Last meeting in February


Today was one of our lesser moots – we did not plan research presentations this time – but some discussion of latest research projects did emerge into our more general conversations. It is exciting to see how many are in development.

Of course the reason for our moot was the visit of the Southfarthing’s distant members and it was delightful to have Carol and Rosemary with us in person to add their comments and ideas to the usual debate and discussion. Their visit provided the ideal opportunity to adjourn after the meeting to local venues for refreshment and food, when we remembered absent friends and toasted ‘The Professor’.

The afternoon meeting itself covered a good deal of ground even though we were only discussing ‘The Black Gate Opens’ in order to finally finish Book 5.

Eileen initiated our discussions when she remarked that she felt the theme of understanding had become prominent, perhaps from a Christian perspective, but not necessarily, because it could relate as well to psychology.

Carol directed our attention to Cair Andros, observing that Aragorn’s treatment of his men was not as draconian as the British officers in World War 1.

Rosemary commented that Tolkien was an extraordinary stylist, and pointed out that in ‘The Houses of Healing’ Tolkien uses words alliterating on ‘l’ as well as assonance and inverted word order. I remarked that these stylistic features, along with the sense of characteristic rhythm showed how deeply Tolkien was immersed Old English, and Laura observed that it therefore repays reading aloud.

Carol went on to note that Tolkien mirrors chapter titles throughout The Lord of the Rings, so that ‘The Black Gate Opens’ mirrors ‘The Black Gate is Closed’. She went on to observe that the Mouth of Sauron is kept talking for some time, and Eileen thought this was a definite strategy.

Laura remarked that it is a terrible blow when Frodo’s garments are produced, and Ian drew attention to the uncertain temporal sequence – we don’t know how long Mordor has had the garments. Laura commented on Tolkien’s technique of ‘galloping ahead’ with the story and then hauling it back.

Carol observed that the story moves at different paces: from Frodo’s plodding to the battle action.

Laura noted the motif of characters and space being divided by doors, including Frodo and Sam being separated and now an evil door opening.

Chris and Angela brought us back west of Anduin when they noted that even Merry may come to a last stand.

Laura questioned the idea on that side of the River that deeds would be remembered in song, and Angela remarked that there would be no songs after Sauron’s victory.

I asked if the fear the Nazgul are said to provoke as they overfly the western army could be regarded as a metaphor for the fear of impending battle that might be experienced by any soldier. Rosemary thought they represent the fear of death.

Laura proposed that they are an inversion of the idea of the Valkyrie as the Nazgul will carry warriors off to horror and torment, as the Witch King has already told Eowyn, not to feasting and drinking. Carol noted that the Mouth of Sauron says the same about Frodo.

Chris observed that when the Rohirrim go into battle they sing, and they rally after the death of Theoden, knowing the Witch King has been killed so Mordor is not invincible, and Eileen commented that in front of the Black Gate the Nazgul are nevertheless a reminder of vulnerability.

Chris returned us to Cair Andros when he remarked that the men are confronted with reason for their fears, because Mordor had been represented to them since childhood as the worst possible place. Angela noted that Denethor’s wife had suffered from being in proximity to Mordor, even across the river.

Eileen remarked on the way the Captains of the West planned their strategy and demonstrated the ability to work together, and she found it interesting even to a non-military mind to see this planning. Rosemary commented on the precise calculation of the size of the army, which was small, and Tolkien would have known the significance of this. Laura compared this to the probable great disagreement among senior officers during World War 1.

Carol observed that peoples who had been separated so long now see the sense of working together. She went on to note that Pippin at the end of the chapter recalls Bilbo and that he is part of the same story, but Sam has already recognised being in the same story as Beren and Luthien.

Rosemary noted that Pippin is the youngest hobbit and Angela commented that Pip doesn’t always concentrate, but Carol pointed out that he’s the one who leaves the brooch in Rohan, and faces and remains loyal, to Denethor. Angela objected that he didn’t realise the truth about Aragorn. Eileen observed that Pippin broke the news that Denethor was mad, and Carol noted his bond with Boromir.

Rosemary and Angela both remarked on the fact that Bergil looks after Merry.

Eileen commented that she would like to know more about Ioreth.

Chris observed that when the army reach Minas Morgul it serves as a reminder of Frodo and Sam, and that Imrahil makes an error of perception, but Angela suggested that he didn’t know about Frodo and Sam going that way. Ian commented that the stair must be secret or orcs would go through the vale, but there must be a link through the vale to Cirith Ungol.

Laura noted the horror of the walkers in darkness during the army’s night camp, and Chris suggested that the presence of smoking fumeroles would look like things moving. With a rush of blood to the head (!) I wondered if the vulcanism and the shape of Mordor as a whole meant that we are looking at a super-volcano when we look at the entire Black Land.

Ian brought us back to good sense when he introduced us to the latest research he is working on.

With that we adjourned to find suitable refreshment agreeing to read the first 2 chapters of Book 6 for our next meeting.

First in February


A bitterly cold afternoon was enlivened today by some intense observations and discussions, and I can’t claim to have kept up with the vigorous exchange of opinion in all cases, but I hope the report that follows will give a good indication of how opinions differed, flowed, and enlightened. Carol’s comments are included in the main report, as far as we went. Our intended matter for discussion had been ‘The Last Debate’ and ‘The Black Gate Opens’ – we still have not finished this last chapter, but as we shall hopefully have Carol and Rosemary with us at our next meeting we will all be together to finish Book 5.

Ian began proceedings today with observations concerning Gimli’s remarks on the state of the masonry in Minas Tirith – he added a good deal of detail but has asked for this to be omitted from this report because it is intended to form the basis of a research paper.

However, Laura picked up Gimli’s remarks and commented that the deterioration of the stonework of Minas Tirith is symbolic of the deterioration of Gondor as a whole.

Chris then questioned whether Tolkien was thinking of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings when he wrote of ‘other evils there are that may come’ even if Sauron is destroyed?

Ian thought that in Gandalf’s speech Sauron has a personality that has previously been absent when he has been referred to as the Dark Lord. Here Gandalf refers to him as Sauron. Ian also proposed that when Gandalf refers to Sauron’s ‘plight’, the rhetoric of the speech encourages us to feel sympathy for this enemy.

Angela supported this idea when she observed that when Aragorn confronts Sauron in the palantir he remarks that the Dark Lord is not so mighty as to be free of fear, so Aragorn himself reveals Sauron’s weakness.

I wondered if Gandalf’s remarks reveal one Maia considering the ‘plight’ of another Maia, who is not – to Gandalf – simply a disembodied or remote evil force.

Chris noted the repetition of the thematic motif of Pity and Redemption underlying Gandalf’s rhetoric.

Ian went on to assess the relative strategies of Mordor and the Captains of the West when he remarked that Sauron is expecting a show of force that will inevitably reveal who has taken possession of the Ring. Ian continued that the Captains don’t have the strength to challenge him but Sauron doesn’t know that.

Carol commented “This last debate is one of desperate counsel and such heroism as deserves more than a song. I’m sure they all think they’re going to certain death whichever way it turns out. In such a war what would you do?”

As we moved towards ‘The Black Gate’, Laura echoed a comment by Angela at our last meeting when she noted that east of Anduin, Aragorn considers the plight of the traumatised soldiers, comparing Sauron’s attitude to his forces, which are treated as ‘cannon-fodder’. This is another example of Aragorn’s ‘humanity’ such as that noted by Angela last time when she drew attention to Aragorn sending the Dunedain individually to each ship they had taken to comfort the captives.

Carol also commented of the journey through Ithilien “with the Nazgul’s constant attendance as a force of doom and gloom, I can just relate to a smidgeon once having been in the presence of malice against me for a short time. It’s awful. Here we have men trudging to certain death, ‘a hopeless journey’, through the end of the living lands and mutilated lands, and the Nazgul to boot. No wonder some of the men quailed – ‘some of the host were unmanned…’ what follows for me is the defining of Aragorn – ‘there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath’. So instead of having them executed for cowardice, as many suffering fron shell shock were in WW1, he gives them a job they can do, to guard Cair Andros, ‘ a manful deed’, within their capabilities.

Others ‘overcame their fear and went on’ to fight for this Man who showed such tolerance and mercy. When tolkien describes the ordinary men in the army of the West, he’s describing the lads on the western front. Brilliant moment for Aragorn.

I think some actions slightly tip the balance in favour of the west with the Valar who won’t interfere heavily, kindness, mercy, and this act of Aragorn’s will certainly go towards the west’s merit.”

Ian added another dimension when he commented that in the narrative there is no view of Sauron agonising over decisions.

Chris then observed that the Mouth of Sauron presents an echo of Saruman as the power of his speech creates doubt in the minds of onlookers, but the spells are broken in both cases.

Laura reminded us of the designation of Satan as ‘Father of Lies’ and I suggested that Sauron might be regarded as a master of duplicitous communication, and included in this his effect on Denethor. Ian objected that Gandalf asserts that the seeing stones do not lie and Sauron can’t make them do so, although he can show what suits his purpose.

I went back to the end of the Debate chapter to question the paragraph in which Aragorn unsheathes Anduril and says it will not be resheathed until ‘the last battle has been fought’, and I asked if this was just a storytelling flourish, and subversive of the high tone of most of the chapter? Ian thought its comedic bathos deflates any appearance of pompousness. Chris pointed out that Aragorn addresses the sword itself. Angela observed that this echoes Turin’s relationship with the Black Sword that has its own voice. Laura remarked that that it has the effect of being a great oath taken ON the sword.

Ian added that it seems like a rhetorical counterpoint to Imrahil’s sudden laugh at the folly of the Captains’ enterprise, but is also a ‘Jerusalem’ moment – “nor shall my sword sleep in my hand!”

Chris thought Imrahil’s wry comment about a child with a bow of green willow confronting an armed knight had the feel of David and Goliath about its inequality, a suitable image of the inequality between the forces of Gondor and the hosts of Mordor.

Chris also noted that the Black Gate chapter continues the motif of the young hobbits being separated.

Laura thought the title worthy of consideration because as a whole it is chilling although ‘gate’ is such an ordinary word, even though it derives from Old Norse.

Chris noted that when the Mouth of Sauron emerges it is only a door in the Gate that opens. We decided that it must be a large door even so, to allow a mounted man through with a retinue.

Chris also proposed that maybe the Mouth of Sauron would have been the character around whom Tolkien might have planned a sequel because he is already ‘more cruel than an orc’, and that when Sauron’s ‘essence’ dissipated – in the way Saruman’s dispersed – it might have entered into the Mouth of Sauron in a version of metempsychosis.

Laura added that it would still be the Age of Men because the Mouth of Sauron is a Numenorean.

We did not appoint any reading for our next meeting because Rosemary and Carol will be with us and we will have plenty of material to discuss from the end of Book 5.

This means that we will officially begin Book 6 in March.