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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reading Group meeting 10/2/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

We were a substantial group for this meeting, as Julie and Mike managed to get in from Verwood and Angela and Christopher made the journey up from Portsmouth. Claire came hot foot as usual from her Tai Kwon Do class in Winchester, and Diane’s shift pattern meant that she could join us again, so we were only lacking Lynette, Shirley and Pat. The gathering made for lots of detailed discussion, as the circle widened around the table. We were all happy to congratulate Angela on her article on Aragorn in the latest Amon Hen, and Julie on her latest poem in the same publication.
Our topic was ‘The Passing of the Grey Company, and I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the only person in the group who had at one time thought the title referred to the Oathbreakers. We found the title and the confusion, or double identity, an interesting matter, and suggestive in various ways of the shadowy nature of those who actually make up the Grey Company. The Dunedain wear dark grey cloaks, so their greyness is physical, but they are also a rather obscure group of which little is actually said or known. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli wear their grey elven cloaks, so they too have a physical greyness, but this is nothing compared to the grey hue of Aragorn’s face after his tussle with Sauron in the palantir! The title of the chapter suggests death in the old fashioned euphemistic term ‘The Passing’, and as the Company pass into the Paths of the Dead they make a journey that not only brings them into contact with the Dead, but replicates a kind of burial as they enter the earth. In stories with a Celtic origin, entering under grey rock is often a figure of speech meaning that someone dies. The command of the doors that open onto the Paths of the Dead, as of those of Moria, continue to suggest Christ’s ‘Attolite portas’ command to the gates of Hell at the start of the Harrowing of Hell, and so many images associated with death cluster around the title and the Grey Company itself.
It was remarked that this chapter introduces a fragmented narrative technique that is quite different to the mainly linear narrative structures of previous chapters. We noted that ‘Minas Tiirith’ was a quiet sort of chapter in which Pippin oriented himself and was oriented narratorially within the city, its society, and its hegemonic hierarchy, but ‘The Passing’ has more action. This chapter too gives some sense of chronological ‘overlapping’, at least at the beginning, so we understand that while one thing is happening with Pippin and Gandalf, other things are happening with Aragorn, Theoden and their followers. Although we know how parallel events have been taking place on both sides of the Anduin, we have not had quite such a compacted sense of parallel action. We also have more sense of characters not knowing the whole picture – not knowing anymore than we know, and often much less. This absence of information, or partial information was thought to give a greater sense of reality as opposed to the ‘omniscient reader’ format used in other less effective fiction.
The sense of parallel events is strengthened by the oaths Merry and Pippin separately swear to Theoden and Denethor. We felt the need to differentiate between the oaths, and its was pointed out that while Merry swears fealty to a king, Pippin swears to the Steward. Merry is therefore taken into the king’s household, as a squire, but Pippin enters the service of the city and the Steward. It is not a direct form of fealty. Oath-taking was defined as an important aspect of the chapter since the Dead are Oathbreakers. It was suggested in this context that maybe Eowyn should be counted as an oathbreaker when she leaves behind her duty to her people in order to ride to war. This suggestion gave us a good deal to ponder over. Many of us felt sympathetic towards Eowyn and her sense of ‘imprisonment’, leading to a feeling of claustrophobia, both implied by her ‘cage’ image, and to her deep frustration that some duties could be expected of her just because she was a woman, when she was also a shield maiden. Ceertainly, as Aragorn points out, staying with her people is no more of a duty for her than for any of the warriors who might have been chosen, but it is certainly the case that as a woman she is not considered part of the fighting force, except perhaps in a final stand against invaders.
The speeches Tolkien gives Eowyn seem very perceptive of female marginalisation and its attendant frustrations, and almost prescient. Laura wondered pertinently in this context how Mrs. Tolkien would have felt about this as she seemed mostly to be left to fulfil the entirely domestic role assigned by society to married women in the first half of the twentieth century. There is certainly a sense of irony in the comparison, although Edith may not have minded. Diane was quick to add to this the historical details of adventurous women and the rights of women that pertained in medieval Icelandic society, matters which Tolkien would have known well. Icelandic women enjoyed a degree of autonomy that far exceeded the rights and privileges accorded to women throughout most of the rest of medieval Europe. I was able to refer to Christopher Tolkien’s edition of Heidrek’s Saga, which his father would have known about, and the complicated story in it of the 2 Hervors. The first claims the sword of Angantyr her dead father, in spite of supernatural barriers, she also refuses to accept the domestic role of a woman and goes off with a band of Vikings dressed as a man. The second Hervor is her granddaughter, and she is fostered by her uncle and left to defend his castle against invading Huns. Sadly, she is killed, and her brother mourns her death.
After some rather serious discussion regarding the representation of Eowyn and its historical sources, we moved on to lighter matters and considered the strange and ominous stone of Erech. Laura picked up the ‘fallen from the sky’ reference, and proposed a scenario in which first Erik von Danniken turned up and declared it was the work of extra-terrestrials, and then Tony Robinson turned up with the whole TimeTeam to do an excavation! It was all very entertaining! I just thought the remainder of the Fellowship and their mortal companions were very brave to camp by the stone for the night with the Dead all around. We felt sympathy for Gimli who had the creeps in the Paths and we all agreed that the sense of imminent horror reaching out to seize him was well described. Laura noted that it mirrored the disembodied hand in the Barrow.
We went on to consider the horses of the Dunedain and their special devotion to their riders which is illuminated by poor Arod’s distress before the Doors of the Dead. Legolas seems to be a horse-whisperer at a time before these clever and humane people had been recognised. It also seemed significant that the Dunedain had brought Aragorn’s own horse with them and we took this to signify further the special relationship between man and horse in Dunedain society.
This brought us to discuss Aragorn’s extraordinary power when we discover that he alone has had the courage and strength to confront and face down Sauron. Angela, of course, with her special interest in Aragorn, found this to be a most impressive statement of his identity, and we all marvelled a bit at what is revealed at this point in the story.
I asked everyone’s opinion on a very small matter – the construction of the black standard that Arwen has made. I wondered whether it had been woven and then embroidered, or whether Aragorn’s device had been woven into the fabric as it was being made. It is a small point, but for reasons I can’t explain it seems important! We know Galadriel and the maidens of her household weave fabric, but we don’t know any more than this.
While we were discussing the Dunedain we turned our attention to their activities before they joined Aragorn. They are the defence force left to guard the borders of the Shire, and like Aragorn are associates of Ellandan and Elrohir, the fair sons of Elrond. Tim defined the Dunedain’s activities as like the SAS, or Special Forces – intelligence gathering and security. I noted that while the Dunedain, of all ranks, are called Rangers and often spoken of without particular respect, Ellandan and Elrohir, being elves, are described first as being ‘out upon errantry’, a very chivalric way of describing intelligence gathering! As soon as this activity is associated with the Dunedain the vocabulary changes, together ‘they rode often far afield with the Rangers of the North.’ This is not to suggest that the brothers are somehow more effete, but it is just interesting that Tolkien ascribes a particular level of archaic language to their initial activity. Or maybe I’m just over-reading.
We had very busy afternoon, and agreed to go straight on to the next chapter. I don’t think we shall vary much from this pattern now, but for Reading Day we agreed to try doing a bit of creative writing – a few lines of poetry each, which should be fun.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

I'm posting this on behalf of Omer. These are his comments in response to my blog report of our discussions at the 10.2.07 meeting:
Some Comments on Blog 43

I would please like to share some of the thoughts that come to mind on reading Blog 43. This seemed to be another very interesting session, and a very productive one! I, for one, obtained a number of valuable new insights into many things: for example, the issue of women’s marginalization Eowyn’s speeches—I’ve sometimes wondered about Mrs.Tolkien’s myself, her life with the Professor in Oxford with its very masculine environment and the ‘absence’ of women in Tolkien’s circle etc. But hadn’t really thought about it from this perspective—deserves more thought, definitely. Some elements in Celtic folklore/literature that you talk about are also very fascinating! 

And something very dear to my heart, horses! You might not know this but I’m absolutely devoted to horses and horsemanship and horse-lore from around the world. Indeed, it is something I grew up with, as my father and grandfather and other relatives were also dedicated to horses and equitation. My family has bred a number of Arabian strains (Kehliyan, Saklawi, Persian) at our ancestral home since the 1750s and, indeed, my father finally wound up our stud farm in 1972. I still maintain some of these horses back home for riding and our local passion, Tent-pegging, in which both my youngest brother Abid and I have competed at the regional and national levels. Your discussion of the horses in “The Passing of the Gray Company” reminded me of the long and beautiful link that humanity has had with the horse—that absolutely splendid creature—over the centuries. This relationship is especially strongly marked in literature and folklore. I am not able to remember all of the tales and poems from my own cultural background at once, but these come to mind immediately: (1) the Prophet Muhammad’s winged steed, Al-Buraaq, on whose back he went to visit the heavens; (2) Zuljinah, the magnificent friend and companion of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, who died with him at Karbala—a rather Roland-like figure; (3) In Firdawsi’s famous Shah Namah, we have the great Persian hero Rustem and his destrier, Rah’Kush; (4) closer to home, we have the Risalu cycle of tales, with Raja Risalu and his gray stallion, Fauladi, ‘the steely one’ and Mirza’s mare Bakki, in the Mirza ballad(s) and so on. I’m sure Western literature is also full of such stories. I can think of Don Quixote’s Rosinante, for one, and Dick Turpin’s Bess, and William the Conqueror’s Malet, but not many others right now. Homer, too, has many references to beautiful horses, not to mention the Trojan Horse! The horses of Middle-earth and especially those of Rohan are direct descendants of these great horses of the past. Shadowfax, is, of course, the great ‘heroic horse’, the essential ‘chivalrous’ equine who surpasses all other horses. But I am always amazed by the fact that Tolkien has such a love and admiration for horses and that they figure so frequently throughout the LoTR and The Hobbit, one way or the other. “The Prancing Pony” has always been a wonderful name for an inn as far as I’m concerned and even the Dark Riders are not without their fascination, deadly as it is. I believe that all this adds to my own love for Tolkien. There are, obviously, many, many people like me who sympathize with Tolkien’s world, one where the horse still holds sway rather than the mechanical automobile. A world represented by chivalry and grace and courtesy and honour, rather than a mad rush for material gain.

I’d also like to add a small note, which might be of interest to you, regarding horse-whisperers/whispering, which came to popular attention not too long ago and which you mention Legolas in Blog 43. We have had a formal tradition of this art since the 6th or 7th century A.D in the Middle East and Central Asia, and there are manuals and other, similar texts, in Arabic and later Persian and Turkish, where such skills are mentioned and used frequently. My own teacher, the late Mr. Wazir Ali, used to give us excerpts to read from the 19th century work “The Horses of the Sahara”, by Sheikh Abd’el Qader ibn el-Mohyiuddin, translations of which I believe are available in French and/or English—and, in one way or the other, the skill has been present in most of the traditional ‘horse people(s)’ around the world—the Afghans, the Bedu, the Turkmene and Native American tribes such as the Sioux, the Cheyyene, Comanche, Nez Perce and others. In different places, scholars and experts like Runciman, Montgomery Watt, Idries Shah, General Sir Richard Gale and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt mention the influence of some the early Arab texts/methods in the eventual development of equestrian schools in Italy and Spain, in turn leading to the creation of ‘Haute Ecole’ in the West during the 17th and 18th centuries. But I could go on and on! I am sorry that I shan’t be able to attend, but there is going to be a conference on ‘Oriental horses/horsemanship’ at the University of Kent, Canterbury, organized by their English studies department, some time in May 2007. I’m sure that anyone who is interested in Arabian horses and equine culture might be interested in attending.

 I really do apologise for going on about this but your Blog really touched a chord! Thanks again, for sending me these delectable morsels that provide me with such a rich and wonderful feast for the imagination.


11:46 AM  

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