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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reading Group meeting 10/3/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

A lively meeting again, in spite of the rather grim topic: ‘The Siege of Gondor’. Perhaps it was that the sunny and mild weather could not be quite overcome by the great shadow of the cloud over Gondor. Whatever it was, Julie pointed out that a lot of the action in the chapter takes place on March 10th, which was an interesting thought. After that we noted that the chapter starts with a sense of foreboding, and the vocabulary, though by no means extravagant, is sufficient to communicate the depression that afflicts everyone in Minas Tirith. But we also agreed that there are many changes of mood in the chapter, including brief moments of humour. We have discussed Tolkien use of humour in tight places before and remarked that it seems to echo the kind of humour he may have experienced in the trenches.
We went on to consider more specific matters, including Denethor’s jealously. He seems deeply aggrieved at the close relationship between Faramir and Gandalf, which may be a reasonable fatherly response, but also suggests alienation and insecurity. His attitude to his younger son is hardly likely to win Faramir away from his chosen mentor, but as is often the case, the resentful person cannot apparently see his own part in driving his son away. We agreed that this was a dysfunctional family. Of course, there is a ‘political’ dimension to this but we didn’t explore that. It was interesting to note that Pippin recalls his liking for Boromir, and the reasons why he liked him, as well as his impression of Faramir, whom he compares favourably to Aragorn. Pippin seems impressed by directly apparent lordliness, but slightly disconcerted(?) by anyone whose lordly status is more subtly conveyed. We noted Denethor’s concern for his exhausted son, and the fact that Faramir takes specifically ‘white bread an wine’. We all recognised that white bread was a sign of status, as it is in Chaucer and elsewhere, since only the rich could afford such refined food in the Middle Ages, so it’s another of Tolkien’s direct links back to real history.
While we were concerned with Denethor and his sons, other matters came to our notice, such as the difference between Denethor’s fate that comes from his use of his palantir, and Aragorn’s ability to wrench his palantir to his command. Denethor’s lesser command is certainly illuminated by this comparison, and Sauron’s ability to use the Minas Tirith stone for his own propaganda or ‘disinformation’ purposes is interesting as a commentary on the process of using propaganda in war. His ability thereby to drive Denethor to despair always strikes me as directly linking him to the medieval devils who tempt human characters to suicidal despair in medieval plays. It’s the only hint I have ever seen that Tolkien may have known those important plays.
Denethor also gave us a shudder as we discussed his comment that he slept and was always clad in armour and girt with his sword. There were murmurs around the table of ‘mail shirt/ hair shirt’, and I must say it was something that had never occurred to me before. I have always been more preoccupied with Tolkien’s description of him as an ‘old patient spider’ – a clear and potent link to what is happening on the far side of Anduin, and a very unpleasant image, given that we know already about Shelob.
This brought us on to Gandalf’s shaking hands as he listens to Faramir’s account of leaving Frodo and Sam. I thought this showed a very effective understanding of the structuring of the story for particular kinds of impact. We know what has happened to Frodo and Sam in Cirith Ungol, but Gandalf doesn’t. His shaking may be a sign of his anticipation that they will not survive the encounter with Shelob, and thus the Ring will be exposed or lost, and be able to ‘contrive’ to be found by a ‘safer’ of hands. But I also thought that the very fact that Gandalf’s hands are shaking gives the reader a sense of the horror that Sam and Frodo have already taken on – if Cirith Ungol is enough to make a wizard shake then it must be truly awful, but the Hobbits have already faced the horror, and this then implies that it may be better not to know what’s coming!
We moved on to a lighter matter at this point when Pat said she thought there should be a wizard with a magic wand to make everything ok. We all jumped on her declaring ‘there are no magic wands in LotR’. She took it in good part and remembered that Gandalf’s staff is just that, not a wand, although he can use it to make fire and light.
We discussed the impression made by the final paragraph in the chapter, with its mention of ‘cock-crow’. It was noted that this is a very fairy-tale change of mood, and also calls to mind things associated with dawn – such as the defeat of vampires who cannot tolerate daylight, and the old saying that it’s darkest before the dawn. We also noted the change is structure of Tolkien’s writing at this point. Sentence structure is sacrificed to heighten the sense of excitement as the horns of Rohan start to blow.
This, of course, meant that we had to back-track to other matters in the chapter, such as the impressive description of the Black Captain who names himself ‘Death’, and repeats the word ‘fool’ when addressing Gandalf. It was noted that this word is also used by Denethor, although it is rarely used in the story as a whole. It is perhaps to be seen as a sign of misrecognition of the true state of things, rather than an insult.
The many biblical references in the chapter were picked up by Christopher and Mike, and among these are Faramir’s bread and wine – a sad but potent sacrificial echo, the pattern of 3s, the use of ‘fool’, which may echo St Paul’s comment that Christians will be ‘fools for God’. There is also the comment on the Black Captain that ‘few will abide even the rumour of his coming’, an inverted echo of the statement about the coming of Christ. Such inversions are taken in medieval theology to be characteristic of the devil, or more especially of the Antichrist, who, it was thought, tried to appropriate Christ’s attributes for himself.
Denethor’s clever naming of others was remarked upon, and is most interesting. This part of the discussion was prompted by Anne who asked about Denethor’s use of the name Mithrandir. We explained it’s meaning, and got briefly sidetracked into Aragorn’s many names, but got back to the way Denethor used very formal naming when he’s actually asserting his authority. He calls his son ‘Lord Faramir’, and Pippin is addressed at ‘Peregrin, but in part this is the formality of a ruler who rightly acknowledges the status of others as he expects his own to be acknowledged. However, in the case of Faramir and Mithrandir, such formal naming is a definite assertion of dignity and command.
We spent a while discussion the fact that both Merry and Pippin eventually disobey the orders given to them by the lords to whom they have sworn their oaths of service and loyalty.
Laura drew our attention to the horrible effect created by the report of the winged Nazgul being seen below the level of the walls, rather than high above, and we also noted the parallel between Gandalf’s confrontation with the Black Captain and with the Balrog. Both are demonic forces, but after the confrontation in Moria, Gandalf’s power, signified by his uncloak brilliance, is enough to drive off the winged Nazgul, while dawn breaking saves him from a final show-down with the Witch-King.
As this report shows, we had a wide-ranging discussion and everyone contributed in lively fashion. We agreed to move on to the next chapter, and maybe the one after that as the Ride of the Rohirrim is quite short and everyone wants to keep reading. Our next meeting is 24th March – the day before the fall of Sauron and Tolkien Reading Day. It will be 3 years since the group started and we still haven’t finished the book! Happy Reading Day!

3:19 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

I'm posting this on Omer's behalf. It's astonishing how the dates relate.

Re: Blog 45

20th March 2007

I just finished reading Blog 45 and found it very interesting! It is heartening that you are having such detailed, thoughtful discussions, which, in turn, end up providing me so much food for thought out here. 

1. Do you know, I almost forgot! Something I used to think about a lot even as a young schoolboy, when reading these chapters. The 10th of March, ‘the dawnless day’ in Tolkien’s LotR, is also my birthday!!! Always fascinated me, this strange coincidence—Aragorn’s Birthday fell on 1st March 2931; and in 3019, on his Birthday, he meets Gandalf ‘the White’ and they set out for Edoras. Nine days after his birthday, we have: the Muster of Rohan, the Dawnless Day, Aragorn’s crossing of Ringlo, the saving of Faramir by Gandalf outside the City, and Frodo’s passing of the Cross Roads. Of course, the Battle of Pellenor Fields then falls on the 15th, the ‘Ides’ of March. Lots of fascinating numerical correlations, all the way to May 1st and Elessar’s coronation…

2. Apropos. Denethor and his mail/hair shirt, have you ever thought about the association of this to the medieval orders of warrior-monks, so prominent during the Crusades—the Templars, for example? The Stewards of Gondor could well be connected with such a ‘militant-monastic’ sense of mission, the aggressive ‘defense’ of it, so much so (as we know from the accounts of the dread end of the Templars) that they end up ‘becoming the thing they set out to defend the faith against’.

3. Doesn’t Faramir’s charge also remind you of the Charge of the Light Brigade (Balaclava, 1854)? And of many similar, desperate charges ‘over the top’, during WW I? Verdun, the Somme, Ypres etc? The gallantry of soldiers, being mowed down, on the ‘insane’ orders of their superiors/officers? I suppose not many people think about the World Wars anymore. But, on a personal note, we have strong family memories that still live on, as part of our typical ‘traditional’ lore, from generation to generation about the war. My grandmother, for example, and other elders, have told us so much about it, and the memories of those of our family who went to fight ‘for Truth’ and ‘Right’ (Haqq) against ‘the German’. In fact, from some 7-8 villages in my immediate area, some 1200-1500 young men went off to fight during 1914-1918, of which number over 400 died there and are buried in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia and so on. My wife and I, between us, had 11 elders/ancestors represented in the War and lost a couple of grand-uncles. Tolkien’s scenes based on his own experience bring to life these memories. I wish we would remember today, how, once not too long ago, East and West both fought together for a just cause, in two great wars.

4. Regarding the reference of ‘fool’ to Gandalf, made by Denethor, it is strange that this too, always, reminded me of what you discussed! Also, there are implications relating to the Grail Legend/Grail Knight(s) in this. Wolfram v. Eschenbach, and others, too, in their versions of the Grail story, frequently refer to Parsifal/Perceval as a ‘divine fool’, a ‘fool of God’, a ‘simpleton’, even ‘jester’—all suggestions of innocence, a special divine state or condition that transforms one into something special, and so on. I’m sorry I don’t recollect all the detailed refs, as it’s been a while since I explored this topic. But this appellation always seemed so suitable to me for Gandalf at that particular time, after what he’d been through. Becoming like the Grail Knight(s), something of a chivalric beau ideal.

5. Then, the final exchange between Gandalf and the Black Captain, and the dawn/light and good vs. evil imagery, which has such strong Christian undertones. I’d please like to add some of the following thoughts/ideas to this discussion. At the moment when the Captain unmasks and announces himself as ‘Death’, we have Gandalf standing still, and just then, “in the courtyard of the City, a cock crowed”—the cock/rooster of course has definite religious symbolism, St Peter and the founding of the Catholic Church, apart from being a voice of good, heralding the dawn, and driving away evil. I’d please like to refer you to TS Eliot and The Waste Land again (Sec. V, ‘What the Thunder Said”, ll.368-373 and ll. 391-394), and the possible implications therein, and how this also points to the ‘coming’ or arrival of Rohan, with blowing horns (Like Roland’s call answered at Ronscevalles?) to the aid of good/truth/faith etc. The strong historical-religious commonality between Eliot and Tolkien is also quite interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever noted this?

Well, this is it for now! Thanks, again, for all these inspiring despatches.

Warmest regards,


3:41 AM  

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