage, still despairing Frodo presses on while he can even though he believes all will end in darkness.

‘but our path is already laid.’ ‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam…

‘…the hero or the villain.’  This passage is about my favourite in the whole of LotR, close run is Sam piping up ‘Gil-galad was an elven king’ – Sam talking himself into the realisation that he’s in the same story as neren and Earendil. ‘Why, to think of it, we’re in the same story still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales ever end?’ Talk about sitting on the edge of ruin (Merry and Pippin at Isengard) and prattling on – Sam here – and wondering what kind of tale they’ve fallen into. It’s almost childlike but it’s very profound for a gardener like Sam, and for anyone; a lesson in valuing history? So ordinary in an extraordinary situation and place.

Gollum at this point might still have been redeemed or so Tolkien thought and berates Sam for his sharpness thus ending any hope of redemption in Gollum. but I suppose Tolkien had forgotten that he’d written Sam witnessing the Gollum/Smeagol debate back at the Black Gate, so when Sam awakes suddenly and sees Gollum ‘pawing his master’, his instant reaction is coloured by the previous incident in which Gollum had got the upper hand and was going to try for the ring. ‘The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.’ But it’s my belief that Gollum had to stay alienated to bring about the eventual destruction of the ring in Orodruin. Without Gollum’s greed the ring would never have got into the fire.

Followed by the ‘sneaking’ conversation, humorous, also ironic when Gollum finally answers ‘sneaking’ because he has been sneaking.