First Saturday in November


It was a full house for our meeting this afternoon, and very lively. We looked forward to our annual trip to the cinema to see the next instalment of the The Hobbit film trilogy, and were introduced by Laura to the concept of ‘echo tongues’ as used in some modern fiction, before we began our third(!) group reading of LotR. We were naturally starting with the Prologue and Chapter 1.

Eileen, reading LotR for the first time, remarked on the amount of humour she found in these first parts of the text, as well as the lovely descriptions of scenery, but was surprised by the tension between Bilbo and Gandalf. Eileen also commented that she thought Tolkien was playing with his readers in the way he set this up. Mike noted the very hobbit-like humour emerging at times in Chapter 1.

Tim agreed that there is ambiguity for the first-time reader in the relationship between the hobbit and the wizard.

Mike commented on Tolkien’s use of different narratorial voices in the Prologue, where it is more ‘scholarly’ and didactic, and the story itself where he suits the voice to the character. Pat remarked that he differentiates the characters as people differ in society. Laura noted the specific kinds of characters we meet in the Ivy Bush.

Tim then reminded us that Tolkien did not write this story! Bilbo wrote the original and Tolkien translated it. This led to various recollections of other writers who used this ‘found manuscript’ device. We mentioned M.R. James, Lovecraft, the Flashman series, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

As we discussed Gandalf, Ian surprised us with his observation that Gandalf arrives in the Shire with a cart load of munitions! Pat commented that Tolkien created fireworks she didn’t recognise and there was some nostalgic recollection of simple fireworks we remembered. Angela remarked that Tolkien must have liked fireworks. Mike wondered if the volcano described was (presciently) Mount Doom. Tim and I thought it was Erebor while Ian thought its identity was ambiguous.

We briefly tackled the traditional question of the ‘express train’, but having thrashed out this anachronism during previous readings, Ian’s observation that this image was “the closest Tolkien could get in his translation of the ‘original’ description of the noise, power, and sight of the dragon” went unchallenged.

Pat then questioned the way in which the transmission of the Ring is dealt with and Chris commented that two ‘Powers’ are vying for influence over it. Laura suggested that this made the Ring neurotic!

Noticing that the Ring was not originally on a chain when Bilbo found it, Tim proposed that its chaining by Bilbo to keep it from slipping off was also symbolic of the Chaining of Melkor.

Laura then extended the idea the Ring being under external control and suggested that the hobbits might be understood as Iluvatar’s ‘sleepers’, quietly existing and protected until they were needed.

Eileen wondered if there was a hidden agenda behind the characterisation of Gandalf, and Mike suggested that he was part of a constant iteration in the story of ‘something beyond’ what is apparent.

Pat compared the thematic motif of the journey which is a physical representation of always moving beyond. Mike thought this was perfectly précised in the ‘Road Goes Ever On and On’ song, especially in the last line: ‘And wither then, I cannot say’.

Angela then referred us to the Appendix and its information that the external guard on the Shire was doubled after the Birthday Party. Ian remarked that this implied a need for the hobbits to be kept inside, even suppressed. Mike added the ominous analogy of the suppression of the working classes, since the Shire folk are primarily farmers and small craftsmen.

Pat considered the matter of the presents Bilbo gives, and wondered if the sarcastic or perhaps spiteful messages accompanying them were related to the influence of the Ring on the otherwise kindly hobbit. Mike noted that the gifts are highlighted in capitals in the text, and Ian suggested the presence of rhetorical figures such as alliteration implied the significance of the gifts at a level beyond the companionable. Chris did not agree that the Ring influenced the present giving.

Eileen approved of the sharp edge to some of Bilbo’s messages because it adds another facet to his characterisation and Mike agreed that Bilbo is an adult and his flaws link him to us.

Tim thought that Bilbo’s presents were an unburdening as he leaves, compared to the Ring which he really wants to keep.

Mike noted that the relationship between Bilbo and the young Frodo is a sign of the times – there is no hint of moral darkness in it.

Pat then asked, as Gandalf does not get a present, what we would give him? Julie proposed a tobacco jar. Tim suggested ‘ a cartful of problems’, while Ian suggested ‘Frodo’. This is indeed finally the answer to his cartful of problems!

Laura observed that the chapter itself moves from fun to something darker, and Ian remarked that the Prologue in fact introduces doubt with references such as ‘mere luck’ and ‘luck (as it seemed)’.

Tim then wondered who the Authorities are that are mentioned in the Prologue as judges of the rules of the Riddle Game. I thought they could have been very ancient, because Gollum knows the rules of the game. Mike thought they were probably the drinkers in the Ivy Bush – keeping up knowledge of the Rules whenever they were instituted.

Pat returned to the influence of the Ring on Bilbo, asking if it was the motivating power behind Bilbo being able to find his way through the tunnels under the mountain because it ‘needed’ him to get it out. Pat also wondered if it was the reason why Bilbo lied uncharacteristically.

Julie observed that the Birthday happens around the time of the Equinox – a time when light and darkness are in balance. She also wondered if Frodo’s ‘fidgeting with something in his pocket’ during his interview with the Sackville-Bagginses was a sign that the Ring was beginning to influence him, that it was already out of its envelope and in his pocket.

Tim ended our session with the observation that the ending of Chapter 1 is poignant.

Our next reading will be the next 2 chapters up to ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’, although some of us may read further.


Last Saturday in October


This week we set out to finish off Unfinished Tales. Mike sadly was not well enough to be with us and Eileen could not join us. As usual Carol sent her comments by email, and Julie emailed a few additional thoughts after the meeting which are included at the end of the discussion of the palantiri.

We began the afternoon with Ian’s update on his latest visit to the Bodleian and the additional information it provided for his latest project.

Laura launched the discussion of the final chapters of UT – ‘The Istari’ and ‘The Palantiri’ – with her observation that both chapters are rich in details.

Carol commented on ‘The Istari’: this is one of my favourite sections, especially on first reading, learning more about Gandalf and co.: ‘whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal…or to seek to rule…’ I call this the Istari’s prime directive as in Star Trek, not to interfere with different races – against their wills or not. Even the Valar have to learn lessons. This is a prime example of the allowing of free will without ‘endeavour to dominate’.

Laura also commented that Tolkien knows ‘human’ nature, even if some characters are not precisely human. She was directing our attention to the way that Varda ‘promotes’ Olorin (Gandalf) during the council of the Valar when the Istari are being chosen. The result is that Saruman bears a grudge against Gandalf ever after.

Chris remarked that Cirdan recognised Gandalf as more powerful, and Carol comments: What would have happened if Saruman had been given a healing ring of power? Would it have nudged him to better conduct and averted his jealousy of Gandalf’s having Narya?

We all commented on the strange wrangle over which Istari travel together, including Saruman’s scorn for Radagast, and the pairing of the 2 blue wizards. Julie recollected that Saruman travelled into the east with the blue wizards.

Tim noted that Gandalf is humbler on his own account as against Saruman’s pride in his own status. Carol, however, had commented: ‘he was not proud’ – (Gandalf) – ever so slightly, see his white horses at the Fords of Bruinen and his reaction when telling Frodo. We discussed this point and it was concluded that this was not so much pride as delight in creating a fun effect (because it was strictly unnecessary. However, Angela pointed out that the white horses are effectively an insult to the Black Riders.

Angela saw this as the reason why he shows such empathy with hobbits, Men and others, because he has his own fears and anxieties.

Tim remarked that this was perhaps the result of a Maia taking physical shape, leading to the giving up Maia power.

Laura then proposed that maybe each wizard’s staff is a necessary part of their physical being ‘containing’ some extension of Maia power passed into it. Ian suggested that the staff was the sign of their ‘infirmity’ in Middle-earth.

Angela took an example from the Harry Potter stories, where it is important to match the wizard to his/her wand. Julie reminded us of the use of Aaron’s staff when Moses confronts Pharaoh. Ian qualified this by remarking that in LotR no wizard’s staff is ever transformed.

In the context of the importance of staffs (staves) Angela noted that Denethor breaks his staff, but this may be understood as a staff of office. Pat added the example of Prospero breaking his staff in The Tempest, and I remembered the breaking of a staff of office in Richard II. We did not explore the relationship between wizards’ staffs and staffs of office.

Chris then questioned why Tolkien was working on defining the Istari in 1954? I directed everyone to Christopher’s Introduction to the UT book which suggests that it was part of Tolkien’s method of working, especially as he was at the time creating an Index for the first edition of FotR and TT and frequently gave detailed Index entries, although nothing as long as the material that makes up the Istari and Palantiri chapters. They do, however, replicate the way he worked when creating his Index entries.

Laura then remarked on the fact that the Maia were already gendered in Valinor. This led Tim to wonder whether any of the other Istari were female? He also questioned whether Radagast had a staff, since there is no mention of one.

Angela drew our attention to Saruman’s comment on the ‘rods of the 5 wizards’, and concluded that Radagast must have had one.

I was interested in Saruman’s eventual fate, as his physical form was destroyed and dissipated, and I asked whether this meant that he would be denied access to Mandos. Angela and Chris both confirmed that his ‘essence’ went west and then east. Tim concluded that he was thus banished from Valinor.

We noted the care with which the Valar consult over sending the Istari as Tolkien reflects on the mistakes they had made. Manwe also (probably) consults Eru about this – Christopher includes these his father’s tentative and unresolved ideas, but this led Julie to wonder what mechanism was used to contact Eru. Chris and Angela noted that Manwe was always able to do this.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s choice of the name ‘Eru’ meaning ‘the One’, in these references and wondered why this name? Tim pointed out the definition ‘Eru who is called Iluvatar (All-Father) in Arda’. Julie remarked that Iluvatar is a title like ‘Adonai’ in the New Testament, rather than a name.

We went on to consider Gandalf again as Angela observed that Gandalf’s liveliness is ‘veiled’ in grey. Julie noted that grey is a colour associated with elves, and Laura remarked that the wizards’ colours go back to their origins in Valinor and the Valar whose Maiar they are.

Angela remarked that Gandalf has the red ring, signifying the flame of his spirit within. Tim reminded us that Gandalf is a servant of the secret fire. Chris then wondered why Saruman assumed primacy. Tim responded that he was both the eldest and the first ashore in Middle-earth. Tim also wondered if the Valar perceived the possibility of Saruman’s turn to evil and thus sent him first while they sent Gandalf quietly later to do the real work – making Saruman a stalking horse.

Chris observed that this prompts sympathy for Saruman.

Tim added that both Saruman and Sauron were mentored by Aule, and Julie noted that Aule was an equivocal presence by reason of his disobedience in creating the dwarves.

I asked everyone’s opinion of Tolkien’s brief pondering in a text of 1972 that Gandalf was ‘the last appearance of Manwe himself’. Julie considered the special relationship between Gandalf and the eagles, and also proposed that if Gandalf had been Manwe in disguise Sauron would have perceived the deception.

Laura then asked what we thought happened to Radagast – did he pass over the Sea, or did he fail because he was naive?

Tim remarked that Tolkien clearly didn’t know cats when he described the relationship between Queen Beruthiel and her cats. We all agreed that no felinophile would suggest that cats could be anyone’s slaves.

As we moved into the Palantiri chapter Laura noted that Denethor was jealous of Aragorn and Tim observed that this echoes in Faramir’s poor relationship with his father.

We all discussed Carol’s observation of the origins of the palatiri: when he’s riding with Pippin to Minas Tirith Gandalf slightly implies that Feanor made them as he’s musing on ‘seven stars and seven stones and one white tree’. Whatever Feanor has done wrong, in this passage Gandalf still reveres him.

Pat wondered how Saruman made an ‘innocent’ stone evil. Time replied that it was ‘by the way he used it’.

Angela remarked on the use of the remaining palantiri for brainwashing and reading thoughts. Laura noted that Sauron as a Maia was strong enough to control both the stone he has and its contact. Angela added that a stone was dangerous to use if it was in contact with Sauron, but Aragorn had both the strength of mind and the benefit of legitimate ownership.

Laura commented on the fact that the palantiri had largely been forgotten and noted that the exact number of them is not known, so there must have been more.

Pat asked if there had been something in the stone during the contact described in TT, but it was Pippin’s curiosity that led him to encounter Sauron.

Chris observed that it was odd, or convenient, that the stone Pippin finds lands just right. Carol comment that the palantiri were unbreakable. Indeed when Grima chucks the Orthanc stone down on Gandalf and misses, and it hits the steps, it’s the steps that crack.

Julie emailed her additional comments on the palantiri: I didn’t mention this at the meeting, but I was struck by the description of the Stones as being made out glass.  As they were black I should think this meant volcanic glass, i.e. obsidian.  This has occult connotations when used for making weapons but as a “seeing” instrument a lot of people into crystals would say that it is no use at all, as glass does not have a crystalline structure and therefore can have retained no “earth energy” (which is apparently vital if you want a sphere to have this function), unlike crystalline rock!  Just a thought.  (And the crystalline rock has to be untreated, I recall.  Crystals which have been heat-treated to improve their colour – something which routinely happens – are allegedly rendered inert by this process.)

With that we had finished Unfinished Tales. Our reading for next time is the Prologue and Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings.

Last Saturday in September – our only meeting this month


We began this week’s meeting by welcoming back Mike and Julie and welcoming for the first time Eileen, who is new to the group and to Tolkien. Angela and Chris were not with us but sent comments on our reading: ‘The Quest for Erebor’, and ‘The Hunt for the Ring’. We did not have time for ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ so that is held over for the next meeting.

And so we began with Pat’s query concerning Elendil’s tomb – why, she asked, is it black if Tolkien always associates black with evil. Most of us pointed out that this is a generalisation that does not hold up when examined closely, and that in some cases Tolkien uses whiteness to signify evil, such as Saruman’s use of the white hand as his ‘heraldic device’.

Laura observed that in Chapter 42 ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the mariner Ishmael considers that ‘anything that is terrible seems even more horrifying when it has a ghostly whiteness.’

Mike suggested that the blackness of Elendil’s tombstone was symbolic of his fate at the hands of evil. Mike went on to consider the distance a horse could travel in one day and had discovered that it was possible to achieve 40 miles, but one Arab breed is reputed to have been able to manage 100 miles.

Ian remarked that there could be totemic significance in a horse and rider being able to cover extraordinary distances, and to the amount of land covered.

Mike compared the great distances to biblical characters living hundreds of years, and Tim wondered whether some stories involved one rider with a relay of horses.

I then asked how it could be that Azog could brand Thrór after their battle at the East Gate of Moria? Laura and Tim conjectured that the orcs might have had mobile braziers for the reforging of weapons broken in battle. Mike suggested that Azog might have carried a blade engraved with an orc symbol, and Tim questioned whether orcs actually wrote, while Mike thought they might sign themselves with something like an X.

Laura remarked that Azog’s act showed orc understanding of different cultures.

Pat then asked about the mention of the Elves’ New Year, what was the date. We found the answer in the Notes to ‘The Quest’: April 6th. Tim observed that it is also the start of the financial year!

I then mentioned that I found it interesting that Gandalf uses the Shire as a place to rest. Laura observed that he was clearly aware that the Rangers were on patrol on the borders.

I asked too what kind of disguise Gandalf might have adopted in order to get safely in and out of Dol Guldur? Laura wondered if he might have reverted to his unclothed Maia form, while Tim thought he might have adopted a ‘Sherlock’ kind of disguise – not doing anything spectacular or radical, but making subtle changes. Mike thought Gandalf could have exploited any trade into the fortress and disguised himself as a tradesman, and Tim thought he might have been disguised as a tinker – able to mend weapons and pots. Tim also noted that Dol Goldur was in the process of being rebuilt at the time. And Mike suggested he might have used his wizard’s power of influence through his voice, telling the orcs on watch: ‘This is not the wizard you are looking for’! We all liked that.

Laura then thought it odd that Gandalf suddenly remembers the key and map Thrór gave him as he travels through the Shire. I thought it was because until that time Gandalf had been seeing only the problem from a ‘southerly’ perspective, and worrying over the threat from Dol Guldur to Lorien and Rivendell. Even when he began to worry about the potential alliance between Smaug and the power in the fortress it was from that orientation. His need to take out the dragon became part of his need to protect the 2 Elven powers.

Tim put it more concisely when he identified Gandalf’s thinking as initially strategic, but then became tactical, as he realised the map and key would allow him to attack the dragon from an unexpected direction.

Laura thought it poignant that Gandalf didn’t recognise the value of Thrór’s gift. Julie wondered why Thrór still had it after so long in the dungeons of Dol Guldur, why hadn’t he been searched? Tim suggested that maps and keys could be small things, and not obvious. But Ian reminded us that the map was made on parchment.

Mike then directed us to Gandalf’s problems of persuading Thorin to accept Bilbo on the quest. We remarked on the language used as Thorin refers dismissively of Bilbo as Gandalf’s ‘darling’, and Gandalf says that he had been ‘attracted’ to the hobbit when he was a youth, meaning he appreciated the hobbit’s potential early in life.

Laura observed that we know that what appears as Gandalf’s ‘chance meeting’ is really no such thing, and Angela and Chris noted that this chapter also reminds us of the events going on in parallel with the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, namely Dáin Ironfoot and Brand fighting their own battle against Sauron’s forces. Julie noted that all the battles are encouraging gamers to take more notice.


I questioned the rejected passage in which Gandalf admits that it was annoyance at Thorin’s disdain for hobbits that made him decide to put them together. This seemed to me like a bad way of making decisions, and most unlike the Gandalf we are used to. Mike remarked that initial irritation did not rule out later mature consideration.

Laura wondered if his irritation was a consequence of a Maia taking on bodily form – with the form came the weaknesses, and we considered again why Gandalf took the form he did. Laura though the aged form was least threatening, and Tim reminded us of Gandalf’s threat to Bilbo to ‘uncloak’. Mike added the biblical reference from the transfiguration of Christ: the disciples have to bow before the brilliance of the light of Moses and Elijah.

Eileen observed that Gandalf is able to manipulate Thorin and the power of his mind takes effect through reference to the consequences of ignoring his advice. Eileen also noted Thorin’s ‘racism’ in his comments about Bilbo, and Angela and Chris remarked on ‘The Dwarves’ general contempt for the hobbits (as displayed by Thorin, Glóin and Fili), even though they don’t really know anything about them.


Mike drew our attention to the specific vocabulary Tolkien uses when Gandalf speaks of Gollum’s ‘torment’ in Barad Dûr, and Mike observed that the word has diminished in significance. Tim wondered if the word signified the use of more sophisticated techniques for interrogation in BD than the rack and thumb screws kind. Tim wondered if psychological techniques were implied.

We then went through the process of untangling the double negative of Gandalf’s comment that ‘Sauron did not underesteem the powers and vigilance of the Wise’. And Pat noted the use of the unusual word form ‘stolider’.

Pat also wondered why such a point was made of Bilbo remaining unmarried, and Mike remarked that the unmarried state was very much part of the early Inklings culture as far as C.S. Lewis was concerned. Julie commented that Bilbo nevertheless had plenty of relatives, while Laura remarked that Bilbo was saving himself for something he did not recognise (as Gandalf notes).

Tim then remarked on the increased horror of the unclad Riders, and I said that I had found the details of the Black Riders’ movements in the Shire deeply disturbing – actually knowing that it is Khamûl, the Witch King’s lieutenant, who confronted the Gaffer, and as Julie noted, also Farmer Maggott, is both more terrifying and a more powerful sign of the strength of both hobbits, but it was also remarked that it is a measure of their innocence that they are not cowed by the horror of the Riders.

Julie wondered at the terrifying power of Sauron over the Ringwraiths, and Laura considered how nervous messengers from Mordor must have been when confronting their presences in Minas Ithil and Dol Guldur.

Mike remarked on the way Tolkien sets out the process of Saruman’s jealousy over Gandalf, noting that this is an exposition of the decline of Saruman’s personality. Tim commented that Saruman envies Gandalf’s strength, and Laura wondered if the tension between the 2 wizards picked up the small politics of Oxford academic life as Tolkien knew it.

Mike noted that the films don’t explain Saruman’s malice against the Shire that Gandalf loved.

Ian observed that this kind of character development is not in LotR but Tolkien had to write it out in additional works.

Tim noted that Saruman going disguised into the Shire parallels Gandalf going disguised into Dol Guldur, and Ian observed that comparison needed to be made between the risks each wizard confronted. Angela and Chris noted ‘Saruman’s sneaky visits to the Shire disguised as Gandalf and his corruption of the Bracegirdles and Sackville-Bagginses. The events which led to the situation in The Scouring of the Shire obviously began a long way back.’

And so we ran out of time. Our next reading will be ‘The Battle of the Fords of Isen’ and ‘The Drúedain’. We had noted some of the comments sent by Angela and Chris, the others are included here.

Quest of Erebor

This is good back story and good at “filling in” the characters. I chiefly noted the following:

  • Thorin’s arrogance. Reminded me of Boromir – see p.430 when Gandalf tells him he must go on his quest in secret with: “no messengers, heralds….” – reminiscent of Boromir blowing his horn on leaving Rivendell.
  • Very forthright arguments between Gandalf and Thorin.

Overall it was interesting to hear the story of the beginning of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point of view rather than Bilbo’s.

Hunt for the Ring

What a complex lot of events and undercurrents underlying the story we know so well!

  • Gollum being captured and tortured by Sauron, then released and caught by Aragorn
  • Saruman’s servants waylaying Sauron’s, with Sauron being aware of this but not letting on
  • The Dúnedain spying on Sauron’s servants
  • Sauron learning of the “dream” verse
  • The interception of Wormtongue and the squint-eyed Southerner by the Nazgûl
  • The Lord of the Nazgûl’s role in stirring up the Old Forest and the Barrow-wights

I think the attack on the Dúnedain by the Nazgûl is a very grim episode. These were the toughest guys in Middle-earth and yet “their hearts misgave them “and all were killed or driven off. The trauma and shame of the survivors must have been considerable.

The description of Aragorn’s journey with the captured Gollum (900 miles on foot in 50 days over a lot of difficult terrain!) perhaps explains why Aragorn’s attitude to Gollum at the Council of Elrond was less than compassionate. It must have been impossible for him to get any sleep without tying Gollum up. This is not to mention the lengthy search – in the most noxious and dangerous parts of Middle-earth – which preceded the capture.