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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Reading Group meeting 13/5/06

On this day....

' is now only May and high summer is not yet in;....all things may seem changed, as if an age of the world had gone by, yet to the trees and the grass it is less than a year since you set out.''

The Return of the King, The Steward and the King


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Well, who would have thought it – I’m looking at 2 pages of notes from this meeting. We did have lot to talk about.
Before we quite got started an observation from Christine, an long-distance member of the Lahore Tolkien Reading Group, caused some interest. Being a piano teacher she has observed that in the film the musical note A is used for the horn call of the elves, and that this is the note to which all the instruments in an orchestra tune. This comment prompted thoughts about the music of the Ainur. Links between this basic note which governs all others could be developed in many complex directions, but Diane observed while on the topic of music, that the A minor chord is known as ‘the devil’s chord, while Ian remarked that there is a musical interval known as ‘the devil’s interval’, such is the power of this particular silence that it is not permitted in church music. These observations were not part of the major topic for this week, which was the ‘Treebeard’ chapter, but they set the tone for the afternoon’s wide ranging discussion.
Pat started us off with her concerns about the incompatibility of the entwives and the ents. Pat suggested that their different heights gave them both physically and psychologically different perspectives. We went on to remark that the wives love their gardens, but gardens are rather hasty constructions. They are also a sign of the imposition of order as compared to the ents who do not impose but preserve the natural order.
We digressed a little to consider whether, since the entwives are missing, it might have been and entwife that Sam’s cousin Hal saw up on the north moors. Opinion was divided between this possibility, or the likelihood that it was Aragorn who was seen. From a hobbit perspective, and seen at a distance and unexpectedly, a Ranger might seem larger than he actually was. And what one sees clearly depends on what one believes! This topic of perception emerged again later in the afternoon.
It was remarked that the ‘Treebeard’ chapter feels like the spiritual centre of the book as it depicts the most ancient race of beings and the changes that take place around them. We didn’t discuss this in the context of the elves as oldest, although later we got on to the subject of the elves ‘waking up’ the trees. The whole issue of who is ‘oldest’ also connects with the idea of different perspectives, but we’ve covered this matter of the ‘oldest’ in previous meetings. Our one new observation was that in TSil we are told that the shepherds of the trees were planned before the elves.
We got on to a series of observations about Fangorn forest and its environs. It was suggested that Isengard could be vision of Oxford – dreaming spires – hardly, but the ivory towers of learning could certainly fit! What this says about Oxford dons is hardly complimentary!
Anne suggested that Fangorn forest echoes Shakespeare’s magical Forest of Arden. From a cultural and a biographical point of view this makes sense.
I then asked about Pippin’s silliness, as, without a thought for his recent entrapment in Old Man Willow, he leans back against another tree trunk beside another river issuing from a forest they had been warned to avoid! Not the brightest hobbit in the smial. Anne this time suggested too many mushrooms! I’m inclined to wonder what was in that orc drink!
We went on to discuss the effect of the forest on Merry and Pippin. The water they drink and bathe their feet in has healing and restorative properties, and it was observed that in this it was like the drink given in the Grail, a kind of elixir, and magical like the water in Galadriel’s pitcher. In spite of its nourishing quality, Pippin still feels the need to eat – not just a sign of hobbit love of food perhaps, but a sign of social and maybe psychological habituation. Nourishment means the act of eating?
We discussed Treebeard’s reaction to finding the hobbits and hearing them speaking first. Again the matter of perception seemed crucial in preventing the ent from squashing them. It was remarked that there is nothing ‘young’ included in the chapter except Merry and Pippin and they become a catalyst for things to start happening.
At this point we got round to the elves waking up the trees and teaching them to speak. Ian thought the trees resented the fact that having done this the elves went away and left them. I then disturbed what had been a rather pastoral potter through the chapter by asking if anyone else thought it was also highly political? This engaged the previous point as several people remarked on the Japanese comment after the onslaught at Pearl Harbour, ‘we have woken as sleeping giant’. This woke me up too, because the word ‘ent’ is Anglo-Saxon for ‘giant’! It is an interesting tie-in.
The political angle get a good airing. We noted a sense of isolationism about Treebeard’s attitude to not getting involved, and tried to recall a word that was opposite to evolution, since evolution and change seem to be either very slow, or absent from Fangorn. Anne came up with ‘entropy’. It took a moment before all of us realised how very apt this seemed – ENTropy! Not quite the right word maybe, ‘atrophy’ would have been more correct, but taking ‘entropy’ in its information theory meaning is really quite appropriate for this chapter.
Shirley observed that James Fennimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, etc), was the first 19th C writer to take up environmental issues, and wrote about non-ownership, significant for Treebeard’s non-ownership but stewardship of the forest. Lynette took a darker look at the political structures that seem to come through in the chapter, especially at the entmoot, seeing closer analogies to Soviet Russia, with the ‘committee’ style of decision-making. Other people saw the entmoot as an exercise in democracy akin to the Greek polis, or to the pre-colonial African tribal councils. The debate format persuaded most of us that we were looking at a kind of democratic process that was right, but tedious, in its emphasis on not being too hasty. It was further observed that all the ‘hmms’ and ‘hooms’ with which Treebeard prefaces his speeches were highly suggestive of the thoughtful mumblings of Oxford dons as they strove for the perfect mode of expression.
Treebeard’s ‘happy and sad’ moment as the moot marches off to war seemed apt as a mode of introspection in such a situation, where war is a cause for sadness and regret, and yet may be a cause for a kind of happiness – that at last evil is to be fought against. The martial march of the ents momentarily became a martial larch – almost a spoonerism - worthy of the reverend Oxford don himself. It had not been apparent until now how often our discussion of the chapter slanted towards Oxford and its dons.
A series of points arose after this including Pat’s observation of the ongoing significance of rowan trees. Tolkien seems to use them in significant ways and places. Ian had looked them up and found that they are one of the trees associated with magic and the occult, they were specifically cited as protection against enchantment. The alternative name ‘Quickbeam’ is one Tolkien gives to the young ent who looks after Merry and Pippin, and I mentioned that while ‘quick’ might be apt as part of a name for a younger, more hasty ent, ‘quick’ could also mean ‘living’, as in ‘the quick and the dead’.
Pat again noted that the birds around Fangorn had become unpleasant, and their absence reminded her of the ominous line from ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘the sedges all are withered and no birds sing’. The absence of birds in real life can be a sign of things going wrong, as birds leave before volcanic eruptions.
I remarked on the association of the ‘wildwood’ with danger in literary and theatrical tradition. This was picked up in a discussion of the wildwoods in LotR which are all isolated from one another, and such isolationism builds up a bad reputation from lack of knowledge and contact – again a political point.
We considered Treebeard’s Old List, and the insertion of the hobbits into it. I pointed out the similarities with the Old English Maxims or Gnomic Verses. While it makes logical sense for the old ent to recite poems about changing seasons the Maxims have many lines also devoted to the lore of ‘Right Order’, or how things should be. The Maxims have exactly the strong alliterative style and rhythm that the Old List has, and served the same purpose – as a mnemonic to help people to remember important information. Treebeard says that the hobbits remind him of something he can’t remember! So it’s probably not in the Old List.
Our moot was all too short, but even though we tried not to be hasty, like Treebeard himself we covered a lot of ground. We decided that we were on a roll with our chapter readings and so for the next meeting we will be looking at ‘The White Rider’.

2:04 AM  
Blogger JuSinclair said...

Re "The Devil's interval". Is this not a reference to a difference in pitch, rather than to a caesura or pause? The "diabolus in musica" is the tritone - three whole tones - F to B on the white notes of a piano - the augmented fourth. This is an interval which sounds "wrong" to Western ears, although it occurs in Eastern European music. It was not permitted in the music of the Western church. The b was flattened, to produce the perfect fourth. (God does not seem to mind periods of silence! qv Revelation 8:i "...there was silence in Heaven about the space of half an hour".

3:09 PM  

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