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.


3 thoughts on “Last in January

  1. In contrast with Carol I do tend to go along with Tolkien’s appraisal of “The Lord of the Rings”, i.e. that it is a Christian story (although not at all exclusively a Christian story). I can never read the passages which deal with his use of athelas without thinking of the text from Revelation: “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Aragorn’s role as healer-king is overtly Messianic. Although that is only one aspect of Aragorn. Aragorn is not divine, although he comes from a noble line which includes descent from the Valar, who are demi-gods. (A hint of Charlemagne here perhaps? Charlemagne is said to have been a descendant of Christ and Mary Magdalene, but that’s a matter of opinion!)

    Other than that: Gimli: “When Aragorn comes into his own…”
    Legolas: “If Aragorn comes into his own…”

    Is it that Gimli is whistling in the dark and Legolas is being cautious, or does Gimli see better than the eagle-eyed Elf here?

    But then Legolas names Mirkwood “The Greatwood”, giving the forest back its old name (more or less), as if he agrees with Gimli.

    I note the use of the rare word for a small stream, “ghyll”, in “The Black Gate Opens”.

    When King Elessar’s tiny force approaches the Black Gate they read “the end of the living lands”. I could not help but think of the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. Once “living earth was left behind” True Thomas and the Queen of Elfland then had to ride through red blood to the knee for forty days and forty nights. So that phrase sets up the reader to expect bloody conflict.

    Pippin on the verge of carnage longs for “cool sunlight and green grass”. I thought it odd that the sunlight he longs for should be characterised as “cool”.

  2. About the matter of Christianity, I wonder if Tolkien has constructed a text so that it reads according to the 4 medieval levels of exegesis, giving us lexical clues to the level that is most appropriate at certain moments.
    And with regard to the ‘cool’, maybe we are to understand simply the difference between the warmer sun in the southern lands as distinct from the ‘cooler’ sun in the northern lands of the Shire?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s