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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reading Group meeting 24/2/07

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Blogger Rymenhild said...

24.2.07
We began the afternoon’s discussion of ‘The Muster of Rohan’ with the sinister arrival of the Nazgul over Edoras. We all agreed that this was a particularly sinister event. Although we are all accustomed to the image of the Nazgul around Minas Tirith, and on their trips to see Saruman, there is something especially horrible and intensely threatening about their awful ‘stoop’ over the roofs of the Rohirrim. I felt it was something to do with the relatively undeveloped military power of Rohan and their quasi-Anglo-Saxon society. There was much support for the idea that perhaps the air power of the 2 World Wars contributed to the sense of imbalance between the aerial threat and the vulnerability of those on the ground. Ian drew our attention to the horror felt in Eastern England with the arrival of the Kaiser’s airships in WW1, at a time before ak-ak had been invented (ak-ak = Antic-Aircraft guns). He told us that ‘the dreaded Hun’ had simply leaned over the side of the airship gondola and dropped bombs by hand. Apparently this was also done from bi-planes. The sense of horror and vulnerability at this new terror weapon seems to be adequately transferred by Tolkien to the Nazgul.
Mike pointed out a strange fact that the chapter begins with a description of the journey into the mountains which includes a trio of significant colours – the Starkhorn mountain is snow-covered, so it is white, but blue-shadowed on the east and red with the sunset on the west. Was it by chance that the description was couched in terms of red, white and blue? When set alongside the vile Nazgul, we have here the colours of the RAF roundel – a sign of opposition to aerial attack. It’s a tricky connection to make in the context of the horse-lords, but interesting because blue is not a colour Tolkien mentions very often, and when he does, it’s often associated with Elves.
Tim was particularly interested in the mountains and Merry’s response to them. While Anne commented on the difference between experiencing an epic landscape by moving through it, and merely reading about it in a quiet room.
Mike also picked up the special consideration given to the way Merry hears the speech of the Rohirrim, and we discussed this in terms of Tolkien’s own love of language, especially the Germanic languages and Anglo-Saxon. It is possible to pick out words we still use and can recognise from A-S texts, but, I would agree with Merry’s impression of Rohirric, that A-S sounds and reads richer and stronger than the diluted post-Norman English that has come down to us.
We went on to consider the degree to which Theoden begins to take on the role previously assumed by Gandalf. In this chapter the King is the voice of wisdom, he seems often to have Gandalf’s prescience, and decision-making role. He has come far from the withered husk of a ruler we first encountered. But he retains a humanity and sensitivity that is all his own, so that he is aware of the feelings of the members of his household.
Ian noted the extended description of the road up to the Hold and compared this to the fleeting description given when Aragorn and the Rangers ride the same path. Their haste is matched by the brevity of geographical detail, while the steady pace of the King’s company gives time for Merry to note many details which give a sense of the ancient history of the place and other civilisations.
Tim commented on the poetic nature of the descriptions, and I said that the detail of the standing stones near the Dwimorberg felt like an intentional echo back to the barrow downs with their undead.
We got on to the topic of favourite words when Anne mentioned that the word ‘seldom’ occurs twice in this chapter but it is a word ‘seldom’ seen or spoken today! Mike said he was impressed by the description of ‘frowning’ precipices, Ian said it was nice to see ‘fey’ used in its proper context and Tim chose ‘pavillion’ and we commented that it was unusual to find Tolkien using this French-derived term. It brought back memories of our long debate over ‘balcony’ last year. ‘Swordthain’ was pretty unanimously acclaimed.
Moving on to consider Merry’s place in Theoden’s household, I was able to offer a bit of insight into the reason why Merry serves the King at his meals. It was usual for sons to carve the meat in front of their fathers in medieval households and to serve their fathers at table. It is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: in The General Prologue which gives descriptions of all the pilgrims the Knight is described first, then ‘With hym ther was his sone, a yong Squier….Cureis he was, lowely, and servysable /And carf beforn his fader at the table.’ [with him (the Knight) there was his son, a young squire ….courteous he was, humble, and willing to serve, and he carved in front of his father at the table.’
Christopher was interested in the ‘dark Dunharrow’ poem, because it didn’t seem like poetry to him. I explained that it doesn’t work like later English poetry because Tolkien has created it according to the conventions governing the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) alliterative long line, which doesn’t rhyme and doesn’t scan like later poetry but depends on alliteration and stress combined in specific patterns. The most important words in a line should carry both the alliteration and the stress. It is a very effective form of oral poetry from a time when literacy was confined to ecclesiastics. It makes the poetry memorable for the storyteller or singer, and for the audience.
However, it was noted that the content of this fine piece of recreation could be a ‘spoiler’ for the rest of the story.
We considered the arrival of the red arrow, and the fact that this symbol required no detailed message – a sign full of significance for which the language has already been spoken. Our whole afternoon revolved around matters of language, far more so than I had time to note down. It is not a chapter that seems very ‘language-oriented’, but we noted biblical echoes, and Merry’s almost colloquial complaint about being left behind, as well as the heightened language of the King when discussing ‘official business’. The implicit power of language is echoed in Theoden’s warning to Merry ‘speak not words of omen’.

We shall proceed to the next chapter and prepare ourselves for the coming battle. As most of us know what’s coming, we are trying not to give the game away to those who don’t.

11:36 AM  

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