First in May


At our first meeting in May we were without Ian but were joined by Julie again, so 6 of us tackled the issues raised by ‘Mount Doom’. This led to a discussion heavily influenced by theological matters, with occasional references to World War One.

Laura began our discussion with a reference to the meeting of the 2 orc troops, and she wondered if such a simultaneous arrival at a crossroads has been witnessed by Tolkien during World War One. We all agreed that we didn’t think it would have ended in an orc-like brawl.

Laura also commented on the terrible level of Frodo and Sam’s fatigue.

Eileen thought their ability to keep up with the orc group showed extraordinary extra strength, counter-balancing their temptation to give up.

Laura compared this temptation to that of Christ in the desert, when he tempted by Satan, and we noted the Christian subtexts of much of this chapter.

This led Eileen to remark on the loss of religious language and its significance that had happened in the 1960s when liturgical Latin was replaced with vernacular translations. Julie then proposed that it was perhaps no coincidence that Tolkien’s work became so popular in that decade as the language of religion became ‘dumbed-down’ and lost the implicit mystery.

Carol commented: Sam’s carrying Frodo on his back ‘like a hobbit-child pig-a-back’ epitomises Sam’s destiny as a father and carer, what he was meant to become. And though I don’t espouse there’s overt Christianity in The Lord of the Rings or that Frodo’s Christ-like, if that’s the case then Sam’s Simon of Cyrene.

Chris moved us on to the War theme when he remarked that the second paragraph of the chapter could be a description of any WW1 battlefield with shell holes and other signs of destruction.

Laura thought there was a sense of waiting at this early point in the chapter, as if for the ‘big push’. She also noted that surprisingly Sauron does not sense that the Ring is in fact behind him.

Angela commented that this is because he is focussed on Aragorn.

Laura remarked that Sauron has put so much of himself into the Ring that he now doesn’t have complete power or vision.

Angela expanded her previous comment by observing that because Aragorn’s ancestor took the Ring, revenge is the focus now.

Chris noted that Sam continues to be very practical. Laura wondered if there was something else – perhaps his particular turn of mind was helping him.

Carol commented: “despite Sam realising ‘there could be no return’ – at last – he doesn’t just give up and stay where they are. and his thought goes back to words he spoke eons ago in the shire after their encounter with Gildor – he had a job to do and this is it, to help Frodo fulfil the quest and then die with him – if Ian still thinks this isn’t love then he’s crackers!!”

Eileen remarked that it might also be his father and family because they have provided his psychological ‘compass’ all the way through – particularly the Gaffer.

Laura added that it was horrible, by comparison, that Frodo can’t remember anything of his own past any longer.

Chris then questioned whether, for all his achievements, Sam was not too subservient at times? Laura and Angela both commented that this was a reflection of Edwardian style.

Chris went on to note that Sam, like Gollum, goes through ‘schizophrenic’ debate, as though talking to an alter ego. Carol commented on Sam’s debate with himself, arguing that “again it isn’t if you die but how you die. Sam is phenomena”l.

Angela added that Boromir also debates with himself.

Eileen observed that Gollum turns into a whimpering thing again, and Laura wondered if that was how he wheedled round his Grandmother.

Carol commented: “The journey is agonizing!”

Laura went on to remark that there are now lots of references to lembas and that their efficacy grows as they are eaten on their own. Julie observed that this seems to echo medieval accounts of saints who lived on the Eucharist, and in the story of Elijah an angel brings ‘waybread’ to strengthen him.

Staying with sustenance, Laura noted that the cistern along the road where Sam finds water echo the provision of water similarly along Roman roads.

I noted that as their situation deteriorates, Sam is said to know that ‘the word now lay with him’. Although this has a religious resonance, it also means that Sam alone now has the power to make things happen – his language has become ‘performative’.

Laura observed that meanwhile, outside the Black Gate the Captains of the West are in danger.

Carol commented:  “as if they don’t have enough to cope with, up pops Gollum again. At last Sam knows mercy, like Bilbo and Frodo before him. Good job he does too.

Chris remarked, however, that Frodo now changes in Sam’s perception in relation to Gollum, who is no longer pitied by Frodo, but at the level of the entire story, Gollum has to be with Frodo in order to destroy the Ring because, we are told, ‘all other powers were subdued’ in the Sammath Naur. So Gollum had to be part of the grand plan. Chris also argued that because Frodo’s dismembered finger is still in the Ring when it is destroyed – Frodo is still master of the Ring at that moment.

Carol commented: “some have called this Frodo’s moral failure, his refusal to relinquish the ring, but I’d like to see some of those critics go through what Frodo’s been through and even to get to the mountain, let alone part with the Ring”.

Chris went on to note that Gollum is not mentioned again after Mount Doom; and Julie commented that Judas is not mentioned again after the Crucifixion, and the debate continues as to whether his action was necessary.

Eileen remarked on the fact that Sam is always evesdropping, and this proves useful.

Carol commented on “Sauron’s tragic realisation”, but Laura ended our discussion on a humorous note when she remarked that the sudden change of direction by the Eye made her think of orcs cranking it round. More seriously, she commented that Sauron was a bad manager because as soon as his arrogance is shaken by his error all his captains and commanders cease to function.

It proved tricky to bring the meeting to a close because everyone was so engaged in discussing various matters, but we did agree that we would read ‘The Field of Cormallen’ and ‘the Steward and the King’ for next time.


First Meeting in April


On a lovely April Saturday with bright sunshine and a breeze from the sea we met to trudge the dark and dangerous paths of Mordor with Frodo and Sam. Julie couldn’t be with us but 6 of us took up the challenge, and Carol’s email comments can be found partly in the main report but also at the end. We were discussing ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’ and ‘The Land of Shadow’.

Ian picked up my previous flight of fancy when I proposed that the shape of Mordor suggests roughly the form and geology of a supervolcano. Ian noted the precipitous drop from the Ephel Duath to the plain of Gorgoroth and thought it equated to the sheer sides of the inner part of a caldera. He then tentatively proposed that something lay beneath it – several voices, supported Ian’s declaration of a dragon! Laura joined him in specifying Ancalagon the Black.

A general discussion ensued prompted by Laura’s query over the hierarchy between a dragon and a Balrog. It was noted that Balrogs are former Maia.

Chris took us in a different direction when he remarked that there is too much ‘luck’ in the first 2 chapters of Book 6, and, to cries of heresy!, wondered if this indicated that Tolkien was running out of ideas. Ian noted that lots of turns of events are just about plausible and Eileen commented on the repeating patterns of incident and behaviour.

Laura remarked that the struggle is now greater because Frodo and Sam are starving and dehydrated.

Ian observed that the effect of the Ring on Sam causes effects on other beings and in the Tower this is directly referred to the effect on orcs, but in ‘The Land of Shadow’ this effect is not so obvious because the troop of orcs don’t notice its presence.

Eileen commented on what she perceived to be a tension in Frodo between desire to get rid of the Ring and his acceptance of his duty.

Ian remarked that the orc-tracker is referred to as a ‘rebel’ by the fighting orc, and wondered if ‘rebel’ was just the best ‘translation’ of the concept actually expressed?

Laura then noted that they refer to Gollum as the ‘black sneak’. [We have noted Tolkien’s description of Gollum as black on other occasions.]

Carol commented “I like this, the 2 orcs entering the scene, and having their grudging dialogue: ‘they’ve done in number one…’” So things aren’t going all Sauron’s way, goodee!!

Ian considered another aspect of orc vocabulary by noting that ‘peaching’ is a dialect word associated with Cornwall. I also noted the use of the word but had found it in circumstances suggesting it meant ‘to betray’.

Laura went on to remark that the description of the Nazgul perched on the wall of the Tower gave the impression that it was the Rider itself that perched there, but in fact this way of naming conflates the Rider and its ‘fell beast’ into a kind of centaur-like single entity.

I wondered why the Nazgul was in the vicinity anyway. Angela observed that the tracker and fighter orcs know a Nazgul has taken charge of the Tower, and Laura noted that it had been alerted by the scream of the Watchers. Chris confirmed that it was already ‘far above’ at the end of the previous chapter.

Laura remarked that it is a lovely moment when Sam sees the star – a spiritual moment showing Sam’s sensitivity.

I noted that it comes after the earlier moment that Carol also picked up in her comment that Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. We both mentioned the narrative comment: “ ‘As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit –hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly…’.Carol remarked: what a compliment to a ‘mere’ gardener, and rightly bestowed.” I suggested that perhaps it doesn’t then matter what star Sam sees at this point, after this moment of ‘grace’ conferred by the star-glass his sensitivity is manifested and he changes, becoming the motivating force that keeps the wheels of the Quest rolling.

Ian picked up my wheel reference and remarked that Frodo is now dominated by the ‘wheel of fire’, as if it is the Ring itself. Sam is more concerned for Frodo and has no ‘burning desire’ to have to do with the Ring such as Frodo and the Dark Lord have. Ian went on to compare this against the pastoral mode of contemplation of natural beauty, which is Sam’s contemplation.

Laura referred us to the ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ painting. There are 2 versions. The first by Guernico, the second by Nicholas Poussin. Laura’s point was that death is depicted as being part of the pastoral world of the classical shepherds.

Ian went back to the star and noted that the star Sam sees creates a contrast as he and Frodo head into the darkness. Chris remarked that the star is the first beautiful thing Sam has seen for some time.

Carol commented on Sam’s wish for water and light ‘begging your pardon’, then one of Sam’s wishes comes true – light. Touching base, 15.3.1419, a wind from the west with a sea-tang. Later, ‘unbelievable, but unmistakable, water trickling.’ Sam’s other wish comes true: just dribs and drabs keep them going.

Laura turned our attention to the rhetorical device of alliteration in the beauty of the ‘wind of the west’. I managed to confuse the wind in Mordor with the wind in Gondor, which comes from a different direction, and everyone noted the difference between the south and the west winds. Ian pointed out that in Gondor the south wind changes circumstances directly while in Mordor the west wind doesn’t change things in any direct way.

Eileen thought this raised questions about why things happen, and also – in Mordor – what’s alive and what’s not.

Laura returning to the winds, noted the cultural significance of the wind citing the fate of the Armada which was largely defeated by violent winds.

Chris went on to observe that Frodo now gives Sting to Sam, saying that he does not think he will use it again, and Chris wondered if this amounted to a premonition?

Ian commented that Frodo’s passivity now is the antithesis of what Sauron expects of someone he might identify as a ‘Ringlord’, and compared this to the actions of the Captains of the West who confront Sauron with a tiny force, prompting him to suppose that one of them must have the Ring in order to confront him, thus deflecting attention from Frodo.

Laura, however, proposed that Frodo was by now so exhausted that he would never have the strength to lift the sword.

Laura then commented that the encampments in Mordor are nasty, but compared these to the similarly orderly camps constructed by the Romans. Ian thought the Mordor camps were based on Tolkien’s experience of the grim World War 1 camps on Cannock Chase, and went on to suggest that while the Roman camps expressed order, the Mordor camps are not represented in the same way because the Land of Shadow is very inward-looking.

In the context of the description of the Mordor encampments, Laura remarked that the tracker-orc says it wants to go home.

I thought the difference between the encampments turned on the interpretation of order – we are used to approving the orderliness of Roman camps and settlements. Eileen declared there could be a benefit in disorder. Laura thought order was necessary but disorder could be good.

Angela observed that Sauron would have needed someone to order everything, and Laura suggested a need for quartermasters in Mordor!

With that we had run out of time and needed to take account of most of our company being away at the Tolkien Society AGM on the date of our next meeting, so those few of us who would be left decided not to meet in 22nd April. In addition April has 5 Saturdays, so we will not meet again until the second Saturday in May.


Carol’s comments

Carol commented on Sam’s “words of his own came unbidden…’ ‘In Western Lands…’ this is now the measure of Sam that he can sing real poetry off the top of his head – he’s come a long way from the troll song. It’s a song of all that’s good and light, turning into defiance: ‘I will not say the day is done,/nor bid the stars farewell’. There’s life beyond this hideous land that’s worth fighting for and Sam’s not going to be beaten down. This is like the legend of Blondel and Richard I when Richard has been taken captive on his way across Europe from the Holy Land

The description of Mordor is apocalyptic and if he wins, Sauron will make the whole of Middle-earth like this, destroying any beauty. How dreadful to have just those kinds of thoughts in your head.

Aragorn grants the land around Lake Nurnen to Sauron’s former slaves when the quest is achieved but I wouldn’t want to stay there after cruel captivity, would you?


Last meeting in March: Reading Day

Reading Day 2017

This year’s Reading Day theme was Poetry, and so we took this as the theme for our meeting. As Carol sent comments for the reading she expected I have held these over for our next meeting. Only 5 of us were able to enjoy the afternoon, but the topic generated plenty of discussion, assisted by Chris’s printout of the conclusion of a 1980s dissertation on Tolkien’s poetry, which gave us food for thought.

Eileen began our discussions with her observation of the communication functions of poetry and song, including that of Tom Bombadil. Laura added that his style provides comic relief.

Eileen commented that poems also show each character’s personality and ability to cope in difficult circumstances.

Angela responded to the 1980s dissertation’s observation of the inclusion of the seasons as a topic in poetry when she noted that it was a theme in Aragorn’s version of the Beren and Luthien poem.

Laura responded to Eileen’s comments on poetry and characterisation when she remarked that Sam’s poetry shows him to be sometimes more than expected, and sometimes – as with ‘Oliphaunt’ it confirms our expectations, but in all cases the differences sit well with his character development, and this includes his ability to learn Elvish.

Chris picked up another aspect from the dissertation when he asked if poetry in The Lord of the Rings really defines its ‘epic style’. I thought epic style required more than the simple inclusion of poetry and that this inclusion has been regarded as having more in common with the Icelandic sagas or William Morris’s prosimetric style.

Laura remarked that Tolkien wrote the lays first perhaps because of his academic work on the sagas, and proposed that he was an instinctive poet.

Eileen noted that even the book’s prose is poetic, and Laura commented that as the book progresses the style becomes increasingly poetic. I followed Eileen’s observation by asking if poetry deflects the fear invoked by the prose; but Laura countered this by asking if this can be true of ‘Where is the horse and the rider’ which evokes the decline of a society.

Chris returned to the matter of epic style by questioning whether it is the process of ‘putting into verse’ that makes material both ‘epic’ and ‘historic’?

Eileen thought the poetry had the effect of making a tale sound true.

I wondered about the elegies and Gimli’s refusal to take the east wind. Laura remarked that it may be that Gimli can’t sing, but it was noted that he chants Durin’s Song to Sam in Moria, and Chris and Angela observed that Gimli was not good friends with Boromir.

I picked up a reference from the dissertation which suggested that poetry in The Lord of the Rings defines the ‘end of an age’.

At this point we heard Eileen’s reading of Julie’s poem, the first she has written for some years. We all found it as delightful and perceptive as those we remembered.

Picking up the topic of ‘the end of an age’ Laura presented us with copies of extracts from Tolkien’s early ‘Kortirion’ poem, and a download of my paper on the origins of this poem and its relevance to Tolkien’s biography.

Laura noted that as usual Tolkien often rewrote this poem, and as a poet he says he loves the end of summer. But he takes a gardener’s view of autumn not as a time of death but of rest. Laura also noted that the whole poem is very elvish in its references to trees and starlight.

Chris remarked that in ‘Kortirion’ Tolkien is very aware of nature and the change of seasons.

Laura and Angela both noted the importance of trees throughout Tolkien’s life and work, and Chris commented that Tolkien projects ideas of trees with ‘souls’.

Angela moved on to note that even Gollum enjoys the old tales he once heard, which by implication must have included the history of which Aragorn, unknown to him, is the true heir.

Laura remarked on the multi-dimensional nature of Tolkien and his work.

We agreed to revert to reading the first chapters of Book 6 for our next meeting in April.

First meeting in March


Sadly, for various reasons, only four of us gathered for our meeting yesterday, but happily Julie managed to get in after being prevented from travelling to recent meetings by problems with the railways. Nevertheless, we began Book 6 and still did not get right through ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’. Carol’s comments are included in this report.

Ian followed his recent tangential interest in masonry with the observation that Tolkien puts more thought into the structure of the Tower itself, as opposed to other fortresses, by defining the extent to which it was not originally menacing. Only its present context makes it so. Ian led up to this by considering the structure of some Yorkshire dams, the older of which have towers which bear some resemblance to fortress towers.

Carol commented on the change of pace at the start of the chapter, remarking that it’s nice to get a concurrency update between strands. You can get a bit lost otherwise.

Eileen noted that under the influence of the Ring Sam changes to a different mindset, and Carol commented that “the ring gives thoughts in accordance with the stature of its current wearer. If Sauron is defeated, Sam’s dreams for Mordor are gardens, when really anyone should ask for is ‘one small garden of a free gardener…all his need and due’, to garden by himself and not by servants or slaves. Would that was really like that, and Sam still has the sense to know it’s only a trick”.

Ian remarked on Sam’s “basic hobbit-sense” which amounts to a firm set of values, which guide Sam and create a link between him and Frodo.

Eileen on the other hand observed that his love for Frodo overrides everything, although Sam goes through many emotions. Carol supported this with her comment on the sentence: ‘his love for Frodo rose above all other thoughts’, that this isn’t fanciful. Deep love can be the spur to doing greater deeds than might be thought.

Ian noted that sometimes the action of the Ring conjures situations, e.g. when Sam seem to himself ‘enlarged’. The Ring ‘promises’ him, and it becomes active if he thinks about using it. Ian added that Sam expresses no motivation to destroy the Ring.

Eileen thought Sam experienced despair when contemplating entering Mordor, and he was constantly struggling against his own emotions, which are overwhelmed by care for Frodo.

Ian then picked up the significant words ‘veritably’ and ‘irrevocable’ when Sam is contemplating that first step. Ian went on to observe that all the desperation may not be Sam’s – he’s only concerned with Frodo, but the dark forces of Mordor can’t see him coming because of the gloom.

As we discussed Sam’s constant ability to overcome his sequential despair, Julie reminded us that this ability is very much in keeping with the sentiment expressed in the incitement to battle in The Battle of Maldon when the old warrior declares:

Hige sceal þē heardra,    heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre,    þē ūre mægen lytlað.

[The mind shall be the stronger, heart the keener,
Courage the greater, as our might lessens.]

Ian proposed that Sam was just getting on with his duty, and with his journey. Ian also noted that when Sam encounters the Snaga, the orc only sees the presence of malice.

Eileen observed that Sam undergoes a Christ-like trial in order to reach Frodo.

I noted that Sam’s perception of being ‘enlarged’ is echoed but reversed in its effect in the Tower when torchlight makes his shadow appear huge.

Carol commented that in the Tower ‘once again orc v orc comes to Sam’s and Frodo’s rescue’. I remarked that in the Tower the creepiest moment is when one of the apparently dead orcs begins to move, like a Zombie-orc, although this would be a tautology!

Ian thought this would amount to promotion! He went on to comment that in the Tower the orc hierarchy is more believable than the ‘caricatures’ in Rohan. In the Tower there is what amounts to a truly ‘human’ drama in the desire for the shirt, and that either duty or loyalty are displayed as subordinate orcs slaughter each other in support of their respective leaders, because the Dark Lord prizes mithril. Carol commented that Tolkien really knows how to hit the spot in horribleness. Orcs are disgusting creatures. Shagrat escaping brings hobbit things to be shown to the embassy of the Captains of the West, causing dismay.


Eileen remarked on the evil of the Tower. I suggested its evil orientation depended on the context in which it was used – by whom in relation to the Western allies.

This was as far as our discussions went but Ian rounded off our afternoon by remarking on the Amon Hen piece concerning Denethor’s madness. Ian went on to explain the idea that Denethor actually saw Frodo in the Tower when he looked in the palantir. Ian posed the questions – was Denethor directed to look at Cirith Ungol, and was it the power of the Ring? Ian thought not. But was it Sauron directing Denethor’s gaze? Ian reasoned that Sauron would have acted in that direction, and went on to propose that as Cirith Ungol was originally Gondorian, Denethor would know about it. Users of palantirs look in the direction they want. Denethor looks towards Cirith Ungol as a pointer in order to look into Mordor and incidentally see Frodo imprisoned, thus concluding that the Ring has been taken.

AS we had not finished our discussions we were about to consider our reading for next time, but as it is Reading Day on that day we considered whether we should have a special topic, or the TS official topic, or just continue with the chapters in hand. It was agreed that we would consult on this. In any case we still have not quite finished ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’.



Last meeting in February


Today was one of our lesser moots – we did not plan research presentations this time – but some discussion of latest research projects did emerge into our more general conversations. It is exciting to see how many are in development.

Of course the reason for our moot was the visit of the Southfarthing’s distant members and it was delightful to have Carol and Rosemary with us in person to add their comments and ideas to the usual debate and discussion. Their visit provided the ideal opportunity to adjourn after the meeting to local venues for refreshment and food, when we remembered absent friends and toasted ‘The Professor’.

The afternoon meeting itself covered a good deal of ground even though we were only discussing ‘The Black Gate Opens’ in order to finally finish Book 5.

Eileen initiated our discussions when she remarked that she felt the theme of understanding had become prominent, perhaps from a Christian perspective, but not necessarily, because it could relate as well to psychology.

Carol directed our attention to Cair Andros, observing that Aragorn’s treatment of his men was not as draconian as the British officers in World War 1.

Rosemary commented that Tolkien was an extraordinary stylist, and pointed out that in ‘The Houses of Healing’ Tolkien uses words alliterating on ‘l’ as well as assonance and inverted word order. I remarked that these stylistic features, along with the sense of characteristic rhythm showed how deeply Tolkien was immersed Old English, and Laura observed that it therefore repays reading aloud.

Carol went on to note that Tolkien mirrors chapter titles throughout The Lord of the Rings, so that ‘The Black Gate Opens’ mirrors ‘The Black Gate is Closed’. She went on to observe that the Mouth of Sauron is kept talking for some time, and Eileen thought this was a definite strategy.

Laura remarked that it is a terrible blow when Frodo’s garments are produced, and Ian drew attention to the uncertain temporal sequence – we don’t know how long Mordor has had the garments. Laura commented on Tolkien’s technique of ‘galloping ahead’ with the story and then hauling it back.

Carol observed that the story moves at different paces: from Frodo’s plodding to the battle action.

Laura noted the motif of characters and space being divided by doors, including Frodo and Sam being separated and now an evil door opening.

Chris and Angela brought us back west of Anduin when they noted that even Merry may come to a last stand.

Laura questioned the idea on that side of the River that deeds would be remembered in song, and Angela remarked that there would be no songs after Sauron’s victory.

I asked if the fear the Nazgul are said to provoke as they overfly the western army could be regarded as a metaphor for the fear of impending battle that might be experienced by any soldier. Rosemary thought they represent the fear of death.

Laura proposed that they are an inversion of the idea of the Valkyrie as the Nazgul will carry warriors off to horror and torment, as the Witch King has already told Eowyn, not to feasting and drinking. Carol noted that the Mouth of Sauron says the same about Frodo.

Chris observed that when the Rohirrim go into battle they sing, and they rally after the death of Theoden, knowing the Witch King has been killed so Mordor is not invincible, and Eileen commented that in front of the Black Gate the Nazgul are nevertheless a reminder of vulnerability.

Chris returned us to Cair Andros when he remarked that the men are confronted with reason for their fears, because Mordor had been represented to them since childhood as the worst possible place. Angela noted that Denethor’s wife had suffered from being in proximity to Mordor, even across the river.

Eileen remarked on the way the Captains of the West planned their strategy and demonstrated the ability to work together, and she found it interesting even to a non-military mind to see this planning. Rosemary commented on the precise calculation of the size of the army, which was small, and Tolkien would have known the significance of this. Laura compared this to the probable great disagreement among senior officers during World War 1.

Carol observed that peoples who had been separated so long now see the sense of working together. She went on to note that Pippin at the end of the chapter recalls Bilbo and that he is part of the same story, but Sam has already recognised being in the same story as Beren and Luthien.

Rosemary noted that Pippin is the youngest hobbit and Angela commented that Pip doesn’t always concentrate, but Carol pointed out that he’s the one who leaves the brooch in Rohan, and faces and remains loyal, to Denethor. Angela objected that he didn’t realise the truth about Aragorn. Eileen observed that Pippin broke the news that Denethor was mad, and Carol noted his bond with Boromir.

Rosemary and Angela both remarked on the fact that Bergil looks after Merry.

Eileen commented that she would like to know more about Ioreth.

Chris observed that when the army reach Minas Morgul it serves as a reminder of Frodo and Sam, and that Imrahil makes an error of perception, but Angela suggested that he didn’t know about Frodo and Sam going that way. Ian commented that the stair must be secret or orcs would go through the vale, but there must be a link through the vale to Cirith Ungol.

Laura noted the horror of the walkers in darkness during the army’s night camp, and Chris suggested that the presence of smoking fumeroles would look like things moving. With a rush of blood to the head (!) I wondered if the vulcanism and the shape of Mordor as a whole meant that we are looking at a super-volcano when we look at the entire Black Land.

Ian brought us back to good sense when he introduced us to the latest research he is working on.

With that we adjourned to find suitable refreshment agreeing to read the first 2 chapters of Book 6 for our next meeting.

First in February


A bitterly cold afternoon was enlivened today by some intense observations and discussions, and I can’t claim to have kept up with the vigorous exchange of opinion in all cases, but I hope the report that follows will give a good indication of how opinions differed, flowed, and enlightened. Carol’s comments are included in the main report, as far as we went. Our intended matter for discussion had been ‘The Last Debate’ and ‘The Black Gate Opens’ – we still have not finished this last chapter, but as we shall hopefully have Carol and Rosemary with us at our next meeting we will all be together to finish Book 5.

Ian began proceedings today with observations concerning Gimli’s remarks on the state of the masonry in Minas Tirith – he added a good deal of detail but has asked for this to be omitted from this report because it is intended to form the basis of a research paper.

However, Laura picked up Gimli’s remarks and commented that the deterioration of the stonework of Minas Tirith is symbolic of the deterioration of Gondor as a whole.

Chris then questioned whether Tolkien was thinking of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings when he wrote of ‘other evils there are that may come’ even if Sauron is destroyed?

Ian thought that in Gandalf’s speech Sauron has a personality that has previously been absent when he has been referred to as the Dark Lord. Here Gandalf refers to him as Sauron. Ian also proposed that when Gandalf refers to Sauron’s ‘plight’, the rhetoric of the speech encourages us to feel sympathy for this enemy.

Angela supported this idea when she observed that when Aragorn confronts Sauron in the palantir he remarks that the Dark Lord is not so mighty as to be free of fear, so Aragorn himself reveals Sauron’s weakness.

I wondered if Gandalf’s remarks reveal one Maia considering the ‘plight’ of another Maia, who is not – to Gandalf – simply a disembodied or remote evil force.

Chris noted the repetition of the thematic motif of Pity and Redemption underlying Gandalf’s rhetoric.

Ian went on to assess the relative strategies of Mordor and the Captains of the West when he remarked that Sauron is expecting a show of force that will inevitably reveal who has taken possession of the Ring. Ian continued that the Captains don’t have the strength to challenge him but Sauron doesn’t know that.

Carol commented “This last debate is one of desperate counsel and such heroism as deserves more than a song. I’m sure they all think they’re going to certain death whichever way it turns out. In such a war what would you do?”

As we moved towards ‘The Black Gate’, Laura echoed a comment by Angela at our last meeting when she noted that east of Anduin, Aragorn considers the plight of the traumatised soldiers, comparing Sauron’s attitude to his forces, which are treated as ‘cannon-fodder’. This is another example of Aragorn’s ‘humanity’ such as that noted by Angela last time when she drew attention to Aragorn sending the Dunedain individually to each ship they had taken to comfort the captives.

Carol also commented of the journey through Ithilien “with the Nazgul’s constant attendance as a force of doom and gloom, I can just relate to a smidgeon once having been in the presence of malice against me for a short time. It’s awful. Here we have men trudging to certain death, ‘a hopeless journey’, through the end of the living lands and mutilated lands, and the Nazgul to boot. No wonder some of the men quailed – ‘some of the host were unmanned…’ what follows for me is the defining of Aragorn – ‘there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath’. So instead of having them executed for cowardice, as many suffering fron shell shock were in WW1, he gives them a job they can do, to guard Cair Andros, ‘ a manful deed’, within their capabilities.

Others ‘overcame their fear and went on’ to fight for this Man who showed such tolerance and mercy. When tolkien describes the ordinary men in the army of the West, he’s describing the lads on the western front. Brilliant moment for Aragorn.

I think some actions slightly tip the balance in favour of the west with the Valar who won’t interfere heavily, kindness, mercy, and this act of Aragorn’s will certainly go towards the west’s merit.”

Ian added another dimension when he commented that in the narrative there is no view of Sauron agonising over decisions.

Chris then observed that the Mouth of Sauron presents an echo of Saruman as the power of his speech creates doubt in the minds of onlookers, but the spells are broken in both cases.

Laura reminded us of the designation of Satan as ‘Father of Lies’ and I suggested that Sauron might be regarded as a master of duplicitous communication, and included in this his effect on Denethor. Ian objected that Gandalf asserts that the seeing stones do not lie and Sauron can’t make them do so, although he can show what suits his purpose.

I went back to the end of the Debate chapter to question the paragraph in which Aragorn unsheathes Anduril and says it will not be resheathed until ‘the last battle has been fought’, and I asked if this was just a storytelling flourish, and subversive of the high tone of most of the chapter? Ian thought its comedic bathos deflates any appearance of pompousness. Chris pointed out that Aragorn addresses the sword itself. Angela observed that this echoes Turin’s relationship with the Black Sword that has its own voice. Laura remarked that that it has the effect of being a great oath taken ON the sword.

Ian added that it seems like a rhetorical counterpoint to Imrahil’s sudden laugh at the folly of the Captains’ enterprise, but is also a ‘Jerusalem’ moment – “nor shall my sword sleep in my hand!”

Chris thought Imrahil’s wry comment about a child with a bow of green willow confronting an armed knight had the feel of David and Goliath about its inequality, a suitable image of the inequality between the forces of Gondor and the hosts of Mordor.

Chris also noted that the Black Gate chapter continues the motif of the young hobbits being separated.

Laura thought the title worthy of consideration because as a whole it is chilling although ‘gate’ is such an ordinary word, even though it derives from Old Norse.

Chris noted that when the Mouth of Sauron emerges it is only a door in the Gate that opens. We decided that it must be a large door even so, to allow a mounted man through with a retinue.

Chris also proposed that maybe the Mouth of Sauron would have been the character around whom Tolkien might have planned a sequel because he is already ‘more cruel than an orc’, and that when Sauron’s ‘essence’ dissipated – in the way Saruman’s dispersed – it might have entered into the Mouth of Sauron in a version of metempsychosis.

Laura added that it would still be the Age of Men because the Mouth of Sauron is a Numenorean.

We did not appoint any reading for our next meeting because Rosemary and Carol will be with us and we will have plenty of material to discuss from the end of Book 5.

This means that we will officially begin Book 6 in March.

Last in January


On the finest mildest afternoon for some time, we began our meeting with news of Carol’s and Rosemary’s forthcoming visit and decided to make it just an informal afternoon with a focus on what we have all been reading in The Lord of the Rings, followed by a cup of tea, or something stronger, and maybe an early meal together. The exact arrangements will be discussed further. We missed Julie, whose gardening was nevertheless in keeping with not only Sam’s profession, but also Legolas’s observation that there were not enough green, growing things in Minas Tirith!

Carol’s comments are included in the main text, and Julie hopes to comment on the blogsite itself.

Ian began our afternoon by reading an extract from an essay in the old Anthology of Beowulf Criticism that has proved so productive for his research interests. The essay set out all the objections that were once levelled at Beowulf. They were point by point exactly the same as those used to denigrate The Lord of the Rings in the early years after its publication.

Moving on to the chapters we have been dealing with in more appreciative detail, Laura noted the evocative description of Eowyn trapped at home. Carol also noted this but added: “both Faramir and Eowyn are struggling with past despair, Gandalf explains perfectly Eowyn’s feelings at being tapped in Meduseld while the men were free to come and go.

Eileen observed that this was insightful at the time on Tolkien’s part, but Angela qualified it by noting that Tolkien put the ‘trapped’ comments in Gandalf’s mouth, and Laura added that it might be a mistake to see those comments as actually Tolkien’s own feelings.

Ian took a more analytic line, commenting on the abundant criticism that Tolkien doesn’t write strong female characters, and saying that in fact Tolkien doesn’t attribute all the female feelings he does write about, and they are many, to a single female character. It’s not all about one character. Furthermore, he is not writing a fairy tale in which leading characters do not finally get harmed. Eowyn gets seriously harmed.

We moved more precisely into The Houses of Healing and Ian noted that there are comedic moments as if Tolkien was drawing on the Shakespearean structure in his contrasting of high-status characters and servants. Carol commented that: “the warden is a verbose fellow, able to give the names of herbs in several languages but too book-learned to be wise”.

Angela noted that it is Ioreth who remembers the ‘healing hands’ story and thus announces the King. Eileen approved of her knowledge of folk lore, and Laura remarked that this is the legend given life. Angela observed that the people think the King is a dream.

Rather more politically, Chris observed that the Houses of Healing are a ‘private ward’ for the elite, and wondered where the ordinary wounded were cared for? Laura proposed that there were MASH tents.

Carol commented: “Although I don’t hold that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian story, as Tolkien later declared, the scene of Aragorn the healer standing by the lantern reminds me of Holman Hunt’s’The Light of the World’ and later when people beg him to heal friends and kin reminds me of people clamouring round Jesus asking the same. I thought it was remarkable that Tolkien makes a seamless blend of the biblical imagery with the ancient myth of the King as healer not only of people but of his lands.

Eileen added that this is a holistic approach.

Carol commented: “Aragorn put others before himself, not only his friends, but whoever needs his help”, and asked: “If Gandalf is a Maia why can’t he heal like a Man and two elves”? She also noted “a bit of humour over Merry’s pipe-weed. ‘If you think I have passed through mountains and the realm of Gondor with fire and sword…’ – Aragorn is teasing a bit. Nice!

We moved on to ‘The Last Debate’ and Ian noted that there is no indication that Merry, Eowyn and Faramir will be sent out to fight again. I mentioned that Aragorn comforts Merry, but adds that he and the others left behind may make up the last stand of Minas Tirith, if the Captains of the West fail against Mordor.

Chris noted the gloomy assessment by Gimli that everything fails in the end, and Legolas’s prophetic assessment of the ‘seeds’ of Men.

Eileen commented that their initial conversation balances Gimli’s practicality against Legolas waxing lyrical as they begin to blend. Carol noted this blending when she commented on Gimli’s remark: “if all the fair folk take to the havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay”, adding “here! here!”

Chris, however, thought that their conversation brings out the plight of Gondor.

Laura noted Legolas’s reaction to the gulls and wondered how many Tolkien would have heard as Oxford, like Leeds, is so far inland. Ian thought it derived from Tolkien’s recollection of seaside holidays. Eileen commented on their haunting sound.

I had become increasingly aware of the way Tolkien structures this part of the text, which is close to the rhetorical technique known as hysteron proteron – a strange device in which an episode is narrated, then described in full. Tolkien’s version is quite subtle as it sets out the linear narration of the Paths of the Dead, the passage of southern Gondor, and the taking of the ships, but then revisits all these in Gimli and Legolas more emotionally charged account of exactly the same journey.

Eileen noted that this develops our sympathy for the characters involved, including Gimli, and Laura added, in response to Gimli’s shame, that dwarves underground are not the same as a dwarf experiencing the Paths of the Dead.

Carol noted that the story of the defeat of the corsair ships with the help of the oathbreakers is well told, but Eileen went on to remark that she found the scale of the battles hard going and I explained that in medieval romances the extravagant scale of opposition was taken as a measure the heroism of those who withstood it. Ian referred again to his Beowulf Criticism book noting an essay there that compares the method of the Beowulf poet – who focuses on certain elements – with that of the poet of the Chanson de Roland, who describes his hero’s exploits in terms of their scale. Ian went on to compare the example of Aragorn who leads a small band of living warriors, but commands a vast army of the Dead – which makes him even more heroic!

With that complex set of comparisons, we ran out of time and agreed to continue finishing Book 5.