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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reading Group meeting 8/9/07

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Blogger Rymenhild said...

8th September 2007
Today we finished reading the main text of The Lord of the Rings.
It was astonishing that everyone in the group managed to attend except Diane whose shift pattern meant she couldn’t be with us. So I would like to put on record here my thanks to her for all her support right from the start of the Reading Group. I would also like to thank everyone in the group for helping to make it the friendly and stimulating environment for discussion that it has become.
The afternoon began with Angela’s and Christopher’s spectacular pictures of their trip to the Himalayas, evoking thoughts of Caradhras and other Middle-earth mountains. Then Shirley asked about a suitable costume for the Masquerade at the next Oxonmoot. I suggested modelling it on Finduilas’s mantle, but Diane came up with the less complicated suggestion of Ioreth’s costume.
We began our discussion eventually with an etymological problem. Pat picked up the idea of the Grey Havens and remarked on the similarity between the words ‘haven’ and ‘heaven’. Laura reminded us that Gerald Manley Hopkins created an early poem with the title ‘Heaven-Haven’, and it is quite possible that Tolkien knew and was influenced by this to some extent. We did not explore the possible connections with the process of ‘going into the West’ as a euphemism or symbol for death in Tolkien’s work, but we did wonder whether the modern English words both came from the same root. However, it seems that they do not. Both have their roots in Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Pat had got as far as finding that ‘haven’ comes from AS haefen, but I discovered later that ‘heaven’ comes from a different AS word heofen. Although they look similar, the Anglo-Saxon pronunciation would make them sound quite different: ‘haefen’ is pronounced ‘haffen’, while ‘heofen’ is pronounced the way it is spelt.
With all the talk of havens, Laura expressed an interested in the word ‘hythe’ – a landing place or less size and consequence than a haven. She had heard it pronounced ‘hoothe’. That is as close as I can get here on the blog to the Anglo-Saxon sound. It has come down to us unaltered, except that sometimes it has been spelt ‘hithe’.
The Grey Havens occupied us for quite a while. Pat noted that there were lots of other mentions of grey in the chapter and we discussed the significance of this colour, since much of Tolkien’s use of colour harks back medieval colour symbolism. Grey eyes, for example, are a sign of nobility, but Tolkien’s Grey Havens have a different significance. We noted that they are the place from which there is s lot of going, but no return. It was remarked that a haven is a ‘safe place’, but in the case of the Grey Havens they are a place of safety leading to a transition, as characters (usually Elves) pass from Middle-earth into the West. This was thought to fit in with the idea of grey as a colour that lies between the polar opposites of black and white, in effect a transitional colour.
While everyone else seemed to have a symbolic interpretation for the Grey Havens, I remarked that I had always thought they were just named after the grey stones of which they were built. The symbolic aspect was much more significant, and it did remind me that grey stone in Beowulf seems to be associated with death. Pat observed that Arwen is wearing grey when Frodo first sees her, but we didn’t take that further, although maybe we could have.
Laura commented on the idea of going into the West and its significance when we recall how much emigration took place from the British Isles, and much of it was ‘into the West’ to America, from which few emigrants ever returned. There are also ancient myths of the Isles of the Blessed that lie far to the West, so Tolkien may have given us imagery that echoes a number of sources and ideas as his Elves leave from the Grey Havens, going and not returning, to a place that is renowned as the Blessed Realm. Whether or not we should think of it in terms of ‘heaven’, paradise, a place of healing, it is definitely constructed as a better place than the east of Middle-earth.
We considered the mythic association of death with crossing water, mentioning especially the Greek myth of the dead crossing the river Styx and Charon the ferryman having to be paid for his service with the coins placed on the eyes, or in the mouth of the dead person.
We discussed the reasons for Frodo leaving and going into the West, and this led us into unexpectedly philosophical debate. Anne said she wondered at Frodo’s apparent ‘existential angst’, and wondered whether it is axiomatic that Frodo must leave. Certainly, Frodo finds his existence in the Shire is no longer what it was. Tim and I both said we thought Frodo had no choice but to leave his home, because he was so badly wounded, mentally as well as physically, by his Quest to destroy the Ring. This led us to consider the scope and scale of his mental suffering, or where his angst might lie. He ‘dreams’ and says desperately that it is gone forever. The loss of the Ring is tied to the fact that he could not give it up of his own free will, it had to be torn from him by Gollum, so in this precise sense, Frodo failed in his Quest, he didn’t destroy the Ring, and yet it has been taken from him. Given the terrible effect of the Ring, this must have had some effect on his mind. Anne and Tim maintained that while Frodo does indeed suffer, it is not axiomatic that he should leave. He always has a choice and could stay if he wanted to. The fact that he doesn’t want to is the reason for choice.
Mark thought Frodo had simply ‘outgrown’ the Shire, and leaves with the Wise – Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, because he has developed in ways that make him closer to them than to the hobbits. He has become wise, but also humble as his swift rejection of his fine clothing shows.
In contrast to Frodo’s sad decline, I thought the images of Merry and Pippin riding out in chain mail with shields at their back was lively and rather endearing, and their singing especially reminded me of Tennyson’s description in his poem The Lady of Shallott of Sir Lancelot riding down to Camelot singing ‘Tira lira’.
Of the final farewell Julie said it reminded her of the start of Thomas Arnold’s great poem Dover Beach, and Anne commented that an important part of the process of grieving is turning away, as the hobbits turn and ride away in silence. Claire observed that it is a sign of friendship when people can be together in companionable silence.
We seem to have recalled more poets than usual in this session. We considered Tolkien’s use of colour symbolism, and wandered into philosophy without finding any real consolation. We did not get deeply into any kind of religious debate over Frodo’s journey into the West. Tolkien seems very careful to avoid anything that would suggest the quick and easy application of known religious or doctrinal means of understanding what happens to Frodo. The feeling that he is ‘sacrificed’ is set against his willingness to do what he does. His pain seems unfair, but that makes it so much more realistic. It is strange to think that after more than 3 years ‘this is the end’. It is even stranger to think that our next meeting will be on The Birthday – 22nd September.
We don’t have a topic for this next meeting. We will just meet and chat about the book and decide what we want to do next.

2:30 PM  

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