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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Reading Group meeting 10/5/08

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

10. 5. 08
I note that I had this down as 10.4.08 how time flies, May already! We were a bit diminished in numbers for this meeting as Pat was on holiday and Mark became the first ‘victim’ of The Silmarillion as he found the unexpected barrage of names very hard to work with. We all recognised this problem but most of us seem to have adopted the same strategy of not trying to remember them all at first reading. We shall certainly miss Mark’s challenging questions and insightful comments.
Anne started us off with her observation that these chapters, 17 and 18, introduce the background and initiate the story of the children of Hurin. Tolkien must really have been devoted to this story as he seems to have written it in for many different forms and versions. Tim took us into the detail of the chapters when remarked on the clusters of family names all defined by the same consonant, and Julie commented on the interesting echoes in the names Arthad and Urthel of Arthur and Uther. Tim thought there are other Arthurian-style names in these chapters.
Ian brought us all back from digressions into the history of King Alfred and name differences in the Alfredian family, when he drew our attention to the fact that the story describes the coming of Men as an inconvenience for the Elves, prioritising this view over the previously established view of their coming as the delight of the Valar. The change of perspective and its related change of tone is interesting.
Angela commented on the layers of prejudice that are constantly, even increasingly, evident in these Beleriand chapters, while Mike noted the sense of colonial and tribal insularity and wondered if this derived from Tolkien’s first experiences of social structures as a child in Blomfontein. Tim noted that there were complex reason for migration.
Moving from social contexts to language, Julie told us that she had found the word ‘unfriending’ used on websites by young people to describe their detachment from a previous friendship. It seems unlikely that this derives from Tolkien’s use of ‘unfriend’ (Ch 17), but the possibility can’t be ruled out.
Anne was interested in the way Morgoth’s enslavement of some elves seemed to be based on brain-washing, and led to a fear of being deceived. We thought that the historical understanding of the brain-washing process in the ‘primary world’ would have been too late to influence Tolkien’s writing of The Silmarillion (we associated it with the Korean War). However, Tim pointed out that Pavlov’s experiments in conditioning could have been influential, and he suggested that Rasputin had had a reputation for being able to sway or control people’s minds. Laura and Angela both defined a kind of evil charisma.
I remarked on the number of occasions in these chapters when small groups of a tribe of people are said to be either lost or forgotten, and Julie reminded us of the old preoccupation for finding out what had happened to the lost tribes of Israel. We spent some time debating what was east of the mountains and Mike observed that the region was associated with undefined peril, while Ian reminded us that the east is actually Middle-earth as distinct from Beleriand. Chris wondered if Morgoth actually forced the tribes of Men into the West with his violence and deceits.
Laura drew attention to the death of Beor and the concern it causes the elves who witness for the first time how mortals grow old and die. Tim remarked that the genealogies of Men included in the text itself are actually mimetic of the speed with which Mens’ lives pass in comparison to the Elves.
Anne was very taken with the description of Fingolfin in his magnificent war-gear. Ian added that Morgoth comes out of Angband too soon, and Tim and Ian both commented on the way he emerges – coming slowly. Ian suggested this is because he is weighed down by the Silmarils in his iron crown. Julie said his description, towering over Fingolfin with the light of the Silmarils blazing from his crown, made her think of a lighthouse! Tim commented that Tolkien’s description of the ensuing fight gives it a ‘legendary’ feel. Mike went on to ask why the eagle? This was generally regarded as an important sign of Manwe’s constant watch – at one remove – over the lands east of the Sea, and this ‘pre-echo’ of the rescue of Frodo and Sam might be taken as a revelation that even though Manwe is never mentioned in LotR he is conceived of as being still concerned with that part of Middle-earth and with the ultimate defeat of evil.
Julie noted with satisfaction that Tolkien manages to get (g)nomes into the story as he had originally intended by dropping the normal ‘g’, making the rest into a proper noun, and still retaining the sense of ‘wise people’. Laura was delighted with the story of Felagund entering the camp of Beor’s people and playing his harp because it reminded her of the story of King Alfred’s covert visit to a Danish camp on a spying mission, when he disguised himself as a harper. Carol, in her e-contribution to our discussion, wrote that she liked Finrod because he’s not so proud as Thingol about mixing with mortals!
Laura and Mike wondered at the use of the term ‘Vassal’ and its acceptance as a statement of relationship between Beor and Felagund. They regarded the word as signifying a servile status, but were satisfied with the reminder that a king’s vassals may be lords and even kings in their own right. There was, however, no getting round Mike’s observation of generational rebellion. Chris thought this was evidence of Morgoth stirring up touble.
Laura remarked on the fate of the dwarves, constantly ignored while Elves are called the first-born, and Men the second-born, when in fact the dwarves were first. Mike pointed out their ‘illegitimate’ origin.
Anne was delighted with Tolkien’s particular sentence structure early in Chapter 18 when he writes ‘Many charred bones had there their roofless grave’. She asked what other writer would have used ‘there/their’ in this way. Looking at it now, it would make a great exercise for teaching children the difference.
Laura said she likes Haleth who is one of Tolkien’s strong and independent women. Angela saw in Haleth an echo of Aragorn’s command over people. However, Carol wrote that although Haleth is a good example of a female leader, in spite of her courage ‘she’s also stubborn and restless….This same stubbornness nearing stupidity is also displayed by Morwen later’.
In a brief pause in the discussion and moment of lightheartedness, Ian announced that we have a train in this section, and he proposed that this provides the context in the Third Age, actually at the Birthday Party, for the ‘express train’. Groans all round.
Mike brought us back to our task with his comment that he found the dense detail of these chapters hard to cope with. Ian said he felt they are made up of discrete sections like field-reports, a observation that fits very well with Tolkien’s military experience and also with the demands of mythology, that only relates the really important elements.
Angela returned to the topic of LotR tie-ins with her observation that the dark cloud of fear over the first Minas Tirith here is repeated in LotR with the shadow of fear that accompanies the winged Nazgul as they fly over the Gondorian Minas Tirith. Angela also wonderd at the point of describing 1 character as ‘the unhappy’ among a whole list of Men who have to live as outlaws after the fall of Fingolfin. How much more unhappy can ‘Gorlim the unhappy’ actually be, we all wondered?
Anne challenged us with a psychological insight into fear, when I noted that Morgoth is the only Vala to feel fear. Anne said the fear can be used as a position of strength. Ian described Morgoth’s fear as deriving from apprehension of limitation and of nothingness – which to him is a state of being-without-power. Sadly, we didn’t get any further with this because we ran out of time, but it seems like a topic that will come up in future discussions.
We agreed that we will on read the chapter on Beren and Luthien for next time as it is quite long and very important.

1:19 AM  

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