Last meeting in March: Reading Day

Reading Day 2017

This year’s Reading Day theme was Poetry, and so we took this as the theme for our meeting. As Carol sent comments for the reading she expected I have held these over for our next meeting. Only 5 of us were able to enjoy the afternoon, but the topic generated plenty of discussion, assisted by Chris’s printout of the conclusion of a 1980s dissertation on Tolkien’s poetry, which gave us food for thought.

Eileen began our discussions with her observation of the communication functions of poetry and song, including that of Tom Bombadil. Laura added that his style provides comic relief.

Eileen commented that poems also show each character’s personality and ability to cope in difficult circumstances.

Angela responded to the 1980s dissertation’s observation of the inclusion of the seasons as a topic in poetry when she noted that it was a theme in Aragorn’s version of the Beren and Luthien poem.

Laura responded to Eileen’s comments on poetry and characterisation when she remarked that Sam’s poetry shows him to be sometimes more than expected, and sometimes – as with ‘Oliphaunt’ it confirms our expectations, but in all cases the differences sit well with his character development, and this includes his ability to learn Elvish.

Chris picked up another aspect from the dissertation when he asked if poetry in The Lord of the Rings really defines its ‘epic style’. I thought epic style required more than the simple inclusion of poetry and that this inclusion has been regarded as having more in common with the Icelandic sagas or William Morris’s prosimetric style.

Laura remarked that Tolkien wrote the lays first perhaps because of his academic work on the sagas, and proposed that he was an instinctive poet.

Eileen noted that even the book’s prose is poetic, and Laura commented that as the book progresses the style becomes increasingly poetic. I followed Eileen’s observation by asking if poetry deflects the fear invoked by the prose; but Laura countered this by asking if this can be true of ‘Where is the horse and the rider’ which evokes the decline of a society.

Chris returned to the matter of epic style by questioning whether it is the process of ‘putting into verse’ that makes material both ‘epic’ and ‘historic’?

Eileen thought the poetry had the effect of making a tale sound true.

I wondered about the elegies and Gimli’s refusal to take the east wind. Laura remarked that it may be that Gimli can’t sing, but it was noted that he chants Durin’s Song to Sam in Moria, and Chris and Angela observed that Gimli was not good friends with Boromir.

I picked up a reference from the dissertation which suggested that poetry in The Lord of the Rings defines the ‘end of an age’.

At this point we heard Eileen’s reading of Julie’s poem, the first she has written for some years. We all found it as delightful and perceptive as those we remembered.

Picking up the topic of ‘the end of an age’ Laura presented us with copies of extracts from Tolkien’s early ‘Kortirion’ poem, and a download of my paper on the origins of this poem and its relevance to Tolkien’s biography.

Laura noted that as usual Tolkien often rewrote this poem, and as a poet he says he loves the end of summer. But he takes a gardener’s view of autumn not as a time of death but of rest. Laura also noted that the whole poem is very elvish in its references to trees and starlight.

Chris remarked that in ‘Kortirion’ Tolkien is very aware of nature and the change of seasons.

Laura and Angela both noted the importance of trees throughout Tolkien’s life and work, and Chris commented that Tolkien projects ideas of trees with ‘souls’.

Angela moved on to note that even Gollum enjoys the old tales he once heard, which by implication must have included the history of which Aragorn, unknown to him, is the true heir.

Laura remarked on the multi-dimensional nature of Tolkien and his work.

We agreed to revert to reading the first chapters of Book 6 for our next meeting in April.

First meeting in March


Sadly, for various reasons, only four of us gathered for our meeting yesterday, but happily Julie managed to get in after being prevented from travelling to recent meetings by problems with the railways. Nevertheless, we began Book 6 and still did not get right through ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’. Carol’s comments are included in this report.

Ian followed his recent tangential interest in masonry with the observation that Tolkien puts more thought into the structure of the Tower itself, as opposed to other fortresses, by defining the extent to which it was not originally menacing. Only its present context makes it so. Ian led up to this by considering the structure of some Yorkshire dams, the older of which have towers which bear some resemblance to fortress towers.

Carol commented on the change of pace at the start of the chapter, remarking that it’s nice to get a concurrency update between strands. You can get a bit lost otherwise.

Eileen noted that under the influence of the Ring Sam changes to a different mindset, and Carol commented that “the ring gives thoughts in accordance with the stature of its current wearer. If Sauron is defeated, Sam’s dreams for Mordor are gardens, when really anyone should ask for is ‘one small garden of a free gardener…all his need and due’, to garden by himself and not by servants or slaves. Would that was really like that, and Sam still has the sense to know it’s only a trick”.

Ian remarked on Sam’s “basic hobbit-sense” which amounts to a firm set of values, which guide Sam and create a link between him and Frodo.

Eileen on the other hand observed that his love for Frodo overrides everything, although Sam goes through many emotions. Carol supported this with her comment on the sentence: ‘his love for Frodo rose above all other thoughts’, that this isn’t fanciful. Deep love can be the spur to doing greater deeds than might be thought.

Ian noted that sometimes the action of the Ring conjures situations, e.g. when Sam seem to himself ‘enlarged’. The Ring ‘promises’ him, and it becomes active if he thinks about using it. Ian added that Sam expresses no motivation to destroy the Ring.

Eileen thought Sam experienced despair when contemplating entering Mordor, and he was constantly struggling against his own emotions, which are overwhelmed by care for Frodo.

Ian then picked up the significant words ‘veritably’ and ‘irrevocable’ when Sam is contemplating that first step. Ian went on to observe that all the desperation may not be Sam’s – he’s only concerned with Frodo, but the dark forces of Mordor can’t see him coming because of the gloom.

As we discussed Sam’s constant ability to overcome his sequential despair, Julie reminded us that this ability is very much in keeping with the sentiment expressed in the incitement to battle in The Battle of Maldon when the old warrior declares:

Hige sceal þē heardra,    heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre,    þē ūre mægen lytlað.

[The mind shall be the stronger, heart the keener,
Courage the greater, as our might lessens.]

Ian proposed that Sam was just getting on with his duty, and with his journey. Ian also noted that when Sam encounters the Snaga, the orc only sees the presence of malice.

Eileen observed that Sam undergoes a Christ-like trial in order to reach Frodo.

I noted that Sam’s perception of being ‘enlarged’ is echoed but reversed in its effect in the Tower when torchlight makes his shadow appear huge.

Carol commented that in the Tower ‘once again orc v orc comes to Sam’s and Frodo’s rescue’. I remarked that in the Tower the creepiest moment is when one of the apparently dead orcs begins to move, like a Zombie-orc, although this would be a tautology!

Ian thought this would amount to promotion! He went on to comment that in the Tower the orc hierarchy is more believable than the ‘caricatures’ in Rohan. In the Tower there is what amounts to a truly ‘human’ drama in the desire for the shirt, and that either duty or loyalty are displayed as subordinate orcs slaughter each other in support of their respective leaders, because the Dark Lord prizes mithril. Carol commented that Tolkien really knows how to hit the spot in horribleness. Orcs are disgusting creatures. Shagrat escaping brings hobbit things to be shown to the embassy of the Captains of the West, causing dismay.


Eileen remarked on the evil of the Tower. I suggested its evil orientation depended on the context in which it was used – by whom in relation to the Western allies.

This was as far as our discussions went but Ian rounded off our afternoon by remarking on the Amon Hen piece concerning Denethor’s madness. Ian went on to explain the idea that Denethor actually saw Frodo in the Tower when he looked in the palantir. Ian posed the questions – was Denethor directed to look at Cirith Ungol, and was it the power of the Ring? Ian thought not. But was it Sauron directing Denethor’s gaze? Ian reasoned that Sauron would have acted in that direction, and went on to propose that as Cirith Ungol was originally Gondorian, Denethor would know about it. Users of palantirs look in the direction they want. Denethor looks towards Cirith Ungol as a pointer in order to look into Mordor and incidentally see Frodo imprisoned, thus concluding that the Ring has been taken.

AS we had not finished our discussions we were about to consider our reading for next time, but as it is Reading Day on that day we considered whether we should have a special topic, or the TS official topic, or just continue with the chapters in hand. It was agreed that we would consult on this. In any case we still have not quite finished ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’.