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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Reading Group meeting 14/10/06

On this day....

'...often they lingered in the fair woodlands where the leaves were red and yellow in the autumn sun...'

Homeward Bound, The Return of the King

and one year before....

'He [Strider] held out his hand, and showed a single pale-green jewel..... It is a beryl, an elf stone...I will take it as a sign that we may pass the Bridge.....'

Flight to the Ford, The Fellowship of the Ring

1 Comments:

Blogger Rymenhild said...

14.10.06
It was a small group who gathered in the little room between the fountain and the White Tower as half our usual complement were away attending the Cheltenham Literary Festival. We also missed Claire and Laura, who were unable to be with us for other reasons. Those who were left made a good showing, however, and did their best to keep up the standard of discussion and debate. We were looking at ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit, and interesting chapter title in itself, as Ian pointed out, because only Gollum and the narrator refer to ‘rabbits’, Sam calls them ‘conies’ throughout. It’s also worth considering the ‘Of Herbs … form because, for no reason I can think applicable, this kind of ‘Of …’ title in historical texts usually indicates a translation from Latin, or a topic consistent with the use of a ‘high’ literary style represented by Latin. So medieval and early modern Latin texts begin ‘De …’ as in ‘De vera obedientia’, ‘Of true obedience’; or ‘concerning true obedience’. I only bring this up because while we were talking about the difference between the use of rabbit and cony, I remembered that Tolkien maintained that the whole work was a translation anyway. But that still doesn’t explain why we have this strange Latinate chapter heading for a chapter that is dominated by pastoral/ bucolic descriptions with only brief forays into darker and more unpleasant material. This requires more thought!
Shirley called our attention to the ‘red eye’ and the sense of surveillance that continues at the start of this chapter. She wondered if the red eye signified, apart from its own significance in the construction of an oppressive sense of evil and unavoidable surveillance, Frodo’s, and maybe Sam’s, growing paranoia, exacerbated by the Ring. This seems like a topic we shall keep coming back to.
Mike remarked on a new aspect to Gollum which is revealed in his mention of 30 leagues. Mike suggested this showed his ability in forward planning under the new circumstances of having to find another way into Mordor. Of course, he’s leading the way to Cirith Ungol, and certainly knows the way, but he also knows the distance and the time it will take.
Ian picked up the special flora of Ithilien and the sense of how far south Frodo and Sam had travelled because all the plants named are to some degree aromatic, and all are associated with our Mediterranean regions. So southerliness is implied in their accumulation. I was interested in the strangely classical ‘dishevelled dryad’ reference. I have always associated dryads with specifically classical Roman myth and the passing reference again seems to pick up the sense of Mediterranean climate, and relaxation. There are additional references to straight roads (mentioned by Mike and Ian) and crumbling ruins that together build up a feeling the Tolkien is ‘romanising’ Ithilien. And of course this would go well with the Latinate chapter title. It introduces a sense of the exotic, but especially of the ‘classical’, something that may also apply to the surprising language Frodo recognises late in the chapter.
I suggested there was temporarily at least an Edenic feel to the descriptions. Tim pointed out similarities to Conan Doyle’s Lost World, which is a wonderful place until the pterodactyls arrive. Mike then asked what we all made of Sam’s discovery of the orc feast in the middle of this pastoral idyll. We all agreed with his suggestion that is seemed like a discordant note that brought tension back. I thought Tolkien was also refusing to let the reader opt out of the spoiling that happens everywhere. We noted that the interruption of the idyll creates uncertainly and discussed the psychological strain created by the rapid succession of good and bad. We also noted that Gollum protects the skulls and bones from Gollum without knowing whose they are. His reverence for the dead seems to suggest that he sees Gollum as another stage lower in ‘inhumantity’ than even the orcs, who at least leave the bones.
Sam’s relationship with Gollum gave us a long discussion. It was noted that he mirrors Gollum’s language when apparently begging for his assistance, implying that it is NOT Sam who begs but by using Gollum’s mode of speech he reserves his own selfhood. Mike wondered if Sam’s dehumanising tactics when speaking to or about Gollum reflect Tolkien’s childhood memories of the treatment of black servant in South Africa. Sam’s attitude certainly contrasts sharply with Frodo’s, and some differentiation in attitudes along the lines of differing social status between Frodo and Sam may also be implied, so the servant who is deferential to a master may be oppressive to another servant, while a good master accepts the service of both in its own terms. We did note again that Gollum is amenable to indications of kindness when he says he will help if asked ‘nicely’, and this led us to discuss his levels of social contact and the effect of isolation.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before something made us laugh, and at this meeting it was the matter of lembas. Ian was concerned about the practicalities of lembas as take-away, ready-meals, or an elaborate kind of Kendal Mint cake. How big are lembas? we asked ourselves: pocket sized? But pocket sized for Hobbit pockets, or Man sized pockets. Or different sizes depending on who was taking them. After much discussion we ended up with fun-size lembas! And a visit from one of the guards of the citadel who had seen a light and came to investigate. He couldn’t be persuaded to join us, and did not wear the livery of Gondor, and as he wasn’t an orc, we let him go on his way.
As the chapter is devoted in some measure to food, it occurred to me to mention the theory of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. I wouldn’t normally go off at such a tangent, but L-S came up with a curious definition of societies and their cultures to the effect that some were ‘raw’ and some were ‘cooked’. The raw ones were more culturally undeveloped, while ‘cooked’ ones were culturally developed in various ways. This distinction seems to be applicable to the difference between Sam and Gollum. One can’t eat raw food, and one can’t eat cooked. The match isn’t exact, however, because we could say that Gollum has lost or relinquished his ‘cooked’ culture as part of his domination by the Ring. He is at least wholly marginalised even from orc ‘culture’ which seems to cook its feast. We also noted that Sam and Frodo are both confident enough after a hot meal of cony stew to stand up for themselves against Faramir and his Men. Gollum, of course, doesn’t stay to meet them!
We moved on to consider Sam’s touching observation of Frodo asleep, with an inner light (perhaps the result of Elrond’s elvish healing), looking ‘old and beautiful’. Mike suggested this represented the essence of what a hobbit was, and Sam ‘s love is for this essential quality. Tim aptly reminded us of the Music of the Ainur and the relationship between every created thing as parts of that music. So the hobbits belonged to that hierarchy of beauty and harmony. Although we didn’t mention it at the time, this highlighted the sense of orcish discord in the remains of the feast.
We considered whether Sam’s ‘fish and chips’ was an anachronism like the express train. We thought it might be, but it might also be a means of expressing to the reader something that could not be expressed so well in another form, especially since Tolkien claimed that LotR is a ‘translation’. Thus ‘fish and chips’ may not be exactly what we associate with this, but the closest a translator could get to a popular, well-known, widely accepted and much loved staple of the hobbit diet, just as the train is a potent sign of a dragon, whose fire, size, power, noise, and danger could not otherwise be so potently expressed (excuse the pun!). All this fits well with Tolkien understanding of how difficult translation can be.
We went on to consider Sam’s attitude to the fallen Haradrim, his compassion for the exotic stranger warrior as compared to his harsh treatment of Gollum. We wondered if this was because Sam recognised Gollum’s perverted hobbitishness and was horrified by the perversion, but Ian also wondered if Sam felt some identification with the Man who was, like him, far from home, involved in a situation not of his choosing. The hierarchy of size was collapsed in this identification, but reasserted by the Mumak which dwarfed even the giant Harradrim, thus reducing him to a scale Sam could identify with.
We noted that the focus of the end of the chapter was entirely on Sam, and as the chapter finished, so did our meeting.
We agreed to move on to the next chapter –The Window on the West. Time to dig out your galoshes!

1:44 PM  

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