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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reading Group Meeting 23/2/08

5 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

23.2.08
I started off the afternoon by commenting on the notes Carol had sent for consideration, because they reminded me that we are in the process of discussing myth, even though it is ‘man-made’ rather than the slow accretion of the folk memories of a whole society. Myths do not have to conform to everyday logic, indeed, they would not be myths if they were so constrained. The fact that we are dealing with stories that reflect and engage with some of the most famous myths in the world clearly makes it easier for us to accept Tolkien’s creations as myth. None of this prevents us from analysing what we are reading.
So we began our discussions of Chapters 6-8 with Anne’s observation that they seem to focus on a lot of family problems, from fraternal falling out to post-natal depression. There were murmurs of ‘soap opera’ in The Silmarillion, and soft humming of the Eastenders’ theme tune! It is true, of course, without being flippant, that there are family tensions coming to the fore while the Valar remain rather aloof.
Pat picked this topic up when she questioned the assertion that Manwe does not know about evil and yet he has the responsibility for punishing Melkor and banishing Feanor. She questioned the wisdom of having such an ‘innocent’ spirit as Iluvatar’s second in command. Mike responded with his view that Feanor only ‘breaks the rules’, and so Manwe is not called on to judge anything really evil, and in any case Manwe judges from evidence. He also thought the king of the Valar represents an idea of purity.
Tim questioned the use of the word ‘comprehend’ – wondering is Manwe can recognise evil but doesn’t understand it. Ian suggested that Manwe cannot contemplate an evil act, and Angela thought he seemed simply naïve.
Mark brought us back to myth again by remarking on humanity’s constant need for stories, especially ones that help to explain human life and experience, and he drew our attention to the symbolism inherent in the description of Manwe’s lack of comprehension of evil.
Anne then asked about the references to writing in the chapters we were considering and if the writing changes through time. I referred her to Daeron’s runes, used on the Doors of Moria, and Ian noted that Feanorian script is used for the lettering on the One Ring. Anne asked more about runes, and I said that Tolkien adapted an historical futhorc for the runes used in The Hobbit.
Pat took us off in a different direction when she remarked on Miriel’s body being ‘unwithered’ in Lorien, and this gave us a chance to consider the sad decline of this character as well as recalling that this ‘unwithered’ state is reminiscent of the miraculously uncorrupted condition of the bodies of deceased saints in stories told by Bede and other medieval writers. It was noted too that a sweet perfume is also often associated with these dead saints.
After this unworldly digression into hagiography Chris remarked that Feanor reminded him of Sauron in his obsession with making things, thereby exercising a form of control. Pat said the Silmarils seemed like a combination of fire and ice – as they are crystals ‘infused’ with a kind of fire. Ian added that they only burned mortal flesh, and Claire observed that ice also burns in its own way.
Julie commented that the Silmarils remind her of reliquaries in the way that they hold and preserve the most precious and sacred of things in Arda – the light of the Trees. Chris said they seem to have something added by Feanor that gave them the status almost of ‘living things’. Ian added that this was a bit of the creator, just as the Ring had something of Sauron’s power ‘welded’ into it during its making.
Ian went on to remark that in Chapter 6 all the elves seemed to be captives trying to get free. We wondered at this since they live in the ‘paradise’ that is Valinor, and Mike observed that elves want more. Mark added that they often seem to be moaning passive elves, and we all seemed to feel some positive response to Feanor because he is so pro-active. Indeed, Pat declared that he is the first genuinely developed character in the book. This directed us back to Mark’s earlier point that most of the characters had fulfilled a symbolic function within the mythology. Now we have a non-symbolic character, or one that combines a symbolic function as the first independent Elf with a more multi-dimensional personality. Tim added that he is definitely more than the Valar archetypes.
Ian extended this to note that Melkor is not as great as he thinks he is, and I thought it was an impressive comment on Feanor that he shut that doors of his house in the face of this greatest of the Valar; a shift in power clearly being indicated. This led us into the utter darkness that is his companion in evil – Ungoliant, or Shelob’s mam, as Carol delicately referred to her. Carol had been much concerned with the freedom with which evil and bad things are allowed to proliferate while the Valar aren’t looking, and Iluvatar seems unaware or unconcerned. Again it is possible to be reductive and say ‘that’s what myths do’, but it also raises problems of good and evil that can take us back to St Augustine who said nothing is created or wholly evil, but evil is the absence of good.
I had been reading an essay that pointed out that the way Ungoliant is described she may well be taken for a Maia. She comes down out of the darkness (very spidery), but is corrupted by Melkor and then rejects his control (the archetypal rebellious female). Only after her assertion of independence does she take on spider form – as all the other Valar in Arda are permitted to choose which form if any they will adopt. If this is enough to confirm her status as a former Maia, then she cannot have been created evil. There are flaws in this argument if pushed far enough, but we didn’t.
Mark saw U as a paradox because she desired and hated light. Tim said this was like the craving of a junkie who needs drugs but hates them at the same time. Like Carol, Ian remarked that in U’s case darkness is more than a lack of light, and tangible. Anne saw her as darkness personified and Julie wondered when the concept of astronomical ‘black holes’ was first made public, because U eating light reminded her of the typical description of a black hole – from which no light can escape.
We reached the point where U had seated herself on the mountain top. I remarked that when Melkor has to go to her in order to set up their evil scheme, she ‘lets down’ the cords she has spun and he climbs up. This reminded me of a perverted version of the Rapunzel fairy-story. Tim then directed our attention to the way U and Melkor belt down the mountain to attack the Trees. I was going to say that this reminded me, in its horror aspect with U cloaking them in darkness, of a pyroclastic flow, but I caught Claire’s murmured observation that it sounded just like a spider waiting to pounce, and forgot about the volcanic image.
We had noted the vampire-like attack on the Trees, and also the fact that after this U was so bloated and repulsive that even Melkor was afraid of her – a Frankenstein situation that reiterated Ian earlier point about Melkor not being as great as he thinks.
Mark and Mike led us on to consider the use of names in the chapters we have read so far – on their number, and kind, and who uses them. Angela said she had once compiled a list of all Aragorn’s names and ‘appellations’, from which Tim noted that many names in TS as well as LotR reflect the stage of life of a character, and/or the deeds the affect the lives of characters.
We could have had a complete meeting on names, I think, but we had run out of time again and decided to move on just to chapters 9 and 10 because 9 is quite long, and together they continue the stories of the Noldor and the Sindar.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

This thing about Manwe not "comprehending" evil. Thinking about it, it strikes me as being yet another example of those famous Tolkienian "reversals" of things with which we are familiar in the primary world. It reminds me of the beginning of St John's Gospel in the Authorized Version, where "the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not". (The same word is used in the Douay and Vulgate versions of the Bible, with which presumably the RC Tolkien would have grown up familiar.) Only here we have the light not comprehending the darkness. (NB "comprehend" can be used in the other sense of "encompass", or "overcome" as in some modern versions.) So more than just not being able to recognise evil, it's more fundamental than that - Manwe literally can't get his head round it!

1:44 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

On the way home afterwards I had a thought (yes! sometimes this happens!) Feanor had for some time been reminding me of someone, a character from history in the primary world. Suddenly it came to me. Benvenuto Cellini, the gifted goldsmith/sculptor/musician with practically rock-god status who had the favour of Pope Clement VII. The Feanorian thing about him, apart from his extraordinary superhuman creativity, is his extreme volatility of temper. He was once exiled from Florence for whipping out his sword and murdering someone. He murdered several people in his lifetime, and also killed in battle (he was a bombardier at the Castel Sant' Angelo during the 1527 siege and sack of Rome and claimed credit for shooting Duke Charles, one of the captains of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V). When I got home I looked up his memoirs. I was struck by a particular incident - in May of 1527 the Pope charged Cellini with the safekeeping of certain jewels, i.e. gems from the Triple Tiara and other significant bits of papal bling. Some of these precious stones subsequently vanished and Cellini was imprisoned in the fortress of Sant'Angelo and for a time was in peril of his life. I thought at once of the Silmarils, and Morgoth stealing them and setting them in his iron crown. It struck me that yet again we have here one of those Tolkienian "reversals" - our real-life "Feanor" actually stealing the gems from the crown of the Vicar of Christ (the King of World)! (allegedly!) which is actually a double reversal!

3:32 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

At the back of my mind for some time now whenever I have considered Feanor it seemed there was a "shadow" from real history lurking just behind him but I couldn't put a name to him. Then on the way home from this meeting it came to me that it was Benvenuto Cellini, so I looked him up to try to remember what it was about him that so put me in mind of Feanor. I knew he was a Florentine and a master-goldsmith, sculptor and musician with practically rock-god status in his day, but I had a vague idea that he was a highly volatile character with a history of violence and murder as well. Well, he certainly had! He killed several people by the sword, sometimes in the heat of rage, sometimes in battle, and he was exiled for it as well (no big deal when it's city-states I think - he just went down the road a bit to Siena!) although none of this seemed to prevent him being a favourite of the various great lords, princes and popes of the time.

One thing I hadn't known before which made me sit up and take notice - Cellini was accused of stealing the jewels from the Papal tiara and was imprisoned for a time in the Castel Sant'Angelo under sentence of death, although he got out of this tight spot eventually. I thought of Melkor stealing the Silmarils and setting them in his iron crown, and how typically Tolkienian this reversal of familiar events in the primary world appeared!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

I'm really sorry. Somehow my 2 very similar comments re. Feanor got posted twice. All I can say is, I've been having trouble with my emails lately owing to probs with Internet Explorer 7. Now I've got Firefox hopefully they are solved!

3:44 PM  

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