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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Reading Group meeting 26/8/06

On this day....

'Soon the dwindling company, following the Isen, turned west and rode through the Gap into the waste lands beyond,....'

The Return of the King, Many Partings


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Well, I’m catching up at last! This meeting saw us venturing onto the eastern shore of the Great River to witness ‘The Taming of Smeagol’. The title gave us cause for comment since it refers to Smeagol by his proper name although what we witness seems to be the taming of his depersonalised self, Gollum. This demanded some discussion. Why, we wondered, was it ‘good Smeagol’ who was declared as being ‘tamed’ rather than the dangerous and tricksy alter-ego? Of course, Gollum isn’t tamed, though he may be subdued by Frodo, so, we wondered, yes, we wondered, if it was Gollum who was doing the taming? Maybe Frodo could only tame Smeagol, while Gollum remained merely suppressed by the sudden development of a relationship between Frodo and his better self. I am now reminded again of the medieval Good and Bad Angels that fight for the soul of Everyman characters in various early plays, but this didn’t come to mind last Saturday. Smeagol was mentioned in modern terms as schizophrenic. There is clearly more to think about than merely accepting the title at face value. It is a large enough question for a whole meeting, but we found this to be a chapter that is about far more than Frodo just having to assert control over his murderous stalker.
The first matter we addressed was in fact the question of how the chronology of LotR relates to that of our world. We noted that all the events in the chapter we were reading take place in Shire Year 1418. It is actually 1419 (I missed a year). My favourite time in the real world, the later Middle Ages, 4 years after Henry V won at Agincourt. The medieval context carries over into LotR through all sorts of references and not least through the form of the story – an epic adventure closely akin to the medieval verse romances in which disinherited princes and young dispossessed lords went off on adventures in order to win the hand of their beloved lady, and regain their lost lands.
Tolkien told us he wanted to create a mythology for England and he does so with great subtlety by using this medieval framework, because it taps into the romances which were all set in known geographical locations – Bevis returned to Southampton after finding his beloved lady Josian. Horn wandered about between England and Ireland before winning his beloved Rymenhild. Guy of Warwick loved the daughter of his liege lord and was forbidden to marry her – the list continues, but the echoes between medieval romance and LotR add to the sense of Tolkien’s work belonging to the tradition known as the Matter of England.
We moved on as our attention was directed to important parallels between events happening on the western side of the Great River and those taking place on the east. Aragorn’s ‘ill fate’ is mirrored in Frodo’s ‘ill choices’, Aragorn and his companions on the orc hunt grudge the waste of ‘precious’ hours, echoing in their own context the repetition of ‘precious’ by Gollum as he hunts Frodo and the Ring. The moral significance of the word is inverted depending on who uses it, even though it still retains its basic meaning. In the Emyn Muil Frodo and Sam endure a storm out of the east, described as a ‘battle’ passing over them, which will later become the accompaniment to the actual battle at Helm’s Deep. During the storm Frodo is overcome by a darkness that blinds his eyes, while in Lorien Gandalf participates in a struggle against the shadow out of the east. In a more benign recollection, the sky after the storm is described as a canopy of stars. This recalls the canopy under which Arwen Evenstar sat at the banquet long before in the peace of Rivendell, and serves as a reminder of what is at stake for everyone and how far they have come on their vital quest.
Tim helped us to untangle the ‘bight’ in the elven rope by explaining that it meant a loop. We wandered around this word in its geographical context and realised that the sea area ‘German Bight’ and the Great Australian Bight being much larger than mere bays qualify as huge loops. We all remarked on the wonderful nature of elven rope that comes when called.
Claire, with great insight, directed our attention to the narratorial comment on Sam’s attempt to climb down ‘ It is doubtful if he ever did anything braver in cold blood, or more unwise. The unwise/Samwise pairing is a tautology according to Tolkien’s definition of Sam’s name. Sam, however, shows more than a little wisdom in other parts of the story. The fact that Tolkien used a known Anglo-Saxon word ‘samwis’ and its meaning ‘dull, stupid, foolish’ to name this hobbit who has such down-to-earth wisdom, suggests that JRRT was playing another of his little word games. It is only the form of the ‘sam’ pronounced with a long vowel that denotes a partial or imperfect condition, so samwis = imperfect wisdom. With a short vowel, ‘sam’ denotes union, combination and/or agreement, a relevant range of possibilities for the devoted hobbit who will not be separated from Frodo and agrees with his decisions in most circumstances. However, as readers, we cannot ignore the ‘wise’ part of Sam’s name and although he is officially named as foolish, his insights suggest he has something of the medieval ‘wise fool’ about him. The most famous wise fool is the one in King Lear, who calls the King ‘nuncle’.
Gollum naturally required more attention, and while we noted the changes that take place in the style of his speech, and that of Frodo, it was suggested that when Gollum’s voice is described as ‘creaking’, this might be because he uses it infrequently at a normal volume. It was noted too the Gollum is described as shrinking before Frodo’s anger, who Frodo is perceived to grow. This repeats the shrinking and growing during the confrontation between Bilbo and Gandalf in Bag End after the Birthday Party. Dominance seems to be made physical in both instances. A further connection with Bilbo was picked out for comment when Frodo rejects Gollum’s wish to swear ON the Ring. Frodo tells him it would drive him mad, something he has seem almost happen to his uncle Bilbo when he desires to hold the Ring again in Rivendell. Madness acts as a link between Bilbo and Gollum while Frodo and Gollum are linked by their ‘being in the dark’. In both their cases this is a psychological state caused by their contact with the Ring, but in both cases that state is given physical reality.
The chapter gave us more material for our ongoing discussion of narratorial style. The unusually direct authorial comment to the reader on Sam’s brave and unwise act was thought to be possibly Tolkien’s own response to a certain kind of bravery which he may have actually witnessed during WW1. At the end of the chapter, throughout which there are many changes of tone and register, techniques for distancing the reader after the engrossing tension of the confrontation between Gollum and Frodo seem to be introduced together with an assertion of isolation as we are told ‘They faded swiftly and softly into the darkness. Over all the leagues of Mordor there was a black silence.’
We continue with the next chapter next time.

12:29 PM  

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