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Friday, May 11, 2007

Reading Group meeting 12/5/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

This afternoon we were missing Claire, Diane and Laura, but as Diane regularly cannot make the meetings now, she has opted to become a ‘virtual member’ and sent along her thoughts and comments on the chapter. They are added in their original form on the blog site, but I will refer to them here in the report too. This ‘virtual’ idea was successful when Julie sent her ideas last time, so hopefully now any member who can’t get to meetings will not feel left out because their comments can be responded to.
Before we got started on the actual discussion Ian produced an interesting snippet from a book catalogue and we really didn’t know how to respond to it. In The History Guild catalogue for May 2007 the new Children of Hurin book is advertised, complete with jacket picture, in the section devoted to ‘Historical Fiction’. Since the history aspect of The Children of Hurin is actually fictional, and intended to be understood as mythological rather than historical, the categorisation seemed to be pushing the boundaries a bit!
When we got started, this turned out to be a very intense meeting, even though, or more properly, because, we were looking at ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’. This chapter raised a whole succession of important recapitulations. Openly, it reminds us that Merry and Pippin don’t know what’s happening to Sam and Frodo, but as Diane pointed out, maybe it is a good thing those on the western shore of Anduin can’t know what is happening to their friends. The related topic of innocence will come up below. Less obviously, the chapter revisits some of the themes, and philosophical and metaphysical elements that we have noted in previous chapters. More of this also in a moment.
Pat actually kicked off the discussion by noting the apparently strange circumstance of Sam singing at the more dire moment. We considered this to be a comfort response. Tim, among other, mentioned the idea of ‘whistling in the dark’. Diane had noted that cats purr when they are hurt or scared just as much as when they are content, and this strange purring response to distress gives them comfort. Angela and Christopher confirmed this from experience with their own cat. In line with Pat’s interest in ‘hope’ as a major theme in the story, she noted that Sam’s song introduces a final note of hope and a stalwart refusal to give up. She was perplexed by the narratorial use of the word ‘unbidden’. I recapped our discussions of the role of providence, or some other power that seems to intervene in the events and actions that involve the hobbits, but Ian and Mike came up with another stimulating explanation.
Ian noted that Sam is fascinated by elves and that his song in the Tower is what we might describe as a homely version of some of the major images associated with one of the great elvish songs – the one Aragorn sings about Beren and Luthien. Mike noted that there are substantial similarities between Sam’s situation in the Tower and Beren’s situation – lost, alone, separated from the one to whom he is perfectly devoted. The imagery in Sam’s song reiterates in a homely way the beech trees, birds, stars, and hair, that make up the elven song Aragorn sings in translation. Furthermore, Sam and Beren are linked by the light of the Silmaril that Earendil wears. Beren rescued the gem that became the star on Earendil’s brow and Sam carries its light in the Phial of Galadriel. Thus the narratorial word ‘unbidden’ suggests only that Sam does not recognise where he gets the song and its words from. In fact, at his loneliest moment he turns for comfort to the source of his greatest delight and reverence – the stories he knows about elves. Being a hobbit, he makes his song out of elvish elements but on a scale that is familiar and appropriate to him, and apt to the situation he’s in.
Pat was further interested in the power of the light of the phial to quell the Watchers as well as Shelob, and Ian suggested that its power lay in the way it brought starlight to earth. As the stars are distant but apparently eternal, if brought to earth, their light becomes incredibly powerful. Of course, the power associated with the origin of Earendil’s Silmaril in the far West has to be added to this more scientific view.
Pat then led us into the mazy world of philology when she recalled the use of ‘brazen’ to describe the doors that Sam could not pass in the tunnel. We discussed the adjective derived from bronze, but Pat remarked that ‘brazen’ can also mean ‘insolent’ or ‘flaunting’. I thought this might do well as a subordinate interpretation of the way the doors bar the way.
After this, Julie picked up the star theme again and reminded us that the most frequently quoted Tolkien source is the 2 lines from the Old English Christ poem by Cynewulf in which Earendel, the Daystar, is mentioned. Tolkien acknowledged this source. Julie had been doing some research and found that (1) the early medieval Danish chronicler, Saxo Grammaticus, from whom Shakespeare borrowed the plot of Hamlet, had named Hamlet’s father ‘Erendil’. (2) The Advent Antiphons which mention Earendel or the Daystar, are as much about the Second Coming as about the Nativity. With early millenarian anxiety in the approach to the first Christian millenium, the Second Coming was going to be given some prominence. Julie proposed that one interpretation of LotR may be that it is a mythologising of the Second Coming. Various members of the group noted Aragorn as king returning, healer, wanderer in the wilderness – all attributes of Christ.
Pat had earlier mentioned Sam addressing Frodo as ‘Frodo, Mr. Frodo, master’, in that order, and Mike thought it showed the way cultural conformity and convention had been stripped away from Sam and Frodo by their shared trials but that at that moment cultural and class distance reasserted itself in Sam’s mind. Diane has written a long discussion of the relationship between the two hobbits, and sees them achieving a relationship based both on love and duty and that this is more akin to the relationship between brothers than between master and servant, or even friends. Tim referred to Sam’s apparent emotional dependency, as well as to a relationship that had been moved on by shared hardships.
Sam’s wry humour in dangerous circumstances was noted, especially his comment on ringing the doorbell. And Ian with his own characteristic wry humour remarked on Sam’s Orc-detector – Sting. His ability to pull back from the power exerted by the Ring was commented on by Ian who suggested that in showing Sam a vision of himself as a great warrior the Ring had got it wrong! Even the vision of Mordor turned into a great garden under his command was wrong. Mike agreed with Ian that the Ring doesn’t give Sam the vision that he wants, and followed this with the observation that the strength of the Ring lies in the flaw of its possessor. But we could have observed perhaps that the Ring was constructed in such a way as to work upon the flaws Sauron understood, a desire for military might, command over subordinates, the exercise of dominion over increasingly vast territories and their inhabitants. Sauron, of course, could not imagine anyone being content with a little patch of garden enough for his own needs and that of his family – but Sam can!
We discussed Frodo in this context and it was persuasively argued that Frodo can cope with bearing the Ring because he alone is without ambition. This was where I asked if anyone else thought that the innocence of the hobbits was a factor in their ability to withstand the Ring, for Merry and Pippin never seem attracted to it. Frodo certainly has been warned that it is dangerous, but until Rivendell, he is remarkably complacent. It was generally agreed that after Rivendell he could not be described as innocent and some other factor must be included. Pat remarked that he is not corrupted by the Ring any more than Sam and we all did our ‘nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!’ impressions to one another, and Pat, whose interest in the rest of the story has sharpened even more.
It was noted that the orcs fighting over Frodo’s shirt echoes the actions of the soldiers at the Crucifixion who are represented as dicing for Christ’s clothes. Mike brought us back to the debate over the effects of providence or luck in the story and suggested that we should not necessarily think in terms of ‘good’ as opposed to the evil will of Sauron, but an amoral Power that permits evil to have its sway. I think this is close to the Manichean heresy, but didn’t have a chance to ask Mike. Ian picked up the providence thread and noted that Sauron’s clouds work against him and obscure the Ringbearer from his sight. Mike asked is any of us had seen the old vampire film Nosferatu, which we had of course, because Sam’s great shadow that scares the orcs reminds him of the famous shadow sequence in the film. We had got on to vampires by tortuous paths, but Anne remarked in this context that the teeth of the dead, like hair and nails, can continue to grow after death – hence the association between the undead and long teeth! Christopher noted that Sam’s passage through the tunnel and the Tower replicates in many ways the passage of the Paths of the Dead, and Sam’s singing called to mind the story of Blondel, minstrel to Richard the Lionheart, who sang under the walls of the prison to locate his master.
Anne raised the vexed question of a homoerotic moment when Sam observes Frodo as if clothed in fire, drawing a parallell with the famous wrestling scene in Lawrence’s Women in Love. The spectre of the homoerotic interpretation of their relationship does not often attract our attention, and when it does it is always balanced by reference to wartime comradeship, and/or natural affection that is uncontaminated by the constant modern pre-occupation with Freudian and sexualised interpretations of just about everything. But I was aware that this topic might surface again in connection with the beautiful passage where Sam cradles Frodo and I wondered if there might be another explanation wort considering. I put it to the meeting that maybe these moments of great tenderness between Frodo and Sam were intentionally constructed to lift the story out of any possibility of mistaking it for approaching reality and were in fact a means of reasserting most powerfully the mythic and Ideal. Mike and Mark were interested in this approach. Pat preferred to remain with in interpretation in terms of reality, and we agreed that this diversity of opinion was not only a good thing, but a testament to the quality of Tolkien’s writing.
After all this intense discussion Pat, who had started us off, asked the perfect question to finish the afternoon. ‘What’, she asked in all innocence, ‘does the bit of elvish mean at the end of the chapter?’ Without hesitation Mike replied ‘Crikey, we just made it!’ and Ian brandished the Post-it from his book crying ‘That’s word for word what I’ve got!’
That note of unity and fun seemed the perfect way to end our meeting. We decided to move on to the next chapter although I suspect some of us will read further. Diane’s notes, and a small discussion on the etymology of ‘wizard’ by Julie and Mike (and me) follow.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

I've become a virtual member as I am starting to feel very left out! I'm either working or asleep while you’re all having fun and coffee.

Looking over the blog from last time, there's a lot of Prospero-ing one way and another with Denethor breaking his staff and The King of the Dead breaking his spear, and Gandalf breaking Saruman's staff. I wonder what it means…

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

I do not like the Two Watchers; I do love Sam, always have.

Hope. Well, we are now brought back to "misery and despair" in the first paragraph.

This is one of my favourite chapters as this is where Sam really starts to come forward as a heroic figure. He is alone with only his wits to help him him, and very sharp wits they are but not more so than his native hobbitsense.


The first thing I'd like to bring up from reading this chapter is the relationship between Sam and Frodo. It seems to be heightened by the use of certain words and phrases that Tolkien uses about the relationship. First of all, I underlined the word "duty" in the last line of para. 2 - "he no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt." In para. 10 (in my book top of p. 879) we come to: "His love for Frodo (note: not master) rose above all other thoughts…" And then, p.883, where Sam's wandering around the Tower he thinks of "Frodo, lying bound or in pain or dead somewhere in this dreadful place." There seems to be a shift in the relationship. I have described it to mum already as being more like that of brother for brother than servant to master, employee to employer, or even batman to captain. In all those relationships there is certainly duty, yet the feeling I get from the way Tolkien writes of Sam's love for Frodo (remembering that we are reading a text written in a more linguistically innocent time than now - when "gay" meant "happy" or "carefree") is more that of equals, like friends, but more even than that. Perhaps I am reading too much into this; I am merely expressing my reaction to the writing.


In para. 4 we get a recap of what has been happening in the West, and the paragraph ends with a pathos that is, as I write, very much in the forefront of present events. Sam is "utterly alone". He is frightened, uncertain, facing death or worse, and the unknown. The thoughts of their friends in the West turn constantly to Frodo and Sam, yet we, the readers, have a strange position here. We are able to see what those in the West cannot. Tolkien gives us the power to know both strands of the parallel stories. But how far can, or dare, those in the West try to imagine what is happening to their friends? (I will leave what Gandalf may or may not be aware of - however, please feel free)?

As I write, somewhere in Portugal there is a little girl utterly alone, frightened and facing God knows what! Is it not better that the story's characters do not know what is happening to their friends? What further torments would such knowledge cause Merry and Pippin to suffer if they could know? How would Aragorn cope if he could know the dangers they face? Or, indeed, has Aragorn time to spare for them other than constant anxiety about the fate of the Ring? This wondering has no other point than as a metaphysical question. It was just something that struck me on reading the recap paragraph.

However, Tolkien preys on our empathic sense, and Sam's, in para. 10. Sam hears "some devilry going on" and at first tortures himself by wondering if the orcs are "tormenting Frodo, or even savagely hacking him to pieces". Sam realises it’s the sound of Orcs fightling each other. Sighs of relief all round!

This section ends with: "Sam had crossed into Mordor." We are being told that this is a significatn act because it has been given prominence. We know that Sam is crossing into Mordor, but we are being told that this is it, the crossing place, giving us the sense of inevitability about it and that there is now no going back. Here is where the next - I would even assert - the last part of the quest begins.

At the beginning of the next section, para. 12, Sam takes off the Ring. The sentence that describes this has a wonderful ambiguity threaded all through it, carefully and cleverly constructed. Even the author seems unsure what he intends here and says so. Brave author!
"…moved it may be by some deep premonition of danger "(usually it's Frodo who tends to have the premonitions; Sam doesn't generally suffer from these - however, his vision in Galadriel's Mirror…)" though to himself he thought only that he wished to see more clearly." There are two (there may be more) ways of reading this sentence:
1. "he thought: I wish to see more clearly"
2. "he thought he wished to see more clearly [but in fact he was driven by something else]"

The phrase is not written in either way yet it suggests both and there is the use of the word "only".

What follows is why we read Tolkien! Anyone can be taught to CGI a pretty picture. It's a true artist who can paint the Morgai, the torment of Orodruin and the great size and menace of Cirith Ungol with language and make you live it.

Within this passage is revealed a weakness of Sauron, that he had "few servants but many slaves of fear". That fear, however, is driven by Sauron himself and his few servants, not least the Nazgul. Would the Mouth of Sauron be termed a servant or a slave? Yes, he's a herald, but is he a free-acting agent, or a puppet-creature as suggested by the f-i-l-m?


We come now to the Temptation of Sam. Here, we have more "gnawing" continuing the theme from last time about Sauron gnawing at himself (I'm sorry, visions of pacing up and down biting his nails…) and the gnawing images associated with Gollum.

"The Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason"

Following the Temptation, we get: "In that hour of trial it was the love of his master (why "of" and not "for"?) that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense…"

Sam has just had a vision of Gorgoroth as a garden, then comes: "The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due…his own hands to use…"

Sam has done what the great could not. He has conquered not himself and his desire, he has conquered the Ring. The others, Gandalf, Galadriel, etc. had to overcome their desire. Sam has all his desire in being a free hobbit: he just wants his bit of garden and a quiet life.

And as he descends to the gate he shrinks again to a very small and frightened hobbit.

This is why I love Sam.


The story now picks up pace again. Point for possible discussion: How much is the Orc fight inevitable given the nature of Orcs, and how far is Sam very lucky (and Frodo, as a result)?
We get the repetition of "small frightened hobbit" but perceived in a trick of the light by an orc as a "great silent shape".

To prove that I read appendices too: Snaga means "slave" in Orcish, and tark is "man of Gondor".


All round this is a very violent chapter. For those who have seen "300" I would be very interested, with due apprehension, to know what that director could have made of LoTR, given a really good screen-adaptation.


I have to admit, I was not aware (and I believe this is also a fault in the radioplay) that Sam does not sing to try to contact Frodo. Much like a frightened or injured cat will purr to comfort itself, Sam begins to sing because he thinks he has failed and is despairing. "He murmured old childish tunes out of the Shire and snatches of Mr Bilbo's (note the titling) rhymes that came into his mind like fleeting glimpses of the country of his home."

It's when he starts to sing again "In Western lands" that he hears a faint voice answering. An orc appears and so Sam discovers where Frodo is and how to get to him.

And so we have the recovery of Frodo and another wonderful, possible ambiguity when Sam reveals to Frodo that the Ring is not lost.

"Now it came to it, Sam felt reluctant to give up the Ring and burden his master with it again." I have my opinion (of course!), that the 2nd phrase of the sentence is the important one.

Also interesting is: "Give it to me!" he [Frodo] cried. "Give it me at once!" Is the omission of "to" in the reiteration deliberate or an editorial error. If deliberate, why is it missing?

To end (at last!) I continued into the first short section of The Land of Shadow and found that here is where the Nazgul's beastie perches on the wall of Cirith Ungol, so Mr Jackson wasn't completely incorrect - it's just that he had the beastie wrap itself around Minas Morgul. Instead of having the Black Captain ride out on his great black horse - see, you stick to the written image and it's much better. Well, I couldn't go without having a dig.

I know I have missed out LOADS but I think this is quite enough. I have put down what struck me most and hope you find enough that is interesting for discussion.


8:01 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

FROM JULIE AND MIKE (and a bit from me)
The following discussion between Julie, Mike and me probably shows nothing more than our amateur delight in word-hunting, but it also shows that Tolkien’s love of philology is infectious!

JULIE: I came across an interesting lead today re. the connection between Gandalf being a "wizard" and being a "guizard" (the spelling of "guisard" in my Forgotten English calendar!) Well, I thought you could make a para-pun of it and perhaps pronounce it "gwizard", so far so good. But then I looked it up in Chambers and there is this entry:
""n. manner, behaviour: custom: external appearance: dress. v.t. (arch) to dress. v.i. to act as a guiser. ns. guiser, guisard, guizer (both chiefly Scot.) a person in disguise: a Christmas (or now usu. Hallowe'en and in Shetland, Up-Helly-Aa) mummer. [O.Fre. guise; cf. O.H.G.wisa (Ger. Weise) a way, guise, O.E. wise, way, wis, wise.]
Some kind of connection between being wise (or perhaps seeking for wisdom, like Odin as The Wanderer) and going about under an assumed identity.

Further to yesterday's speculations re. (possible) connection between "guizard" and "wizard", here are some comments that passed between Mike and me yesterday evening!
MIKE: "Aha! From my upbringing in Scotland I remember the colloquial term 'guiser', meaning 'likeable con man' or a Flash Harry (St Trininan's) sort of character. Is it too much of a stretch to link it to the more English 'geezer' with the same connotation?"

JULIE: I'm sure it is connected with "geezer"! "Geezer" would also suit Gandalf - he's a bit "Weeeyy!" and a bit "Woorrr!" after all!" (Fast Show) Seriously, I just looked it up in Chambers and it is indeed a variant of "guiser", and defined as a man, an old man, crafty or unscrupulous!

ME: I also wondered if 'guiser' comes from 'guising' or properly - to guise, an early form of our word disguising - to disguise - thus someone pretty much as you have already described. I also wondered if there was a case of lenition here - the mutation of the initial 'g' of the word in the way that Middle Welsh mutates g becoming w to show the grammatical use of the word. I think it shows accusative or possessive, and often seems to involve simply the dropping of the initial 'g' as in gwedy, after which becomes wedy. My Middle Welsh grammar is very rusty, and I'd need to revise it to be sure of all this, but this change seems to have spread around.
It happens, apparently arbitrarily, with the spelling of Sir Gawain's name, which oddly becomes 'Wawain' at times. It also happens even more oddly in The Faerie Queene which open with a knight 'walloping' across the plain. He is actually 'galloping', but Spenser has picked up this alternate spelling from somewhere. I've never had time to track down the Wawain/ walloping changes so I don't know if they have any relevance to Middle Welsh lenition, to sources of the tale in Welsh. This is certainly likely in Gawain's case since his name comes from the Welsh tales of Arthur. I don't know at all about 'walloping' for galloping, but there was a deep interest in old languages during the sixteenth century so Spenser may have known, or merely extrapolated from a Welsh g / w mutation he had come across.

JULIE: I was thinking, it would be too much to hope for that guizard actually did morph into wizard, but you have restored my faith!
Hm, the showman in The Wizard of Oz is also hiding behind a disguise.
Interesting, the way g-sounds often became w-sounds. I suppose, for another example, warranty is just a variant of guarantee (they both mean roughly the same thing in any case).
I love "walloping". You can picture the scene: "Cor, Dennis, stop rolling in that filth and cop a look at that knight! 'E's going at a fair old wallop!" Perhaps it's any kind of vigorous activity. Thinking of "pot-wallopers". I gather "walloping" in that sense is related to whelm and welter, i.e. seething water, but one could just as easily refer to a boiling pot as "galloping". Then there are the Wallops between Salisbury and Andover which always raise a titter. Oh, endless fun!!

I was thinking about g/w words, and I don't know why, but I suddenly had a hunch about a connection between gallows and willow, and I wondered, was the willow once the traditional wood for a hanging? So I googled it and I found a reference. I wonder if this is why "weeping" willow?

8:02 AM  
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Test, this is a test

12:52 AM  

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