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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Reading Group meeting 10/11/07


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We spent a good deal of time talking about names during our meeting. This is no surprise really, since the hobbit genealogies formed part of our reading and discussion, but we did seem to get into to weird and arcane areas! We began by commenting on names that are more unlike those we are used to, and Tolkien comes up with some wonderful ones. We noted the use of flowers and gems as the names of hobbit girls, and this got us into discussing the giving of names today. We wondered at the logic of anyone calling their son Neville Neville (he’s the father of the footballing Neville brothers), and several of us had stories to tell of bad combinations of names that we had heard.
We looked with interest at the attributive names of some of the hobbits, mostly male, but occasionally female, such as Madoc ‘Proudneck’, and Elanor the Fair. Although Madoc’s attribute does not seem to have given rise to a family name, Elanor eventually founds a family known as the Fairbairns. Two trains of discussion followed from this. Firstly, we remarked on the way Tolkien takes known English surnames and gives then a ‘derivation’, as when Sam’s son Frodo takes the name of his father’s job as his family name and found the Gardner family. We then digressed into the making of surnames or family names, a process imposed in England in the 12th or 13th century. This process gave rise to some appallingly obscene surnames that would be completely unacceptable today, but we skated over that and remarked on the numbers of Johnsons, Robertsons, Petersons, etc. that had arisen out of the old way of naming such as Richard son of John, Harry son of Robert, etc. And then there are all the surnames derived from jobs, not just Gardner, but Forester, Smith (once said to be the most common English name), Wainwright (someone who makes waggons or wains), Fowler (someone who hunts or keeps fowls), Fletcher (a maker of arrows), Chapman (an itinerant merchant), and all the other trades.
Mark asked about Tolkien’s odd preference for names that sound almost the same, and he wondered if there was any precedent, and of course there is, as Mark remembered at once when I said ‘what about all the Anglo-Saxon Edwards, Edmunds, Edgars, etc.’ We thought there was some benefit in a society that lacked a complex central and literate administration to having names that linked sons, brothers, fathers and other ancestors simply by the sound of their names.
We went on to note the number of names in Tolkien’s genealogies that have ‘come down to us’ an can be found in other contexts as well as being familiar. Fortinbras is a great example – the young prince of Norway in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, suddenly turns out to be a minor scion of the House of Took, along with Isembard. No doubt this has another source since one of our most famous engineers was also called Isembard Kingdom Brunel. However, the suggestion that such famous names originated in the ‘legendary past’ of a Middle-earth that continues around us is strengthened when Tolkien announces in Prologue that when the 3 original hobbit clans moved into the region of the Shire, although their languages changed, they retained many of their ancient names.
We even touched on genetics through our attention to names when it was noted that ‘Goldilocks’ is a unique form. While we know it as that of a fairy story character, it surely refers to the colour of the hair of Sam’s second daughter, even though she shares that golden colour with her sister Elanor and many other hobbit children born in the year after Frodo’s return. The genetic process that caused this ‘mutation’ towards a colour most associated with one branch of the Elves was, we concluded, triggered by Sam sprinkling the dust from Galadriel’s orchard all over the Shire. Yet again, Tolkien seems to offer us a more entertaining reason for some of us to still be blessed with golden hair than simply the presence of Anglo-Saxon and Viking genes.
From a discussion of personal names we moved on briefly to consider place names, specifically the ‘Cleeve’ element. We could account for Coomb (a hollow in a hillside), holt (a wood), and we even noted the un-Tolkien tautology ‘the River Avon’ – avon being the Celtic word for a river anyway. It is quite well-known that the most frequent evidence of our Celtic past lies in the words we still use for geographical features and Laura alerted us to an old but fascinating book by Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, which deals with this topic.
After all this discussion about names of all kinds we moved on to consider the structuring of the book and the fantasy that Tolkien creates about its creation. The narrator he creates tells us that all the ‘fact’ set out in the Prologue and the Appendices come from another source, sometimes more than one and that they have been actually translated in the process. The layering of authors, narrators, translators, and chroniclers owes a great deal to the processes Tolkien would have known very well from his academic research. They give the Prologue and the Appendices a most enjoyable sense of ‘historic’ depth as well a pretending to the kind of complexity that actually happens in historical documents.
By this time our consideration of the structure of the Prologue led us into the matter of the Ring and the account reprised from The Hobbit. This brought our discussion into areas of conjecture and rather intense debate. We tried to work out whether we thought the Ring had a will of its own, and we ventured again into the murky waters of free will and providence as we talked over the losing and finding of the Ring. Of course, this also opens up ethical questions about Bilbo ‘cheating’ or not, but we were son engaged by the nature of he Ring itself that the ethical problem didn’t get much attention. It was wisely noted that at all times the Ring is being perceived by different and various eyes, so it is perceived differently.
Christopher reminded us that although the story focussed on Smeagol/Gollum’s possession and loss of the Ring, it lay undiscovered until Deagol found it. If we were looking at the Ring itself looking for a way back to its Master, it was attracting the apparently innocent Deagol, rather than attracting an evil agent, as it plainly does later. Smeagol’s crime takes it out of circulation again after centuries of lying ‘waiting’ in the River for Sauron to arise again. So, we wondered, was it Illuvatar who ‘meant’ for Deagol to find it? At this point, Ian counselled against over-analysis and we went on to consider a series of ‘what if’s.
Christopher again posed the question – what if Sauron had got hold of the Ring? This caused us a lot of difficulty and eventually we almost had Manwe leading the hosts of the West into battle. Clearly, we felt this was pushing things too far! There is no way of extrapolating an answer because that isn’t what Tolkien’s vision is about. Nevertheless, as Tim pointed out, after The Lord of the Rings Tolkien projected the rise of gangs devoted to ‘neo-orc’ beliefs so that evil of a petty and vicious kind could be seen to be inherent in the Men of the Fourth Age.
I wondered what if Sauron had gained the Ring and with it achieved a massive surge in power. Would it make him strong enough to then challenge the Valar and retrieve his old master Morgoth from the Outer Darkness? Two points arose from this. First, would he want to bring back Morgoth, would he want to defer to anyone if he had such power, and secondly, it was pointed out that Illuvatar was still The Creator and not even Morgoth was beyond his control. We were getting ourselves into deep theological considerations and did not take them any further.
Anne, however, tentatively asked to what extent Tolkien reflected in his opposing of good and evil the God/Devil polarity that he understood as basic to his own Christian beliefs. Most of us thought this was the case.
Mark then gave us a slightly easier topic when he commented that for him the Scouring of the Shire was the point of the book, as indeed Tolkien had indicated, and that the films seriously misrepresented the deeper themes of the story by not including this chapter.
Diane, in her role as virtual member, has commented, that for her the most important moment in these final chapters comes with Sam’s return from the Havens, when Rosie puts Elanor on his knee and he says he’s back. For Diane, this brings the story full circle. I would add that it restates both the reason for going – to preserve that peaceful and independent way of life - and the acknowledgement that the job has been done. In the form of Elanor, it also acknowledges that things are not the same, much has changed, but she is born into a Shire where all that is essentially worthwhile has been protected and can now move forward in peace.
We finished our discussion a little earlier than usual so that we could work out what we wanted to do in the meeting after next. Next time we will finish the remaining Appendices – all the things about pronunciation and language. After some debate we agreed to take on the challenge that is The Silmarillion. We also accepted Ian’s suggestion that our first Silmarillion meeting should look at the basic structure of the book in as much detail as we can glean from the chapter headings and section headings. As a start we noted the basic themes of Creation, all the Elves with F names, legendary and mythic characters and their stories, such as Turin, Luthien, and the Fall of Gondolin. By the time we had chatted about what we should talk about in a month’s time we were almost late packing up!

8:08 AM  

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