Last meeting in March


Sadly, we were without Tim, Chris and Angela, as well as Julie at this meeting, so only 4 of us gathered on the Saturday closest to Tolkien Reading Day. It was for this reason that we decided to leave our discussion of The House of the Wolfing until our next meeting in April and take the Reading Day topic of ‘the mysterious in Tolkien’ instead. In the event we spread our net more widely than Tolkien.

We began by pondering the attractions of numerous instances of backstories as Laura questioned the validity of J.K. Rowling’s extensions to the original Harry Potter series, and whether these had been part of the project all along.

The unofficial extension of Tolkien’s work into ‘slash fan-fiction’ was considered.

I suggested that the development of existing stories satisfied a desire to demystify books and films.

Ian remarked that it relates to the universal belief in something more.

Laura observed that the impulse to open up stories to develop backstories echoes Gandalf’s challenge to Saruman concerning the folly of breaking things to find out how they work.

Eileen likened the impulse to small boys taking things apart.

Laura drew a parallel with Richard Dawkins’ trying to remove the mystique from human life.

Ian remarked that the appliance of science was used in Lower Egypt to move massive building blocks which in turn signified the status of Pharoah as god.

I brought the topic back to Tolkien when I asked if his appeal lay in his creation of mystery in a demystifying age?

Eileen thought he focused on the strange relationship between Sam, Frodo and Gandalf, and the mysterious Ring.

Laura remarked that Tolkien creates mysteries like those in our own world.

Eileen observed that in the case of Elf ladies, real love triumphs over their mysterious immortality.

Laura noted that Tolkien is referenced everywhere now.

Ian commented that there are orcs in the Warcraft computer game.

Laura commented that the concept of ‘orcneas’, naming an enemy of mortals, is found in Beowulf.

Ian proposed that the word is used to describe the mystery of the Other. He went on to argue that in Tolkien’s work, the mystery of alien technology is summed up in the way the Ring is responsible for Gollum’s long life. In The House of the Wolfings the protective hauberk is not a mystery but another example of the use of scienc, although it is a mystery if you don’t understand the technology.

Laura remarked that in Beowulf, the mysterious child Scyld Scefing becomes leader, and she compared this to the Norwegian leader of the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Maldon: the different world view provides the ‘edge’ that makes them special.

Ian commented that in Wolfings the Hall Sun, and the Wood Sun her Mother are mystical in their culture, as opposed to the more technological Roman society.

Eileen noted the inclusion in this work of stories from earlier events, and Laura noted the emphasis on building technology. Ian observed the presence of Morris’s interest in higher belief and higher truth.

Eileen responded that the dissemination of information via stories also demystifies.

Ian considered that Morris’s presentation is theatrical, i.e. sequential, and that in the case of visualization of events from the past, writing them down means they can be retained, as opposed to oral tradition.

I questioned the stages of demystifying that may take place via story and film.

Ian replied that Tolkien was writing in an age of human endeavour but now the current value system values investigation, but some present values don’t match earlier ones.

Eileen added that art and artefacts are inevitably of their time.

I questioned the apparent need for mystery in literature and other media. Laura responded that it satisfies the need for hope and for good to triumph.

Ian proposed that where people and society exist in a closed state there is no need to move on, it is not adaptive but in arrested development. Where society is hesitant about moving on there is perhaps the need for a god or for enforced movement, but in and open society, change is natural.

Next time we will pick up our concentration on The House of the Wolfings

First meeting in March


March already! It will soon be Reading Day, but we didn’t have time to consider that. We did consider a group visit to see the forthcoming film about Tolkien, and we all expressed astonishment that Chris has just picked up the work previously done some years ago by Mike, and created a complete collation of all the existing blog reports ‘from the beginning even to this present’. Its purpose is to ensure that we all have a record of our discussions in case the online platform ceases, disappears or is corrupted. We did touch on the possibility of something more formal, but agreed that it would be a huge editorial task.

The discussion phase of our meeting then got underway with Laura’s observations that the Goths are not just a single tribe but are differentiated into clans whose names are based in nature, and that some of these are in the ascendant – like the Wolfings – while some are in less prominent circumstances and we learn this from their backstories. Laura compared this use of internal history to Tolkien’s use of backstories, and she noted that the Goths are depicted as assuming a right to control nature, which reminded her of Aule’s statement to Yavanna that trees would be needed. Finally, Laura remarked that when reading ‘Mirkwood’ we need to remember that Morris was writing before Tolkien.

Tim then joined Laura in considering Morris’s use of archaic terms and thought this was not really convincing and the archaisms seemed to be ‘shoe-horned’ into the text. The use of ‘Roof’ to name the major dwelling place of each clan was questioned, and I suggested that it was used metonymically – one attribute or aspect of the dwelling standing for the whole. It might also be used symbolically.

Laura then remarked that the Wood-Sun reminded her of Melian, and that the Hall-Sun’s prediction of fire reminded her of Tolkien’s Finn and Hengist fragment where the glow is men coming with torches.

Tim considered some of the poetry in the text ‘quite clunky’, but some of it was ‘quite good’, although it was hard going in the early stages of reading and not like Tolkien’s poetry. Angela agreed that some of it works.

Tim commented that some of the descriptions in rhyme are very evocative, but some of the prose descriptions of the Goths’ journey to the Things left him feeling the need of maps (!), especially when the different tribes were travelling on both sides of the River.

Laura approved of the banner wains being pulled by various fine animals, and especially liked the war-elks of the Elking clan. We wryly recalled Thranduil’s ‘war-elk’ in The Battle of Five Armies.

Chris thought Morris created political references in the context of the Roman society and that what is described is clearly a capitalist society with masters, who do very little, and workers. I thought it attempted a contrast with a more idealized community among the Goths (could I say and anarcho-syndicalist commune?) although they have thralls. Chris noted that even the thralls have a vote for the dux bellorum of the tribes.

I objected to Morris’s imposition of this untranslated Latin term and wondered why he hadn’t looked for a term in Norse, Icelandic or OE.

Tim observed that the Thing acts like the Council of Elrond as a forum for sharing the speakers’ experiences of the Romans. Laura saw the Thing as an intelligence-gathering event, and cited Fox’s infiltration in disguise.

I remarked that the description of the speakers going up and down the hill in their armour and clinking because this is the first time I can remember reading of this realistic touch.

Laura commented that the event is very formal and recalled the use of rhyme in Egil’s Saga when Egil has to make a rhyme to placate Erik Bloodaxe.

Laura went on to comment on the sacrifice of horses. Angela added that one of the girls also goes willingly to be sacrificed and Ian proposed that what we see is the different theological environment of the Goths compared to the Romans.

Angela noted the difference between Morris and Tolkien in their treatment of horses.

I remarked that most of the sacrificed animals were distributed to the people, and Eileen commented that this story includes more recognizable food that Tolkien’s lembas.

Eileen also noted that Wood Sun is far more affectionate, demonstrative and ‘normal’ than any female depicted by Tolkien; and that her passion is an expression of love but also pathos in fear for the future, and she compared Eowyn and Faramir as lovers make the most of their time together.

Chris remarked that he thought Wood Sun’s fear is closer to Eowyn seeing Aragorn going into the Paths of the Dead.

Angela remarked that of all the Rohirrim only Eowyn has the courage to see him off, when the Rohirrim fear the ghosts in the dale.

Laura commented that Eowyn is a shield maiden, and Angela noted that she’s brought up by men. Chris observed that orphaned and fostered children are thematic in Tolkien’s work.

Angela noted that a number of Wolfing women are able to wield weapons and ride out when the men are away.

Laura remarked that there are lots of instances of prophesy and this creates a sense of shadow over the men and that this adds tension to the story. She also commented on the difference between the war formations of the Goths and the Romans, and noted that the structure and discipline of the Romans didn’t always work, and that Quintus Varrus last his Imperial eagles in Germany.

Chris observed that the Tuteburg disaster happened in A.D. 9, and he went on to question the effect of the use of mercenaries by the Roman legions.

Laura then compared Morris’s references to the ‘stay-at-homes’ to the ‘coal-biters’ of the Icelandic sagas.

Having overrun our time we agreed to read on to chapter 15 and that next time we would pick up the subjects of Otter, weapons and the treatment of horses.

Update on Laura’s Comments

Chris has alerted me to the fact that the link I posted for Laura’s comments doesn’t go in the direction I had expected, so I am posting the whole document as she sent it to me. This means that some things in the blog report will be repeated, but at least the full text will be acessible, even though the pictures still don’t transfer.



Not all the versions of the House of the Wolfings have an intro so for information:

JRRT mentioned in his letter of October 1914 to Edith the Kalevala and that he was trying to turn one of the stories into a short story “…somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between…..”     (Turin?)  He also wrote in December 1960 to Professor Forster that:  “…..The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the battle of the Somme.  They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans as in the House of the Wolfings………..”

There doesn’t seem to be anything that bleak in the early chapters of the Wolfings – rather more idyllic in an idealised pastoral scene protected by warriors – although it does come out they have fought previous battles of course.   Although the various tribes in the Marks are Goths, they could be idealised Victorian Anglo-Saxons or Teutons.   Think Alfred’s statues or the enormous statue of Herman the German celebrating the victory of the Teutoburg forest (9AD)!




There is a lot in the THOTW that also appears in Tolkien’s work.  The war arrow; a love affair between a non-human and a human; a sinister enemy; the horse culture of the Goths and Rohan; the dwarf hauberk; a war horn; Mirkwood; an emerald artefact; the mysterious origins of the Goths/men; dark haired grey eyed people.

They of course both share knowledge about the sagas etc – the thing stead for example.  Also in the chapter with the Wood Sun she foresees the mead hall on fire and there is a hint of the Finn and Hengest fragment when a red light is seen through the windows of the hall (not dragons, not gables on fire but armed men coming).

At the beginning of the book, Morris starts with “The tale tells that in times long past…………”, a phrase which crops up several times.  This is a scene setting which Tolkien uses as well to give the sense of history becoming myth becoming legend etc… Is it true anyway?   Also that this could be a story being told in a mead hall especially with the poetry.

Like Tolkien, Morris uses older forms of words or possibly dialect words eg “drave” in the first chapter presumably to give a sense of a mediaeval romance – thinking Gawain here.    Neb – I thought this was a Liverpool word.  Also stithies – not a misprint for smithies but a Norse word for anvil and where an anvil if housed!

The Man’s Door and The Woman’s Door concepts are intriguing.  I like the idea that men have obviously go to lower their heads, implicitly bowing to the lord!  No door warden?  I couldn’t work out if the Woman’s Door leads to the women’s quarters rather than straight into the hall – more weaving and sewing!    All buildings need a second means of escape – perhaps  there were fire exit signs – always important for a mead hall!  The description of the hall is very reminiscent of Tolkien’s drawing of Beorn’s house although I don’t think there are the windows.


The description of the Thing-stead is highly similar to the sagas we read.  Morris does use the word “mote” but has obviously chosen to go Norse rather than AS.   Morris has also given a sense of history to the doom giving by saying it was an historic event from before settlements and that it is still honoured.

The girl Hall Sun reminds me of the maia who looks after the sun, travelling across the sky, in the Silmarillion – although she volunteered.  It might not have been the Hall Sun’s choice so she might be like Eowyn – trapped in her role.

On this reading I didn’t find the poetry quite so intrusive or artificial – particularly as a welcome to the person bringing the war arrow – although if he could barely catch his breath (..gotten his breath again….!  Is this an example of English crossing the pond and coming back as an Americanism??)  would he be speaking in rhyming couplets?.

In the second poem by Thiodolf said to the messenger, there is a description of the work that women will have to take up – a definite pre-echo of the world wars.

I liked the reference to the Huns biting their shields which is a berserker action, recorded on some of the figures of the Lewis chess set.