After a long break on account of illness (mine), a five-week month, and my absence on family matters, it was lovely to be back. I’m picking up the blog from the date above so Tim’s report for the last meeting in June, with its attention to Beren and Luthien (Chapter 19) will be out of sequence as I haven’t posted it yet but will do asap! Our topic for this afternoon’s meeting turned out to be somewhat fluid, but took Chapter 20 ‘Of the Fifth Battle…’ as its focus.
We briefly touched on the change of venue for lunch when the Southfarthing visits the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford next month, then Ian reported on his trip to the Tolkien Society seminar in Leeds earlier this month. The topic was ‘Tolkien the Pagan? Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens.’ Ian commented on one paper on death and Laura noted the difference between the treatment of Death by Tolkien and Terry Pratchett’s sometimes humorous treatment, which creates something of a paradox. Laura observed that there is nothing humorous about Mandos.
Ian remarked that in Pratchett’s Discworld death affects all races while Mandos controls the fate only of Elves, while the ultimate fate of other races is specifically not known.
Eileen remarked that the treatment of death in the work of the American 19th century poet Emily Dickinson is also paradoxical, and that the Elves do not perhaps regard their immortality as ‘good’, implying another paradox.
Angela agreed that Elves don’t think it is necessarily good, because men with their shorter lives escape the confining world of Arda.
Laura noted that we don’t know about the fate of dwarves after death, only that they are long-lived.
Ian then moved on to comment on another paper which had dealt with the theme of reincarnation, as distinct from resurrection. This had led Ian to his own train of thought involving confrontations with balrogs. Ian argued that Maiar were created by Iluvatar from the Flame Imperishable. Arien, the Maia chosen to guide the Sun, was a spirit of fire in her own right ‘whom Melkor had not deceived or drawn into his service’ (‘Of the Sun and Moon…’). So, Ian went on, Gandalf invokes the Secret Fire against the Dark Fire.
Laura observed that Feanor’s body was consumed by his own inner fire (spirit) in death. I noted that at the death of Fingon under the axe blow of Gothmog Lord of Balrogs (who also killed Feanor) a white flame sprang up.
Tim remarked on the fire of immortality in H. Ryder Haggard’s She. Laura noted that this character lives in a city named ‘Kor.’
Having drawn inspiration for our discussion so far from Ian’s recollection of the seminar, I suggested we should move into the text, but in fact we did not move far away from Death as a topic. I remarked that the aftermath of the Fifth Battle seemed particularly poignant as Tolkien describes the scattering of the survivors of the alliance against Morgoth: ‘but to Hithlum came never back one of Fingon’s host, nor any of the Men of Hador’s house, nor any tidings of the battle and the fate of their lords.’ I thought this described a dreadful uncertainty for those who were left.
Tim observed that Fingon was not just killed but obliterated by his enemies, adding that this act of ‘erasing’ defies the possibility of reincarnation.
Laura commented that this adds insult to injury and is done so the Elves cannot honour the body. She went on to noted that in the Fifth Battle, as in the trenches of WW1, chivalry meets a force that knows no such concept.
Eileen recollected Kipling’s account of his family’s own tragic loss of his own underage son in his poem My Boy Jack. http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_jack.htm
Laura thought bereavement by death was no more unbearable than the prospect of loss through enslavement, which is just as much a violent act against the individual whose fate is similarly not known to those left behind.
Tim noted that Tolkien’s reference is to the ‘lords’ who were taken in unknown circumstances.
This led me to propose, rather controversially, that heroic literature in all ages is propaganda, but that Tolkien offers a different view.
Ian objected that it isn’t propaganda unless deployed with the intention of persuading.
Eileen remarked that the powers-that-be take advantage of adolescents when recruiting.
Ian picked up the concept that ‘all property is theft’ and commented that war is always about property.
Tim noted that it’s always the ‘poor bloody infantry’ who have to fight for the ‘property’.
Ian proposed that The Lord of the Rings functions as a kind of metaphor for modern insidious forms of warfare like terrorism and cyber-war.
Angela noted that in The Lord of the Rings the Shire sent hobbit archers to the last battle in the north, and they never returned.
Eileen remarked that in earlier eras of the primary world, including WW1 the prospect of 3 meals a day had been an attraction for some recruits. Laura added that many young men had been found to be malnourished when they enlisted! And Eileen and Laura both noted that sometimes military service was/is the only job a young man could get. Eileen also observed that the attraction of joining the services is governed by the culture of the nation.
Angela observed the additional aspect of the charisma of the leader, remarking on Aragorn’s.
I briefly looked back to Chapter 19 ‘Of Beren and Luthien’ to pick up a point on which Carol had commented. She noted the optimistic contrast “amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endured.” I suggested that no such joy and light can be found in Chapter 20!
Ian remarked that the story of Beren and Luthien is also about property, because Morgoth possesses the silmaril, so the chapters share the same theme of possession and actions in the service of a ‘higher purpose’.
As we touched momentarily on Chapter 21 ‘Of Turin Turambar’ Angela noted that 2 curses afflict Turin.
Our reading for the next meeting will by Chapter 21. Angela has already reread The Children of Hurin. I hope to add the story of Kullervo from The Kalevala to my preparatory reading.