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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reading Group meeting 27/5/06

On this day ....

'The escort of Arwen leaves Lórien'

The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Our topic this week was chapter ‘The White Rider’. We seemed unanimous in our feelings that it contains some of our favourite bits. We were a little more precise in defining what we enjoyed, and we found some important topics emerging.
The discussion began with my question ‘Is this a bridging chapter?’ It was generally felt to be more than this, and that it was better described as a ‘signpost’ chapter, because it directed attention to what had already happened and towards what was going to happen. Laura described it as a ‘cowboy’ chapter, at which we all laughed! But she had a serious point to make – it is a chapter in which good arrives. We have been through several preceding chapters in which there was a distinct absence of good, or at best, good was relative. We all seemed to agree that the return of Gandalf marked the return of good in an essential way.
As we discussed what had been happening to Gandalf, Tim suggested that there was something of the old idea of the gods playing chess. Gandalf’s return, being sent back to finish his task signals the intervention of higher powers. We didn’t consider how this relates to the many nods and winks in the direction of divine intervention in the whole affair of the Ring, but clearly it does have an effect on how those moments are read.
Diane’s point, raised much earlier in our series of meetings, about the footsteps in Moria, was raised again, as Shirley remarked that the 3 ‘hunters’ had found no signs of footprints after their visit from the cloaked old man the previous night, and in Moria Frodo could hear everyone’s footsteps, except Gandalf’s. Maia seem to move in their own way. This brought us to a consideration of Maia generally, and Saruman in particular. We discussed his fall from grace and his ignominious end ousted from Bag End by the local hobbits, and knifed by Worm. His fall is very great, from head of the White Council to shabby squatter.
Laura raised the issue of blasphemy in relation to Gandalf’s return. It certainly seems like a resurrection. The whole sequence of his fall with the balrog, their struggle and journey under the earth, and their return to the mountain top has overtones of the apocryphal harrowing of hell but echoes Dante’s Divine Comedy even more, especially because the hellish lowest level of Moria is not only inhabited by unnamed creatures, but is icy cold. This only upsets the image of hell for modern readers. Tolkien knew that the medieval perception of hell was that it had a cold region as well as a fiery one. There is a picture of frozen hell painted by William Blake, it’s the only one I know of, but there are probably many more.
The fate of the balrog caused some interest, when it hits the icy lake (rather than Milton’s burning lake in Paradise Lost), it turns into a slimy serpent. Of course the serpent image is just another demonic form, but the slimy image took us back to notions such as the ‘primordial slime’ and echo of creation in some translations, and thence to Lynette’s reminder of ‘primordial soup’. It was proposed that orcs probably enjoyed this! Well, it wouldn’t be the Southfarthing if we didn’t have a silly moment sometime during the afternoon!
Shirley noted with interest that Gandalf, in spite of being burned, destroyed, sent back from the Halls of Mandos (probably), left naked for days on the snowy mountain peak, and hardly more than a shadow of his former self, doesn’t seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress. I thought there was some slight evidence of this in his remark to Gimli concerning the balrog ‘Name him not!’ It was generally felt that Gandalf didn’t show great signs of his ordeal, rather the reverse: he’s more sprightly. We then considered whether Tolkien was influenced in his depiction of the aftermath of suffering by his experiences during WW1. We acknowledged that PTS wasn’t known as such during Tolkien’s lifetime, but he would have known about shell shock (WW1) and battle fatigue (WW2).
The ‘relationship’ between Gandalf and the balrog received quite a bit of attention and brought out an interesting narrative relationship between LotR and The Hobbit. It was noted that in Moria, Gandalf needs to follow the balrog to find his way out of the labyrinth of tunnels under the Mines, and this mirrors exactly the way Bilbo has to follow Gollum to find his way out of the tunnels under the Misty Mountains. Tolkien does this with other elements of the two stories, retelling an episode or event from TH on a more extended scale in LotR, but this is the first one we have discussed. It was also regarded by the group and an interlocking device, binding the two narrative together.
We noted with considerable interest Gandalf’s strange sense of humour when he arrives back with his friends. He doesn’t seem to recognise his name – perhaps the effect of being among the Valar where he is Olorin, and with the Elves, where he is Mithrandir. He does seem to tease and we wondered if he was just being playful, or whether he was briefly assuming the mythical and universal aspect of the Trickster. We all knew of this character, I suggested he was best known in Native American culture, and Anne said his name there was Winebago. The possibility that Tolkien was drawing on this Native American character ‘is not as remote as it may seem’, as he was interested in American folk culture, but quite how Gandalf fits into this tradition of the trickster we did not explore.
The rhyming messages the Gandalf brings from Galadriel caused some comment. We took them to be evidence of a predominantly oral culture, and discussed their significance. Aragorn’s we didn’t say too much about because some members of the group haven’t read the whole book yet and we didn’t want to spoil the story. Legolas’s is made plain enough in his own comment to Gimli, but we tried to explain the link between death and the Sea, and what the leaving of Middle-earth signified to the Elves. It wasn’t as easy as it might seem.
I briefly remarked that I love Galadriel’s greeting to Gimli, as Pat said – pure courtly love. This brought us on to consider Gimli, and both Tim and Ian remarked on his prominence in this chapter. He has not taken such an obvious role in previous chapters. It was thought that the chapter might be conceived as an account of the story at that point that he related later to Frodo. It was also suggested that with the younger hobbits out of the picture temporarily, Gimli supplied the ‘light relief’. He may do when he ‘capers’ at hearing Galadriel’s message, but more often he is taking an active role in getting things done, or moving the story forward. It was pointed out that he is descended from Durin, and so would have been brought up to command in his own right. Ian further observed Gimli’s practical but disconcerting remark about eating horses, at the end of the Riders of Rohan chapter. Practical it may be for someone used to hazardous journeys – a horse can provide transport and food, but as several members observed, Gimli doesn’t like riding, he’s not used to it, but he seems familiar with the concept of eating horse meat. It gave us all a bit of a jolt.
I wondered after this whether Gimli’s active part in the chapter reflected the problems of decision-making by committee. Did he, I wondered, feel the need to push Aragorn and Legolas into action rather than debate. This was not felt to be the case. The group decided there were no big egos among the 3 hunters, but a tri-partite alliance.
The afternoon threw up some unexpected topics. Some we discussed in detail, others, such as the trickster, were rather beyond the scope of our group knowledge as far as detail was concerned. The chapter is full of incident and tension and our discussion picked up the sense of narrative movement, not just within the story of LotR, but between LotR and TH in a way we have not addressed before.
Next time we shall continue our chapter reading and look at The King of the Golden Hall. Ah, here comes Beowulf!

2:36 AM  

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