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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reading Group meeting 23/9/06

On this day.....

'Four Riders enter the Shire before dawn. The other pursue the Rangers eastward, and then return to watch the Greenway. A Black Rider comes to Hobbiton by nightfall. Frodo leaves Bag End. Gandalf having tamed Shadowfax rides from Rohan.'

Appendix B, The Tale of Years, The Great Years (3018)


Blogger Rymenhild said...

We have been moved to a new room. Our previous meeting place had been the seminar room in the Central Library but now we are in the Alan Whitehead Room, at least pro tem. Ages ago Julie remarked on the appropriateness of the place where we meet because it has a tall white tower and a fountain in the courtyard in front of the main door. She has since named the tower the tower of Ecthelion (it’s just a clock tower in reality which also plays the hymn by Isaac Watts, ‘O God our help in ages past’ 4 times a day). Laura has now named our new meeting room the Denethor Room. Further renamings may occur!
It was great to welcome a new member to the group. Julie brought her friend Mike along, and he had much to contribute to a session that engaged quite significantly with some important Christian contexts. We were looking at ‘The Passage of the Marshes’, and were asked right at the start to consider the passage of the marshes as also a rite of passage because all three hobbits undergo fairly dramatic changes during the course of the chapter.
We noted particularly Sam’s emerging violence, and we were all a bit disconcerted by this and needed to outline instances of his violence and their contexts and try to account for them. Until this point Sam has been depicted as little more than a good friend, a devoted servant, and somewhat marginalised. It was suggested that it is the corrupted condition of Gollum that triggers Sam’s violence. Of course Gollum does try to throttle him, but the revenge motive is hardly enough to account for Sam’s hatred. We noted that he does at times pity Gollum, and we considered the extent to which he becomes more jealous of Frodo’s growing compassion for their dangerous guide. This, we thought is not just a result of Gandalf’s warning about pity, but a kind of identification between the 2 Ringbearers which triggers a fearful realisation in Sam that Frodo could go the same way under the worst circumstances. There is also perhaps a touch of prejudice against a fellow-hobbit gone bad. Clearly Sam’s reaction to Gollum is very complex, and we grudgingly acknowledged that the film got the general theme of jealously right even if it made a ham-fisted job of putting it across.
The relationship between Smeagol and Gollum gave us a lot of work. Diane observed that his double personality becomes clearer during the chapter and is finely indicated by punctuation as his split personality is divided by a colon during the crucial debate with himself towards the end of the chapter. His linguistic characteristics are not just a propensity to hiss his ‘ss’, but swing between Smeagol using this name, although in the 3rd person, but also using the first person singular pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’, and Gollum talking to his Precious and using plural pronouns. We noticed Smeagol’s childlike repetitions, and spent some time considering the way he becomes a sympathetic character in spite of his vicious nature, vile habits, and cunning. His longing for food was likened to that of Ben Gunn in Treasure Island when the marooned pirate complains ‘I ain’t had a mouthful of Christian diet these five years.’ This, if you’ll excuse the pun, gave us much food for thought when we noted that Gollum can’t eat the food of the Elves.
This led us into Eucharistic references and we were fortunate to have Julie and Mike with us. The lembas Frodo offers Gollum is referred to in the text as a ‘wafer’. The clear Christian context recalls the wafers used in the Holy Communion or Eucharist. Gollum’s diet is made up entirely of flesh of one kind or another and he can’t eat the wafer. The Elves are constantly the most spiritually aware race in Middle-earth and their food seems to have a spiritual effect or quality since it gives greater stamina than ordinary food such as ‘cram’, in a small form. Sam watches Gollum spit out the wafer he can’t eat and this makes him attend to the flavour of the lembas again, and that it tasted better, as if he recognised once more the greater meaning of eating this food and its benefits.
Although Gollum obviously eats food that is foul and unpalatable to the hobbits he nevertheless washed himself before sleeping in what we took to be an act of purification that is strangely at odds with the rest of his behaviour but might be a taken as a sign that he still retains something of the civilised and spiritual in spite of his corruption.
In a slight pause in the discussion I asked if we could look at the part of the chapter I find most difficult – the moment when Sam takes Frodo’s hand but specifically does not kiss it, although his tears fall on it. It is one of the incidents that give rise to homo-erotic readings of the relationship between Frodo and Sam and I wondered if anyone could get us beyond this trite, obvious, and anachronistically fashionable theory. Thankfully, everyone could. Diane was reminded of the Godfather films when supplicants and ‘clients’ greet the new Don. This motif of allegiance was expanded by Ian who read the episode as Sam refusing to pay his entire allegiance to Frodo because he takes an optimistic view of the future contrary to Frodo’s nihilistic view. Sam does not give the kiss of fealty and allegiance to his dear master, and weeps because Frodo does not expect to survive. As a medievalist, I should have picked up the allegiance motif long ago, but I never have and I’m so glad to have had it opened up.
The marshes themselves gave us plenty to think about. Laura reminded us of the legend of the betrayal of Hereward the Wake by the Bishop of Ely. Mike and Julie noted the parallel statements ‘and it was dark/it was night’ which reminded them of the account of the betrayal of Christ in St John’s Gospel. Tolkien’s reference to ‘squeaking ghosts’ recalled the opening of Hamlet, when Horatio speaks of the betrayal of Caesar and ‘the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets’. All the references are to betrayal and set up an undercurrent of tension if they are recognised. I noted that there is a short passage in Browning’s ‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came’ in which the knight crosses a river in horror at the possibility of getting his horse’s hooves tangled in the hair and skulls of the dead under the water. Mark pointed out that the description of the water under which the dead faces appear recalls the biblical image ‘in speculum aenigmate’ – in a glass darkly. It was noted that all the crawling, and especially Gollum’s was a reminder of the fate of Satan after the Temptation of Adam and Eve, when he is condemned to crawl on his belly, so Gollum, and then even Frodo and Sam are reduced to this lowest, basest state, even though they are not guilty of betrayal as Satan is and Gollum will be (It is a hint of things to come for him). We were also reminded of the ‘curse’ Gandalf puts on Wormtongue, also for betrayal.
Having struggled out of the marshes we all noted the standard interpretation of the desolation before the Morannon. Tolkien’s experiences of the blasted landscape of the Somme during WW1 cannot be avoided and it was suggested that the intensity of the descriptions of the ruined land might have been a form of cathartic writing. Ian told us that he had just seen a programme on the Somme which described a ‘creeping barrage’, a terrible bombardment that moved steadily forward, and he thought the atmospheric changes before the arrival of the Nazgul might recall something of this terror. We also noted Gollum’s heightened awareness in the proximity of Mordor. We noted Sam taking charge when he makes Frodo walk in front of him, and Frodo being more severely affected by the Ring.
It was an afternoon of quite intense discussion, and the chapter turned out to be one of the most dense in terms of possible levels and forms of interpretation. This report is hardly more than a summary of what we talked about, but we did note the ‘songs’, and only as an afterthought realised we needed a topic for our next meeting. Because we had quite run out of time we hastily agreed to go on to the next chapter.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

23.9.06 (catching up with myself now!)
How could we have been so remiss! This meeting happened on the day after The Birthday and we forgot to toast Frodo and Bilbo! It would only have been with tea and coffee but none of us ‘old hands’ remembered. We will do better next year.
It was a very busy meeting, however. We got a ‘debriefing’ from Ian and Laura about their experiences as first-timers at Oxonmoot. Ian had taken some pictures, which he shared with us, and he and Julie had acquitted themselves well in the Quiz with the excellent help of our friend from the North, Carol Brownlow. What a gathering of Tolkien poets! All three of them have been published in Amon Hen recently. On a note of personal triumph, Ian won the Certificate for the most Dashing Character in the Masquerade. We all congratulated him, naturally.
We moved on to discussing the Yule feast, and although Diane and Laura had done a great deal to enable us to book a venue it is taking a bit of time to co-ordinate.
Because of these things we were half an hour late starting our discussion of the Black Gate chapter, but it nevertheless generated some lively observations. The finely crafted use of personal pronouns by Smeagol/Gollum was our first topic. We had noted this in the previous chapter but in this one the significance of personal pronouns increases and is spelt out unequivocally. Frodo, and Sam to some extent, identify Smeagol’s use of this name and the first person pronoun ‘I’ as a kind of guarantee of truth and trustworthiness – at least as far as either of these can be applicable to Gollum. His grasp on his old identity seems briefly to increase as he remembers nostalgically his younger days ‘in the willow lands’. He clearly liked old stories, and feels sadness for what has been lost. His fluency in speaking increases and he stops hissing and gurgling so much.
We were interested in the opening of the chapter when Sam’s response to the bleak and depressing landscape shows a pragmatic kind of irritation, rather than horror or despair. It is a powerful juxtaposing of stoicism against the environment and led us to consider how much Tolkien drew on the attitudes of the British Tommies in the trenches. Sam again in this chapter seems to have more to say.
I thought it strange that a hobbit credited with wisdom, to the extent that Sam credits Frodo, should decide to head straight for the front door of the Dark Lord. It was suggested that this decision is a reflection of the extent to which the Ring is gaining control over Frodo. It was also suggested that his decision might be a sign of exhaustion, or even a desire to get the dreadful quest over as fast as possible. But in any event Frodo has to make this decision and is thrown on his own resources, small as these are, in the absence of more knowledgeable guides like Aragorn and Gandalf. It was mentioned in this context that Frodo and Sam had never had any exact council from their former guides to help them cope with this situation. Their decisions were guided by necessity not wise council.
It was proposed that Gollum is an ‘anti-Aragorn’, as he takes on the role of guide, searching out paths through marshes and tracking, just like Aragorn. He finds shelter and is knowledgeable about surviving in the wild. He is also the only possible guide once Gandalf is lost and Aragorn is left behind because other ‘wiser’ characters will not go near Cirith Ungol either. However, it was also suggested that there might be an advantage to the absence of large Men, bright wizards, and shining elves – three small hobbits would be less visible in the desolate lands.
This is stated to be the case towards the end of the chapter, but in an interesting reversal, Gollum is said to be just visible like a skeleton, ‘no flesh worth a peck’. Given Gollum’s gruesome hints about birds, this reverses the prey/predator imagery, increasing the sense of vulnerability and diminution of all three characters.
It was felt too that the tight focus on just three characters for 2 chapter gave the story an intensity that contrasted sharply with the epic sweep and martial heroics of the Rohan chapters.
We went on to consider how much of all this Gandalf might have foreseen when he warned Frodo that pity for Gollum ‘may rule the fate of many’. The problems of prescience, interpretation of signs and events, and free will, have all been discussed before, but interpretation as opposed to knowledge is certainly raised in the chapter when Frodo realises that what he saw from Amon Hen was not an attack on the Black Gate, but reinforcement arriving.
The psychological content of the chapter is balanced with the physical. We all agreed that the chapter was much concerned with body parts – the Eye and seeing, hands, teeth, etc. The fragmentation of bodies in this way reduces them and ‘dehumanises’ them. This is appropriate in the case of the Dark Lord, he is an Eye, a Black Hand, but even this is mutilated. He is thus power in chaos, without coherence, and this is an accurate representation of his own military organisation. The orcs are a badly disciplined rabble only kept in check by violence and fear. We noted that the reference to the mutilated Black Hand prefigures the mutilation of Frodo’s hand on Mount Doom.
The reference to teeth prompted Diane to comment on the vampire-like degeneration of Gollum, since vampires have sharp teeth, are associated, horribly, with being underground: cave or grave makes little difference. Gollum’s references to the Dark Lord interested us as we noted that these were capitalised in the text. Having considered this it was decided that they were not just cues for the readers but represented definite emphasis in Gollum’s speech.
This emphasising through sound might be compared to Frodo’s curse on Gollum. Gollum uses sound to express a feeling he has, but Frodo’s curse is not just language used to scare Gollum into submission. It actually becomes performative language. It not only prefigures what will happen but declares what will happen, and it does.
We needed a bit of light relief after all this and thankfully the olifaunt provided it. Diane remarked that Sam declaiming with his hands behind his back was exactly like Alice in Wonderland when she recites ‘How doth the little crocodile’. Anne remarked on the ‘Oxford’ connection (JRRT and Lewis Carrol). We all enjoyed this bit, but it soon brought us back to consider the increasingly exotic tendency of the text which has moved further away from the recognisable bucolic images of Middle-earth as it moves into the policies of Sauron and politics of expansionism.
We agreed hastily to continue with the next chapter Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit. Delicious!

12:24 PM  
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