First Meeting in April


On a lovely April Saturday with bright sunshine and a breeze from the sea we met to trudge the dark and dangerous paths of Mordor with Frodo and Sam. Julie couldn’t be with us but 6 of us took up the challenge, and Carol’s email comments can be found partly in the main report but also at the end. We were discussing ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’ and ‘The Land of Shadow’.

Ian picked up my previous flight of fancy when I proposed that the shape of Mordor suggests roughly the form and geology of a supervolcano. Ian noted the precipitous drop from the Ephel Duath to the plain of Gorgoroth and thought it equated to the sheer sides of the inner part of a caldera. He then tentatively proposed that something lay beneath it – several voices, supported Ian’s declaration of a dragon! Laura joined him in specifying Ancalagon the Black.

A general discussion ensued prompted by Laura’s query over the hierarchy between a dragon and a Balrog. It was noted that Balrogs are former Maia.

Chris took us in a different direction when he remarked that there is too much ‘luck’ in the first 2 chapters of Book 6, and, to cries of heresy!, wondered if this indicated that Tolkien was running out of ideas. Ian noted that lots of turns of events are just about plausible and Eileen commented on the repeating patterns of incident and behaviour.

Laura remarked that the struggle is now greater because Frodo and Sam are starving and dehydrated.

Ian observed that the effect of the Ring on Sam causes effects on other beings and in the Tower this is directly referred to the effect on orcs, but in ‘The Land of Shadow’ this effect is not so obvious because the troop of orcs don’t notice its presence.

Eileen commented on what she perceived to be a tension in Frodo between desire to get rid of the Ring and his acceptance of his duty.

Ian remarked that the orc-tracker is referred to as a ‘rebel’ by the fighting orc, and wondered if ‘rebel’ was just the best ‘translation’ of the concept actually expressed?

Laura then noted that they refer to Gollum as the ‘black sneak’. [We have noted Tolkien’s description of Gollum as black on other occasions.]

Carol commented “I like this, the 2 orcs entering the scene, and having their grudging dialogue: ‘they’ve done in number one…’” So things aren’t going all Sauron’s way, goodee!!

Ian considered another aspect of orc vocabulary by noting that ‘peaching’ is a dialect word associated with Cornwall. I also noted the use of the word but had found it in circumstances suggesting it meant ‘to betray’.

Laura went on to remark that the description of the Nazgul perched on the wall of the Tower gave the impression that it was the Rider itself that perched there, but in fact this way of naming conflates the Rider and its ‘fell beast’ into a kind of centaur-like single entity.

I wondered why the Nazgul was in the vicinity anyway. Angela observed that the tracker and fighter orcs know a Nazgul has taken charge of the Tower, and Laura noted that it had been alerted by the scream of the Watchers. Chris confirmed that it was already ‘far above’ at the end of the previous chapter.

Laura remarked that it is a lovely moment when Sam sees the star – a spiritual moment showing Sam’s sensitivity.

I noted that it comes after the earlier moment that Carol also picked up in her comment that Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. We both mentioned the narrative comment: “ ‘As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit –hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly…’.Carol remarked: what a compliment to a ‘mere’ gardener, and rightly bestowed.” I suggested that perhaps it doesn’t then matter what star Sam sees at this point, after this moment of ‘grace’ conferred by the star-glass his sensitivity is manifested and he changes, becoming the motivating force that keeps the wheels of the Quest rolling.

Ian picked up my wheel reference and remarked that Frodo is now dominated by the ‘wheel of fire’, as if it is the Ring itself. Sam is more concerned for Frodo and has no ‘burning desire’ to have to do with the Ring such as Frodo and the Dark Lord have. Ian went on to compare this against the pastoral mode of contemplation of natural beauty, which is Sam’s contemplation.

Laura referred us to the ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ painting. There are 2 versions. The first by Guernico, the second by Nicholas Poussin. Laura’s point was that death is depicted as being part of the pastoral world of the classical shepherds.

Ian went back to the star and noted that the star Sam sees creates a contrast as he and Frodo head into the darkness. Chris remarked that the star is the first beautiful thing Sam has seen for some time.

Carol commented on Sam’s wish for water and light ‘begging your pardon’, then one of Sam’s wishes comes true – light. Touching base, 15.3.1419, a wind from the west with a sea-tang. Later, ‘unbelievable, but unmistakable, water trickling.’ Sam’s other wish comes true: just dribs and drabs keep them going.

Laura turned our attention to the rhetorical device of alliteration in the beauty of the ‘wind of the west’. I managed to confuse the wind in Mordor with the wind in Gondor, which comes from a different direction, and everyone noted the difference between the south and the west winds. Ian pointed out that in Gondor the south wind changes circumstances directly while in Mordor the west wind doesn’t change things in any direct way.

Eileen thought this raised questions about why things happen, and also – in Mordor – what’s alive and what’s not.

Laura returning to the winds, noted the cultural significance of the wind citing the fate of the Armada which was largely defeated by violent winds.

Chris went on to observe that Frodo now gives Sting to Sam, saying that he does not think he will use it again, and Chris wondered if this amounted to a premonition?

Ian commented that Frodo’s passivity now is the antithesis of what Sauron expects of someone he might identify as a ‘Ringlord’, and compared this to the actions of the Captains of the West who confront Sauron with a tiny force, prompting him to suppose that one of them must have the Ring in order to confront him, thus deflecting attention from Frodo.

Laura, however, proposed that Frodo was by now so exhausted that he would never have the strength to lift the sword.

Laura then commented that the encampments in Mordor are nasty, but compared these to the similarly orderly camps constructed by the Romans. Ian thought the Mordor camps were based on Tolkien’s experience of the grim World War 1 camps on Cannock Chase, and went on to suggest that while the Roman camps expressed order, the Mordor camps are not represented in the same way because the Land of Shadow is very inward-looking.

In the context of the description of the Mordor encampments, Laura remarked that the tracker-orc says it wants to go home.

I thought the difference between the encampments turned on the interpretation of order – we are used to approving the orderliness of Roman camps and settlements. Eileen declared there could be a benefit in disorder. Laura thought order was necessary but disorder could be good.

Angela observed that Sauron would have needed someone to order everything, and Laura suggested a need for quartermasters in Mordor!

With that we had run out of time and needed to take account of most of our company being away at the Tolkien Society AGM on the date of our next meeting, so those few of us who would be left decided not to meet in 22nd April. In addition April has 5 Saturdays, so we will not meet again until the second Saturday in May.


Carol’s comments

Carol commented on Sam’s “words of his own came unbidden…’ ‘In Western Lands…’ this is now the measure of Sam that he can sing real poetry off the top of his head – he’s come a long way from the troll song. It’s a song of all that’s good and light, turning into defiance: ‘I will not say the day is done,/nor bid the stars farewell’. There’s life beyond this hideous land that’s worth fighting for and Sam’s not going to be beaten down. This is like the legend of Blondel and Richard I when Richard has been taken captive on his way across Europe from the Holy Land

The description of Mordor is apocalyptic and if he wins, Sauron will make the whole of Middle-earth like this, destroying any beauty. How dreadful to have just those kinds of thoughts in your head.

Aragorn grants the land around Lake Nurnen to Sauron’s former slaves when the quest is achieved but I wouldn’t want to stay there after cruel captivity, would you?