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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Reading Group meeting 11/2/06

On this day....

'...as the companions sat or walked together they spoke of Gandalf, ....Often they heard nearby Elvish voices singing, .....songs of lamentation for his fall....'

The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mirror of Galadriel

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Blogger davidalexander0019406229 said...

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5:57 PM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

11. 02. 06
This week our topic was swords and there was a great deal to say about these. Some members had done useful preliminary work. Pat had done some research into the various associations of the sword as symbolic and metaphoric, as a sign of power, inheritance and kingship. Julie had done some work and observed (by email) the comparison at the level of phonemes and syllables between Aragorn’s sword Anduril and the sword of the French hero Roland, which is called Durendal. The ‘almost’ anagram forms of the names of the two swords threw up a side issue when I mentioned that Roland was one of Charlemagne’s paladins in the French legends. Of course Peregrin son of Paladin sprang to everyone’s mind.
We naturally considered other famous named swords of myth and legend by way of comparison with the many named swords of ancient lineage in LotR. Excalibur was the first we discussed, noting that it does not have this name in the earliest Arthurian story – the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen in The Mabinogion. Excalibur threw up the ‘sword in the stone’ motif and it was observed that there is an analogue in the Germanic/Norse Niebelungenlied myth when Sigurd or Sigmund draws his father’s sword out of a tree trunk. This is reflected in LotR when Bilbo presents Sting to Frodo and demonstrates the sword’s remarkable nature by driving it into a wooden beam and them withdrawing it easily. We did pause in our deliberations to wonder what Elrond might have thought of having his house vandalised in this way, but then we moved on.
Ancient blades, especially those inherited, are especially important in northern mythology, including Angantyr’s sword which his daughter Hervor demands when she visits his grave. But ancient blades are accorded special status in the Old English war-poem known as The Battle of Maldon. We considered the intersections between other mythic and legendary swords and those in Tolkien’s work. The broken sword is also found in The Niebelungenlied. Both Aragorn’s father’s broken sword, and Siegfried’s father’s broken sword are reforged to be used by the hero-sons of hero-fathers. The melting blade (as in the Morgul knife) is found in Beowulf, as is another broken sword – Nailing breaks when Beowulf wields it against the dragon, but all blades break when he uses them because his hands are so strong – this breaking demonstrates his special heroic manual strength. We noticed that Boromir’s sword breaks when he defends Merry and Pippin and it is preserved and sent down Anduin with him. Its preservation reflects that of Narsil, its fate is different. Its lack of a name was taken as a sign of his ‘fatal flaw’.
It was noted that while Old English and Norse/Germanic myths and legends refer to the naming of swords, the Romans did not name swords. This was taken as evidence of their very pragmatic attitude to weapons. Some of the named blades in Tolkien’s works were discussed. Gurthang is renowned for its lineage, it has a twin and is made of black meteorite iron. It speaks when Glaurung is slain. We noted many named swords in LotR and TH, and the frequent twinning of swords. Many are elven work, but it was observed that Melkor originated swords in Middle-earth, and Narsil was forged by a dwarf and reforged by the Elves, who added runes to the blade. The special, somewhat occult, power of runes was considered and then we went on to talk about other forms of weapons. The use of knives as hobbit swords was considered from the point of view of scale: it may seem entirely suitable for a hobbit to carry as a sword a man’s or elf’s knife, but as Julie had observed, in the naming of Bilbo’s and Frodo’s blade, the name Sting in Old English is a verb which means ‘to stab’ and is not a diminishment either in meaning or in the service it renders. The same could be said for Merry and Pippin’s unnamed blades. Tolkien, as so often, is playing with language and its altered meanings.
We considered other weapons as well as swords before we ran out of time. Sauron’s mace caused some comment because of the current use of Mace by police! We only noticed one named spear –Aiglos, and no dwarf axes are named, neither are Legolas’s bow or knife. While Gimli’s ax is notched in battle Gandalf loses both his sword Glamdring and his staff in Moria, but while the sword falls with its master, his staff breaks as it shatters the bridge. This raised the question of whether there is an echo here of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the wizard or magician Prospero breaks his staff when he renounces his occult power.
It was remarked that breaking of weapons, especially swords, not unreasonably marks endings of one kind or another, usually death. But this is not true for Eowyn, whose sword breaks, but does not lead to a fatal ending. I hesitate to mention this, but for anyone who’s interested, it looks as though a deconstructive approach works better than the classic structuralist one we might expect to use when considering Tolkien’s storytelling method.
It was a wide-ranging and eclectic discussion which seemed to have whetted all our literary appetites as everyone had been reading around the topic. Next time we are going back to the book as we are just beginning The Two Towers. We will be looking at Chapter 1 of this volume: The Death of Boromir.

6:58 AM  

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