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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading Group meeting 12/1/08

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

12.1.08
It seems ages since we last met to talk about The Silmarillion, probably because we only had one session on it before we stopped for Christmas. So it was very helpful that Tim had put together 2 charts showing (1) the Valar and their relationships, and how the Ainur relate to the Valar etc. Some of us had already made up our own ‘cribs’ but Tim’s was welcomed by us all – once we got started. It was great to see everyone back again. There was a lot of catching up to do and much preliminary conversation before we actually got back into the text.
Anne kicked us off with her encouraging comment that the Valaquenta had not been as hard as she expected, and she noted comparisons between classical Greek gods and the ‘pantheon’ in the Valaquenta. Laura commented on the presence of primitive science in the form of Valar associated with the four basic elements: earth (Yavanna), air (Manwe and Varda), fire (Melkor), and water (Ulmo), again relating back to classical Greek associations. It was generally remarked that the Valar separate into the ‘elemental’ and the more ‘practical’, such as Orome the hunter, Aule, the craftsman, and Tulkas the ‘strongman’.
Tim went on to align Manwe as a Zeus/Odin type, while Laura mentioned the ‘backstory’ of Melkor’s desire for Varda and subsequent jealousy and hatred of her after she has chosen Manwe. This topic arose from our consideration of the differences between the Greek gods who show many of the vices that are characteristic of humans and mortals, and the Valar who do not seem so infected by vices such as jealousy, lechery, and manipulation. As Ian remarked The Valar choose to live in Arda and thus are not like the Olympians who are always tied to the earth through their abode in Mt. Olympus.
Angela observed that the details of the Valar in this part of The Silmarillion have little of no connection with anything in LotR, and Ian remarked that in LotR there are no shrines or sacrifices, again distinguishing Tolkien’s ‘pantheon’ from that of classical Greece, and other belief systems.
All this attention to the ancient Greek pantheon and the activities connected with it surprised me, because I had always assumed a greater degree of connection with the northern European pagan gods such as Odin and Fricka, Wayland, Thor, Loki, Freya, etc.
Pat drew our attention to the restricted use of colours in the Valaquenta, these being mainly gold, silver and green. We wondered if they could be said to transfer a particular degree of symbolism into their use in LotR. This may become a more significant topic in later chapters.
Mike observed the apparent need for a spouse for most of the Valar, as if this demonstrated or conveyed a need for completeness. He wondered if this was a personal feeling on Tolkien’s part – that any entity requires a partner or spouse to be complete. Laura thought it likely as Tolkien had such a deep sense of romantic devotion to his wife, but the opinion arose that the female spouses of the Valar, the Queens or Valier, were always subordinate. I suggested that in each case where a Vala has a spouse that associated Vala brings additional and usually complementary attributes. E.g. it is said that when Varda is with Manwe he can see further than when he is alone, and when he is with her, she can hear much more of what is happening in distant places than when she is alone. We noted too that some Vala are alone, e.g. Ulmo is too restless. And Laura remarked that Aule and Yavanna clash over the preservation of trees.
Mike then wondered if a partnership like marriage was being constructed as some kind of universal component, while Ian remarked on the duality implied in associating two elements together – such as Manwe Lord of the Breath of Arda (the air), and Varda, Lady of the Stars. Both are linked to elements that are not of the earth. Mike then suggested that the special responsibilities of the Valar resembled the concept of special responsibilities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. It was suggested that the Egyptian paradigm was a means by which the necessary human functions associated with each god were passed from generation to generation by priests, thus continuing the society and its culture. However, the Valar do not seem to have a priesthood associated with them.
Laura then led us on to consider the Maia. She noted that Ulmo had two, and we went on to consider the fact the Olorin (Gandalf’s name in the Far West) had been Nienna’s Maia, and she had taught him pity and compassion. As several people noted together, Pity is one of the most significant concepts in Gandalf’s mission in LotR.
Tim noted that Orome’s horn precedes all others, but serves as a reminder of all those that are to come. Angela approved of the fact that Orome only hunts evil creatures, and Pat remarked that Tulkas used his hands as weapons, just like Beowulf! Laura thought his description read like that of a Cornish wrestler!
Julie questioned if there was any difference between the two terms ‘dooms’ and ‘judgements’ and she and Mike almost immediately recalled that Archbishop Cranmer’s prose is characterised by his use of both a plain English term, deriving from Anglo-Saxon, and a more learned term deriving from Latin. As the two terms seem more or less identical in meaning as Tolkien uses them together in the Valaquenta, it seems likely that he was enjoying the richness of the language as this has come down to us in a familiar rhythmic form.
At this point I asked everyone’s opinion about the suggestion sent by Carol, our new virtual member, who picked up connection between Melkor and his corrupted Maia – the balrogs, and Gandalf, Nienna’s Maiar who is especially linked to fire. Carol’s point that it seemed to her that Gandalf had to be purged of ‘mortal dross’ before he could complete his quest, met with general assent, as did her implicit suggestion that it is always the use to which something is put that defines it as good or evil. As she noted Saruman uses blasting fire as a weapon while Gandalf uses it to entertain.
Mike, Tim, and Christopher picked up the topic of evil again at this point. Mike seeing it’s link to cause and effect. Tim remarking that Melkor’s song is rejected, and Chris picking up the theme of rejection and its effect on Gollum. None of them allowed evil as a predetermined state.
By this time we had got rather firmly stuck in a theological mode and just to be awkward, I asked if it was possible to approach the Valaquenta from any other direction? Tim and Mike both proposed a Darwinian approach. Tim suggested that the way Tolkien (Christopher or JRRT) labels the first 2 section of The Silmarillion signals the anthropological direction – the Elves needed to establish ‘how we got here’. Tim and Ian remarked that the first 2 chapters create a myth within a myth and Ian observed that we approach them and understand them from our own knowledge of other myths. Tim supported this by observing that Tolkien is tapping into genres her know in all his works.
At this point Mark observed that Tolkien’s tone controls our interpretation and that the language he uses is not Darwinian but firmly rooted in the Old Testament. Mike followed this by suggesting that Tolkien’s text works best when read aloud, or recited. This brought us back to thinking about the roots of literature and language and Julie commented that it was odd that Tolkien seemed to condemn characters who went poking about searching for the roots of things, Gollum came instantly to mind, when he himself was a philologist and spent his life poking about looking for the roots of language.
By this time we had pretty much run out of steam! It had been a most intense afternoon’s discussion. So we agreed to read the next 2 chapters of The Silmarillion. I asked if it would be enough and got ‘pounced on like cats on poor mices’. ‘If we can spend all afternoon just on the Valaquenta, it will be enough!’ came the cry from the assembled throng. On reflection, I quite agree!

1:11 PM  

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