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.