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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reading Group meeting 9/12/06

On this day....

'...and December was passing, when the scouts began to return....'

The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Well, it’s Afteryule and ‘tis evil in the wild to fare’, so sitting chatting in the shadow of the White Tower will be a cosy option again soon, which means I had better get this report done or it will run into the next one. We had a lively meeting last time, with the usual amount of word play and general whimsicality going on. Considering the grim and horrifying chapters we were discussing this was no mean feat. We were looking at ‘Shelob’s Lair’ and ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’.
It was noted that escape is a constant theme in the books and although there are many different contexts in which escape arises it is always and action towards the completion of the quest and never an escape from the quest. Of course, escape means there must be capture or captivity of some kind first, and the equally significant themes this entails of the loss of power and the regaining of power. Again, these losses and recoveries are many and varied, but in the chapters we were discussing there are some important ‘reversals’. Primarily these involve Sam, who, with Frodo, escapes from Shelob’s and Gollum’s first snare. However, when Frodo is stung, Sam actually goes back into the trap, which is now swarming with orcs, thus risking captivity and not completing his own escape as he tries to rescue Frodo. In Frodo’s case, his escape from the initial snare in the cave seems to be completed, but in his relief he is unwary and is recaptured, first by Shelob, and then by the orcs. At this point all forward movement towards completing the quest appears to stall, and even reverse, in Sam’s case, but his role has changed from hunted to hunter, and in this situation he uses the Ring as a means of escape.
It was worth examining Sam closely, as this revealed that it is he who remembers the ‘Star-Glass’ although Frodo has been carrying it. We also noted that Sam carries on a debate with himself about what action he should take when he thinks Frodo is dead. As he considers his options the externalising of his thoughts brings him disconcertingly close to echoing Gollum’s debates with his alter ego, and showing up the distant link between the hobbits.
We noted that the film made Shelob out of a real spider, when in fact she is only ‘like a spider’ in some respects. We also noted that J.K. Rowling uses spiders with, in my arachnophobic opinion, quite unnecessary frequency! We went on to consider Julie’s query about a possible association between the name ‘Lobelia’, and Shelob, based on the ‘lob’ elements. It is something I have often wondered about myself, and I have consulted someone who is currently working on the etymological significance of the name Shelob. Julie’s question elicited the (then) topical reference to Lobelia’s umbrella having a poisoned tip, which grimly amused us. Julie also remarked that in one of the languages of flowers, ‘lobelia’ stands for malice. I added that the lobelias with which most English people are familiar are the ubiquitous sprawling and invasive little summer plants. These are not native to England, and so Tolkien’s choice of this name stands out from all the other flower names he chooses for female hobbits, which are generally native wild flowers as well as familiar garden ones. My etymologist colleague pointed out that Lobelia does redeem herself at the end of LotR, but I still think her name suggests something of the ‘outsider’.
For roundabout reasons it was concluded that Shelob doesn’t like fish! I think the argument went along the lines that since she didn’t automatically devour Gollum at their first encounter, she must have disliked the fishy smell he must give off. She clearly doesn’t mind the stench of orc, nor the smell of hobbit, so it must have been the smell of fish that saved Gollum!
Tim, I think, proposed that we see in these two chapters a hierarchy of ‘special forces’, as Gorbag and Shagrat discuss the horrors of serving in Minas Morgul. The guards of the Tower on the pass apparently have an easier time than the garrison in MM, who are under the direct command and watchful ‘eye’ of the Lord of the Nazgul. We noted once again how distinctively Tolkien creates the voice of the stereotypical NCO in the language used and topics discussed between the two orcs.
We also noted the power of words in the form of ‘speech acts’, rather than as simple characterising elements. The star-glass seems to confer a special linguistic power to those who hold it, and the words they speak while holding it – elvish words that in Sam’s case he does not know, have a power to encourage the holder while the light strengthens are daunts the monster. It is a most interesting reciprocal effect, between light and language and action.
I picked up one element in the way Tolkien constructs the events on the pass that remind me strongly of the most famous lines from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon – ‘Hige sceal the heardra, heorte the cenre, mod sceal the maere, thu ure maegan litlath’. Tolkien translated this as ‘Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens’. It is taken to be the supreme statement of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code, and it seems to be restated briefly in relation to Sam: ‘His weariness was growing but his will hardened all the more’. This simple statement surely places him squarely in the ranks of the real heroes of old. It is also possible to see another bit of Maldon echoing in the statement that Sam ‘knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side’. All the heroes of Maldon vow to stay beside their lord and die there avenging his death.
To end our discussion we turned our attention to the end of the chapter, the book and The Two Towers, noting the dramatic and onomatopaeic finale. After horror, grief, and debate, Tolkien provides an ending that is all noise and action, related in short sentences and single sounds, until Sam knocks himself out and the narration shifts into metaphor and the awful statement of Frodo’s fate.
And so we move into the majestic conclusion that is The Return of the King, and as ‘Minas Tirith’ is such a long chapter we agreed to concentrate just on this. See you there.

8:32 AM  

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