First in June


Sadly, once again, only 3 of us were able to get together for today’s meeting, and as Carol is also unwell at present she has not been able to send her usual Comments. Nevertheless, we had a lively meeting. However, the inevitability of time creating changes of circumstance that are bound to affect the group prompted me to divert our discussions for a while from our reading/re-reading of The Hobbit to consider whether the time is coming when we should widen participation in the group, along with it remit.

This is a matter that will require some serious discussion in its own right once we are all together again. As Ian and Eileen both pointed out, the sustainability of the group is affected by the number of its members when we get to the unfortunate matter of having to pay for the room we use. There are likely to be a number of possible ways forward, and the three of us were looking forward optimistically.

As preliminary options, Ian suggested that we might devise a highly flexible but nonetheless structured programme of topics for reading and discussion based on Chris’s excellent compilation of our past blogs, choosing things that would be of interest to a wide range of people, not necessarily only those with our long-standing passion for Tolkien’s works.

Ian added that we meet in a city with substantial medieval history and architecture and this could be part of a whole new package relating Tolkien to medieval literature within a medieval environment.

Eileen remarked that she was just looking for literary stimulation when she came along, but the group’s enthusiasm became infectious and now she’s as lost in Middle-earth as the rest of us!

Ian added that he had noticed a flyer in a bookshop because it had a dragon on it, so any publicity needs pitching in a way that attracts the right kind of attention. It also needs to include certain keywords, such as ‘stimulating discussion’, and Ian and Eileen came up with a slogan: ‘Bring along a book, a sense of humour, and an open mind’.

This was as far as it was reasonable for us to go with our initial brainstorming. The proposal to expand now needs to be considered by the whole group together and individually, but at the very least I would suggest that we need to consider how we take our own reading forward once we have finished The Hobbit.

Ian, Eileen and I then turned our attention to The Hobbit. I remarked that the runes at the start are not just phonetic symbols but as runes they come loaded with various kinds of significance for us, irrespective of their function in the story.

Eileen observed that for her, they took her back to an ancient time, both within and outside the story. They are another of Tolkien’s languages, and their use divides ‘tribes’.

Eileen also went on to express her delight at the humour in the story. She particularly mentioned Bilbo’s comic bewilderment, and found more humour in the story than in other Tolkien texts we have read. She even found the goblins funny, and questioned the differentiation of goblins in TH from orcs in The Lord of the Rings.

I thought it had to do with Tolkien structuring the stories for different age groups.

Ian compared the situation with the Harry Potter stories and proposed that Tolkien uses familiar terms so as not to alienate young readers. But in The Lord of the Rings he uses ‘orcs’, which are still goblins, but named in such a way as to enhance their ‘otherness’ for other readers. At all times goblins/orcs are the same kinds of creatures.

Eileen felt that in TH the goblins are depicted with more black comedy. Ian thought they were more ‘impish’.

This led Eileen to compared their comic depiction with the equally (she felt) comic characterization of the trolls who argue over how to cook the dwarves and Bilbo.

Ian observed that this elides the reality that they are talking about actual cannibalism!

I thought the comedy lies in the incongruity between the horrible intention and the argument over the methods.

Eileen remarked that reading TH as far as she has gone has put The Lord of the Rings  into focus.

Ian observed that Tolkien translated medieval ideas of story into modern form, using childish language to introduce the story, but he evolves the style as the story develops.

I noted that his use of styles of language in it is very varied, from the crude colloquialism of the trolls to rhetorical/poetic, to the conversational-paternal.

Ian picked up this point when he noted the use of ‘oozy’ at the very start, but that by the end the language of the story has become more conceptualized.

I referred to one sentence that I found particularly illustrative of stylistic development: at the start of Chapter 4 the narrator says:

‘It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.’

Ian described it as multi-dimensional. I thought its structure was highly rhetorical and Eileen thought it poetic. I felt it was also mimetic of sequential experiences which could have been expressed in a more ordinary way. This structure emphasizes each experience by isolating it semantically, but relating the last 3 terms by conjunctions to draw out a feeling of weariness with yet another kind of difficulty to face.

Eileen thought that the developing style argued that this is not really a book for children. I agreed, although the style makes it a book one would wish children to get to know.

Ian observed that the reader and writer both go on the same journey.

I specifically asked Eileen, as it’s her first reading of the book, how she responded to the songs of the Elves in Rivendell because these are not always well received. She replied that she loved them! For her they showed another side to the Elves as they sang merrily to welcome the travelers.

I also asked Eileen how she felt about the language of the trolls, because Tolkien apparently rather regretted their linguistic characterization. Eileen thought it suited them.

Ian then looked up ‘booby’ in an online dictionary and found the kinds of definition we might expect, but he also found that it was characteristic of the vocabulary of East Anglia and the entire south of England from Kent to Devon. So everywhere but Mercia! Could this be an authorial comment?!

And so the afternoon came to an end for us. We will continue with The Hobbit at our next meeting.