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Monday, April 16, 2007

Reading Group meeting 14/4/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

April, and not a shower in sight. Indeed, it was almost ‘the cruellest month’ because our meeting room was almost too hot for comfort! However, we faced the discomfort with hobbit-like stoicism, and began with a barrage of newspaper clipping from various group members. Some of the clippings were about the new book, some about the forthcoming musical. It took a while for us to focus on our topic for the meeting but The Pyre of Denethor and The Houses of Healing created a great deal of interesting comment and some quite strenuous debate.
Pat began our deliberations with her observation that Denethor’s last actions recalled for her the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and that it seemed to her that a strange inversion was taking place. In the Bible story, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his obedience to the will of God. At the last moment, as the knife is raised over Isaac, God sends an angel to stop the sacrifice of the boy. Pat pointed out that it is through Sauron’s malevolent influence that Denethor comes to the point of almost sacrificing Faramir, his only surviving son. This is prevented by Gandalf, who clearly stands in the same relation to Faramir and his father as the angel to Isaac and his father. Given that we know Gandalf is a Maia, a rank acknowledged by Tolkien to equate to the angels, this should not surprise us. Julie suddenly recalled Wilfred Owen’s war poem in which the sacrifice of young soldiers in the trenches is likened to Abraham’s sacrificing of his son to a ‘jealous God.’
Pat’s Christian observation drew another from Mike who remarked that Denethor’s declaration of ‘Vanity!’ and his actions, recall Ecclesiastes ‘vanitas vanitatis’ – vanity of vanities, all is vanity. To this Tim added that the biblical influences are subverted by the pagan ones, and these are pointed out to the reader as the ‘heathen’ pyre is opposed at the last to the Numenorean long life and eventual renunciation of life.
Laura suggested that we gain important insights into Denethor’s psychological state, and it was mentioned that Gandalf’s humility is contrasted with that psychological condition as Denethor projects onto Gandalf all the faults that are his own. Mike observed the frequent description of red lights in Denethor’s eyes and the echo of the evil green light in Gollum’s eyes that signals his wicked mood was mentioned as a comparison. Pat noted the way Denethor breaks his own staff although Saruman’s is broken in spite of him. We recognised the breaking of the staff as a sign of the renunciation of power, or of the stripping away of power. Pat reminded us that Prospero breaks his own staff – the symbol of his magic control over others in — The Tempest and this, of course, echoes in Denethor’s rejection of power and in Saruman’s misuse of his power, which could be seen as ‘magical’.
After this detailed discussion we moved on to matters of kingship and it was remarked that kingship is shown in a low-key way through the old tradition that ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer’. This is familiar territory to those of us who know our history and the old ceremony of touching for the King’s Evil, only abolished in England in the time of James VI and I. It went on longer in France for reasons associated with religion. Tim commented that both Aragorn and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have a kind of healing power, although Aragorn’s is much ‘purer’ in that he hasn’t caused the problem in the first place. This led Pat to develop the MND echo when she noted that in the Houses of Healing, Aragorn leaves Eowyn before she opens her eyes, to avoid reawakening her feelings for him. This is an inversion of the episode in MND where Oberon, the king, waits for Titania to open her eyes and fall instantly in love with the first thing she sees – which is Bottom in his ass’s head.
Angela noted that Eowyn is ‘woken’ with a kiss from Aragorn, although she does not immediately respond, giving Aragorn time to not repeat the Bottom/Titania motif; and Ian commented on more of the ‘fairytale’ aspects of this episode when he noted Ioreth’s words, ‘once upon a time’. This led us on to discuss the depiction of the women left in Minas Tirith, and Tolkien’s writing of female characters.
Laura remarked that Tolkien seems to write sympathetically about women when his own wife seems to have been left to mind the house and children while he was off working and then enjoying himself with the Inklings. His sympathetic rendition of Eowyn’s frustration does not seem to be reflected in any recognition that his wife might have wanted a more fulfilling role. There are many possible objections and comments that could come in here! Mike’s was that Tolkien seems to depict women according to class stereotypes, and this is an interesting point, extended and developed ina slightly different way by Ian who observed that Tolkien was for the most part writing about idealised women when he wrote Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel, but Mike’s stereotypical ‘gossip’ seems most apt as a description of the characterisation of Ioreth.
The topic of women led us into a vigorous debate about Aragorn’s treatment of Eowyn as expressed in his comment ‘Were I to go where my heart dwells … I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell’. We were much exercised to decide whether Eowyn knew he loved Arwen, and whether she rode to war from simple unrequited love, or from other motives. Most of the female members of our group thought it was obvious that Aragorn was telling Eowyn that there was someone else. At least half the male members of the group felt that he was only saying he’d rather be somewhere else. Christopher reminded us that Aragorn isn’t the man who ignores Eowyn’s pain, indeed Aragorn feels deeply for her, but Eomer, her own brother, doesn’t seem to notice how much she has already suffered from being made to fulfil the domestic role of caring for their geriatric uncle. However, we may have been a bit hasty in our judgements of both king and prince! As Laura went on to point out, as much as she pines for Aragorn’s inaccessible love, she is also motivated to ride into battle out of love and loyalty to her invigorated uncle, and for her own honour, although it was pointed out that Merry notes the eyes behind the visor as those of one who seeks death.
Laura also drew our attention to the moment in the film when Eowyn is confronted with Wormtongue’s subtle whispering and he is given a bit of Gandalf’s though-provoking observation: ‘who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night.’ In the film, it was suggested that Eowyn wavers at Wormtongue’s apparently insightful words and this moment briefly recalls the encounter between Richard Duke of Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III as the evil male presence seems momentarily seductive.
After this complex discussion we found ourselves back with the biblical sources again as Julie remarked that there are many stories about Stewards in the Bible. The Steward in the Lord’s Vineyard seemed to her to have been rewritten. Ian noted that Aragorn could be described as Steward of Isildur’s good intent, rather than his failure, and of course, Gandalf describes himself to Denethor as ‘a Steward’. Ian then remarked that there seems to be a kind of ‘prodigal son’ motif in the relationship between Denethor and Aragorn in his persona as Thorongil. Angela had a ready knowledge of the Appendices and to Ian’s suggestion added the information that ‘Thorongil’ had been Ecthlion’s favourite, preferred before his own son – Denethor, hence accounting for the repeated jealousy motif, and his scathing dismissal of Aragorn. It also echoes painfully in his treatment of Faramir, as one son is preferred before the other, as that disregarded son is the more ‘intellectual’ and friendly with Gandalf. It is then more than just interesting that Faramir reminds Pippin of Aragorn.

Our detailed debates threw up the obvious conclusion that there are no easy answers when it comes to the attitudes Tolkien depicts. We also realised that we must not neglect the Appendices! For our next meeting we shall simply move on to the next chapter, although some people will now just read to the end. Nevertheless, we shall discuss a chapter at a time.

2:35 AM  

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