Last in January


On the finest mildest afternoon for some time, we began our meeting with news of Carol’s and Rosemary’s forthcoming visit and decided to make it just an informal afternoon with a focus on what we have all been reading in The Lord of the Rings, followed by a cup of tea, or something stronger, and maybe an early meal together. The exact arrangements will be discussed further. We missed Julie, whose gardening was nevertheless in keeping with not only Sam’s profession, but also Legolas’s observation that there were not enough green, growing things in Minas Tirith!

Carol’s comments are included in the main text, and Julie hopes to comment on the blogsite itself.

Ian began our afternoon by reading an extract from an essay in the old Anthology of Beowulf Criticism that has proved so productive for his research interests. The essay set out all the objections that were once levelled at Beowulf. They were point by point exactly the same as those used to denigrate The Lord of the Rings in the early years after its publication.

Moving on to the chapters we have been dealing with in more appreciative detail, Laura noted the evocative description of Eowyn trapped at home. Carol also noted this but added: “both Faramir and Eowyn are struggling with past despair, Gandalf explains perfectly Eowyn’s feelings at being tapped in Meduseld while the men were free to come and go.

Eileen observed that this was insightful at the time on Tolkien’s part, but Angela qualified it by noting that Tolkien put the ‘trapped’ comments in Gandalf’s mouth, and Laura added that it might be a mistake to see those comments as actually Tolkien’s own feelings.

Ian took a more analytic line, commenting on the abundant criticism that Tolkien doesn’t write strong female characters, and saying that in fact Tolkien doesn’t attribute all the female feelings he does write about, and they are many, to a single female character. It’s not all about one character. Furthermore, he is not writing a fairy tale in which leading characters do not finally get harmed. Eowyn gets seriously harmed.

We moved more precisely into The Houses of Healing and Ian noted that there are comedic moments as if Tolkien was drawing on the Shakespearean structure in his contrasting of high-status characters and servants. Carol commented that: “the warden is a verbose fellow, able to give the names of herbs in several languages but too book-learned to be wise”.

Angela noted that it is Ioreth who remembers the ‘healing hands’ story and thus announces the King. Eileen approved of her knowledge of folk lore, and Laura remarked that this is the legend given life. Angela observed that the people think the King is a dream.

Rather more politically, Chris observed that the Houses of Healing are a ‘private ward’ for the elite, and wondered where the ordinary wounded were cared for? Laura proposed that there were MASH tents.

Carol commented: “Although I don’t hold that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian story, as Tolkien later declared, the scene of Aragorn the healer standing by the lantern reminds me of Holman Hunt’s’The Light of the World’ and later when people beg him to heal friends and kin reminds me of people clamouring round Jesus asking the same. I thought it was remarkable that Tolkien makes a seamless blend of the biblical imagery with the ancient myth of the King as healer not only of people but of his lands.

Eileen added that this is a holistic approach.

Carol commented: “Aragorn put others before himself, not only his friends, but whoever needs his help”, and asked: “If Gandalf is a Maia why can’t he heal like a Man and two elves”? She also noted “a bit of humour over Merry’s pipe-weed. ‘If you think I have passed through mountains and the realm of Gondor with fire and sword…’ – Aragorn is teasing a bit. Nice!

We moved on to ‘The Last Debate’ and Ian noted that there is no indication that Merry, Eowyn and Faramir will be sent out to fight again. I mentioned that Aragorn comforts Merry, but adds that he and the others left behind may make up the last stand of Minas Tirith, if the Captains of the West fail against Mordor.

Chris noted the gloomy assessment by Gimli that everything fails in the end, and Legolas’s prophetic assessment of the ‘seeds’ of Men.

Eileen commented that their initial conversation balances Gimli’s practicality against Legolas waxing lyrical as they begin to blend. Carol noted this blending when she commented on Gimli’s remark: “if all the fair folk take to the havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay”, adding “here! here!”

Chris, however, thought that their conversation brings out the plight of Gondor.

Laura noted Legolas’s reaction to the gulls and wondered how many Tolkien would have heard as Oxford, like Leeds, is so far inland. Ian thought it derived from Tolkien’s recollection of seaside holidays. Eileen commented on their haunting sound.

I had become increasingly aware of the way Tolkien structures this part of the text, which is close to the rhetorical technique known as hysteron proteron – a strange device in which an episode is narrated, then described in full. Tolkien’s version is quite subtle as it sets out the linear narration of the Paths of the Dead, the passage of southern Gondor, and the taking of the ships, but then revisits all these in Gimli and Legolas more emotionally charged account of exactly the same journey.

Eileen noted that this develops our sympathy for the characters involved, including Gimli, and Laura added, in response to Gimli’s shame, that dwarves underground are not the same as a dwarf experiencing the Paths of the Dead.

Carol noted that the story of the defeat of the corsair ships with the help of the oathbreakers is well told, but Eileen went on to remark that she found the scale of the battles hard going and I explained that in medieval romances the extravagant scale of opposition was taken as a measure the heroism of those who withstood it. Ian referred again to his Beowulf Criticism book noting an essay there that compares the method of the Beowulf poet – who focuses on certain elements – with that of the poet of the Chanson de Roland, who describes his hero’s exploits in terms of their scale. Ian went on to compare the example of Aragorn who leads a small band of living warriors, but commands a vast army of the Dead – which makes him even more heroic!

With that complex set of comparisons, we ran out of time and agreed to continue finishing Book 5.

First in January (2017)


We were almost all together for our first meeting of 2017. Even Julie happily managed to avoid wintry weather and the the endlessly strike-bound trains to join our discussion. This revisited ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ before starting ‘The Houses of Healing’. Carol’s comments are included in the report.

Ian picked up where we left off before Christmas with his observation that Gandalf enacts a virtual coup when he decides to whom the governance of Minas Tirith should temporarily devolve. He oversees the defining events on the battlefield and updates his allies on major developments they have not witnessed.

Eileen remarked that Denethor blames Gandalf for the loss of Faramir – effectively blaming everyone but himself.

Angela noted that Denethor resents Faramir not bringing the Ring to him.

Chris observed that Tolkien himself favoured one son over the others and wondered if this was underlying the motif of the favouring of sons, and foster sons in the form of Aragorn/Throrongil. Angela added that perhaps Faramir reminds Denethor too much of the young Aragorn.

Chris then noted that Boromir is not a strategist, but Angela added that he is caring towards those who are weaker, specifically the younger hobbits.

Chris went on to comment that both Faramir and Frodo had intellectual upbringings under the influence of father-figures, but not their fathers.

Ian observed that the chapter includes various ‘returning king’ motifs, including the approach of the Lord of the Nazgul, who still wears his crown on his disembodied head. Although Gandalf prevents his entry in to Minas Tirith, Denethor sees a king at the gates – not the actual king – but still a king. Then Denethor looks in the palantir.

Eileen noted a different aspect to Denethor’s behaviour and personality when she remarked that he sits by Faramir but cannot tell him he loves him.

Laura, on the other hand, commented that Denethor acts like one of the kings of old who could decide when to die.

Ian remarked that Denethor has a problem with letting go. When Faramir doesn’t bring back the Ring, all he has is the Stewardship, but then he abdicates responsibility. However, Ian expressed sympathy for Prince Imrahil and observed that Tolkien only looks at personal dimensions and the events that affect them, not at the politics. Nor is there any judgement of actions.

Laura remarked that it could be argued that Denethor was a poor steward for a long time in not being active. Ian observed that there were not a lot of people left in Minas Tirith at the time, and no apparent insurrection against poor rule.

Angela commented that as a young man Denethor had been a great man until overcome by pride and despair.

We moved on at last to ‘The Houses of Healing’ and Carol commented: “I like this bit with Merry at the start of this chapter, one of the bits that’s always left out of adaptations, like Pippin and Beregond. They’re little personalising bit in the great events of the time.”

Chris observed that the first lines of this chapter follows on directly from the last of ‘The Pyre’, and Julie wondered about the inverted syntax of the first sentence. I suggested that as in some of Gandalf’s speeches Tolkien arranges the syntax so that the most important or significant aspect of a sentence, observation or statement, comes first. I felt that this creates a powerful transition linking the chapters and creating a poignant metaphor. The last sentences of ‘The Pyre’ read:

     With that he [Gandalf] turned away and went with Pippin down towards the lower city. And even as they hastened on their way the wind brought a grey rain, and all the fires sank, and there arose a great smoke before them.

‘The Houses’ begins:

A mist was in Merry’s eyes of tears and weariness when they drew near the ruined Gate of Minas Tirith.

Julie wondered why ‘A mist’ was syntactically misplaced, but in this position it links to the ‘grey rain’. This is immediately qualified when we are told that it is in Merry’s eyes, but he is not experiencing the rain that Pip and Gandalf feel, this mist is from tears and weariness. This sets up a metaphor – as the mist in Merry’s eyes is tears, so the grey rain for which we may initially have mistaken it, becomes infused with the image of tears, and the grief that prompts them.

Chris extended this notion of resonant language when he proposed that Merry’s feeling of stumbling along a tunnel to a tomb is an echo of Frodo and Sam’s experience in Shelob’s lair. Laura commented that the tunnel image is often reported in near-death experiences, and Ian suggested that at the approach of death, life shuts down sight as perception draws in.

Laura picked up a similar echo in Merry’s question to Pippin ‘Are you going to bury me?’ because Merry crippled the Witch King with the knife he had taken from the Barrow. Laura also observed that Theoden and Eowyn are brought into the city in pomp, but Merry is alone and overlooked.

Angela noted that he has just been ‘well’ overlooked, and Eileen commented that Merry tells Pippin it’s not bad thing to be overlooked. Julie remarked that he had been told to stay behind so no one was looking for him.

I wondered if he was overlooked in both situations because he was still wearing his elven cloak.

Carol comment: “Enter Ioreth and her adages. ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer and so the rightful king could ever be known.’ ‘men may long remember your words, Ioreth.’ She might be an object of some humour but she has more sense than the book-learned. Wasn’t Boromir warned not to despise old-wives’ tales?  Goes for us all”.

Chris remarked that Gandalf has a ‘blind spot’ about the lore of the ‘hands of a healer’.

Angela commented on Aragorn’s appearance as a beggar, and thought that Gandalf too had been described as a beggar.

Laura noted that Imrahil is shocked by Pippin’s greeting to Aragorn. Carol commented that Imrahil is on his dignity, and here Aragorn shows his diplomatic mettle and doesn’t chastise Imrahil but says that his house will be named Strider, in the high tongue Telcontar. Because Aragorn’s been around a lot and not stuck in one place, he’s become more flexible.

Julie observed that when Aragorn brings athelas to Faramir its fragrance is different to that perceived by Eowyn, and different again to that perceived by Merry, each presumably the most characteristic of their native natural environment. Carol also commented that the scent of kingsfoil is different to different people, what they most like the scent of, adding “the smell of athelas in Eowyn’s room is that of Rohan and in Merry’s is that of the Shire”.

We finished our meeting having agreed to return to ‘The Houses’ next time, and to read up to the end of Book 5 in case we have time.