On this palindromic date, seven of us braved a drenching to meet and discuss the matter of Flies and Spiders.
Eileen began the discussion with her consideration of what she described as the threatening forest. She noted that Tolkien felt that trees had feelings and wondered if the trees in Mirkwood reflect or pick up on the feelings of Bilbo and the dwarves.
Tim compared Mirkwood to the motif of the Enchanted Forest and the injunction to stay on the path based in local knowledge, and evoking foreboding. The comparison included Hansel and Gretel.
Angela remarked on the little hint of light, and compared this to the effect of light in a railway tunnel. Laura picked the hopefulness of the phrase ‘light at the end of a tunnel’.
Ian observed that in canal tunnels travellers lose sight of the light if the tunnel bends.
Laura commented that the whole chapter is a fairy story with its insistence on things that are interdicted.
Eileen thought that at the start both Bilbo and the dwarves were not coping.
Laura and Angela both remarked on the sinister effect of the very short sentence ‘There were black squirrels in the wood’.
Laura also proposed that the moths in the wood may have been changed by their environment.
I mentioned that in the north of England around the industrial towns moths that had developed camouflage to rest on tree trunks were discovered to have become darker in colouring as pollution had darkened the bark of the trees. I therefore wondered if the Necromancer in Mirkwood could be understood as a metaphor for the effects of pollution.
Laura remarked that the black butterflies were not so sinister.
Eileen noted the introduction of cobwebs, and their stickiness. Tim commented on the experience of encountering cobwebs in summer, but noted that in Mirkwood they are dark.
Laura observed that the spiders in Mirkwood are apex predators.
Angela remarked that in The Lord of the Rings the suggestion is that they are Shelob’s offspring.
Carol commented: the encounter with the spiders has its comical slant but, like other dangerous episodes, there’s a real dark side to this. No such ‘fun’ with Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo comes into his own as Sam does with Shelob and after. Just had a thought about a juxtaposition: as Bilbo rescues the dwarves from incarceration with the elves, Sam does the same for Frodo from the orcs.
Laura compared the paths in the Old Forest, which move around, but the Elf-Path in Mirkwood can’t move or its magic will be lost.
Chris proposed that it is the Elves who keep the path clear.
Angela and Laura both observed that the stream in Mirkwood is cursed like the Withywindle.
Chris observed that the river in the wood is enchanted not actually cursed, and wondered if it could actually focus dreams according to the desires of the dreamer.
Carol commented: ‘Bombur’s falling into the enchanted stream is really laying it on thick because now they have to carry him as well as getting hungrier and thirstier and then being caught by spiders. But who comes to the rescue…? Bilbo’s finding his ‘adventure’ feet. Bombur actually has a sort of foretelling when he tells of seeing lights and food whilst asleep, because that comes true.
Chris also noted that Bilbo has sharp eyes in the forest, but this attribute is not noted in The Lord of the Rings.
Laura remarked that dwarves should have sharp eyes after millennia in their mines, but then the forest is not their environment.
Angela commented that Gimli was scared of Fangorn.
We spent some time discussing the enchanted river and its analogues, such as Lethe and the Stix.
Ian discovered that there are 11 rivers in Norse mythology, one of which separates the living from the dead.
Tim then remarked that Thorin’s terse ‘don’t start grumbling’ was rather orcish.
Eileen commented that Bilbo is becoming the one upon whom the others depend.
Laura wondered if Bilbo’s assertiveness is the effect of the Ring on his passivity.
Tim noted that the Ring prevents his capture by the spiders, but Chris added that hobbit skills help in this, such as a good throwing arm.
Tim then remarked that Tolkien ‘breaks the fourth wall’ when he writes that there things ‘I haven’t had time to tell you about’.
Laura went on to consider the deer imagery and its significance in mythology and Christianity.
Tim remarked on the contrasting change of tone that happens when the dwarves are down in the forest and Bilbo is in the tops of the trees.
Eileen commented that the light hurts Bilbo’s eyes, and she thought this provided light relief and hope.
Tim observed that there are three attempts at encounters with Elves.
I wondered if the Elf feast was an enchanted vision but Chris, Angela and Laura thought it was a real feast that was interrupted.
Carol commented: ‘in the account of the wood elves we see bits of the ‘mythology’ creeping in – faery in the west and what I assume is a reference to Thingol’.
Chris also noted that Elves kill spiders.
I proposed looking at the word ‘attercop’ with the help of background sources including Gilliver et al, The Ring of Words. Reading through their entry for this led Ian to observe that when they discuss ‘cop’ they omit any mention of its place in the Dialect Dictionary, focussing only on entries in the OED. Ian went on to notice that in the Dialect Dictionary the word ‘Tomnoddy’ is local to Northumberland and means ‘big head and little body’.
We had run well over our finishing time in our discussion so we only got through one chapter this time. At our next meeting we will pick up at Chapter 9, ‘Barrels Out of Bond’.