First Saturday in October



Unfortunately this afternoon we were missing Julie (making Christmas puddings!), and Mike and Tim – both languishing with illness, but the rest of us had a busy afternoon. Tim, like Carol, sent comments by email which are included as appropriate here.

Before starting the discussion, Ian updated us on the fate of the pinus nigra, Tolkien’s favourite tree in the Oxford Botanical gardens which lost 2 of its major limbs during the summer and had to be cut down.

Eventually we turned our attention to our nominated reading: ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’, and ‘The Drúedain’, having briefly touched on some of its major elements ahead of Laura’s arrival, thus Laura picked up the point Eileen had mentioned – that Grimbold and Elfhelm, the 2 marshalls of the Riddermark, had compromised and co-operated although they had different ideas.

Angela, Eileen. Laura and I found the detailed strategy Tolkien describes in the battles rather difficult to engage with, and Eileen was surprised that no time was given to mourning for Theodred. We variously suggested that there was no time in such a dangerous and embattled situation, and Laura remarked that it probably represented real battle conditions such as Tolkien would have known from his time in the trenches. Laura added that Theodred is later buried in one of the barrows at Edoras, when there would have been time to mourn properly.

Ian went on to observe that the title of the volume we have been reading – Unfinished Tales – is not really accurate in the case of The Battles of Isen because this is less an ‘unfinished tale’ than an ‘Untold’ tale until now.

Laura picked up the matter of Theodred’s death when she noted that there is something mystical and/or supernatural about the way Theodred is left for the time being as if in defence of his home territory.

Chris wondered why the full story of the Battles was not included in LotR. Angela and Ian suggested that their inclusion was not structurally necessary to the development of the story.

Tim commented by email that ‘It develops events that are referred to in “The Two Towers” – I can’t tell from the notes (and may have overlooked such a note – and I haven’t got round to checking in HoME) but I wonder if Tolkien ever intended at some point to include it in LotR.’

“but the shield wall held” the battles of Isen might not be the main ones fought in the War of the Ring and left out of the main text but they are great battles nonetheless.  The Rohirrim are stern fighters and without these battles, however much defeat is suffered, they nevertheless contributed to Saruman’s final defeat in the Rohirrim’s bravery, staying power and experienced fighting. A bit like the Alamo holding back Santa Ana’s army in Texas till Sam Houston could get his act together.

Laura observed that there is no feeling for Theodred, except that Saruman targets the prince especially as a tactical move – taking out the head/commander.

Carol commented by email: ‘somewhere else in the book ‘little mistakes’ are mentioned that lead eventually to the enemy’s defeat. Here we have an example of Saruman not following through after Theodred’s death and invading the Westfold immediately: hubris’.

I suggested that Saruman’s tactic may also have been expected to weaken Theoden, who was already undermined by Grima’s influence. Laura noted the potential additional impact of Saruman’s recruitment of the Dunlendings and Angela remarked on their vengeful attitude towards the Rohirrim.

Carol commented: ‘the appendix [to the chapter] is well-written, interesting and gives a lot of otherwise unknown background. But the question does arise about the original inhabitants of Calenardhon, i.e. the Dunlendings. Superior race comes in and the natives suffer.  Who can blame the Dunlendings? and Saruman exploits this. As is said after the battle of Helm’s Deep, not in 500 years do the Dunlending forget their grievance against Rohan and it isn’t too great an exaggeration for holding grudges as witnessed in religious divisions, some longer than 500 years.

Angela went on to comment that Peter Jackson includes the Battles of Isen in his films and has been praised for this.

Laura wondered if Saruman’s forces employed a bad tactic using wolf-riders in the same as horses – which feared them.

Tim commented ‘The chapter reads very much as a part of a greater military history of the Rohirrim, in tone and content. (I meant to sit down with my Middle-earth Atlas and try to work out the details of it visually).

I could imagine it being one chapter in a long chronicle preserved by bardic tradition by a succession of bards – “Hwaet! Theodred waes god eorl” sort of thing (please excuse my rough Old English!) – and perhaps later by Gondorian scribes at Minas Tirith.’

Laura observed that throughout the Battles Tolkien’s understatement registers the horror of his own war experiences.

We moved on to consider the chapter on The Drúadain, and Angela remarked that although this race is described as ‘unlovely’ that are also said to be much respected and loved. Laura thought the description of the Drúadain reiterated Mongolian characteristics, although their glowing eyes added a mystical dimension.

Tim commented: ‘This chapter comes across very much as a pre-history, with an archaelogical/anthropological feel to its description of these primitive yet sophisticated people. Again it adds more detail to the race of “Wild Men” who keep to themselves. We encounter Ghan-buri-Ghan and his folk the Woses in RotK when they guide the Rohirrim through Drúadan Forest.’

Carol commented: ‘the Druedain are very earthy aboriginal peoples with seemingly the power of the Maiar to transfer part of themselves into inanimate objects – like Sauron and the Ring.’ Laura observed that Druedain philosophy linked to this which meant that the transference of power involved some reciprocity.

Laura and I wondered if Tolkien had in mind the Neanderthal people, I noted that they are described as painting as well as carving, and Laura remarked that their stout build was reminiscent of the prehistoric ‘Venus’ fertility carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,000 B.C.E.– 25,000 B.C.E.)

I wondered if we should understand the orcs as being superstitious in their avoidance of the wooden carvings the Drúadain made of themselves sitting on orcs which they placed at strategic places. Laura thought this was perhaps a sign that the orcs were being more practical in their dealings with the secretive and dangerous Drúadain.

However, Carol commented: ‘again we get reference to a ‘lesser’ people being ‘harried. Seems par for the course for some ‘progressive’ stronger white men whenever they’ve encountered the native population. The Drúadain have just the qualities needed for when Armageddon comes + Ray Mears.’

Eileen remarked that orcs certainly seem to be aware of the Drúadain insults.

Chris observed that the Drúadain are sensitive to changing winds like hobbits, and like them are linked to the earth. Angela remarked that they are not hobbits in their preference for drinking water and Laura suggested that in this they seem entish.

Chris then wondered why Tolkien invented the Drúadain, apart from Ghân-buri-Ghân? Angela thought it was filling in the backstory, while Laura proposed that Tolkien was depicting the diversity of the earth-dwellers. Laura also noted the great service provided by the Drúadain to other peoples, and she thought there was a resemblance between them and Tom Bombadil. Ian, however, thought this was not the case, but Laura explained that she thought they were closer to the elements – like Tom.

Angela then noted that there had been Drúadain in Numenor, even though they disliked voyages.

Eileen remarked that Drúadain laughter is contrasted to their ‘gutteral voices’, and considered this to be a comment on real communication. Chris observed that Drúadain language is not linguistically mixed with other languages of Middle-earth and that this may have been Tolkien’s reason for including them.

Ian thought this reflected Tolkien’s interest in languages, and Angela noted both Christopher and his father’s discursive work on languages.

Tim had already commented that ‘The Battles of the Fords of Isen’ is a very dramatic piece with a lot of rhythm to its language – describing the orcs assailing the Westfold: “They came on at great speed, and suddenly all the host burst into flame, as it seemed. Hundreds of torches were kindled from those borne by the leaders of troops, and gathering into their stream the forces already manning the west bank they swept over the Fords like a river of fire with a great clamour of hate.” (UT p.469 1998 edition)

Ian went on to observe the synchronicity of the Isen battles and the Drúadain episodes and Carol had also commented ‘here we get synchronicity with the main text of Theoden and co. also riding for Helm’s Deep and the ents ransacking Isengard.’ Synchronicity seems to evolve here as a theme.

Carol commented on a note to the chapter in which Elfhelm is said to have explained the sound of the unseen Drúadain to Merry: “nice bit of etymology going on here – a bit English folklore”. They are described as ‘woses’ [from OE wudu wasa ‘woodwose’], but also as Púkel-men from OE púcel ‘goblin, demon’.

For our next meeting we shall be reading ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’, and that will finish the book. This means that in December we shall begin reading The Lord of the Rings!