Last meeting in November


Those of us who managed to meet today, only 5 of us, did so with a major issue on our minds as the problems associated with our use of the seminar room in the Central Library have resurfaced 4 months before we might have expected. We are faced with relinquishing one of our meetings per month from April, or seeing the Poetry Reading Group lose its opportunity to meet. Reactions among the Tolkien group ranged from incandescent rage to grim predictions of worse to come as the cuts bite deeper. In spite of the general sense of injustice, we agreed on making complaints about the inconsiderate way we and the Poetry group have been treated although we are long-standing participants in the life of the Library. I will post updates on this situation as it develops, but we were agreed in our discussion yesterday to try to help Poetry continue, even though we may have to restructure our meetings.

Eventually we got round to our ‘proper’ discussion, although it was hard to change gear from such pre-occupying matters.

Laura reminded us that we still had things to discuss relating to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which is why Carol’s comments do not appear, having been included last time. Julie hopes to add her comments here soon.

So I started things off by observing that the chapter seems to be one of those in which Tolkien clusters references from many other texts, particularly here, references from King Lear, Macbeth and The Battle of Maldon.

Ian responded by likening the chapter to a large palette where he paints with a light touch, not with the intensity found in other chapters where external references are used for rhetorical effect, and that the chapter becomes a ‘battlefield of myth’, using stories created from the language of England.

Among the references we noticed in the chapter Laura likened Eomer’s encouragement to the Rohirrim after Theoden’s death to the famous speech by the old retainer in The Battle of Maldon ‘hige sceal the headra, heort the cenre / mod sceal the mare, thu ure maegan litlath’.

Ian noted that the chapter includes characters we are concerned about and that our interest in Merry and Pippin increases our sympathy for Gondor. Nothing in the east engages our sympathy, and even Frodo and Sam are removed by their mythic quest.

Laura reminded us the there is an ominous classical echo in the image of black sails, and Ian commented that they are added to the palette of references.

I proposed that Eomer’s elegiac command counsel to his men ‘Mourn not overmuch. Mighty was the fallen …’ does not read like the encouragement of a war leader in the heat of battle and in great grief, but reads more like the construction of suitable words by a later minstrel, in an echo of the supposed origin of the Maldon poem, made in commemoration of the heroes of the battle but were not an exact representation of words spoken.

Laura and Angela recollected the two individuals to whom ‘Gothmog’ refers, and on a different tack Laura noted ultimate source of the significance of the white horse among the Anglo-Saxons.

I remarked that in this chapter the change to a more biblical register emerges at times, although it will increase later. Laura noted in a similar vein that there are echoes of the biblical story of Jericho in the cacophony of trumpets around the walls of Minas Tirith. And that Aragorn’s statement to Eomer ‘Thus we meet again …. Did I not say so…’ is reminiscent, she thought, of the reminder from Jesus to his disciples after the Resurrection of His words before the Crucifixion.

Laura went on to observe that Aragorn’s arrival is wonderful with its gorgeous heraldry.

After an afternoon that was rather blighted by non-textual discussion we found time running out and so we will have to return to ‘The Pyre’ and ‘The Houses of Healing’ next time.

First meeting in November


Our meeting today was rather depleted as weather and other matters intervened, but after what seemed to me like a very long time away, 5 of us gathered again and discussed ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’. We were scheduled to read 2 chapters, but our discussions were so detailed that we barely managed to get through one.

Chris opened proceedings with the observation that at school we were taught never to begin a sentence, let alone a chapter with ‘But’. As Angela noted, this oppositional beginning refers back to the end of the ‘Siege’ chapter, and we found it effective in its impact.

Eileen thought the start of the chapter throws the reader, making them question things, and that Tolkien asserts what he wants to write, not what the reader may expect.

Angela remarked that it was necessary structuring.

Laura remarked on the shift from the ‘river of green and gold’ that is the arrival of the Rohirrim to the black horror of the Lord of the Nazgul, and pointed out that in the first paragraph there is an echo of Gandalf’s comment in the snows of Caradhras ‘his arm has grown long’. Now it stands in opposition to the ‘defeat’ of the Witch King as a reminder of Sauron’s pervasive influence.

Chris thought the paragraph confusing as ‘fortune’ refers back to ‘his Master’, but the paragraph ends by restating the identity of the Lord of the Nazgul. Laura noted the power of triple naming as a rhetorical device in his triple naming ‘King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgul’.

We then debated  the history of the Witch King and Angela observed that the Nazgul appear in the Second Age, then the Witch King moves into Angmar in the Third Age.

Laura led us out of Angmar and back to the Pelennor Fields when she commented on the old warrior confronting the black serpent on scarlet, and Tolkien’s love of heraldry. Here the black and scarlet, along with the scimitars connote foreignness. Laura observed that this echoes the story of the Anglo-Saxon capture of a Viking raven standard, which horrified the attacking Vikings. The importance of the loss of a leader and a flag was noted, and Laura went on to remark that this episode feels very ‘Old Testament’, with God opposing optimistic heroism.

Eileen remarked on Theoden’s recovery from Wormtongue’s negativity and thoughts characteristic of being a victim, and that Theoden was not just ‘throne-ridden’ but psychologically damaged. Laura suggested that getting back on Snowmane would have helped him recover because Snowmane was his warhorse, and when reunited with him Theoden goes back to being the great war-leader he was previously. Eileen remarked that this suggests a change in the brain and Angela commented that it may have released endorphins.

Chris noted that his recovery was the result of Gandalf breaking Saruman’s spell. Laura added that Wormtongue was his agent, and Chris remarked that Wormtongue was given the chance to repent but did not.

Moving on the to climactic action, Laura noted that Tolkien creates a very 3-dimensional description with his detail of the smell of the Ringwraith’s beast. Angela noted the similar detail in the description of the stench of Shelob.

Laura remarked that Eowyn is brave just to talk to the Ringwraith and compared his cruel response to the torment of Hurin confined to a mountainous seat by Melkor from which he can only see the results of his errors.

Carol commented, “Sometimes Tolkien really tells it like it is: ‘he will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the lidless eye.’ It’s awful!

Angela observed that Sauron’s punishments are permanent mental torture.

Carol commented: “ ‘not by the hand of man…’ Dernhelm really earns ‘his’ spurs and Merry overcomes great terror to help.

Carol picked out ‘no living man shall hinder me’!! and Chris commented that as Eowyn doesn’t know about the prophecy regarding the Ringwraith she is even braver in confronting him.

I wondered about the emphasis on despair in this chapter and questioned whether Tolkien is considering various responses to it. Is Eowyn’s victory that of the greater despair of lost love over the despair that characterises the undead form of the Ringwraith who only serves his master’s ambition? Or is Eowyn the figure of despair given active aspect and opposed to the stasis of the Rignwraith incapable of growth and change, or suicide.

Laura pointed out the etymology of ‘despair’ < spero (Latin, I hope), so despair = to be without hope.

Angela noted that when Aragorn visits his mother it seems that she is dying of despair.

Chris proposed that Eowyn would have gone into battle even without Aragorn’s rejection, and Laura remarked that she’s protecting her King. Chris added that the description of Eowyn’s eyes as ‘fair and fell’, echoed the description of Galadriel during her brief temptation as ‘beautiful and terrible’. Chris noted that the Ringwraith is overtaken with hatred for Eowyn and doesn’t do what he threatens.

Laura commented on the difference between Theoden’s quiet acceptance that he will join his ‘longfathers’ and Denethor’s final despair.

Carol commented: “’so passed the sword of the barrow-downs…’ That sword has been forged for such a purpose as killing the Witch King. And it came to Merry out of the past so that he could help in that killing. Lovely bit. The actual killing of the Witch King is some of Tolkien’s best writing; every time I’m here, urging Merry and Eowyn on and heaving a sigh of relief when it’s all over.

Chris noted the potential ‘spoiler’ as the Ringwraith ‘was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world’; and another clearer indication of that the future is assured in the description ‘Green and long grew the grass on Snowmane’s Howe.’

After an afternoon of quite detailed discussion we still had not begun ‘The Pyre of Denethor’, so that is held over for our next meeting, and we will read ‘The Houses of Healing’ for that as well.


Carol’s comments:

Chapter 6 ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’

This cluster of chapters is my favourite because of the heroism, despair, joy, fighting against the odds against evil and coming through by the skin of their teeth, only to have to face another and final battle where there is even less hope, but still they fight on.

The baddies can use dirty tricks when sheer skill and bravery are defeating them. Without a sky-borne Nazgul, Theoden would probably have survived. Poor Snowmane.

Within 2 pages absolute defeat and despair turns to absolute joy. I think for the first time I’m really beginning to see Tolkien’s masterful prose – funny being as I’ve been reading it for over 40 years. But the twists and turns of the battle leave me gobsmacked. Another eucatastrophe. I’m rereading this for a purpose, to really appreciate with writing and diversity of writing.

‘hope’s end’, ‘heart’s breaking’, ‘ruin’ – Eomer and the Rohirrim though utterly overwhelmed, will fight to the last man.

‘thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us…did I not say so at the Hornburg?’ Like I said back then, it’s one of my favourite moment when Eomer and Aragorn meet again. So Aragorn made it over the Paths of the Dead. This is far better than bringing the Oathbreakers to Minas Tirith.

‘so long afterward a maker in Rohan said in his song of the mounds of Mundberg…’ another hint of survival. The music Stephen Oliver put to the poem in the radio serial makes it one of the most poignant in the whole book.