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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Reading Group meeting 8/4/06

On this day....

'...Praise them! The Ring-bearers, praise them with great praise!"

The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen


Blogger Rymenhild said...

A very intense meeting, on what turned out to be a complex and testing topic. Happiness and sadness in Tolkien’s work seems like an easy pairing, but they demanded a lot of thought, especially since the first example that was set before us was both happy and sad! The very end of LotR is sad in some ways but happy in others, so we had to try to pick this apart, and that set the tone for most of the afternoon’s discussion. There seemed to be no simple or easy construction of happiness and sadness.
Mark suggested that honour was the important mediating factor in much of the apparently ambivalent instances of happiness and sadness, and that this reflected Tolkien’s own attitude. Mark cited Tolkien’s honourable attitude towards the ban on his marriage. He obeyed the ban, just like Aragorn, until he had fulfilled the terms, and this required setting aside his own happiness temporarily. It is perhaps a concept that more recent generations wouldn’t grasp easily because life has become dominated by the idea of instant personal gratification. We spent some time considering difference that Tolkien’s constructions of happiness and sadness shows up, but these arose out of our discussion of Sam.
Initially, Sam was proposed as the happiest character in LotR and it was suggested that he was also the one who was the author of his own fate. He makes many well-reasoned choices, although the reasoning is always dominated by his care and concern for Frodo. Ian pointed out that Sam doesn’t actively make the choice to go with Frodo, that is imposed as Gandalf’s ‘punishment’ for his spying, nevertheless, Sam is overjoyed, and bursts into tears. But is this a sign of sadness? Of relief at not being turned into anything unnatural? Or tears of joy at the prospect of going with Frodo AND seeing elves? We didn’t really address these options.
The ease with which Sam gives way to tears led me into murky territory and I got a bit of a roasting from Diane for raising the spectre of modern critical theory over our deliberations when I asked is we see in Sam a ‘feminine principle’. Ian was less direct in his scorn of the idea, merely suggesting that Sam is a New Hobbit! What I had proposed as Sam’s nurturing, his closeness to nature, including his care for Bill the pony, and all his gentler side, were helpfully reinterpreted by Tim as representing Tolkien’s own view of an ideal world, devoid of orcishness and millers! Diane’s defence of the friendship between Sam and Frodo was supported by Tim and read as brotherhood. I didn’t put my head above the parapet again. I just wondered quietly to myself if Tolkien was using the ideal of brotherhood and support which he would have seen in operation in the trenches of Flanders. It provides perhaps a sharp comparison against which to judge the civilian ideology of masculinity in the 40s and 50s – opposing the British stiff-upper lip and ‘boys don’t cry’ ideals to the reality of war.
We moved on after this to consider whether orcs are capable of happiness and sadness. This opened up the realisation that we were too limited in our terms of reference and these needed to be subdivided into different kinds of happiness and sadness. Orcs, we felt, could enjoy satisfaction and revel in their rivalry, and probably their implicit sadism. We didn’t consider their possible delight in their obviously perverted condition, or potential delight in their subversion of the values held by other races. Orc happiness, Ian felt, was closer to schadenfreude – a delight in the discomfort and unhappiness of others. We wondered if orc ‘childhood’ influenced their ability to experience happiness and sadness, and it was pointed out that they are ‘spawned’. So nature rather than nurture probably controls their responses. This led us to consider forms of life that may be just as violent. Wild dogs and sharks are born fighting and will kill their siblings even as they are born. We ended up with a list of creatures born violent by nature, that included orcs, sharks, wild dogs and chavs!
It seemed relevant then to consider whether all the races of Middle-earth felt happiness and sadness in similar or different ways. The elves, we concluded, have a complex relationship with happiness and sadness. It was mentioned that Sam observes that they are happy and sad at the same time. They are capable of laughter and delight in song and storytelling, but endure deep sadness. I took a long view and suggested that they are characterised by melancholy because they have such a history of grief and sorrow – from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears to the fate of the Ring which seals their fate in Middle-earth. We thought they were given to more restrained emotions, and that these are often expressed in song rather than in individual direct speech. The lament for Gandalf was cited as the example of this.
I asked if there were any really happy characters, apart from Sam, and Diane leapt in with Tom Bombadil. He is merry, his words and actions are consistent with this, but we found in the end that even he had to be ‘deconstructed’. It was felt that he was merry because he lived in his own world, one that he could and did control, and he was not concerned with events in the outside world. His dependence for this isolation goes largely unnoticed, except that we know the Rangers are constantly on patrol to ward off the agents of Mordor. In addition, it was noted that Tom categorically refuses to talk about the sad things he knows, such as the suffering of the Men who became the Barrow wights.
We looked at other characters and noted their emotional transitions – Eowyn moves from sad to happy, while Arwen moves in the opposite direction as her loving choice leads to great pathos. Choices here seemed significant. Gollum’s happiness was addressed by Mark and was again illuminating. Gollum achieves the Ring and is enraptured even as he falls into the Crack. His joy is of the most fleeting kind, and yet this is a happy outcome for Frodo, who could not renounce the Ring and was on the brink of disaster. Mark noted that for everyone who desired the Ring seeing it as a source of happiness, it was always going to be disastrous, so happiness and grief were bound together in it.
Looking at whether the emotional state of characters was always matched by the emotion this prompted in readers led to a couple of interesting observations. The first was that the forging of the Fellowship in Rivendell and its development during the trek through Hollin is a truly happy episode. It shows unification in spite of ‘racial’ and personal tensions. The Fellowship is a version, on a larger scale, of the ‘brotherhood’ we noticed earlier, and offers both comfort and strength to its members, but also to readers who engage with the story at an emotional level. Readers’ emotional responses led us to discuss the cathartic moment when the eagles arrive to bear Frodo and Sam to safety. We spent some time trying to understand how the text creates the shift from pathos to catharsis, and Ian observed the ‘eucatastophe’ of the episode.
We all found the topic hard work and the result of our deliberations seems to be that it is extremely complex. It really needs a deconstructive approach, so that the emphasis is on differences. In this way we would have to differentiate between even the terms in which happy and sad emotions are named and described.
Next time we will be returning to our chapter-based discussions and looking at ‘The Uruk Hai’. We will, however, extend our work on happiness and sadness into this to think about specifically orc emotions. It should be interesting!

11:53 AM  

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