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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reading Group meeting 11/3/06

On this day....

' length Faramir said: 'I do not oppose your will sire. Since you were robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead - if you command it.'

The Return of the King, The Seige of Gondor


Blogger Rymenhild said...

This week’s chapter was ‘The Riders of Rohan’. I’ve always thought of it as one of my favourite chapters, but when I came to read it ‘properly’ for the meeting I found it difficult. There seemed to be no way of engaging it in any kind of ‘lit crit’ dialogue, unlike the ‘Departure of Boromir’ which was more accessible to this approach. I ended up getting swept along with the adventure again, being impressed by the Riders, and then by Aragorn’s declaration. All very enjoyable, but resistant to the usual forms of analysis, so I was looking forward to hearing what everyone else thought.
The general consensus was that this is a chapter which moves the story on after the death of Boromir. It concentrates on description of landscape and characters, and it was noted that the Wall of the Emyn Muil was reminiscent of escarpments we had known. It always makes me think of Wenlock Edge. We agreed that this is a dynamic chapter, and so stands in contrast to the elegaic mood of ‘The Departure’. It picks up again the epic scale of landscape and time and there is much debate among the characters as they confront a new environment under much altered circumstances. Although, as usual, they don’t know what lies ahead, they move purposefully again with a clear aim to save the captives. Aragorn still vacillates at times, and we considered rather unfairly whether he could be described as Aragorn Unræd (like Æthelræd Unræd), but decided that he seeks and is given counsel by his companions.
Still on the topic of Aragorn the incident of his naming came under consideration and it was remarked that once again naming is important. His declaration of his many names before Eomer was considered in the context of Christ before Pilate, when He is questioned about his name and will only refer Pilate and His accusers to their own naming of Him. Aragorn’s names are many and signify many aspects of his identity, and I wondered if part of his problem lies in the fact that he has so many identities to live up to. It was suggested that perhaps he really felt more comfortable just being an apparently uncomplicated Ranger.
The biblical theme continued when we considered the observation that as he spoke it appeared to Legolas that white flames flickered around his brow. I asked if we should regard this in terms of the flames that crowned the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost? Another opinion questioned the fact that it is an Elf who sees the flames and wondered if this is a particular function of Elvish ‘spirituality’, or prescience, or foresight? A third view drew our attention to the similarity with the Star in Tolkien’s enigmatic short story Smith of Wootton Major, which is a sign of favour and spiritual development.
We noted too that Aragorn is described in terms which relate back to his appearance during the passage of the Argonath. His assumption of his identity as king of Gondor is thus linked back physically to his ancestors depicted there and that identity is confirmed in the process. We also noted his similarity to Gandalf during this episode as he too ‘grows’ at this significant moment as Gandalf does at significant moments.
One of our group made the observation that although Aragorn and Gimli are wearied by their chase, the psychological depth of characters is not developed here. I suggested that it is necessary to read between the lines in some instances, and more carefully in others, in order to understand the psychological depth of all the characters, and their development. Unlike the grindingly obvious psychological development of characters in many modern novels - in the ‘rites of passage’, ‘bildungsroman’, and other modern realist genres, it is no slick and easy matter in The Lord of the Rings. Because Tolkien drew on medieval romances such as King Horn, and Bevis of Hampton, characterisation owes something to this genre, where action is important not introspection. The difference is between a medieval perception of the Hero, and a post-Romantic obsession with the individual. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s main characters certainly develop, change, and show an evolving awareness of themselves and their relationships.
As part of our discussion about Aragorn, and much of the meeting was devoted to him, we considered the appearance of the old man at the end of the chapter. It took us a while to find the passage in the next chapter that proves this is Saruman and not Gandalf, but it brought into play our previous consideration of Aragorn’s relationship with Gandalf since he greets the cloaked figure calling him ‘father’. We recognised that this is a common form of courteous address in many folk stories and legends, but we thought it was also a marker for Aragorn’s relationship with his mentor. We have observed in previous meetings that Aragorn seems unable to shoulder the burden of leadership with any degree of confidence after Gandalf falls in Moria, and we discussed whether Arargorn suffers from having lost his natural father. Although he has had an Half-elven foster-father and a wizard as his mentor – distinct advantages it would seem, yet he seems not to have achieved an adequate ‘symbolic’ individuation in the absence of his real father.
After all this rather Freudian/Lacanian stuff we turned our attention to the orc head on a pole. I asked if Tolkien naming it as a ‘goblin’ head made any difference. Resounding cries of ‘Yes!’ The difference between the threatening sound of ‘orc’ and the much more childish associations of the word ‘goblin’ (for us at least) means that the impression for us was one of the diminishment of the ‘enemy’ that the Rohirrim had vanquished. The choice of the word also indicates the partiality or bias of the narrator. Besides this linguistic consideration, we also remarked on Tolkien’s use of a motif that was familiar from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although, as Ian pointed out, the heads on stakes around Kurtz’s dwelling all face inwards and are blackened skulls. The other instance of a head on a stake, apart from those traditionally displayed from the walls of the Tower of London, or on London Bridge, is the head of the pig named Beelzebub in Goldings The Lord of the Flies. The throwing of heads was noted as a form of artillery in the Crusades, but we’ll have more to say about this when we get to The Battle of the Pellenor Fields.
We tackled yet another linguistic question that centred around Legolas and his use of the word ‘rede’ meaning counsel. The word stands out because it is a most archaic form, and we discussed briefly the likelihood that Tolkien gives this word to Legolas as a sign that the Elf is translating from his native tongue which is itself archaic in Middle-earth. Tolkien thus preserves the sense of archaic language when the Elf chooses what is for us a recognisably archaic word. He also plays to his own interest in the difficulties of translation by this apparent choice on Legolas’s part.
I have a query to finish with, although I asked it before the meeting began. I would be most interested to know if anyone has come across references to Tolkien reading a book called The Broadstone of Honour, by Kenelm Digby, published in the 19th century, or indeed anything by either Kenelm Digby or Coventry Patmore (also 19th Century). If you think you know this last name from somewhere, he’s the twit who wrote the poem The Angel in the House and created a monstrously false ideal of womanhood. Both writers were Roman Catholic and hugely influential in their own time.
Well, it turned out to be a really fascinating chapter that threw up lots of topics for discussion. Next time will be Tolkien Reading Day (25th March) and we decided that we would go back to any chapter or episode we have already read and talk about that in order to give our newer members a brief overview of some of our recent discussions. We will also, if we have time, proceed to the next chapter.

12:18 PM  

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