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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reading Group meeting 26/1/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We had another busy meeting, and rather more diverse than last time as we got further away from the ‘Creation’ sequences and started getting into the more ‘secular’ mythology.
Tim started us off by remarking that this time round he has been able to concentrate on the language and appreciate more because he knows the story and doesn’t have to give all his attention to that.
Picking up the language topic, Mark wondered at the use of the word ‘pray’, as Yavanna ‘prays’ Manwe to assist her cause. Julie expressed the general opinion that this was not really supposed to be taken seriously in a religious context, but the use of the word ‘pray’ instead of ‘ask’ or ‘desire’ or even ‘plead with’, represents an intentional ‘archaising’ of language by Tolkien. It fits with the general archaic vocabulary that is so characteristic of the elevated tone of TS.
Mike commented that the language sets these characters up as ‘higher beings’ but the effect may be subliminal.
We got into something of a pickle when we were asked ‘where is Middle-earth’. Some of us muttered quietly ‘right here’; but there was also a good deal of consultation of various books. Laura had her volume of Lost Tales I with her so we could see the strange early maps Tolkien drew.
After this we got on to the topic of the pillars for the great lamps, and we wondered why Tolkien eventually discarded the idea of the ice pillars made by Melko. We all quite liked the image, but again (Mike might say) Melko’s idea got sidelined by the [sub]Creator.
Anne took us into the murky area of the relationship between Yavanna and Aule, especially through his reference to the Children of Iluvatar ‘needing wood’. We agreed that there seemed to be an unresolved tension between the two Valar which looks like a marital rift.
We did not go far with this before Pat declared that the way Iluvatar treats his Valar makes him seem like a fundamentalist. She challenged us with the possibility that he has a streak of evil about him. In spite of the many heresies she was touching on, and the imminent prospect of the Spanish Inquisition crashing through the door, we tried to illustrate convincingly from the text that Iluvatar is in fact more benign and compassionate that the Old Testament God who demands the sacrifice of Isaac by his father as a sign of devotion. As we pointed out, Iluvatar doesn’t demand that Aule should kill his dwarves. Aule just offers to do this and Iluvatar stops him. Although he puts the dwarves to sleep until the ‘proper’ time, we didn’t think this made him wholly repressive. We also thought that many creation myths and pantheons have rather tyrannical deities – it seems like a tradition (but it’s probably an hegemonic ploy).
Tim and Mike remarked on the effect of the creator’s will on the created life forms. Aule’s dwarves have no autonomous life until Iluvatar ‘modifies’ them. In this they resemble Sauron’s armies at the Last Battle – when Sauron falls his armies are incapable of doing anything meaningful. Tim, or maybe it was Mike (sorry), said this also reminded him of the Droids in the Phantom Menace film.
Mark and Anne brought us back to earth when they asked about the idea that death is a gift to Men. Julie observed that this was not a Roman Catholic concept, since Catholicism declared that death is a punishment for Original Sin. Therefore Tolkien is doing something radical in his assertion that death is Iluvatar’s gift. Anne didn’t think it could ever be regarded as a good thing, so we tried to get her to imagine the sadness of being an Elf. I don’t think we succeeded, even though Mike pointed out that Elves live getting sadder at the degeneration of the world they cannot leave. Ian reminded us that all the characters are tied to Arda, except Men, whose eventual fate is not known.
Chris raised the issue of free will and commented that in contrast to the Elves and Ainur, Men have a greater drive to achieve and do things, they are ambitious and adventurous, and that the prospect of death gives them this incentive. Mike added that Men are characterised by discontent, and Tim suggested that Elves are more passive.
In this context Mike also asked if we thought that after Melkor ruins Middle-earth the Valar actually ‘run away’ when they shut themselves up in the Far West behind the mountains. Opinion seemed divided on this. I certainly thought Manwe and Varda maintained a ‘watching brief’, and it was noted that Yavanna and Ulmo are loath to give up their interest in what has already been created.
Tim remarked on the extent to which the chapters we were reading fed into LotR, giving it background and depth. Pat said she found it fun to pick up all the cross-references.
Laura took us back to the dwarves briefly, remarking on the fact that they seem to echo the Hindu concept of the transmigration of souls in the way that they seem to be able to come back again and again.
Mike and Mark commented on the power and use of myth and the feeling that something needed preserving against chaos. The form of the myth narrative inevitably imposes order on the potentially chaotic mass of mythological material (in an anthropological sense), but myth also opposes order, structure, authority, and rationality in opposition to the feeling of chaos and anarchy that would result if a society could not envisage any kind of coherence in its history.
Once again, it was quite an intense discussion throughout the afternoon, and we decided to read on for our next meeting again in easy stages just as far as Chapter 6, the chapters being very short.

8:27 AM  

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