First meeting in February

14.02.15
We began our meeting with ‘any other business’ as usual, including my own discovery that a local street had once been known as Bagrow, and that 2 fields had been known as Greater and Little Bucklands. It seems, however, that lots of places have areas known as Buckland – nicely traditional!
Eventually we got round to our reading this week which was ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, ‘The Prancing Pony’, and ‘Strider’. Carol had sent her comments which are included in the body of this report, although we didn’t cover as much material as Carol! But her additional comments will be included next time.
In fact we addressed some of Carol’s points first as she commented from last time: Tim’s got a good memory remembering Tom as part of the song of creation. It was probably me that made the comment and i’ve said it again, there’s something in Tom’s ability to know the tune – vibration – of things and I can’t quite get my head round it. Any ideas? I think it’s important.

Carol also noted that Tom Bombadil mainly wears primary colours, and the group’s response was the observation that these are ‘originary’ colours, those from which all others are made. It was also observed that Tom’s primary colours contrast sharply with Saruman who breaks the unity of white into many colours.
While analysing Tom’s colours Angela noted that apart from his initial clothes, his face is red. Julia added that he includes white in the form of the swan wing-feather.
We went on to consider Tom’s ability to control his environment and Angela observed that in the long poem of the Adventures of Tom Bombadil we learn that Tom learns his methods of control over other things.
Tim returned to colours when he remarked that as the hobbits leave Tom’s house the colours worn by Goldberry echo the colours in the description of Frodo’s dream of a ‘far green country under a swift sunrise’, itself to be echoed later at the end of the tale, as if Goldberry reassuringly pre-echoed that ending.
Laura contrasted Goldberry’s clear call with the terrible cry of the Black Riders.
Tim returned us to a previous consideration of the strange relationship between Tom’s house and time which the hobbits feel as a different ‘zone’, while his reluctance to leave his ‘country suggests that its boundaries function as a kind of ‘portal’.
Chris wondered how Tom knew about Barliman Butterbur? Angela suggested it was through the elves, and Laura noted that in this part of the book there are lots of travellers passing information. Eileen then questioned the speed with which messages seem able to travel.
Eileen, reading the story for the very first time, also noted that many characters appear to have differing agendas.
As we move into ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, Laura had brought along a picture by Tolkien dated 1928 of an image from a nightmare suffered by his son Michael. It showed a window with patterned curtains drawn back to show a night sky, and a huge, vaguely skeletal hand stretching across the left-hand curtain. Julie questioned the date of the old film ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ about a disembodied hand.
Eileen observed that the progress of the hobbits over the Downs, as in the Old Forest, suggests that the hobbits are trying to stay on the right paths, physically and metaphorically, even though they do not.
Laura noted that evil wights had entered the ancient barrows, but Angela pointed out that the barrows themselves are not evil.
Eileen remarked that the atmosphere of the chapter almost becomes a character in its own right.
I explained that it has been argued that the wight owes some of its characteristics to the Icelandic myth of the haugbui – a revenant that is also capable of singing. The example cited is from Njal’s Saga, where Gunnar is heard singing in his grave by his sons. Laura observed that the wight’s incantation has power, but not for good.
Chris then questioned the matter of the splintering blade, and Angela quoted Strider’s ‘all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King, and both she and I thought it splintered on account of the influence of the Witch King on the wight.
Laura then wondered about the sword laid across the 3 hobbits’ necks, and wondered whether Frodo was left out because he was the last one taken into the barrow, or whether it was because of the Ring – and an influence that didn’t want Frodo dead – or an influence acting for good? Laura also wondered if the white clothing and gold adornments of the 3 hobbits was a kind of ritual so that the wight could gain control of them.
Eileen added that the number 3 continually had significance in various religions.
Tim directed our attention then to the description of the hobbits rejoicing in the morning light and air outside the barrow like someone who had long been ill and bedridden, and he wondered if this description came from Tolkien’s own experience of extended periods of illness during the Great War.
Eileen then wondered if Tolkien himself had had nightmares as a result of the war because the imagery in the book reads as so real. Laura replied that later bits of the book will confirm this.
Eileen noted that in spite of the book being categorised as fantasy it feels real – we all agreed enthusiastically with this! And Julie explained that the book reads as an historical reconstruction, fleshing out things that might have happened.
Eileen returned to the matter of paths and wondered if the barrow feels hellish for Frodo, because he didn’t stay on the path appointed for him. Chris noted that Frodo makes an important choice between using the sword to help his friends or using the Ring to save himself.
In view of the fact that they are constantly left out of adaptations of LotR, Chris wondered what the point was of the ‘Old Forest’ and the ‘Fog’ chapters, because they don’t add to the plot. Eileen suggested that character development takes place, and Tim replied that the chapter mark the first real encounter with the kind of evil the hobbits have been told about.
Chris objected that in the next chapter the hobbits don’t seem to have changed very much, but Laura likened the experience to a team-building exercise. Chris replied that the hobbits don’t act as a team in Bree. Laura proposed that Tolkien shows that danger lies not very far from Hobbiton.
Carol commented that the ‘Fog’ chapter sets history in topography, ‘the memory of the old kings…faded into grass’ – the burial mounds – still around in the rangers. Stories in the landscape, mighty in myth. See encounter with Eomer about ‘old kings…faded into grass’ springing out again.
Angela remarked that Merry seems aware of ‘being in the past’ with the spear ‘in his chest’, as he experiences the Prince of Cardolan’s spirit.
Tim observed that the hobbits take the same journey east as Bilbo, but that was a straightforward narrative and The Hobbit misses lots of landscape and history, and the number of different dangers that lurk in their world.
Tom Bombadil’s rapid response to Frodo’s song led Chris to suggest that Tom was expecting the wight to catch the hobbits, and Julia wondered, if Frodo had forgotten the rhyme, would Tom have left the hobbits to their fate?
Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore this topic in detail but before we dispersed we agreed that we would pick up next time the chapters we didn’t have time for at this meeting. So for next time we will be reading ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’, ‘Strider’, and ‘A Knife in the Dark’.

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’.