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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading Group meeting 11/11/06

On this day....

'...the restoration of Bagshot Row.... There was some discussion of the name that the new row should be given. Battle Gardens....or Better sensible hobbit-fashion it was just called New Row....'

The Return of the King, The Grey Havens


Blogger Rymenhild said...

The troublesome discovery at the start of the afternoon that we had run out of coffee and would have to put up with drinking tea throughout the afternoon did not disturb our discussion for very long! With a hobbit-like cheerfulness those deprived of coffee made the best of a bad job and we were soon deep in the difficulties of ‘The Forbidden Pool’. We first addressed the lingering confusion over the exact colour of Gollum, because some descriptions of him seem to imply that his skin colour is black, and we took time looking up references. The clincher was the note of Gollum’s white hands in this chapter. It was then proposed that references to his blackness could be accounted for in various ways, such as his aversion to moonlight and sunlight, so he was always seen as a dark shape moving in darkness or keeping to the shadows.

The chapter was described as wholly ‘monochrome’ in contrast to other chapters which, though predominantly described in terms of black and white, light and dark, are often relieved, usually ominously, by flashes of red. We had noted when we read ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ that it was a chapter packed full of gorgeous colour. This chapter is definitely not. The only relief in the predominant blackness is the opening description of the effect of the moonlight on the waterfall, which is very beautiful, relating the glistening and shimmering water to fine, rare and precious materials. I remarked on the ‘icicles’ and we noted the brevity of this moment of beauty. One of our number asked if Tolkien plotted out his colour schemes in detail, as other writers plot the structure of their work. We mostly thought this unlikely but several of us commented on Tolkien’s sensitivity to colour and suggested this fitted with his ‘artistic eye’. Ian noted the ‘blockiness’ of colour in Tolkien’s own artwork.

We went on to consider the way the environment seems to be controlling the development of the characters, especially Frodo, Sam and Gollum, and this was contrasted to the way the elves work at controlling their particular environments, but are shown to be failing. Sam’s development was of special interest as he seems to take on a number of roles depending on the circumstances as well as the changing environments. We have already noted how he becomes more prominent in the story, but we also discussed the extent to which he takes on the roles of (a) a father-figure, (b)a kind of guardian spirit, (c) a nurturer. He is also clearly a flawed character – prejudiced against Gollum (with good reason) and outspoken. He is ticked off by Faramir for talking out of turn during Frodo’s first ‘interrogation’. He is dangerously voluble after drinking Gondorian wine, and although he takes the Ring only to save the quest he still feels its power. On the positive side, it was noted that even as Faramir rebukes Sam he also compliments him on his watchfulness on behalf of his master.

Although Sam refers to Frodo usually as ‘master’, we thought that eventually, and even underlying their earlier relationship at times, there is a definite sense that they are more like brothers. The relationship is not, however, a constant state but dynamic, and as we noted previously there is much shifting of power not only between Frodo and Sam, but between them and Gollum. The shifting is caused generally by necessity and knowledge in changing circumstances. We considered the powerful moments when Frodo threatens to use the Ring to punish Gollum.

This brought us to the vexed question of the taking of Gollum, and this brought out some interesting observations as it plays out a moral dilemma. It was noted that Frodo behaves in a Gollum-like manner physically and morally, and even linguistically. He not only crawls towards Gollum, but has at the time a hidden agenda. When trying to persuade Gollum to come to him, he indulges in a degree of ‘code-switching’, matching the form of his language to that used by Gollum (we also noted Frodo’s code-switching ability in the last chapter). Their similarity at this point is perhaps unsettling as Frodo ‘betrays’ Gollum who suffers somewhat at the hands of Faramir’s men.

At this point I brought up the vexed question of the film version. We deplored the unnecessarily violent representation of Gollum’s treatment, which cannot be justified from the text. Ian and Diane were strenuous in their assertions that this is what you get when Hollywood takes over, and that its was both a representation of the taste for violence in modern society, and actually expected in films by modern audiences. Thinking about it now, I would say that maybe it is a more honest depiction of real conditions when even the ‘good guys’ are brutally violent to the helpless. And maybe it is an unhappy reflection of what has been happening in current areas of warfare, but for that very reason it would have been better to have maintained Tolkien’s restraint, to show that moderation and codes of honour can be observed. After our sad comments on modern Americanised society we moved on.

Laura was surprised to find that a Gondorian soldier should go around carrying a small nail-knife, and this led us to some merry comments about sitting around manicuring one’s nails. Tim thought the knife might be a Gondorian version of a Swiss army knife, with multiple tools, but it does seem rather effete for a soldier to worry about the state of his nails. However, the Vikings seem to have been most particular about their appearance, carrying tweezers and combs with them, so if Berserkers would spend their off-duty hours plucking their eyebrows and beards, presumably Gondorian soldiers could ensure that their hands looked nice, rubbing in a little cream just before bed, a touch of lemon juice to whiten the skin, a quick buff to restore the shine to nails dulled by all that awful sword-fighting! Can you imagine the shouts of ‘You evil Southron, you’ve broken my nail!’

We got back to being sensible eventually and went on to discuss the relative absence of animals in the whole story. This topic was generated by the reference to the hedgehog. We noted again that apart from a fox, a brace of conies and the crebain and black swans the story is singularly lacking in wild animal life although most characters seems to be quiet-footed. This quietness brought us to Gollum’s extraordinary woodcraft as he manages to avoid being seen on the way to the pool in spite of the skills of Faramir’s men. His agility as his gets out of the pool seems remarkable for someone who is 500 years old, and mention was made of Omega-3 and the benefits of a diet heavily reliant on fish!

Having recomposed ourselves, Ian noted Faramir’s analysis of Gollum’s psychological state in his reference to ‘locked doors’, and the suggestion that much lay hidden. Mike suggested a kind of ‘ancestral perception’. As we considered Faramir’s parting speech, Ian came up with a wonderful term for some of Tolkien’s lexical constructions describing them as ‘word bombs’ (Copyright Ian). We all appreciated the appropriateness of this as a way of indicating the power of some of the combinations of words that make Tolkien’s text so memorable.

We compared this chapter to Aragorn’s encounter with Eomer, and the parallel decisions by commanders to let strangers do free in spite of interdictions strictly to the contrary. There are also parallels to come between entrances into ‘underworld’ places of danger. Tim remarks on the ‘ghost story’ Faramir tells of Minas Ithil, and Anne was interested in this name. It was quite surprising that such a short chapter raised so many challenging issues turning mainly on the complex theme of doing bad things for good or necessary results, and ‘The Forbidden Pool’ remains an important chapter for any study of Tolkien’s ideas on morality. In a strangely mimetic way, as Sam says, ‘It’s a fine view, no doubt … but chilly to the heart’.

As the next chapter is really short we agreed to read on as far as we have time, perhaps even to the end of this Book.

1:42 PM  

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