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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reading Group meeting 27/10/07

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

27.10.07
We began our meeting with a discussion of the plans for Yule and decided that as last year’s plan had worked, we would stay with that and go out for a drink together before Christmas and the have another Reading Day dinner in March. We all agreed that last year’s drinks venue was not a good choice and we decided to find somewhere quieter. Having dispensed with the really urgent deliberations, we turned our attention to the text for the day, which was ‘The House of Eorl’ and ‘Durin’s Folk’, the final parts of Appendix A.
However, as Anne had missed our last meeting we actually started with a recap of the parts she had missed and we looked matter such as the origin and realm of the Witch-King, and the significance of trees in Gondor and elsewhere. We discussed the role of the Valar, and wondered if the theme of diminishing races, especially the fading of the Elves, but also the low birth-rate among dwarves, implied some kind of evolutionary process, or a form of ‘selective breeding’.
After this we moved on to ‘The House of Eorl’ and the special features that belong to the mearas. Their taboo association with kingship was noted, as they will not be ridden by anyone but a king, with the late exception of Gandalf who, as a Maia, outranks any mortal king. But it was decided that it is a quality of majesty or nobility that a meara will pick up intuitively. We didn’t pick up the echo of Falada, the talking horse in the fairy story of The Goosegirl, perhaps because this topic had come up before, but this aspect of the culture of Rohan taps into a widespread myth of the talking helpful animal.
The issue of Gandalf and kingship diverted our attention briefly as we considered Aragorn’s coronation. Some of us wondered if this repeated the pattern of the coronation of Charlemagne, who, we thought, took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself. I still wonder if it wasn’t Napoleon who did this, and it may be that stories are apocryphal. That Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope on New Year’s Day 800 is historical fact, and some of us felt that even though Aragorn directed the process of his coronation, when he is crowned by Gandalf this echoes Charlemagne’s coronation by the Pope in Rome. We came a long way from Rohan = Anglo-Saxon Mercia to Minas Tirith = Rome!
This exploration of historical echoes followed our skirting round the echoes of myth and fairytale, but we went on to confront the influence of ancient stories when Tim raised the matter of Helm the Hammerhand. Tim pointed out the similarity between this strangely mythic figure and Beowulf as both prefer to use their hands only to kill their enemies or opponents. It is slightly disconcerting, then, to find Helm also likened to a troll, even if it is a snow troll. This reference, taken together with his strange death seems to shift Helm into the mythic.
We went on discuss the nature of Fangorn – the Ent rather than the forest. And we were divided along lines of evergreen or not evergreen. We consulted some of the books our members generously bring in to each meeting, but were not entirely convinced on the evergreen status of Treebeard. There seems very little evidence either way in the main texts – LotR, ‘the Appendices’, and the Unfinished Tales, and I confessed to having become rather sceptical of the scholarship of a number of books that advertise themselves as providing background and sources to Tolkien’s works. Some of us remain influenced by Treebeard’s assertion that he has taken on the characteristics of a tree, while not of course being one. Whether or not he has appendages ‘like’ leaves, is hardly important. As Mike and Christopher and Angela concluded, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the Green Man of ancient myth – a spirit of nature, of the forest, and of trees, who is often depicted with leafy twigs sprouting from his mouth. When we move into the realm of the mythic we should not expect the rules and forms of everyday life to be there, and there are some questions that cannot be answered.
Pat moved us away from difficult mythical matters when she noted the theme of usurpation running through this part of the Appendix, especially as Freca tries to overthrow Helm. Helm’s insults are an unusual feature, as is the arranging of a marriage. Both elements contribute to a feeling of a very ancient society whose manners are far removed from those of the Rohan we know from LotR.
We moved on to Durin’s Folk, and I commented that I thought it interesting to see the difference in the way the two peoples – Rohirrim and the Dwarves – were named. We have ‘The House of Eorl’ which gives priority to the royal family, especially in its legendary past, while the story of the dwarves deals just as much with the royal lineage, but names not just Durin’s house, but his ‘folk’, suggesting a more inclusive society. Of course, the special feature of the dwarf lineage is the belief that Durin is reborn, and so the genealogy of the rulers is not so straightforward as the line of Eorl.
Anne was impressed by the description of Thorin at his anvil and remarked on the beauty of the language used in this paragraph, especially in the last sentence. Mike picked up the statement that he endured anger without hope and drew our attention to the similarity with Melkor, who also felt the same anger without hope. The psychology of hopelessness, and the events that follow from it are an important part of the History of Middle-earth, but it is a condition that few characters seem to endure.
I raised the matter of the cold-drake and Mike pointed out that Morgoth created both fire-drakes and cold-drakes. I wondered how cold-drakes killed if they were without the traditional weapon of a Worm, and we all enjoyed discussing the terminology – drake or worm – they give distinctly different impressions and make a nice change from the over-used ‘dragon’.
We discussed the ‘chance meeting’ of Gandalf and Thorin in Bree, and wondered again at just how much chance there was in it, because Gandalf points out how much greater the loss would have been if they had not met that evening. But Gandalf’s account replayed the sense of loss that came anyway. Dain died defending King Brand, and we learn in other parts of this Appendix that even after the victory of the West, Eomer the King still rode to battle with Aragorn the King as he went on fighting rebellions in Rhun and Harad. These reminders that peace is a state dearly bought and in need of constant defence create a deep sense of pathos, but the we took delight in the language: ‘and on the far fields of the south the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark was heard, and the White Horse upon Green flew in many winds until Eomer grew old.’ For me this is quintessentially Tolkien in his most powerful narrative mode.
The passing away of the members of the Fellowship was picked up by both Pat and Laura. Pat noted the beautiful suggestion that when Legolas sailed into the West, Gimli went with him. There is a wonderful hint that his pure courtly devotion to Galadriel was both the spur to him to go, and the reason he might have been allowed to. We wondered then whether this meant that Gimli went on to the Halls of Mandos in death, or received the state of immortality. This seemed difficult to justify, until Laura reminded us of the story in ‘Durin’s Folk’ of Durin’s reincarnation. So we concluded that Gimli might have been given a similar condition. Of course, it’s all conjecture, but we found it fascinating to debate.
Having got all the way through Appendix A in 2 meetings we decided to finish off the histories of the races of Middle-earth by reading Appendix B and the Prologue together for next time. This will give us the background to the leading families of hobbits. We spent a few moments looking at the family trees and admiring, and wondering, at some of the names. Our next meeting should remind us of all the things we have forgotten about hobbits!.

1:28 PM  

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