Last Meeting in November


Six of us gathered on one of those chilly damp November afternoons when it’s good to be indoors, and happily the seminar room where we meet was warm this week. It was with some determination that we set about finishing our reading of The Silmarillion. Carol had sent comments, which are included in the main blog.

We began by looking forward to our next reading, which will be any version of The Fall of Gondolin, or any combination of versions, including the new book. Angela and I both commented on the problems and difficulties facing editors, and noted the effect of their decisions on the editions we read, whatever they may be.

When we eventually turned our attention to the last chapter of The Silmarillion, Carol had noted that when the TSilm account of the founding of the North Kingdom references ‘many barrows’ these are the same barrows the hobbits will walk by on the Barrow Downs, and she describes this as “history in topography”.

I remarked that this collapsing of history is signaled by the unusual change of tense. The narration changes from past tense to present tense: ‘towers they raised … and there remain many barrows …’

Laura commented that in the New Forest the group of musicians known as ‘Nine Barrows’ is reminiscent of TSilm topography, but this is more apparent in the topography of Wiltshire, with its many barrows, and the standing stones of Stonehenge.

Angela returned us to the text when she observed that the description of the storm which brought the Numenorean ships to land looks dreadful, and suggests the travelers must have been seasick! We all agreed that the description of the huge waves is reminiscent of a tsunami, and that this was highly likely as Numenor was swallowed up.

I thought Isildur was mean, when he took ship and left his brother to defend Osgiliath alone. Angela countered this view with the proposal that he is foresighted and may have been escaping to save his youngest son, and the seedling of the Tree, both of which were eventually essential for saving the line of the kings.

Eileen compared this to Túrin leaving his mother and sister.

Laura wondered if both instances make up part of the ‘grand plan’ to preserve the family line as a matter of survival taking precedence over love.

Eileen and Laura noted the Isildur’s flight marks the division between the North and South Kingdoms.

Angela observed that in the flight from Numenor, 1 ship goes north and 2 go south.

Eileen wondered, as Tolkien had 3 sons, how would he have felt at the separation from his sons.

Angela and Chris noted that in Tolkien’s Letters it becomes apparent that he is closer to his son Christopher because they have more in common, and thus favours him, rather than John and Michael. [Considering our first topic this afternoon, we might have discussed the choices of the editor, Humphrey Carpenter, who obviously chose letters with the greatest bearing on Tolkien’s creativity, which was shared closely with Christopher. Topics shared particularly between John and Michael and their father are less obvious among Carpenter’s selection. Maybe a better guide can be found in The Father Christmas Letters?]

I remarked that the moment when Earnur the king meets the Lord of the Nazgul in single combat outside Minas Ithil/Morgul is one among many such confrontations.

Angela noted that the Lord of the Nazgul is called out at other times, and it is during one of these that Glorfindel speaks the prophecy ‘not by the hand of Man …’. This implicitly disregards the other races of Middle-earth who are not Men, so Elves, Eowyn and Merry are not perhaps considered.

Laura remarked that the Nazgul thinks he’s immortal because of this prophecy.

Laura noted that at the Gate of Minas Tirith the Lord of the Nazgul is not Gandalf’s equal, and Angela added that he was a mortal man. Laura responded that the Nazgul has Sauron backing him up and directing his actions, so the Nazgul is just following ordere, but Gandalf’s most powerful back up is far away in the West so he has to work out his own plans.

Eileen asked if this was good, or bad? Laura responded that Gandalf has the freedom and is trusted to do right.

Chris went on to compare Beregond in Minas Tirith acting on his own initiative to the internal conflicts between groups of orcs.

Laura also thought the ‘good guys’ show compassion, and Angela remarked that the Captains of the West follow Aragorn out of love, as Eowyn says. I compared this to the orcs in Mordor who have to be whipped along.

Laura then went on to observe that Denethor is affected by the palantir as Boromir is affected by the Ring. I suggested that in the comparison set up between Faramir and Boromir, Tolkien might have been suggesting that culture is a defense against the desire for Power. I cited the examples of Aragorn and his singing and Frodo and Bilbo with their knowledge of Elvish and historical and literary interests.

Laura extended this idea by suggesting that it was lineage in combination with culture that was important, and noted Tolkien’s insistence on his descent from the Suffields, who were his mother’s family.

Angela commented that in Aragorn’s case his resistance to the Ring’s temptation is due to guilt and that he is engaged in trying to repair Isildur’s fault.

Carol questioned the potential consequences if Isildur had indeed cast the Ring into the fire when he had it.

Chris noted that although Sauron comes out of Mordor and is vanquished, Elrond does not necessarily urge Isildur to act on that day. It may not have happened until everyone else had gone away, although anyone in the proximity of Isildur may not have survived. Chris went on to remark that after the Alliance the participants are divided again.

Eileen questioned why the Dwarves did not participate and Angela concluded that they regarded it as ‘not our problem’. Laura noted that the animals also choose sides.

Angela wondered when the anomalous assertion that Frodo threw the Ring into Mount Doom was actually written. Chris wondered if it was while Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings , before later revision. I observed that TSilm is throughout an Elvish version of history.

Ian supported this by remarking that it is history by Elves for Elves, and to them Gollum perhaps wasn’t important because the story of how the Ring was destroyed didn’t get transmitted to them. Only Legolas was present at the Field of Cormallen, so the Gollum element didn’t reach Elvish historians.

Chris noted that after the rescue of Frodo and Sam, Gollum is never mentioned again. Laura remarked on it as an impersonal account of hobbit-folk.

Eileen found the comment that ‘help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered’ profound, and Chris observed that the last battle was not won by strength. Eileen added that Tolkien seems to be suggesting ways of achieving things, other than war.

And so we ran out of time. It has taken us a long time to work through TSilm, but next time we meet we shall begin The Fall of Gondolin, in any of its redactions.

First in November


Seven of us gathered this afternoon and we all tried to dodge the heavy showers today to get to our meeting. We only got drizzled on while moving from our coffee venue to the Library. Carol had sent her comments, some of which are included here, but others are held over again because we didn’t get through our reading. This had been ‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’.

I started the meeting by asking if everyone thought we would finish The Silmarillion at the meeting. Laura responded instantly with an emphatic ‘No!’, not because she doubted our resolution but because she didn’t want to relinquish what she described as the ‘wonderful book.’

Eileen supported this view remarking on the complexity in which there are what she called ‘so many “tribes”’ and so many changes.

Laura picked up the quest for immortality and Tim remarked that he had been rereading the Akallabeth and Mens’ quest for the Undying Lands, which he compared to the attitude of the Egyptians, as an undercurrent to Tolkien’s story.

Laura noted that Numenorean ‘Ar-Pharazon’ echoes ‘Pharaoh’.

I recalled that Tolkien acknowledged that the High Crown of Gondor used by kings of Numenoeran descent had been influenced by the shape of the crown of upper Egypt.

Tim noted that Ar-Pharazon’s pride incurs the wrath of the ‘gods’.

Laura observed that the Numenoreans’ desire for eternal life does not take the form of mummification. And that they have the ability to choose when to die.

Angela remarked that this allowed them to hand on the ruleship.

Ian, who is still finding his reading of Sapiens supporting and enlightening Tolkien’s work, referred to what is called the Gilgamesh Project in Sapiens. This is the search for eternal life in the Gilgamesh legend but can be equated to the search for things we don’t know.

Eileen observed that this is the basis of religion which requires faith to cope with what you don’t know.

Ian remarked that for the Elves there is nothing they don’t know about their eventual end. He went on to comment that most polytheistic belief systems, such as exists in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,  recognize a supreme power devoid of interest in the specific, and that in pushing Melkor beyond the walls of the world it was the Valar who separated ‘good’ from ‘evil’ and not Iluvatar.

Laura observed that often in polytheistic religions the minor ‘gods’ battle against one another, and we have noted that the Valar often do the same.

Ian noted that a single author (Tolkien) has constructed the same, and good and bad are not differentiated by the Supreme Power.

Eileen picked out the examples of Túrin and Nienor and Hurin and Morwen and wondered how a loving God could let their suffering happen? And was it the result of their free will?

Angela noted that there have been lots of discussions about free will.

Ian proposed that what we have been looking at were examples of a Supreme Power adding the unexpected.

Eileen thought there was always evil, even when Melkor is gone or absent.

Laura observed that we know little about the religious beliefs of the Dwarves and the hobbits.

Chris proposed that the Dwarves may have reverenced Aule as he was their creator.

Ian went on to note that there is little technology in the Shire, and apparently no market for it. The gunpowder suggested in the ‘blasting fire’ at Helm’s Deep, and Gandalf’s fireworks at the party, are associated with wizardry.

Tim asked ‘but are they gunpowder?’

I then drew attention to Sauron’s non-repentance at the start of the Chapter, motivated by his anxiety over humiliation, and wondered at the possibility of historicizing this idea of humiliation.

Laura cited the treatment of Germany by France at the Treaty of Versailles and Hitler’s subsequent devastation as retribution of the location at Versailles where the railway carriage and triumphal statue stood.

Angela noted that Morgoth is also humiliated. But Tim observed that humiliation depends on how the individual reacts.

Eileen remarked that the ‘nearly-repenting’ of Gollum is particularly interesting.

Chris commented that the Ring would not have been destroyed if Gollum had repented. Ian qualified this by observing that it would have been Smeagol who repented.

Chris also noted that Sauron must have had a conscience if he was ashamed. Eileen remarked that he didn’t want to show this in front of his peers.

Angela remarked on the bonds Melkor puts on Sauron and wondered what the hold actually was.

Tim proposed that Melkor’s power over Sauron is equivalent to the Ring’s power over Gollum.

Angela remarked that she has often thought of the seductive hold of Melkor over Sauron in terms of drug addiction.

Chris observed that the Ring has part of Sauron in it and that is what corrupts Gollum.

In the context of the effect of the rings on those to whom they are given, I remarked that unlike other life forms, dwarves cannot be turned into ‘shadows’. Ian observed that they cannot be corrupted in this way because they are not the creation of Iluvatar.

Laura noted the poetic description of the Ringwraiths: that they ‘cried with the voices of death’.

Ian then proposed that the Ringwraiths were and extension of Sauron’s desire for control and destruction.

Angela moved on to consider the statement that Elrond gathers the wise in Rivendell, and wondered who, apart from the Heirs of Isildur, because the arrival of Gandalf post-dated the founding of Rivendell by many centuries?

Tim and Angela noted that Rivendell was founded in the Second Age, and Tim remarked that they need not have gathered all at once, but that could have been an evolution of incomers.

Laura questioned whether these are other than Elves and Men? We had already ruled out Dwarves.

Carol commented that the 3 rings ‘could ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world’, so Galadriel uses Nenya to maintain Lothlorien, which isn’t natural.

Angela remarked that Lorien is timeless and protected not just by Galadriel’s magic but by the warrior Elves who patrol its borders.

Carol went on: ‘though the ring of sapphire is with Elrond at Rivendell, it doesn’t confer timelessness like Nenya, and Rivendell, though hidden, is accessible at times by mortals’.

Tim noted that Rivendell is on the other side of the mountains, and Angela remarked that it is hidden by the landscape while Lorien is on the flat.

It was generally agreed that we still haven’t finished with this chapter, so we will pick it up again next time. Meanwhile, we still have the Fall of Gondolin to prepare for the time when we can call The Silmarillion finished (!)