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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Group meeting 25/8/07


Blogger Rymenhild said...

The Scouring of the Shire prompted a great deal of social and philosophical discussion, but we started off with some etymological insights from Julie and Tim. Julie directed our attention to the fascinating fact that the words ‘scour’ and ‘shire’ come ultimately from the same source. Some of us were astonished at this, but apparently the root of both words is the Latin verb escurare, which means ‘to take care of’. The sense of ‘taking care of’ something is not difficult when we think about the verb ‘scour’. Although now it means specifically to clean something vigorously, the original idea of ‘taking care of’ a physical object by cleaning it is logical enough. It seems a bit different with ‘shire’, the word for an administrative district. Although it has been displaced by the Norman French ‘county’ in official terminology, we’re all perfectly familiar with a shire as a distinct area of land. The Latin idea of ‘taking care of’ something comes into play when we remember that a shire was an area of land which was taken care of by someone appointed by the King. In Anglo-Saxon times this was likely to be one or more thegns (thains), and each shire had its own shire reeve (sherrif/shirrif), who was the king’s tax gatherer and administrative agent.
Julie also noted an Old Norse word ‘scur’, meaning ‘storm’, while Tim added that Old Irish provides another root for ‘shire’ and this OI word originally meant ‘to range over territory.’ When all this information was put together, we began to realised how brilliantly Tolkien had chosen the name for this chapter! What a stunning range of word-play and interconnectedness!
After this, we went on to get into the detail of the chapter itself. Mark commented that Saruman seemed to want to operate a scorched-earth tactic, destroying everything, and Shirley observed that he clearly resents the ruin of Orthanc. I thought his attitude was put across as pure malice. Pat said she had difficulty with Gandalf and Frodo allowing Saruman to go free, thus enabling him to continue creating havoc and propagating his evil, and she wondered where it would have spread if he hadn’t been killed. Tim remarked that evil had been in the Shire before Saruman arrived.
Pat’s point raised a difficult ethical question, and Mike admitted he was fed up with Frodo’s attitude — until Frodo’s mercy becomes apparent. Anne added perceptively that by Gandalf’s and then Frodo’s mercy, Saruman is condemned to be free and has to live with the mercy of those he hates. Mike noted that throughout the story the right to kill is condemned and avoided by Gandalf and Frodo as a matter of principle. It may not always work, as Pippin points out. Although Gandalf and Frodo avoid violence, it cannot be so nicely avoided by everyone. Claire thought Frodo was really falling back into his old lethargy again.
Laura described Frodo as turning the other cheek, and Tim saw Frodo as continuing to renounce violence and showing compassion as he leaves it to the hobbits to judge what has happened to the Shire while he has been away. His absence means that it is not now his place to judge. However, Laura remarked that Frodo was still needed to ‘outspeak’ Saruman, since his voice still has corrupting power and only Frodo now can counteract that power.
Shirley noted a new economic development taking place in this chapter, and the development of institutional structures. Laura noted that once the Rangers had withdrawn the Shire was too weak to protect itself, while Tim suggested that Saruman was able to exploit the lack of organisation when he arrived. Pat and Tim explored the idea of family justice as implied by Frodo’s comment about Lotho, that the family would have to do something about him, but this revealed a lack of institutional structures that could control events like Lotho’s assumption of power, or organise resistance to the ‘ruffians’. In a minor digression, I said I liked the way Tolkien had chosen the word ‘ruffian’ a word coming from French and Italian (which he didn’t like), as the word used to name and describe those who had invaded and wrecked the Shire before Saruman arrived.
Tim noted an historical echo of the argument of appeasement versus action which was the controversial topic before WW2, and this seems to echo and to be explored through this chapter. Tim also reminded us of a WW1 context for the rotten state of the Shire when the hobbits return. During WW1 there was much talk about making Britain ‘a land fit for heroes’, but when the soldiers and sailors returned Britain was nothing like that and many were left destitute. WW2 would have been worse in many ways because of great areas of bombed out homes and businesses.
Naturally, we discussed Saruman’s end, and there was some sympathy for Wormtongue. The significance of the wind coming out of the West was noted, and I asked everyone what they made of the description of the ‘long years of death’ revealed in Saruman’s corpse. Mike suggested that it referred to the deaths he had caused throughout the years. Laura suggested it was his years of evil that caught up with him, and Tim suggested that as he was a Maia the physical death of the body he had taken had been suspended until that time when it was mortally wounded. This prompted us to say ‘Dorian Grey!’ almost in unison. And a very nasty image it conjured up.
On a happier note, Mike said he liked the pure romance of the encounter between Rosie and Sam as a contrast to the intensely macho action of the chapter. We all seemed to like this interlude, but I thought Rosie was expressing a certain irritation that Sam had gone off without a word of commitment and suddenly turned up again without any acknowledgement that she might have been worried about him. She is, as Mike noted, a perfect pattern of the girl left behind, supportive but not intrusive.
Continuing the lighter side of the discussion, and taking a much more hobbit-like topic, Julie wondered if all the discussion about short rations in the Shire was related to the food fantasies of soldiers and the miseries of wartime rationing. Tim extended this to suggest that the chapter may have been a kind of ecological and political fantasy for Tolkien himself as he could restore the bucolic Shire in a way that England could never be restored after WW2.
Ethics, history and politics, as well as etymology had made for a quite intense discussion. We come now to the final chapter. Most of us know what’s coming, and some of us are not looking forward to it. We are buffering our emotions with the intention of going on to read Appendix B, so those who are reading the end for the first time will know how everything eventually fits together. As we considered again ‘what next’, Mark made the very helpful suggestion that we should finish everything we want to do with LotR, including themes, before moving on. This seemed to be approved, but we’ve still got to confront The Grey Havens.

3:10 AM  
Blogger Rymenhild said...

Some of you may have noticed that a report onn the chapter 'Many Partings' has been missing from 21/7/07. There is now a report logged there.

3:17 AM  

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