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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reading Group meeting 10/6/06

On this day....

'....those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep thier secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder....'

The Return of the King, The Steward and the King


Blogger Rymenhild said...

We took a while to get started on the chapter ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ this week for the excellent reason that we all wanted to congratulate Ian on getting his poem 'The Argonath' published in Amon Hen, and to hear more about its creation. Thanks to Laura, Ian was finally persuaded to read it aloud to us along with Shelley’s 'Ozymandias', which was his inspiration. It was astonishing to hear how he came to write this successful first poem, and we all look forward to reading, and hopefully hearing, more in the future.
The afternoon continued its decidedly poetic turn when Pat presented her research into the connection between William Blake and Orc. This strange creature (Orc, not Blake in the instance!) representing the spirit of rebellion is capitalised because it is the unique example of such a spirit in Blake’s epic work 'The Four Zoas', a complex and difficult poem which also had the title The Vala (!). Besides the Orc, it contains a number of descriptions that are highly suggestive of balrogs. There are mentions of creatures of shadow, fire, and flame, of great caverns, and things of slime. This perhaps replays the English translation of the ancient Semitic creation myth in which Man was created from slime or clay, but we were surprised at how many of Blake’s images are mirrored in those used by Tolkien. It may be coincidence, of course, but we have all read about Ted Sandyman’s mill and been reminded of the ‘dark satanic mills’ of 'Jerusalem', haven’t we? I borrowed Pat’s copy of Blake’s collected works, intending to plot the Tolkien-like images, but there are so many that I would really recommend reading the epic, if you have time, to see how the imagery works.
Pat went on to comment on the chapter after this, and her observation of the very colourful opening pages drew attention to Tolkien’s impressive use of colours in his descriptions. After several chapters in which darkness, both physical and metaphorical, has predominated, we arrived at dawn in a blaze of light and colour to see the gold glinting on the roof of Meduseld and the green and white of spring everywhere. The metaphorical significance of this emerged via Tim’s comments that Theoden is ‘reborn’ in a manner akin to Gandalf’s ‘resurrection’ in the previous chapter, and this all takes place as spring begins in the north of Middle-earth.
Laura observed the use of ‘curing words’ by Gandalf that counter Wormtongue’s ‘bad words’ that have eaten away at the king’s confidence and regal power. She observed that Wormtongue’s use of language and its effect on the king always reminds her of the sequence of action in ‘The Mousetrap’ – the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. In this little courtly interlude a king is killed when poison is dropped into his ear while he is asleep. Once again, we seem to be in the realm of metaphors, for Wormtongue’s evil council is shown to be acting like slow poison poured into Theoden’s ears. We went on to talk about the association between whispering and malicious or evil words and I was able to offer something here. In medieval plays and especially in medieval sermons the Devil is notorious for whispering evil or corrupting words in peoples’ ears. There was also a medieval devil especially appointed to deal with people who were guilty of whispering with evil intent, or using language improperly. His name was Titivillus, and many stories are told about his activities gathering the names of those who use language improperly. The best story I’ve come across concerns his work in a church where he was busy writing down the names of all those who committed ‘sins of the mouth’: whispering gossip instead of praying, and in the case of the priests, not speaking the service clearly. Titivillus writes all the offenders'names on a long scroll, but there are so many that the scroll isn’t long enough, so he takes one end in his teeth and pulls to stretch the parchment, but his teeth slip and he bangs his head on a pillar. It’s a silly story to find in a sermon, but although damaging language was taken seriously in the Middle Ages, instruction against using it was often done in a light and entertaining manner. Tolkien, of course, doesn’t labour the point about how damaging language can be; he shows its effects in many different ways.
Some of the most beautiful language in the whole of LotR is found in the lovely poem that begins ‘Where now the horse and the rider…’ and having begun with poetry, this gave us the chance to explore a different poetic tradition. The form of ‘Where now the horse…’ owes much to Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry. The insistent anaphora of the ‘Where now…’ phrases belongs to the ancient tradition known as the ubi sunt. It is nostalgic whether it is used in OE poems or those written in later styles. The first lines of Tolkien’s poem are taken almost unchanged from part of an OE poem called The Wanderer:

‘Hwær cwom mearh? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgifa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?

[Where has the horse gone? Where has the young man gone? Where has the treasure-giver [the lord] gone? Where has the hall of feasting gone? Where are the revels of the hall?]

We noted the way Tolkien moved on from these opening source lines to an ending of unparalleled melancholy beauty when he writes ‘The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow’.
In this line the movement seems almost breathless, and the alliteration that marks the OE and Tolkien's version of the poem is less obvious, but Tolkien retains the length – the OE ‘long line’ and, in the first half of the poem especially, the feeling that it breaks naturally into the characteristic half-lines. I pointed out to Ian that OE long lines can’t be scanned like iambic pentameter, or any of the other Greek-based metres, but rely on patterns of stress that fall on the alliterating words creating characteristic rhythms and emphasis. This brought us on to consider Tolkien’s use of the OE form, its origins in oral tradition, and the reason why it would be effective, and necessary, in the lively mead halls of the Anglo-Saxons, or the Rohirrim.
Although we never got round to practising our OE greetings ‘wes þu hal’ and ‘ferþu hal’ which Tolkien uses in modern spelling in the chapter, I did mention that both the names ‘Theoden’ (þeoden) and ‘Thengel’(þengel)are the OE words from ‘prince or lord’. A nice touch, I always thought.
Moving on from language, but staying in the Anglo-Saxon mode, of course the links between this chapter and Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot had to be addressed – Tolkien’s use of a similar description of the visitors seeing the glinting gold roof from a distance, the same process of being greeted, conducted, and asked to leave weapons outside. However, Beowulf and his men do not object to this sensible precaution in the way that Aragorn and Gandalf object to leaving their sword and staff. The instruction that they should be parted from these comes not from the king, but from Worm, who, we thought, may have been chatting to the mysterious Old Man (Saruman) who lurked near the fire and disappeared when Arargorn spoke to him. We discussed the apparent discourtesy of the doorwards and it didn’t seem unreasonable to use such a linguistic check.
We went on to consider Meduseld itself. It is very gloomy inside, with interesting relics of the past only half-seen. This may be a physical representation of the psychological state of the king, and/or the realm, as the health of the king was anciently taken to represent the well-being of the kingdom, but it was pointed out that since Theodred had only recently been killed in battle, the gloom of mourning was to be expected. Nevertheless, it was suggested that Meduseld also exudes a sense of entombment, with Theoden enduring a living death until Gandalf arrives to throw open the doors. ‘Open!’ he cried ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth’. In view of Gandalf’s recent ‘resurrection’ his rescue of Theoden from the tomb-like gloom of Meduseld has echoes of the Harrowing of Hell in the Christian tradition when Christ visits hell and commands the doors to open crying ‘Attolite portas’, and the doors burst open.
It was mentioned that Theoden also has not court around him when Gandalf arrives, and only bad kings traditionally have no court. Good kings take council, as Theoden eventually does. It was also remarked that Wormtongue, like Gollum, moves by crawling, and we considered whether this was another physical depiction of a metaphorical idea. We talk about someone being a ‘crawler’ when we mean that they try to ingratiate themselves with another person, just as Gollum and Worm try to ingratiate themselves. The ‘crawling’ associated with Wormtongue, together with his name contributes to a perception of him as serpent-like and hence demonic, as Satan in Eden took the form of a serpent when he tempted Eve and was condemned by God who told him: ‘upon thy belly shalt thou go’.
After a meeting in which language in various forms predominated, we ended by either Tim or Ian commenting on the narration in the chapter (and apologies for not being sure now who raised this point). I think it was Ian who mentioned that instead of a first, second, or third person narrative style, we seem to have a fourth-person narration. Pat suggested this was the omniscient narrator, but on looking up the categories of narration, the narratorial style in the chapter is not that of an omniscient narrator because we are not given insights that are characteristic of the omniscient narrator. What we have is an impersonal narrator. We are merely ‘shown’ what is happening, no comments intrude, and any moral or philosophical stance must be deduced from the way things are shown, or juxtaposed, or even omitted. If we pay more attention to the narratorial style we may find that it shifts from this impersonal mode to something more omniscient, or just straight-forwardly third person when Tolkien is writing about the hobbits. We shall see!
Next time we continue our progress through Rohan, so get ready for the battle of Helm’s Deep! Tim’s suggestion is that we should consider it from the perspective of military tactics. Other suggestions arose about asking our local Games Workshop to do a presentation (horrified mutterings), I offered not to hunt out my LotR role-playing game, much to everyone’s relief!
So there we are, see you at Helm’s Deep and if you encounter any skate-boarding elves, you are in the wrong story!

3:51 AM  

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