We were almost all together for our first meeting of 2017. Even Julie happily managed to avoid wintry weather and the the endlessly strike-bound trains to join our discussion. This revisited ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ before starting ‘The Houses of Healing’. Carol’s comments are included in the report.
Ian picked up where we left off before Christmas with his observation that Gandalf enacts a virtual coup when he decides to whom the governance of Minas Tirith should temporarily devolve. He oversees the defining events on the battlefield and updates his allies on major developments they have not witnessed.
Eileen remarked that Denethor blames Gandalf for the loss of Faramir – effectively blaming everyone but himself.
Angela noted that Denethor resents Faramir not bringing the Ring to him.
Chris observed that Tolkien himself favoured one son over the others and wondered if this was underlying the motif of the favouring of sons, and foster sons in the form of Aragorn/Throrongil. Angela added that perhaps Faramir reminds Denethor too much of the young Aragorn.
Chris then noted that Boromir is not a strategist, but Angela added that he is caring towards those who are weaker, specifically the younger hobbits.
Chris went on to comment that both Faramir and Frodo had intellectual upbringings under the influence of father-figures, but not their fathers.
Ian observed that the chapter includes various ‘returning king’ motifs, including the approach of the Lord of the Nazgul, who still wears his crown on his disembodied head. Although Gandalf prevents his entry in to Minas Tirith, Denethor sees a king at the gates – not the actual king – but still a king. Then Denethor looks in the palantir.
Eileen noted a different aspect to Denethor’s behaviour and personality when she remarked that he sits by Faramir but cannot tell him he loves him.
Laura, on the other hand, commented that Denethor acts like one of the kings of old who could decide when to die.
Ian remarked that Denethor has a problem with letting go. When Faramir doesn’t bring back the Ring, all he has is the Stewardship, but then he abdicates responsibility. However, Ian expressed sympathy for Prince Imrahil and observed that Tolkien only looks at personal dimensions and the events that affect them, not at the politics. Nor is there any judgement of actions.
Laura remarked that it could be argued that Denethor was a poor steward for a long time in not being active. Ian observed that there were not a lot of people left in Minas Tirith at the time, and no apparent insurrection against poor rule.
Angela commented that as a young man Denethor had been a great man until overcome by pride and despair.
We moved on at last to ‘The Houses of Healing’ and Carol commented: “I like this bit with Merry at the start of this chapter, one of the bits that’s always left out of adaptations, like Pippin and Beregond. They’re little personalising bit in the great events of the time.”
Chris observed that the first lines of this chapter follows on directly from the last of ‘The Pyre’, and Julie wondered about the inverted syntax of the first sentence. I suggested that as in some of Gandalf’s speeches Tolkien arranges the syntax so that the most important or significant aspect of a sentence, observation or statement, comes first. I felt that this creates a powerful transition linking the chapters and creating a poignant metaphor. The last sentences of ‘The Pyre’ read:
With that he [Gandalf] turned away and went with Pippin down towards the lower city. And even as they hastened on their way the wind brought a grey rain, and all the fires sank, and there arose a great smoke before them.
‘The Houses’ begins:
A mist was in Merry’s eyes of tears and weariness when they drew near the ruined Gate of Minas Tirith.
Julie wondered why ‘A mist’ was syntactically misplaced, but in this position it links to the ‘grey rain’. This is immediately qualified when we are told that it is in Merry’s eyes, but he is not experiencing the rain that Pip and Gandalf feel, this mist is from tears and weariness. This sets up a metaphor – as the mist in Merry’s eyes is tears, so the grey rain for which we may initially have mistaken it, becomes infused with the image of tears, and the grief that prompts them.
Chris extended this notion of resonant language when he proposed that Merry’s feeling of stumbling along a tunnel to a tomb is an echo of Frodo and Sam’s experience in Shelob’s lair. Laura commented that the tunnel image is often reported in near-death experiences, and Ian suggested that at the approach of death, life shuts down sight as perception draws in.
Laura picked up a similar echo in Merry’s question to Pippin ‘Are you going to bury me?’ because Merry crippled the Witch King with the knife he had taken from the Barrow. Laura also observed that Theoden and Eowyn are brought into the city in pomp, but Merry is alone and overlooked.
Angela noted that he has just been ‘well’ overlooked, and Eileen commented that Merry tells Pippin it’s not bad thing to be overlooked. Julie remarked that he had been told to stay behind so no one was looking for him.
I wondered if he was overlooked in both situations because he was still wearing his elven cloak.
Carol comment: “Enter Ioreth and her adages. ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer and so the rightful king could ever be known.’ ‘men may long remember your words, Ioreth.’ She might be an object of some humour but she has more sense than the book-learned. Wasn’t Boromir warned not to despise old-wives’ tales? Goes for us all”.
Chris remarked that Gandalf has a ‘blind spot’ about the lore of the ‘hands of a healer’.
Angela commented on Aragorn’s appearance as a beggar, and thought that Gandalf too had been described as a beggar.
Laura noted that Imrahil is shocked by Pippin’s greeting to Aragorn. Carol commented that Imrahil is on his dignity, and here Aragorn shows his diplomatic mettle and doesn’t chastise Imrahil but says that his house will be named Strider, in the high tongue Telcontar. Because Aragorn’s been around a lot and not stuck in one place, he’s become more flexible.
Julie observed that when Aragorn brings athelas to Faramir its fragrance is different to that perceived by Eowyn, and different again to that perceived by Merry, each presumably the most characteristic of their native natural environment. Carol also commented that the scent of kingsfoil is different to different people, what they most like the scent of, adding “the smell of athelas in Eowyn’s room is that of Rohan and in Merry’s is that of the Shire”.
We finished our meeting having agreed to return to ‘The Houses’ next time, and to read up to the end of Book 5 in case we have time.