May: first meeting

9.5.15
After some journeys of our own around the library we eventually settled, rather suitably, in the Learning Centre, for our meeting on ‘The Council of Elrond’.
We began with Ian’s report on his continuing research into the work of Tolkien’s tutor Joseph Wright, and his wife Elizabeth. Ian noted the significance of their work on dialect.
Eileen then brought us back to the chapter with her remark that there were ‘too many characters’. She found the barrage of new names bewildering, and Tim filled in some of the detail from Tom Shippey’s Author of the Century to show just how many characters, including entirely new ones, the reader has to cope with.
Eileen then observed that in spite of Bilbo’s protest, the purpose of the Council is too important for it to stop for lunch and so it goes on long after Bilbo’s notice that it is almost lunchtime. Tim responded that even after many reading he still wondered about the delay to lunch!
Laura remarked that even although nothing seems to happen apart from a lot of talk, there is still a lot of action within each narration and the exchanges of dialogue.
Angela and Tim queried who the messenger from Sauron really was? No clear answer seemed to emerge.
Angela noted that Boromir doesn’t seem to notice Aragorn until he speaks and Laura proposed that this showed the difference between the North and South Kingdoms. Tim remarked that the difference split along perceptions of status so that in contemporary terms Gondor = the Guards Officer, while Arnor = the SAS, in effect two forces fighting different kinds of war so that Boromir even after his feat of endurance still appears finely dressed and noble, and he doesn’t regard the figure in the corner dressed in unspectacular and practical travelling clothes.
Tim went on to note that strictly speaking height was measured in ‘ranga’, and according to such calculations as Tolkien gives, the Numenoreans could be almost 7 feet tall. Laura then proposed that the Dunedain should really be called ‘rangas’ rather than Rangers.
Laura also commented on the ‘Swiss’ atmosphere at the start of the chapter as the Elves are inclined to neutrality.
Chris wondered what Bilbo and Gandalf are talking about before the others join them. It was conjectured that they might have been reminiscing about the first time they were in Rivendell together, and how the events unfolded that led to the current meeting.
Eileen then queried whether the Shire folk are actually naive? And I raised the matter of Strider’s testy description of ‘simple’ folk. Tim suggested that it should not be regarded as a slur, but as describing people who are ‘uncomplicated’. Ian proposed that there was a three-way division implicit here between the organised presence of Gondor, the organised but unappreciated Rangers, and the folk who don’t know anything about the danger from which they are being protected.
Angela and I wondered whether ‘simplicity’ functioned and even defined a form of protection against paralysing fear, so that the Gaffer and Farmer Maggot were not crushed by preconceived fear when confronted with the Black Riders. In this context, Ian noted Strider’s remarks on the need for secrecy to keep the Shire free from fear. Tim likened this to the security services protecting ordinary people. They know how nasty things are, but ordinary people don’t.
Angela remarked that those of Numenorean blood, if they share a proportion of Elvish blood too, like Aragorn are mentally stronger than others, although in the presence of the Black Riders some are driven mad. Ian noted that Boromir confirms that madness afflicted the men he commanded at Osgiliath when the Witch King arrived.
Laura wondered why the Shire has survived as it has, and whether it was a deliberate plan by the Valar. Chris observed that this would fit with Gollum finding the Ring. Ian remarked that the hobbits are a race expressing the human condition, and when called upon, they are mentally stronger than others.
Ian looked up ‘simple’ and found that in the OED (1) adj. = of lowly birth, not aristocratic.
I then wondered if ‘simple’ as applied to hobbits and others was related to the notion of the One Ring. All the other rings have stones but the most powerful ring is ‘unadorned’. Its true power is only revealed by exposure to fire. Similarly, I suggested, the true power of hobbits is only revealed in the ‘fire’ of danger.
Ian pointed out that the Ring is indeed unadorned, except on Sauron’s hand.
Laura questioned the meaning of the ‘nick of time’ Elrond mentions. Tim remarked that in mechanical time-keeping the tick of a clock was known as a ‘nick’, so a precise time was suggested. Laura recalled the notches or ‘nicks’ on tally-sticks. Meanwhile Ian reminded us that the wording of Elrond’s speech was ‘the very nick of time’, and referred us to the original meaning of ‘very’, thus Elrond is saying that everyone arrived at the ‘true’ moment.
Although Carol sent comments on this chapter well in advance of our meeting, we didn’t touch on the details she focussed on so I have held them over for our next meeting.
When it came to choosing our reading for our next meeting, it was pointed out that we had hardly scratched the surface of the issues raised in ‘The Council’, so we agreed to finish this, at the next meeting, and read ‘The Ring Goes South’ in hopes that we have time to get round to it.

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Last Meeting in January

22.1.15

Our last meeting in January was only missing Mike, who was otherwise engaged. Our reading had been ‘The Old Forest’, ‘The House of Tom Bombadil’, and ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ – in fact we barely touched on this last chapter, so it will be discussed next time. As it was, we had plenty to talk about with just the first 2 chapters.

Angela began our discussions with her observation that from the time the hobbits leave Farmer Maggot’s house sound and vision are subdued. There is greater emphasis on silence, low sounds and obscurity in the mist and fog. Natural for autumn, but the soft sounds make everything creepier.

Pat came straight to the point when she asked if the Ring was inciting the trees in the Forest to behave as they do – and is the Ring the most powerful force in Middle-earth. Resounding replies of ‘No!’ all round.

Ian went on to comment that the true nature of the power of the Forest has largely been forgotten except in Crickhollow, and the Forest has had time to brood on its own malice. It is Old Man Willow of his own volition who waylays the hobbits.

Eileen noted that the hobbits are forced to follow that paths the Forest itself wanted, and Angela reminded us that the trees are said to hate anything the goes free.

Julie moderated the discussion by noting that the Withywindle is not evil [in spite of its implication in the near-drowning of Frodo]. I wondered if the River was under the influence of Ulmo and his Maia.

Angela noted, however, that the valley of the Withywindle is a place of somnolence, and compared it to the River in Mirkwood that puts Bombur to sleep when his foot touches it.

Ian suggested that Tolkien distinguishes good and evil from what is only bad – what he calles ‘ill’, thus the Forest exercises its own nature, and the hobbits are the trespassers.

Laura then asked ‘what about Yavanna?’. Ian still maintained that the Forest was simply doing its own thing.

Pat remarked, following on from her comments last time, that there is an emphasis on Merry in the Old Forest chapter, and his particular character is demonstrated.

Eileen added that Frodo seem confused in the Forest, so Merry leads the party, and Frodo is constantly surprised that so many people know what he doing, including, so it appears, Farmer Maggot and Tom.

Chris wondered if the Ring was responsible for what seems like Frodo’s more acute hearing when he is the first to hear Tom singing?

Eileen then asked if Tom was not too good? Ian responded that Tom is not concerned with what’s happening, he’s happy but unconcerned. Eileen then observed that Tom is optimistic but ‘too sudden’ in his appearance, and then his house is otherworldly. Ian remarked that following Tom is like following Lewis Carol’s white rabbit, is it a trap? Having been scared in the Forest, this question is raised, but Tom is of the moment. Ian was about to develop a whole theory about time in relation to Tom and the Old Forest – more of this shortly!

Chris remarked that Tom knows the hobbits are coming, and Angela added that he had been in communication with Farmer Maggot, and with the elves. Angela and Tim noted that Barliman Butterbur is also known to Tom.

Tim reminded us that during our previous reading of this chapter many years ago we considered whether Tom and his song are part of the Song of Creation.

Julie noted that Tolkien as narrator call it a ‘nonsense’ song and then qualifies this, asking ‘is it?

Laura observed that it may function like the Kyrie Eleison – sung or spoken because it is recognised or believed to be language of great power even though it may not necessarily be understood.

Tim then noted that Sam is the first person to shake himself out of the stupor induced by the Willow, and try to rescue all the others.

Angela then remarked that Tom knows all this history of Middle-earth and especially the Shire and the Barrow Downs.

Laura wondered why Goldberry does not have a larger role. Tim observed that Tom and Goldberry represented the elements of earth and water, and that they have physical form but were not necessarily ‘human’. This reminded some of us of the Maiar who could choose the form in which they clothed themselves. Tim observed that the specific dynamic between Tom and Goldberry adds mystery.

Ian returned to his interest in time and remarked that trees and humans had different perceptions of time, therefore in the Forest the trees control time. Laura raised the matter of Tom’s garden, and Ian remarked that it is the place where Tom and Goldberry could be together, and he associated them with the separate concepts of time as known to the classical Greeks, in which Chronos signified time flowing, while Kairos signified the instant. This relates to Goldberry the River-daughter ‘flowing’, while Tom is the ‘instant’. But both are supernatural.

Chris wondered if Tom was in fact an early creation by Eru? Ian noted that Tom’s influence and help is limited in extent and he himself will not pass certain boundaries, and Pat found it interesting the Tom keeps to his own country. It was noted that various characters in the early chapters express a restricted knowledge of a wider world, and Angela observed that Sam seems never to have travelled further than 20 miles from his home until he sets out with Frodo.

Laura commented that the description of Goldberry surrounded by waterlilies is like a pre-raphaelite painting.

Chris drew attention to the description of Tom’s house and wondered if there was any significance in its east-west alignment. It was observed that this was the usual alignment of churches. Pat remarked that it was aligned to natural time and the passage of time from daybeak to sunset. I suggested that Tom, unlike almost everyone else, was not bothered by the significance of the east, although he knew about it. All the doors in Bree faced west, and even the Barrows should be passed on the west side.

Laura questioned, on the basis of what Tom sings about collecting the last of the waterlilies and not going deep into the Forest until spring, whether he hibernates through the winter?

Eileen thought she perceived Tolkien’s particular liking for nature, and we all agreed this was the case. Ian cited letter 159, in which Tolkien expressed this deep interest. Laura observed that Tom’s relationship to nature contrasts with that of Saruman.

Eileen also noted that Tom wants to give the hobbits good advice for their onward journey, in contrast to the elves’ reluctance to offer advice. She also wondered if the mist over the Forest and the fog on the Downs connoted the inability to think as well as to see?

At this point we were running out of time and had to consider our next reading. As we had hardly touched on ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ we agreed to discuss that, and to read ‘The Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’.

January: First Saturday

10.1.15

Our first meeting of 2015 was unfortunately lacking Julie, Mike and Ian, but there were still 7 of us to debate our extensive selection of chapters. As we had no meetings in December we were reading ‘Three’s Company’; ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’; ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ and ‘The Old Forest’. As usual Carol sent her comments, and these are included where possible. Additional comments on topics we did not cover are added at the end.

After taking care of various extraneous matters, such as noting some significant anniversaries in 2015, including Magna Carta, we turned our attention to our reading and I began by noting the moment when Sam stamps out the fire he and Frodo lit to try to force Old Man Willow to release Merry and Pippin. Only during this latest reading did I consider the fact that Sam is not wearing anything on his feet because he’s a hobbit. Even allowing for the leathery soles of hobbit feet – noted by Angela – stamping out a fire still seems hazardous! Laura, however, observed that people practice fire-walking without harm. My remarks also drew agreement from other people that they too, even after many readings are still finding new things in LotR.

Laura elaborated on this by remarking that she was struck by the number of references to turnip fields, and she wondered if all the turnips were being grown for humans or as animal fodder. She also wondered if Farmer Maggot was actually farming fields of mushrooms. (She also noted that St George’s Day mushrooms grow in her garden, which I had never heard of, but apparently they appear around St George’s Day in April and so are not the usual autumnal kind, but are apparently very tasty.

The matter of mushrooms developed into a multi-facetted discussion with reminiscences and further consideration of the practicalities of growing mushrooms before the process was industrialised. Laura thought Maggot may have turned cattle onto his turnip fields to graze, which in turn provided the fertiliser for the mushrooms which Frodo had plundered in his youth.

Tim developed our consideration of the names of Maggot’s dogs, when he pondered whether Black Riders don’t like dogs? Angela observed that for Farmer Maggot trespassing was a problem.

We considered the forms of Frodo’s fear, and Eileen noted as she read these chapters the creation of a palpable sense of fear. Carol noted the first of some very close shaves for Frodo. A few more minutes and the ring could have been discovered, then a second time that Frodo’s had a near miss of discovery. Carol observed: sure, it’s a Nazgul but why can’t it detect the close proximity of the ring? Are they not back up to their full power yet? Or is their power diminished when separated?

Although Carol commented ‘I love the domesticity in Maggot’s parlour – convivial, good food and drink, just the way Tolkien would have liked it – before the storm, Eileen thought there were too many references to food and was getting irritated by this impression of greedy hobbits. Without giving too much away, I tried to explain that food serves many purposes throughout the story, showing sociability, hospitality, ceremony, and different forms of food add characterisation of individuals and races and additional context.

Eileen then remarked that she wondered what Gandalf’s agenda was, given the way he behaves towards Frodo. Carol had also noted that according to hobbit gossip, Frodo’s selling up ‘to most it suggested a dark and yet unrevealed plot by Gandalf’. How right hobbit gossip is. Carol went on to note that Gandalf’s unexpected absence is news that worries Gildor.

Pat commented that the Shire seems so isolated and insular. Meanwhile a lot of spying is going on. Tim added that the hobbits are living in a protected bubble, and that these initial impressions are what Tolkien wanted.

Chris reminded us that Tolkien was writing a sequel to The Hobbit and his perspective on the characters and setting would be different to the way characters and settings are initially viewed by any reader coming to LotR without that prior reading. Tim remarked that the Prologue to LotR is important reading because it fills in some of the ‘backstory’ from TH.

Laura referred us to the Black Rider’s call, remarking on the fine description – and noted the way the BBC radio adaptation retained the tension of Merry’s approach. Carol commented that ‘hoofs on the road ahead…’ is another of Tolkien’s little red herrings and he milks it.

Laura commented that the Black Riders seem incompetent in their searching methods. Tim remarked that they have impaired vision (during daylight) and other senses. Pat added that little importance seems to be given to the strange rider at Bagshot Row, and Sam delays saying anything, which seems strange. Angela suggested this was because Sam thinks the Gaffer gets confused, and Sam himself is preoccupied with leaving.

Laura raised the matter of the Black Riders sniffing, remarked that she had originally been disappointed that they actually spoke. She went on to wonder if their strange speech is the result of the fact that they don’t actually speak aloud very often. I had been pondering the matter of the way their speech is described. The Gaffer says his caller ‘spoke funny’, and I wondered if this was because all the Black Riders were originally from foreign places, even Angmar probably had its own dialect. As Chris observed they must have been using the Common Speech, but I thought they might be speaking with foreign accents, as well as hissing.

Carol commented on the nice juxtaposition of the Shire countryside and the wail of the Nazgul, and we all remarked on the spine-chilling impact on us as readers of the Black Rider’s call. Eileen also shared Carol’s opinion that Tolkien describes topography very well and interestingly – he’s there and takes us with him.

The multiple use of words alliterating on ‘B’ was discussed. Carol noted that the digression of the description of Buckland adds a bit of hobbit backstory. I commented that many ‘B’ references are related to the settling of the Oldbucks, later the Brandybucks, east of the River. Other ‘B’ names certainly belong to different contexts.

Chris wondered if the end of the ‘Conspiracy’ chapter marks the beginning of a more adult story. Carol’s comment is surely pertinent in this context when she remarks: ‘I like the bath song and Pippin’s making fountains. I always imagine Tolkien encouraging his children to do stuff like this at bathtime, much to Edith’s chagrin. After all, he wouldn’t have been able to do it much when he was a kid’.

Carol went on: ‘Frodo’s sea-longing will eventually come true. One of his prophetic dreams. Pat wondered if there was a link between Sam’s earlier promise to the elves and this dream. Chris observed that both are in their own ways prophetic.

Laura then drew attention to Gildor Inglorion’s comment to Frodo that others dwelt in the Shire before hobbits, and will do so ‘when hobbits are no more’. Laura wondered then whether the ridges in the Old Forest were the equivalent of the earthworks of Neolithic and Iron Age peoples in the primary world, evidence of much earlier settlement. Eileen remarked that it was thought-provoking that the land doesn’t belong to anyone. Tim noted that Native American peoples regard themselves as custodians only of the land.

Angela commented that among all the races of Middle-earth, hobbits are the only race whose origins are never explained.

Both Pat and Eileen discovered a distinctly Shakespearean feel to the description of Frodo waking in a bower at Woodhall. Carol, however, noted: no such bower for Sam.

Angela remarked that Merry is very organised and practical.

Eileen wondered if there was any connection between Gollum’s gulping and the sniffing of the Riders – non-verbal expressions of character, perhaps? But we reverted to discussing the speech of the Riders before running out of time.

For our next meeting we agreed to read ‘The Old Forest’; ‘The House of Tom Bombadil’ and ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’.

Carol’s Comments:

Sam’s ‘tall, shapeless, felt bag, which he called a hat’: we never hear of Sam’s hat again. Similarly, the fox passing… I always remember this snippet. I like it and I’m sorry the fox never discovered any more. I like foxes too.

The 2nd version of the Road Song from (i) ‘pursuing it with eager feet’, to (ii) ‘pursuing it with weary feet’. The road is a metaphor for life/story.

We meet elves for the first time, and singing a hymn to Elbereth. The last is repeated as Frodo leaves the Shire at the end of the book. Mirroring? Who would like to meet elves under starlight and to speak with them and spend the night? It’s magical and wishful thinking. It’s as if the hobbits entered another dimension when the mists part and there’s lantern light. By ordinary time it must be very late but the hobbits stay up eating and talking and are still fresh the following morning.

‘…if I could grow apples like that…’ a hint that Sam survives and he would describe his experience of meeting elves for the first time in terms of gardening. The encounter marks the beginning of the making of Master Samwise and ‘Frodo looked at Sam rather startled…’ With the elves Sam encountered a situation that drew him out into seeing a wider horizon. Before he’d thought it was just elves he wanted to meet but in their company he’s realised that his life is bound for more than that. I love Sam.

But the elves selfishness is reiterated by Gildor. They are no longer concerned with the troubles of Middle-earth but they caused it by forging rings in the 2nd age. But I still wish elves really existed.

The Brandywine is a boundary, as are many rivers, both factual and mythical – Styx, Jordan, with ferries crossing them to other places and lives, just as Sam feels.

So a Nazgul traced them to the ferry and a question never really answered by Tolkien was why Nazgul were afraid of running water.My only inkling is that witches are supposed to be afraid of crossing running water – why, again, I don’t know. And how have the Nazgul managed to cross so many rivers on their journey from Mordor to the Shire? Probably more scared of Sauron and going back empty-handed than of running water.

Pippin’s comment, ‘Sam is an excellent fellow…’ is a bit condescending. He’ll outstrip them all before the end, similarly with Fredegar’s fear of the Old Forest. He’ll fight greater fear before he’s finished – a hobbit in a pinch.

Last meeting in July

27.7.13
We were discussing Chapters 3 to 5 of John Garth’s book this week, and we began with the unexpected delights of all the early poetry. Angela remarked that some of the poems evoked for her recollections of aspects of The Silmarillion. She particularly picked out ‘Lo!.young we are and yet have stood / like planted hearts in the great sun …’ pointing out the pre-echoes of the episode in TS when Melian and Thingol first meet in Doriath and stand gazing at each other while years pass.
Laura commented on the striking image of the ‘grey hand of tomorrow’ in the more sombre poem ‘You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play.’
Pat wondered if there were any collections of these early poems. None of the rest of us were aware of any collection other than The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
Laura then wondered how on earth Tolkien ever found time to write so much, not just the poetry but his Qenya lexicon, as well as doing his university studies and turning up for military manoeuvres.
Ian observed that with the inclusion of the early poetry John Garth fills in the pivotal five years of Tolkien’s life because it was the impending cataclysm of war that pushed Tolkien to write poetry. In a reversal of the usual idea of the effect of WW1 on Tolkien, Ian remarked that Tolkien wrote going Into the war, he was not writing Out of it.
Tim qualified this by commenting that Tolkien was writing in spite of the situation and dealing with topic distinctly other than war.
We went on to consider the very early version of ‘The Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl’, itself not one of the famous poems, but in its original form called ‘The Happy Mariners’. Mike wondered if the poem represented Tolkien’s underlying sense of being trapped by his decision to stay on and finish his studies at Oxford, only to find that the great enterprise to which he would then commit himself was slowly being revealed as less glorious than it originally seemed.
Tim and Mike then led a discussion on the difference between early and later work by other poets who experienced the war. They noted that Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon both initially wrote poems in support of war.
Pat took us on to more practical matters as she called attention to the long list of kit Tolkien was recommended to buy, all of which, including ‘a bath and wash-stand’ had to fit into a ‘large canvas kitbag.’ Tim likened this to Sam’s haversack into which he packed many useful things, except, the first time, a bit of rope.
We all turned our attention then to the reference to the ‘land of Nod’. We wondered at the cultural perspective of the ‘philanthropist’ who thought it of sending copies of the illustration of R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Land of Nod’ poem, about fairyland, to the men in the trenches. I thought maybe it was a reminder of their days in the nursery. We considered the background of the 19th century fascination with fairies that lasted into the Edwardian period, and it was noted that such a fascination seemed to run in parallel with and counter to appalling social conditions. Pat, however, observed that originally the Land of Nod was the place to which Cain was exiled after he had murdered Abel. Pat ad Angela also noted that by the time of the Great War the terms ‘fairy’ had already gained a negative sexual connotation.
Laura took us on to the topic of Wandsworth – the location of The Council of London – where the TCBS defined itself and its agenda. Laura wondered how close the exact location, Routh Road, was to the prison, and whether it provided any inspiration for the Black Gate.
Julie picked up the ‘Wands’ element belonging to the River Wandle and wondered about its connection – if any – with the Withywindle.
Laura remarked on the intensity of the TCBS which included an degree of elitism and factionalism as well as some patriotic fervour. Mike noted that groups of that age often look for a cause they would be prepared to die for.
Laura also remarked that at the same time that the TCBS were plotting their cultural revolution the Russian Revolution was also taking place. Ian observed that the TCBS were part of a cultural change overtaking Europe. However, the TCBS were intent on looking backwards for their moral and cultural foundations while throughout Europe violent destruction of the past in all its forms had political and aesthetic support.
Pat turned our attention to other matters when she commented on the Bronte children’s games which included making up languages and creating stories about little beings. Julie observed that Jane Eyre contains many references to fairies and elves, but these are of the nasty, malignant kind.
We went on to a long discussion on Tolkien’s attitude to language, including his delight in sound. Mike commented that some languages are best for opera, which Ian qualified as ‘some languages are better suited to the expression of high art’, when we discovered that we were naming different preferences. Laura and Tim suggested that it was all a matter of context.
Ian ended our afternoon by taking us back to 2 of Tolkien theatrical preferences – Peter Pan, and Pinero. Ian noted that Pinero said Peter Pan was really for grown-ups, and opinion that echoed and reversed Tim’s experience in finding LotR consigned to the shelves of children’s books in a book shop.
Before we ended we agreed to read chapters 6 ‘Too long in slumber’ and 7 ‘Larkspur and Canterbury Bells’
APPENDIX
A few weeks ago Anne asked something along the lines of ‘how would we categorise Tolkien’s works in terms of literature?’ We rather strenuously denied the benefit of ‘categorising’ at all, but that was perhaps ducking the question. Having thought and read a little more since then, I would like to attempt another response. While remaining cautious of defending the idea of ‘great literature’, it may be relevant to consider texts that can be defended as ‘important’ because they are ‘open’ i.e. they allow a range of approaches and ‘meanings’ to emerge. Tolkien’s texts, and especially perhaps, LotR does this.
The evocation of diversity of meaning gives a text ‘staying power’, especially in so far as its meaning include adaptability to social and cultural change – not always exactly the same meaning but those in which some social and cultural values remain important – e.g. good defeating evil, the needs of the many promoted over what is personal or limited; a sense of fate or destiny; human frailty.
There are many other ways of arguing the importance of Tolkien’s work, but its openness is demonstrable by reviewing the diverse critical approaches to his texts. No doubt as time goes on new critics will apply additional new approaches which will extend our appreciation of the worth of the texts that are so often dismissed by critics who don’t understand how to read them.

Please comment, qualify, or extend these first thoughts.