Last Meeting in April

27.4.19

In the teeth of a howling gale, and to the accompaniment of equally howling police sirens, 6 of us gathered to complete our reading of The House of the Wolfings. We missed Tim and Julie, and were diverted from an immediate start by the need to take into account the release of the new biopic of Tolkien’s life, and the consequent consideration of a group cinema visit to continue our practice, established with the release of The Hobbit films, of watching Tolkien films together. This has proved cathartic in the past, so much better than fuming silently to ones-self over directorial decisions judged to be crass, ill-informed, or just simply wrong!!! I have to mention rabbit-powered transport, and the appearance of a giant ‘war-moose’. Other objections have been made, and make me personally wary of the new film, so the company of friends with whom to share highlights (hopefully) as well as complaints should offset any discontent created by the new film. At least the presence of Derek Jacobi in the cast list lends some optimism to the prospect.

Having agreed that we will convert our next Tolkien RG meeting to a film visit, we turned again to the Wolfings.

Laura began our deliberations with the observation that it is possible to see the common influences between Morris and Tolkien, although the quality of Morris’s writing is not up to that of Tolkien.

Eileen remarked that the last poems spoken by the Wood Sun were more moving than the other poetry in the story, which, she felt, merely fragments the prose. Eileen enjoyed the love story but not the constant emphasis on battle tactics because the reader got closer to the characters.

Laura noted that you just know doom is coming, and there is a constant movement towards fate. She felt the story of the dwarf mail and the dwarfs themselves were much more like those in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as was the deceit of the dwarf by the Wood Sun. It leads to a curse, as in Tolkien. Laura was also precise in reminding us that although Tolkien’s plural is dwarves, Morris’s plural is the ordinary ‘dwarfs, because Tolkien was a philologist and Morris wasn’t.

Laura also felt that the story offers a more sympathetic view of the Goths than is usual, and that the story blends in the myth of the valkyrie and the supernatural.

Eileen commented on the importance of the ‘thicket’ as a place of seclusion, safety, ambush, and refuge.

Laura noted that the Roman captain, only named as such, is flawed, while on the Goth side there are different leaders. All act according to external pressures.

We all then considered the topic of the depiction of women in warfare. In the story they are messengers and eventually warriors, and we compared these depictions with the historical activities of Æþelflæd and Boudica. I mentioned that recent research has concluded that Viking women could also be warriors.

Eileen observed that the Wood Sun seals Thiodolf’s fate, and this is perhaps a depiction of the power of a woman over a hero. Laura questioned whether it is rather a sign of his weakness? Chris remarked that Thiodolf was always going to die, and Laura qualified this by recalling that he needs to die in battle.

I proposed that Thiodolf is ‘special’, someone whose destiny is Other, and supernatural, like the heroes in the Ring Cycle, and bearing in mind the time in which the story was written I felt there was even a hint of the Nietzschean Ubermensch. Laura went on to suggest that Thiodolf’s relationship with Wood Sun was possible for them but not for the Goths in general.

We observed that the Hall Sun is the child of Thiodolf and the Wood Sun, and Angela noted that Tolkien’s Elves don’t marry in time of war, or have children at such times.

Laura remarked that although Tolkien’s life spanned the late Victorian, Edwardian and mid-twentieth centuries, he was a Roman Catholic and so he would have understood the concept of sexual abstinence. In comparison, although Morris was born and lived in the repressive Victorian era, he was also part of the pre-raphaelite circle among whom there was a degree of sexual freedom that was extraordinary for its time. Ian noted that Morris lived in a world with servants, as did Tolkien, but in Tolkien’s time that world was falling away and individuality was growing.

Ian observed that for both Tolkien and Morris the underlying structures of the societies in which they grew up and worked had some similarities and although Tolkien was brought up in religious morality, both lived in societies that saw the awakening of new attitudes. Both men rejected industrialization but in different ways. In their writing, Morris’s Wolfings is more stratified, using an historical elements with the addition of a mythological dimension. Tolkien’s writing, on the other hand, is more complex, a more subtle blending of history and myth.

Laura remarked that Morris was writing a story but Tolkien was writing a whole world mythology, and Chris commented that Morris bases his story on real facts.

Ian proposed that Tolkien in his academic capacity was committing heresy by creating languages because he was a professional philologist. His work is immersive, and he opened up the world to fantasy fiction, but Morris shows the use of history and myth before that.

Laura observed that Tolkien switched from Classics to Germanic studies early in his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, but she drew our attention to Morris’s use of many Middle English words as well as an unusual dialect word in the phrase ‘doddered oak’. This, she discovered, is a dialect form meaning ‘shattered’, ‘decayed’, and is related to ‘doddering’. It did not necessarily have the sense of walking unsteadily on account of decrepitude, because upon consulting Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track Laura found the idea that very ancient trackways had been laid out by ‘dodmen’ using sighting poles such as those depicted in the hands of the Long Man of Wilmington chalk hill figure in Sussex.We noted in passing that ‘dodman’ had become a dialect term for a snail.

On that suitably philological note we ended our meeting, agreeing that those of us who can make it will go and see the Tolkien film on the afternoon of our next meeting, and that at our last meeting in May we will begin reading The Hobbit.

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First in April

13.4.19

We were almost all back this afternoon, although we missed Julie, as we dealt first with Chris’s monumental compilation of all the blogs complete with rolling Index. Having offered some feedback, we then moved on to pick up our discussion left over from the end of February on matters such as the character of Otter, the treatment of horses, and the matter of weapons. Carol had sent comments which are added mainly after the main blog.

Laura began our discussions of appointed topics by outlining the resonance of Morris’s the use of the name ‘Otter’. Laura reminded us that a character named Otter appears in the Nieblungenlied. He is killed by Loki who takes the Otter skin for nefarious purposes. C.S. Lewis also makes use of the form in his space fiction story Out of the Silent Planet where the ‘hrossa’ are Martians with Otter-like characteristics. Laura also pointed out that Otter belongs to the House of the Laxings and lax is the Old English for salmon, and otters eat salmon.

On a different topic, Laura observed that the Wolfings’ battles are not always described through direct narration but are often reported by characters.

Chris and Angela remarked that this also happens at times in The Lord of the Rings.

Tim noted that in Wolfings the reader is given the view of the ‘stay-at-homes’: those left behind.

Eileen remarked on the importance of the messengers who bring news to them.

Laura likened this to the arrival of chaps from the front.

Time observed the thirst of the mead-drinker messenger, and saw the indirect narration as reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, e.g. in the Council of Elrond. Various reports by one character to others means that the reader is not omniscient because we get secondhand reports.

Eileen noted that often we only know later what Gandalf has been doing

Chris commented that in our readings of The Lord of the Rings, in spite of Sam’s importance, very few mentions of him show up in the blog Index. Chris also noted that in Wolfings scenes swap around and back much faster than in The Lord of the Rings.

I drew attention to the significance of the hill where the Thing is held. It is a special place which by the common consent within Goth society gives power and legitimacy to the speech which takes place there, and to the decisions arrived at through that speech. This reminded me of J.L. Austen’s ‘speech act theory’ which described the way societies accord legitimacy, power and authority to the speech of certain people in specific situations, as well as speech that takes specific or ritualized forms.

Laura noted the importance of the Iceladic Althing as the location for resolving disputes.

Tim remarked that Goths have to climb the hill of the Thing in order to make their speech count.

Tim and I then went on to express some dissatisfaction with the unvaried poetry Morris includes in the story, because there is no sense of its stylistic contribution to characterization. Carol commented on this: “Tolkien said he wanted to write a story like Morris, with prose and verse. Tolkien’s verse isn’t used instead of ordinary speech but is situational or tells a back story, sometimes both like ‘Earendil was a mariner’. So Morris’s verse I find not so subtle as Tolkien’s and somewhat like a song in a musical. The message of war is urgent so why take so long to deliver it, but the poetry’s ok”.

Eileen, however, remarked that the Hall Sun gives a précis of the battle in poetry and this is a gentler way to get the point across. She is condensing the story, while the rhythm makes it flow.

Laura remarked that it makes sense to the Hall Sun and the Wood Sun to speak in verse.

Tim thought the story is more akin to Beowulf, while Laura compared it to the real Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest.

 

We moved on to the topic of Horses.

Chris observed that in The Lord of the Rings the question is raised about disinformation concerning Sauron stealing the horses of Rohan.

Eileen noted the way they were depicted as being loved in Tolkien’s work.

Laura remarked that the white horses that really were sacrificed, like the Goths’ horses, were well-tended.

Chris observed that this made them very valuable, and Laura commented that this registered the scale of devotion.

Angela reminded us of the human sacrifice to which blood sacrifice led in Numenor, and that Aragorn declared in Rohan that he intended no harm to man or horse.

Eileen questioned the provision of mounts for the Black Riders, and the sad state of Bill Ferny’s pony.

 

On then to Weapons

Laura noted that the references to Roman archers and slingers was straight out of Caesar’s Commentaries.

Angela approved of the tri-bill of the Goths, and Tim remarked on the resonant name of Thiodolf’s Throng-Plough. Laura commented, however, that most weapons have very ordinary names.

Tim observed the presence of women riders among the Goths, comparing them to shield maidens, and noted the instruction they were given to each take a small knife on their journeys as a suicide device.

Laura and Angela both contrasted these women to Eowyn who was bound on self-destruction anyway.

Chris noted that in The Lord of the Rings  opponents are not ordinary people, but they are in Wolfings.

Tim and Laura remarked that both Goths and Romans use some form of the shield wall or testudo.

Laura noted that the Goths use war horns and Tim observed that the Romans also used horns. Ian discovered that the Romans used 2 kinds – the Carnix and the Cornu.

Eileen noted the reiterated motif of the dwarf shirt in The Lord of the Rings. Laura added that the dwarf shirt in Wolfings is dark.

Ian suggested that this was because it was made of iron so it was very heavy, hence his fainting in battle, but it was very protective.

Eileen wondered if we were more involved in the battles in Wolfings or in The Lord of the Rings?

Chris thought we were more involved in Tolkien because the characters are better known.

Eileen proposed that the Wolfings battle strategy is spelt out clearly and the stay-at-homes are kept well informed. The women are included but there is too much emphasis on battle and not enough narrative.

Laura responded that this was because the Goths were fighting for their lives in a short space. In The Lord of the Rings, however, there is great background, but in Wolfings it is 2 lots of humans fighting.

Tim noted that Tolkien was writing about an entire war, made up of a series of battles, while Morris was writing about a smaller campaign.

Eileen qualified this by describing Tolkien’s work as being more panoramic, and Chris observed that in Wolfings there was not much focus on the Romans.

As we ran out of time we agreed to go on with our discussion of The House of the Wolfings next time.

Carol’s Comments:

The opening poem reminds me of Bilbo’s ‘I sit beside the fire…’ nostalgia for things gone by.

I liked the historical bit about Varus and Marminius as I know very little of Goths and Romans and glad the Goths won.

I liked that description of the main hall, reminds me of Edoras, and I always think that fires in the middle of a room are more egalitarian than a fire set in a chimney wall. Fires in the middle are accessible to more people than modern fireplaces where a man might warm his back to the exclusion of everyone else.

‘The Flitting of the War Arrow’ paints a picture very idyllic to begin with, rather like the Shire, but I’m sure that will soon be shattered.

‘Thiodolf talketh with the Wood-Sun’: It’s getting to be like an opera, though the content is interesting, if slower to read.