Last in August


All together again after the Birmingham conference, those of us who did not attend were updated on proceedings by those who did. It was a considerable success by all accounts. We also congratulated Chris on the publication of the first part of his latest research in Amon Hen, and he and Angela shared with us their copy of the important new book Tolkien’s Library, from Luna Press (with whom Angela has published her book on Aragorn). We heard Ian’s account of his substantial presentation on Joseph Wright and the English Dialect Dictionary and the responses this provoked, and after much interesting insight into the conference generally we turned to our own matters and picked up The Hobbit at Chapter 3.

Setting the scene, Laura backtracked briefly to ask if it elves would actually be afraid of orcs? Angela supported her suggestion that they might feel vulnerable and noted that in The Lord of the Rings Elrond sends out ‘those who are capable’ when it seems that the Back Riders may have to be confronted – hence Glorfindel’s arrival on the road. So there must be different kinds of elves.

Chris noted that a paper was given at the Birmingham conference defending Elrond.

Eileen remarked that she felt that Tolkien must have acted out bits of the story when telling it originally to his children and that she finds that reading it aloud helps the reader to feel good about the story.

Angela commented that she reads the verse aloud in The Lord of the Rings.

Moving into Chapter 3, I observed that there is a whole paragraph of references to material from The Silmarillion, showing that this was what Tolkien really wanted to write. Laura was more specific in noting that it focuses on Goldolin.

Ian remarked that these references to Gondolin for the ‘stub’ of another story which emerges into The Hobbit.

I felt that after having just read The Silmarillion, the Gondolin references feel different, and Ian observed that there is a different sensibility to the artifacts – the swords make no difference to the story of The Hobbit up to this point but a window opens onto other significances. Ian went on to note that Elrond doesn’t try to confiscate the swords although they are part of his lineage

Laura observed that Gondolin was attacked by orcs, but here they are called ‘goblin wars’.

Angela remarked on Bilbo’s prophetic wish that he could stay in Rivendell, and Laura commented that it is like Bag End but multiplied in its security and comfort, she wondered if the mention of ‘supper’ meant that it was more relaxed than ‘dinner’? Angela suggested that the term indicated it was not a banquet.

Laura also commented that one of the elves sounds very much like Noel Coward when he comments ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious’. Chris at this point discovered a reference to P.G. Woodhouse in Tolkien’s Library, but nothing obviously to do with Coward.

Laura went on to suggest that Tolkien’s travels in Switzerland influenced his description of the colours and contours of the journey into Rivendell, where there are various shades of green, but one of these connoted bog.

Eileen was puzzled by the reference to Durin’s Day, and I hadn’t appreciated how specific it is in the way it is distinguished from an ordinary New Year.

Ian pointed out that veneration for astronomical events included Ramadan and the ancient Egyptian belief that when the sun and moon are visible together this represents the Eye of Horus.

Eileen similarly noted the calculation of Easter and the fact that there had been 2 versions of this. Laura added that the problem had been resolved at the Synod of Whitby A.D. 664 (hosted by Abbess Hild).

Laura commented that C.S. Lewis uses stellar conjunction as an omen in one of his Narnia stories.

Eileen thought it was interesting that the cosmos was brought into the story.

Laura commented that it was very ‘faerie’ and magical, while Eileen thought it fortuitous. Ian added that in this it was like the finding of the swords.

I was surprised that the dwarves had lost the ability to calculate Durin’s Day and Ian remarked that they had lost both the means of calculation, and the dwarves who knew how to do it.

Angela put this down to the effect of the orc/dwarf wars, mentioned briefly in the text, and compared the loss to the effect of Rohan having no written history. As Aragorn demonstrates in the ubi sunt verses the oral dissemination works only as long as there is someone to remember it.

Laura extended this to include England’s ‘lost myths’, and Tolkien’s greater project.

Eileen then commented that there is not much description of the Last Homely House and she felt cheated by this absence, wanting to know much more about it.

Ian defined ‘homely’ as ‘familiar’, although Laura pointed out that the word can be used pejoratively of people.

Angela remarked that its importance is as a place of refuge and knowledge. Laura commented that it provides a warm feeling of comfort where bad things are outside. More pragmatically, Ian observed that it is only a means of discovering the runes and their meaning, and it gets a bit more ‘magic’ into the story as only Elrond can read them.

Eileen declared she still felt cheated!

I proposed that because the story was originally for children Tolkien kept it snappy, moving quickly from one exciting bit to the next.

Eileen, Angela and I all remarked on the level of non-aggression between elves and dwarves, compared to the hostility represented in The Lord of the Rings, and I commented especially on Thorin’s assertion that the sword from Gondolin will be treated with honour.

On that positive note, we ended our discussions. We will continue next time with Chapter 4 and see if we can manage more than 1 chapter!



First in August


Only four of us met this afternoon because everyone else was in Birmingham for the major Tolkien conference, but we had our own small ‘moot’, characterized by its difference from the primary reading in which the whole group engages when all together. Laura named our meeting the Hart Hall Moot, because our chosen text for the afternoon was Beowulf – perfectly apt reading and discussion in the context of The Hobbit, and because Eileen doesn’t know the Old English poem and is new to reading The Hobbit.

We began with observations concerning the relationship between pagan and Christian elements in the poem. Laura had brought one of her beaded recreations as an example of the inter-relation between the two belief systems that had been co-existing during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was a little amulet pouch beaded in the colours associated with the Sutton Hoo hoard and hung with a small Thor’s hammer (the proper sort, not the Avenger’s kind!), and she pointed out that the pouch would also have contained a Christian cross.

We considered the development of the poem from its oral origins and the place of oratory in the oral society it represented. Laura noted that Beowulf is not characterized by the humility that defines the virtuous individual in Christian society. We discussed psychological benefits of the warrior’s vaunt and the humiliation incurred when warriors cannot live up to their vaunts – something we see in Hrothgar’s complaint that his men boast of the deeds they will accomplish against the troll – but they fail to live up to their words. Beowulf, on the other hand, completes what he boasts of doing. Laura offered a comparison between Beowulf and General George Patton, whose own hubris was legendary.

We do not see vaunts to the same extent in Tolkien’s work, although where they occur they serve to highlight the virtues of humbler characters, or the folly of hubris.

We went on to consider the importance of swords, and the unexpected preference for old ones over shiny new ones. Tim remarked on the difference it would have made if Aragorn had chosen a new sword rather than the reforged ancestral sword. But the primary benefit of an old sword, as Ian pointed out during a previous reading, and as Tim reminded us, was that apart from the significance of its historical lineage and associations, if it remained intact after many battles it was a strong weapon.

Laura commented on the fate of Unferth’s sword, which melted when it wounded Grendel’s mother. As she pointed out to Eileen, Tolkien echoes this in the fate of the Morgul blade, which melts away. I added that Merry’s Carn Dum sword similarly melts when it wounds the Lord of the Nazgul, and that Beowulf needs to use the giant sword to kill Grendel’s mother and cut of Grendel’s head.

I moved on to consider a comparison between the dragon sequence in Beowulf and Tolkien’s handling of the onset of a dragon. It seems to me that Tolkien’s vocation of the Desolation of Smaug is more powerful than the fiery retribution of the dragon after the slave taken the cup in Beowulf. Eileen thought that the Desolation would have been horrifying to Tolkien, who was ecologically sensitive.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s echoing of the description of Heorot with its golden roof and walls hung with tapestry in his depiction of Meduseld. She also noted the similarity between the greeting of the ‘Coastguard’ and the reaction of the Doorwardens at Meduseld where there are clear echoes in the leaving of weapons, and the judgement of virtue.

Laura also compared the role of the Coastguard in Beowulf with the arrival of the Vikings in Dorset in 787, and the riding of the shire reeve to meet them, with fatal consequences in that case.

When Laura noted that the structure of politics in Beowulf revolved around the making of alliances, Tim compared this to the alliance between Gondor and Rohan.

Tim went on to note the role of early medieval Irish monasteries in the saving of literature and culture after the Romans left, by gathering and copying all kinds of important texts.

Laura then likened Beowulf’s companions to the Fellowship. She allowed that Beowulf’s companions are largely undifferentiated, but linked by their loyalty to him, and to their king, as the members of the Fellowship are bound together by the concept of loyalty, and that this was something Tolkien certainly knew from the Pals companies of WW1. Tim noted that the idea of small group who had a mission together and a primary loyalty to one another was a familiar theme in mythology such as the Odyssey and the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Laura remarked that Beowulf includes many pre-echoes of disaster.

As we began to run out of time, I observed that OE poetry characteristically uses kennings and I asked if we thought Tolkien could be said to include kennings in his work. I couldn’t think of any. Tim, however, wondered if the ‘Straight Road’, in reference to the road to the West after the Fall of Numenor could be considered a kenning? We did not arrive at a definitive answer as we ran out of time, in fact we had over-run our time quite significantly!

After an afternoon of quite intense discussion we continued our ‘moot’ over a nice cup of tea and a snack, eschewing our usual alcoholic refreshment and dinner on account of the bad weather. We will no doubt make up for this deprivation on another occasion!