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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Reading Group meeting 21/7/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Well, here we are almost at the end of another month, and getting closer and closer to the end of the story that has kept us absorbed for the last 3 or more years. Some of us have not read the book before and do not yet know how it ends, which called for a bit of nifty adjustment in mid-sentence occasionally so those of us who have did not give the game away when our discussions strayed into areas that are yet to be resolved.
The chapter this time, ‘Many Partings’ encouraged more quiet musing than many we have tackled. Mark called our attention to the white gem in the necklace Arwen gives to Frodo. Although there was general consensus about it being some kind of diamond, other stones were suggested, but the real problem lay in explaining the significance. I was too ‘hasty’ with my suggestion, but Mike and Angela and Christopher all provided much more precise details about Arwen’s gift and its relevance to Frodo’s suffering. It remains a touching and beautiful moment when Arwen gives the sign of symbol of her elven status to Frodo so that he can escape his suffering in Middle-earth and seek healing in the West.
A momentary lapse in this rather serious afternoon’s discussion came when it was remarked that Pippin’s desire for a palantir to see his friends was a bit odd after his previous experience of looking into one. We then digressed into ideas about the palantir being the Middle-earth webcam! Mike followed this with the observation that the journey of all those returning to their homes seemed much like a demob party. Younger readers may not know about demob, the shortened form of ‘demobilisation’ – a process that happens after a major war when most of the soldiers and especially all the conscripts, are systematically allowed to hand in their kit, pick up new clothes and travel home, often by train. The process means that a whole lot of ex-soldiers will all board a train in their new demob suits and as the journey goes on their party will grow fewer as people reach their destinations or change trains. Like children leaving school, or students leaving university, friends will always promise to keep in touch, come and visit, and write all the time. In the event, contacts are often lost and forgotten.
The journey of the King, his retinue, and all who travel from Minas Tirith with them, follows a similar pattern with friends and comrades drifting away to their old homes or new lives. There is a deep feeling of anticlimax about all this, as if peace is actually a melancholy condittion.
Pat was interested in the treatment of Saruman, one of the few lively bits in the chapter. We all considered the many aspects to the simple fact that he is not judged or punished. I suggested that Gandalf, and Frodo, will not associate themselves with passing judgement or behaving in the oppressive way that characterises evil. They generally take the ‘long view’, allowing evil to ultimately destroy itself, which is what happens with Gollum and will happen to Saruman in the end.
Laura proposed that Treebeard wanted Saruman to leave Orthanc, but it was also suggested that as Gandalf remarks, Saruman still has the power of his voice’, and so what Treebeard seems to want may only be evidence of Saruman’s continuing persuasive power.
We commented on Saruman’s aggressive responses to Gandalf’s offer of help. Mark saw this whole exchange as symbolic and Christopher and Mike expanded this, especially when Gandalf tells Saruman he is ‘going the wrong way’, but he persists, as he has done in all things, going his own way without accepting advice or help.
We considered the fate of Grima and wondered why he tagged along with a master who treated him so badly. Mark suggested that there was a resemblance between Grima and Gollum. Both end up grovelling. And we were interested in the significance of Saruman’s response to Merry’s ‘gift’ of pipeweed. His spiteful threats are bad enough, but Sam picks up his mention of his weed being ‘dearly bought’ and we wondered who else apart from Bill Ferny might have turned quisling. Saruman’s attention to the Shire, picked up from Gandalf, may also have made him more interesting to Sauron, when taken together with the fact that Saruman’s ‘special subject’ had for many years, been the lore of the Rings.
Julie drew our attention to the intensely painful episode, only briefly mentioned, in which Elrond and Arwen say their final farewells. It is remarkable that in a couple of sentences Tolkien merely draws our attention to this unseen parting and leaves each reader to supply the sense of the pain and even conflict at this parting from his or her own experience, or imagination. Julie, however, saw more than this. She recalled the biblical story of Jeptha’s daughter, a story apparently set in the pagan past since Jeptha promises his daughter as a sacrifice for his success in battle. When he is victorious he takes his daughter up into the hills to sacrifice her. I didn’t know this story, but Julie’s biblical version reminded me of the classical Greek story of Iphegenia who was similarly promised as a sacrifice to the gods by her father. Of course, Elrond doesn’t do anything so cruel, indeed at one level he tries to prevent his daughter sacrificing herself, but his bargain with Aragorn, to give him his daughter only when he has won the greatest of battles, links into the stories of daughters being sacrificed.
Mike remarked that the relatively slow pace of the chapter, while fitted to the journey and its various elements, also provides a space for philosophical considerations that other more active chapters have not encouraged in the say way. We discussed the significance of ‘Celeborn’s doom’ wondering exactly what it was. Eventually the group’s combined knowledge trudged back into The Silmarillion and the Appendices to dredge up the knowledge that Celeborn stays in Middle-earth, where he was born, and does not follow his wife (and daughter) into the West. Laura noted that he must become one of the elves who diminished into a little people. We noted that elvish society operates on a caste system based on who did and didn’t follow Orome from Cuivienen into the West, and who did or didn’t get caught up in the rebellion that led to Galadriel and some of her kin coming back over the northern ice.
While we were considering this, Mike said ‘we’re talking about the First Age aren’t we?’ To which we all agreed. He then asked whether Tolkien was the source from which the idea of the ‘New Age’ first arose, as the Third Age has give place to a New Age in Middle-earth. His point was that since Tolkien’s works had been a kind of alternative Bible to the hippy movement and they began the whole New Age movement there might have been some Tolkienian influence. None of us knew for sure, and we would need to consult the OED for more information about this, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis.
We went on to discuss the ‘inner circle’ of those who, after everyone else was asleep, communed together without speech. We were interested in this evidence of telepathy because it seems unique in LotR. Although anyone using a palantir can communicate without speech, nevertheless, the palanatir is needed to ‘open communications’.
Tolkien clearly constructed Middle-earth according to the notions of hierarchy with which he would have been familiar, including the medieval Great Chain of Being, and it does not seem that any character actually moves out of their place in the hierarchy. In this context, Laura was pleased that Gan-buri-Gan and his people were given their home territory in free tenure. I thought it was a shame that Aragorn wasn’t so forthcoming when it came to the Dunlendings. It could be objected that they had taken part, with the orcs, in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but he had made peace with the Haradrim and other opponents. The Dunlendings continued to be treated as a completely marginalised group.
Naturally we discussed the moment when Eowyn asks her liege lord for his permission to marry. Not a dry eye in the room, I think. His response is courtly and offers an interesting expression of his own feelings when he says that it ‘heals’ his heart to see her happy in love at last. The sense that the healer himself is now healed of his own personal grief at having been the helpless cause of her grief creates a sense of balance that is felt by the reader and gives a resolution and closure that seems entirely satisfying. Less satisfying was the lack of attention to Eowyn’s part in the triumph of the West. If she hadn’t killed the Witch King things could have turned out very different, but she is only written about in this chapter in terms of the ‘peace-weaver’ of Anglo-Saxon poetry. She performs the duties associated with queens in Beowulf, handing the cup to her brother the King and then to his renowned guests. Nothing is said of her valour and as Laura commented it is as if she is now told ‘off you go, back to your embroidery’. Thankfully, this will not be her fate and she will help Faramir restore Ithilien, as Aethelflaed the Lady of Mercia, helped her brother restore and defend the burhs of Mercia from Viking invaders.
I asked everyone if they had noticed that Bilbo’s version of ‘The Road Goes Ever On’ has its words very slightly changed again, and Mike remarked that it reminded him of the metre use in the Rubiyat of Omar Kiyam. Frodo’s comment about the roads – that now there is a real king he will ‘put the roads in order’ - seems delightfully bourgeois and prosaic when applied to this most heroic of kings by the most heroic of his subjects and friends. But it was remarked that Napoleon was noted for putting the roads in order. A sense of the necessity for good communications presumably, or just making sure the army can march on its feet without getting bogged down when in it isn’t marching on its stomach!
Finally, I asked about Bilbo, who seems very sweet in his great old age, especially when he gives Sam the last of his gold, but it was suggested that he’s probably making use of it as old people do. He’s certainly ready to get Frodo to do his writing for him!
It was overall a rather thoughtful afternoon’s discussion, perhaps reflecting the gentle pace of the travellers’ journey. In view of what is to come, we may be thankful for this. But for next time we are ‘Homeward Bound’.

3:13 AM  

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