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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Reading Group meeting 9/6/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

After a rather frustrating time with Google refusing to recognise my password, I think there’s a chance that I may have found a way in ‘under the wire’. Anyway, this is the blog report for our last meeting.
We were a bit of a select group as some members were off doing other things like going to see the musical. Reports so far have been ranging from positive to ‘blown away’ by the staging and spectacle. Although we missed our friends, we still seemed to get through a great deal of detailed discussion, partly thanks to some of the absent folk providing their thoughts in hard-copy. ‘Virtual’ participation is a great idea, and thanks to Diane for restating this.
So we began the last leg of the journey to Mount Doom.
It was described as a long, grinding chapter which, even more than in previous ones, gives two perspectives – from either side of the mountains. In keeping with our interest in Tolkien’s use of specific kinds of vocabulary, we spent a while discussing the use of the word ‘smokes’ as a noun. It was somewhat inconclusive, but we noted that it was more effective than the customary phrase ‘clouds of smoke’, we thought it might encompass more than one kind of smoke, perhaps including steam and other kinds of vapour, more than one source for the smoke, and we brought out modern understanding of volcanoes into play, which pointed up the impression that ‘smokes’ offered a more archaic and suitably non-scientific depiction of a fiery mountain that is as much a legendary place as a ‘real’ one.
Laura commented on the landscape of cratered mud, that it was again reminiscent of the kind of landscape Tolkien would have experienced in Flanders in WW1, and we remarked on the conflation of a war-landscape and the natural geological evidence of volcanic activity which comes together in the story as the landscape is taken as evidence of a kind of battle within the earth that replicates what is happening on top of it.
We had one of our mad and whimsical moments while discussing the violence of Sauron as shown by the land, and a brief chorus of ‘Springtime for Saruon’ broke out. This only makes sense (!) if you have seem the film The Producers. The original version of the song is in deliciously subversive bad taste, so we were using it correctly!
I mentioned that I was surprised by sudden the mention of Marigold, and this was linked with lots of special moments in the chapter in which Sam remembers his old life. These add poignancy to his own desolate situation, but even more to Frodo’s, for Frodo cannot remember now in the way that Sam can. It need hardly be said that we all felt the emotions evoked by this chapter, some of us in more immediate ways than others, and the lacrimous humour overtook some of us.
A feeling of pity for Sam was generated by his renunciation of his goods, especially his sadness at parting with his beloved pans. This was taken to be symbolic of the feeling that the hobbits would not be eating again. Sam’s homely encouragement: ‘Where there’s life there’s hope, and need of vittals’, echoed sadly now. Mike also saw this in a more positive light, as a physical expression of letting go of material things to get to redemption. It was also noted that Frodo puts on the garb of a pilgrim or penitent or monk when he sheds the last of his orc gear and wears only his cloak tied with a piece of elven rope. It is such a symbolic style and works on various levels, but all potentially add Christian significance to Frodo’s final journey.
After this major symbolic action of stripping things away, Diane noted the strangely emphatic statement that Sam carried Sting, and the phial, and the little box of earth Galadriel gave him ‘for his own.’ The emphasis seems to say many things about Sam and his situation, especially in the light of his self-sacrifice. He gives Frodo all the food and almost all the water (we noted that thirst is a theme in the chapter), and he often reaches points of despair in this chapter, but the box of earth is a treasure that only a gardener could value. It has no perceivable value at all, except maybe as a nugget of hope in the future, and so it fits Sam perfectly because he always seems to be able to dredge up another fragment of hope after his moments of despair.
Remarkably, we know a great deal about how Sam thinks and feels during the chapter, but we know almost nothing about Frodo’s thoughts and feelings. This is probably because, as he says, he is almost completely taken over by the vision of the wheel of fire. It is a truly terrible sense of suffering.
Part of what we know about Sam includes the debate he has with himself. We felt this to be uncomfortably like the debate Gollum has with himself close to the Black Gate. Diane also wondered if these debates were an externalising of the author’s dilemma. We know Tolkien occasionally got stuck, not knowing where his characters were going next. Claire suggested that Sam seems delirious, maybe through the effects of volcanic fumes and starvation. Julie suggested that among people who were used to living in close communities, the experience of being alone with no one to offer counsel or guidance in the making of hard decisions, perhaps the technique of personal debate was most helpful.
We spent some time considering the ‘misquoting’ of some bits of advice by characters. It was suggested that personal interpretations were coming into play when Frodo ‘hears’ Gandalf’s voice out of the past warning him not to kill Gollum. The first time Gandalf speaks of this mercy he says ‘ do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement’ (Shadow of the Past), later Frodo remembers this as ‘do not be to eager to deal out death in the name of justice’ (Taming of Smeagol). As Mike and Ian pointed out there is not only a difference between judgement and justice, but the choice implicit in the way Frodo remembers comments on his state of mind. This whole train of discussion was prompted by the terrible condition of Gollum on Mount Doom. It is so bad now that even Sam pities him and will not kill him. As Ian observed, Gollum is being destroyed slowly, the closer the Ring gets to the Mountain. There is an awful inevitability about this because Gollum has been taken over long ago by the Ring so its fate is also his. We considered the suggestion that Frodo’s doom (in the Old English sense of judgment, which also has an apocalyptic meaning) on Gollum may be the voice of the Ring itself speaking through Frodon because he too is almost taken over by it.
We noted the tremor in the ground, and I said it reminded me of the final moment in Dr Faustus when hell open and the devils come for Faustus. We remarked on Sam carrying Frodo, and I opened a can of worms when I said that the road to the Sammath Naur has often struck my as a bit ‘deus ex machina’, but of course it isn’t. However, we did wonder why Sauron needed it kept open, and this led to ideas about orc road-gangs, cones, and the Barad Dur CCTV keeping and EYE on the road works. This brought us, naturally, to the Sammath Naur itself. For reasons that I didn’t set down we picked up Ian’s consideration of the ‘regeneration of the digit’ and went in the direction of Incarnation and ritual. I think the idea was that if Sauron got the Ring it would restore him and his missing finger. I know we were prompted to recall ‘Carry On Screaming’ and the regeneration of Oddbod’s finger.
This led us into consideration of amputated fingers and hands, of which there are many examples in myth and legend. Julie and Mike noted O’Neil’s hand, known as the ‘bloody hand of Ulster’, and I mentioned Beowulf tearing off Grendel’s arm and the hand being hung up as a trophy. Throwing things into other things in the process of regeneration may be a mythic motif. In the Welsh story of Branwen Verch Llyr, one of the rescuers of Branwen intentionally gets himself thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration, and something of this tradition continues in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
We came back again to our customary consideration of outside interventions when Sam sees Frodo ‘transformed’ as a figure in white. The voice, which we also considered might be the voice of the Ring, might. Mike suggested, have been Manwe’s. The conflation of the white-robed figure and the wheel of fire from which the voice comes offers both possibilities. However, Diane noted that the voice uses the say command ‘Begone’, that Frodo uses at the Fords of Bruinen. Julie noted the Edenic echo Frodo (still untransformed) commands Gollum ‘Down, you creeping thing’, and this echoes Gandalf’s command to Wormtongue. Perhaps taking a balance from these echoes, it is more reasonable to suggest that either Manwe, or Gandalf ‘infuse’ Frodo with their influence at this point.
We were set a couple of Hard Questions too – 1: Did Frodo complete the Quest, 2: What would Sam have done if Gollum hadn’t been there?
Ian noted that when the Ring went into the fire Frodo could still be said to be wearing it because it was still around his finger! A truly precise, if gruesome, observation. It was also noted that in a less precise, or maybe even more precise, sense Frodo completed his bit of the Quest, getting the Ring TO the fire, and that Gollum actually completed the part he had to play, which was to take the Ring INTO the fire. It was also remarked that in fact everyone completed their parts. Without Boromir even, Frodo might not have found the courage to leave the group, Saruman would not have been stopped. Aragorn and the other deflected the attention of the Eye at the crucial moments.
The problem of what Sam would have done was much harder. It was proposed that Sam would have fallen into the fire with Frodo rather than see his beloved master taken completely by the Ring, but we did not really have a convincing response to this question. It is tricky to hypothesise about something for which there is so little evidence, background, or authorial reference.
On easier ground, we agreed with the interpretation of the effect of the Ring going into the fire that Mount Doom emitted both lava and a pyroclastic cloud, and Julie recalled the account by Pliny the Elder of the eruption of Vesuvius. This led to the hypothesis (!) that in later ages orcs in various petrified positions would be excavated and tourists would want souvenirs!
More sensibly, it was noted that the fall of Barad Dur and Mount Doom is told in prose heavily punctuated with colons and semicolons, making it all suitably slow and impressive, and that in the end all the curses, dooms, and prophecies are fulfilled. This fulfilment, of course, creates the sense of ‘majestic satisfaction’ as well as imparting a sense of catharsis. We might have noted the impressive changes of pace in the narrative too, especially at the Ring approaches and then goes into the fire, but this was the one aspect we did not get round to. As it was, the afternoon ended with us all, I think, feeling quite worn out with the emotional intensity of the chapter.
We move on now to The Field of Cormallen, for the reign of Sauron is ended forever and the eagles are coming!

2:54 AM  

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