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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reading Group meeting 26/5/07

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Blogger Rymenhild said...

26.5.07
We were looking at ‘The Land of Shadow’ this week. Not one of the long chapters and considering how little SEEMS to happen in it, we found a great deal to discuss. This chapter has always seemed to me a strangely uneventful one. Frodo and Sam struggle down into the Morgai and trudge along in a bleak and desolate landscape. Everything is dingy, monochrome, and there are very few ‘dramatic’ moments, but the sense of scale shifts all the time, Frodo and Sam are changing, or at least the changes that have been happening to them become more apparent, and it was these things that stimulated our conversation.
The most dramatic moment in the chapter could be said to be the view of the Nazgul perched on the walls of the fortress. It was remarked that this description suggests that the beast and its wraith rider are not now defined as separate entities but referred to as if they are a single being – a centaur-like creature. We noted too that the cry of the Nazgul changes in this chapter and discussed whether it was the cry of the Witch-king as he fell to Eowyn’s sword-blow, or the passing of yet more messages. The first cry is just the Nazgul announcing its presence on the fortress wall, but the next is described as a cry of ‘woe and dismay’. The text was checked, and we realised that it was not Angmar himself, but another Nazgul bring news of the fall of Angmar.
Ian directed our attention to the description of Mordor and the fact that Frodo seems to be able to navigate rather well in this evil and little-known region. We considered the time the Fellowship spent in Rivendell and the fleeting mentions of looking at maps there and wondered if Frodo had remembered the lie of the land. However, it also seems that Frodo often navigates ‘by instinct’, and with a certain kind of desperate logic. He has to get to the Mountain, he can’t get down the cliffs of the Morgai without rope (no rope!) and in any case most of the plain below is covered with encampments, so there are only limited options.
Laura remarked on the changes that are happening to Frodo and Julie suggested he was being increasingly controlled by the Ring. Diane noted that he is becoming increasingly irritable. Mike noted instances of Frodo’s amazement while Angela remarked on his admission of hopelessness. This lack of hope is balanced out to some extent by Sam’s increasing stoicism and determined resilience. Ian then noted that Sam’s language begins to change. For a while he has been increasingly decisive, in spite of a shaky start. He tells Frodo what they should and shouldn’t be doing, but as Mike also remarked, Sam then reverts back to a more subservient role and subservient language. A link with the possession of the Ring seems obvious, but Sam’s readiness to slip in and out of his subservient role continues in a more complex fashion – he never challenges Frodo but frequently takes over the decision-making at times when the influence of the Ring does not seem to come into play.
On the topic of Sam’s association with hope, Diane noted the beauty and significance of Sam’s ‘star’ moment, brief, but beautiful, and an echo of his song in the orc fortress. It was remarked that Sam’s song is not a signal to Frodo, but the equivalent of ‘whistling in the dark’. Sam sits down and sings ‘In Western Lands’ as a comfort to himself in the darkest moment. Laura noted the sense once again of hope beyond evil in both the song and the contemplation of the stars, and she wondered if in this we could hear Tolkien’s own belief. Laura and Diane went on to note the contrast of light and dark as well as of hope and despair.
We returned to the vexed question of the relationship between Frodo and Sam as the hobbits hold hands and were satisfied with Omer’s comments on an earlier instance when he suggested that the hobbits holding hands represented an older and more innocent world than the one we are used to. Of course, there would be nothing strange about two people – or hobbits – in the most terrible circumstances finding comfort in the touch of another hand. And it is no longer just Sam who takes Frodo’s hand. Frodo takes Sam’s hand too, establishing a more equal sense of reciprocal need, and undercutting again the deferential posture Sam still adopts at times in his language.
It was observed that in this chapter we get constant reminders of what is happening on both sides of the Anduin. Sauron is now clearly obsessed with the vision of Aragorn and what he is doing. Angela noted the fact that the orcs refer to the Nazgul as ‘worried’, and so preoccupied that they won’t listen to the information the orcs could offer. We went on to discuss the ‘interlude’ with the tracker and soldier orcs. Ian noted that they are referred to differently through the use of different pronouns. The small snuffling tracker is ‘it’ while the soldier is ‘he’. Mike saw them in Shakespearean terms where the significance of minor characters whose role may not be obvious but serves the wider story. These two in fact serve to introduce the re-emergence of Gollum into the story. Their antagonistic, grumbling conversation ties together the mail shirt Frodo discards with Gollum’s ability to follow the hobbits, and as Julie reminded us, Gollum picks up Frodo’s scent, echoing the ‘sniffing’ of the wraiths far back in the Shire.
We spent a little time discussing coincidences (again), especially the fortunate chance that brought the troop of small orcs along the road just as Sam and Frodo were on it. We were then challenged – and I have to confess I forgot to note who said it – to think of Gollum in terms of one of the ‘bog people’ of ancient Ireland, Denmark, and other locations because he is so withered and apparently ‘discoloured’. The association is strangely apt, not only because the bog bodies are found in bogs, echoing especially Gollum’s traverse of the Dead Marshes, but also his general association with water. The theories that the bodies were either those of cowards and traitors who were executed by being pressed into the bog, or that they were sacrifices, both have resonance with Gollum’s ‘biography’. However, we do not know at present whether Tolkien knew about bog bodies.
The afternoon drew to a close with Julie and Mike opening up the question of whether Tolkien knew John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was questioned because Bunyan was a Puritan and later a Baptist, but I did not think this automatically ruled out Tolkien’s knowledge of the book. His Catholicism certainly did not prevent him using the characteristic rhythms and language patterns of the Authorised Version of the Bible although he would have been most familiar with the Latin Vulgate traditionally used by the Roman Catholic Church. Although he never uses Bunyan’s style of naming, there are many elements that the two stories share in common. Maybe the easiest to see in parallel are Tolkien’s Dead Marshes and Bunyan’s Slough of Despond, but there are characters and episodes and places that Mike and Julie could also see echoing between the texts.
We are moving on the next chapter and because Angela and Christopher will be away, they have given some written feedback to be included in our next deliberations. Some of our number will be away on their trips to see the new musical. With 17 individual ‘stages’ it should be spectacular and the thinking behind the music, and the fragment I have heard, seem interesting, but flying elves? Oh dear!

8:55 AM  

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