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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Reading Group meeting 13/10/07

2 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

13.10.07
We discovered that our topic for this week involved us in some intense discussion, partly due to the nature of the material in Appendix A and partly due to its arrangement. We were only dealing with the Numenorean material, but this included the narrative histories as well as the genealogies. The arrangement of the material is complicated by Tolkien’s delight in constructing levels of textual sources, some of which are set in quotation marks to distinguish them as coming from a different source. His academic training nevertheless gives this part of the Appendix a sense of depth and a degree of ‘reality’ by mimicking the gathering of Chronicle, diary, and other material. So we struggled on, trying to work out at times whether the narrator, or a hobbit Chronicler, was actually telling the story!
Julie began by noting that the years of the Numenoreans – the length of time they could expect to live – diminished as their anxiety about death grew. It was remarked that the ability of the Kings to decide the hour of their death nodded towards the topic of euthenasia. Aragorn’s desire to surrender his life before loosing his faculties is a late and powerful representation of the dilemma.
We noted that the Numenorean Kings grew more and more envious of the elves, and conceited. Their desire to reach the Undying Lands had, we thought, a hint of Viking exploration about it, although their later invasion of the eastern lands of Middle-earth is much more in the Viking mould. However, it was also pointed out that their attempt to reach the forbidden lands represents a kind of ‘horizontal Tower of Babel’. Although the Babel motif has come to mean generally a lot of confused and noisy voices, it has other signficances in the study of literature, such as the primordial fracturing of language, but in its biblical context it depicts more importantly a King’s blasphemous intention to reach heaven and look on the face of God. The Numenorean desire to reach the Undying Lands and find the elves and the Valar falls into the same motif. The arrogance of the Kings continues when Ar-Pharazoan wants to challenge Sauron. The presumption of the Man who seeks to take on a Maia is astonishing, but it could be argued that he is tempted into it by Sauron who is still beautiful at this time.
We noted that the Numenoreans enjoy choice in all respects, and make some very bad choices.
Mark asked about the reason for all the genealogies in this Appendix. It was variously suggested that they establish the authority of the ruling houses, they provide us with a sense of deep history – always a feature of Tolkien’s writing of course, and I suggested that they depict the transmission of authority and legitimacy within an oral culture. Their historical details also pick up the idea of ‘learning from history’, as the arrogance of the early Kings and the conduct of the Stewards, good and bad, reveals how the Numenoreans created their own downfall and responded to disaster.
We next got into the problem of male inheritance as in some instances the early Numenoreans had Queens. The issue of inheritance through the female line led us, as Laura observed, into the murky depths of Salic Law. Although this is ably discussed at the start of Shakespeare’s Henry V (!) all we could remember immediately was that it had something to do with female inheritance. I have checked this and apparently in terram Salicam mulier non succedat, ‘no woman shall succeed in Salic Lands’. Since Tolkien permits female inheritance of the crown in Numenor, he seems to be avoiding replicating a Law that was specific to Northern European (Germanic) territory.
After this diversion into obscure medieval law we got back to puzzling over the information, picked out by Christopher, that during his stay in Gondor under an assumed identity, Aragorn warned Ecthelion against Saruman, and we wondered where he got his information. It occurred to us that Gandalf could not have provided it, because he wasn’t aware of Saruman’s corruption until after Aragorn had taken up his duty as guardian of the hobbits. Mike suggested that Saruman was already known for his expertise in Ringlore, so maybe Aragorn suspected trouble. Following on from this, Ian then drew our attention to the relative motives of Saruman and Gollum, in their pursuit of the Ring.
We were all fascinated by the strange pathways by which the Ring of Barahir eventually came back to its distant heir, and we discussed the Snowmen with some delight. Laura, I think, drew our attention to the relationship between Tolkien’s depiction of the fate of the Gondorian ships in the ice, and the famous tale of Shackleton’s ships being crushed in the ice. Angela picked up the important theme of pity again in this tale, and the similarity between the Icemen and the Pukel Men, or at least Gan-buri-Gan: both Gan and the Snowmen can ‘read’ the wind. This seems to be a particular talent associated with ancient marginal races, and a sign of their ancient natural knowledge. It seems to be a distinguishing feature of their status as both marginal to the main stories and radically different to the societies described in those main stories.
I was interested in the whole idea of marginal races in Middle-earth. Again, Tolkien’s narrative technique develops a sense that although we may get involved in the main stories, these are only a part of the life of Middle-earth. We get the perspective given to us by the narrators of the tales (for they are all translations and gatherings), but there are other tales that could be told. The fact that we, the omniscient readers, are ourselves ‘marginalised’ and denied information about these other races has several interesting effects. At the moments when this marginalisation becomes obvious, we are aligned with the main stories and made ‘partisans’ in their particular tight focus. The technique, however, reminds us that we are excluded from some things. We might be invited in on certain conditions – especially if we ever discover the whereabouts of an entwife — but for the most part we are made aware of our complicity with a particular perspective, and its system of ethical values.
As we moved into the back-story of Aragorn and Arwen we discussed the possibility that they came back after death. Angela had posed this possibility, not in the sense that Beren and Luthien came back, but in a more spiritual sense, to walk together on Cerin Amroth. Aragorn’s own biography prompted me to ask about the Sword that was Broken. The motif of the broken sword of the father that is re-forged and used by the son reminded me of the story of Siegfried, and his re-forging of Nothung, his father’s broken sword, but that was not my problem. We know that Aragorn rode out with Elrond’s sons doing lots of fighting before he met the hobbits, so he must have had a full complement of weaponry, including a fully functional sword, not just a hilt and a bit of blade. Yet when he meets the hobbits in Bree he proves his benign identity by producing the Broken Blade and saying, ‘Not much good, is it…?’ My point was, his job was to look after the hobbits, defend them, and himself until he met them, so what weapon(s) did he take with him, and why did he take along such a valuable heirloom?
The suggestions were that he carried a bow and arrows for hunting, and perhaps also for defence; he was travelling to Bree for a purpose which was not to confront trouble but to avoid it, and he was a good enough tracker and guide to keep out of sword-fights in that situation; that against the Ringwraith swords were ineffective, as he proved when he drove them from the Dell with fire; that identifying himself was an eventuality he considered. Since the Broken Blade was mentioned in Gandalf’s letter it was obviously the most significant means of identification. It might have been arranged between Gandalf and Aragorn in advance.
Of course, it can spoil a story to delve too deeply into it. The meeting at Bree is one of those moments almost everyone picks as a favourite. The question of Aragorn’s armament is unnecessary to the impact of the encounters he has with Frodo, Sam, Barley, and the Riders. To know any more than that his cloak and boots are travel-stained and that he himself looks weather-beaten, would spoil the slow, tense revelation of his real identity. But it was fun to discuss.
Having dealt with the Numenoreans and their descendants, we are moving on to The House of Eorl and Durin’s Folk. As a final aside, it’s interesting to see the difference in the ways the sections of Appendix A are named, since all of them tell the stories of kings.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

The reason why the latest blog has come up with such formality is because I also have my own blog now and Google seems to be confused!

3:24 PM  

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