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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reading Group meeting 24/5/08

3 Comments:

Blogger Julie said...

I was very sorry I couldn't make this session, particularly as it's with the tale of Beren & Luthien that (I think) The Silmarillion finally sparks into genuine life. Anyway, I had some "thoughts" concerning this chapter which I had hoped Mike could transmit as and when appropriate, although as it turned out he couldn't make the meeting either! Nevertheless Lynn suggested that I post them here, so here goes, come what might (perhaps I shouldn't call them thoughts; "rambles" is probably more appropriate.

Thoughts on Of Beren and Lúthien



“Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures.”

This could equally apply to the The Lord of the Rings. More than that, it strikes me that this is Tolkien’s authentic view of what life really is like for those who live in Middle-earth (that includes us!). Our stoical pagan forebears saw no light that endures (except for glory and renown won in battle perhaps), even for their gods, and they bravely spent their lives training themselves to go down into the darkness when their time came with courage and dignity. Today, at the polar opposite of that valiant but hopeless understanding of what life is, some people in the grip of a certain kind of religious fervour deny the reality of death and will not admit of the need to mourn or to give expression to sorrow. For them, life is one long happy-clappy party, rocketing along at 100 mph - until it hits the brick wall of what my Methodist Great Aunt Ethel used to call the Great Certainty. The view of what life is, expressed here by Tolkien, is paradoxical - grounded in the reality of what it means to be mortal, subject to death - whilst acknowledging a light that endures. This light could be interpreted in a religious sense. Some Humanists possibly also acknowledge an enduring light, perhaps in terms of the legacy of lasting great achievements in one’s chosen field, or good done for others during one’s lifetime. In my opinion it is the viewpoint of an integrated person, religious believer or not, one who is mentally and spiritually healthy.

Barahir had 12 companions. Twelve companions seems to be the norm for hero figures. cf Jesus, King Arthur (in some versions of his legend). And there’s often one who betrays him, sometimes from a good or at least understandable motive so one can’t help but feel sorry for the traitor (Judas, Gorlim, but not Mordred).

Tarn Aeluin – blue waters. Just a throwaway remark, i.e. that it reflected the blue of the sky, as all bodies of water do, or a real ‘blue lake’? I googled at random for a blue lake and found this –

The Blue Lake ( 37°50′48″S, 140°46′41″E) in Mount Gambier is a large monomictic lake located in an extinct volcanic maar. It is known as Waawor in the local Aboriginal language.
Conflicting dates have been estimated for its last eruption, of 28,000 years ago[1] and 4300 years ago.[2] If the more recent date is correct, this could be the most recent volcanic eruption on the Australian mainland.
During December to March, the lake turns to a vibrant cobalt blue colour, returning to a colder steel grey colour for April to November. The exact cause of this phenomenon is still a matter of conjecture but it is generally considered likely that it revolves around the warming of the surface layers of the lake during the summer months to around 20 degrees °C, causing calcium carbonate to precipitate out of solution and enabling micro-crystallites of calcium carbonate to form. This results in scatter of the blue wavelength of sunlight. During winter the lake becomes well mixed, and recent research indicates that during this phase of the colour cycle the lake is somewhat murkier due to the redistribution of tannins and calcium carbonate particles throughout the lake. Solar elevation has also been found to influence the perceived colour of the lake. The movement of planktonic life-forms within the lake during the seasons and during the day may also play a part in the visibility changes.
The Blue Lake supplies the town with drinking water, providing approximately 3,600 ML per year from its 36,000 ML store. Its average depth is 70 m.
Well, a bit of a digression, but an interesting one! But I feel if the Elves feel it worth recording that a lake is blue, there must be more to it than just how it appears on the surface (ho ho)!

Another Tolkienian star-reflecting blue lake is of course Mirrormere, Kheled-zaram in the Dimril Dale.

I must say it, it’s such a relief when Sauron turns up in this chapter. One can’t help but do a mental “Hurrah!” when he enters stage left and at once starts being beastly. He hardly exists as a character in LOTR, he’s just a disembodied eyeball, but in the midst of this unfamiliar territory filled with not particularly loveable characters, he’s almost like an old friend!

Beren’s dream of the carrion birds and the ghost of Gorlim is another significant Tolkienian dream. We have previously noted the importance of dreams in Tolkien’s writing when reading The Lord of the Rings.

I love the specific reference to “alder-trees” beside the Tarn (also a primary world word, from the English Lakeland dialect, from Old Norse tjörn, mountain lake). Lesser writers would simply have written, “trees”, or perhaps the obvious “willows”.

Beren is remarkably strong. Most people would have raised a cairn of stones. He raises a cairn of boulders!

The motive of the severed hand appears again. Like his father, Beren loses his hand to the Dark Powers. The loss of a hand occurs very often in naturally-arising myth and is a very important motif. It occurs in modern-day fiction in the mythic tradition such as Star Wars – and interestingly, even in that case, it is another father and son (Anakin/Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker) who are afflicted with this mutilation. The pop-psychology explanation is that it expresses (in a socially acceptably displaced form) a very basic male anxiety about castration but I feel there must be something more to it than that. Other examples we have noted are Maedhros and Frodo (Frodo only loses a finger, but perhaps in his case his overall size was taken into consideration by Tolkien and the nature of the mutilation adjusted accordingly!).

Reflection on Barahir’s ring. This was given to him by Finrod, brother of Galadriel, whose grand-daughter Arwen married Aragorn, who inherited the ring. The Silmarillion/LOTR could be viewed as the mother of all family sagas. Perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to the ring of Barahir? It does seem a slightly sinister artefact - the two serpents beneath a crown of golden flowers, one of them devouring the flowers. I wonder what is going on here. The serpent devouring flowers? Something at the back of my mind is saying things like “Sumerian Serpent God”, “Flower of Life“, “Gilgamesh”. Are there “real-myth” examples of serpents eating flowers? I am not well up on Sumerian myth, but the subject of Sumerian myth in general has set me off on a related tangent. I can’t help thinking of the 6,000 year old city of Uruk, or of biblical Ur of the Chaldees (a different city but also in Mesopotamia), original home of Abram/Abraham who is regarded by many as the ancient ancestor physical and/or spiritual of all Jews, Christians and Muslims. This is the most ancient city in the world, and its name of course crops up in Tolkien in the form Uruk-hai. (Uruk has now become the modern-day name of Iraq of course). Anyway, a similar sense of huge antiquity and connectedness going back many millennia as one gets from the vast Tolkienian sagas.

I just have to say, it’s so fitting to have the most ancient cities in the world called Ur/Uruk, when the prefix ur- in German means something pretty much along the lines of “original” and “ancient” !

“It was put into his heart…” reminds me of all those occasions in LOTR when things are “meant”.

Beren’s journey into Doriath comes across as even worse than that of Frodo and Sam through Mordor. NB fore-echo of the name “Gorgoroth”.

“Beyond lay the wilderness of Dungortheb, where the sorcery of Sauron and the power of Melian came together, and horror and madness walked.” It seems odd to bracket the two of them but they are both Maia. But whether good or evil, the end result of their magic seems to be horror and madness. This is a bit difficult. It comes across almost as if they are colluding with one another, which can’t be the case.

Has anyone in the group read “The Night Land” by William Hope Hodgson? (published early 1900s I think). Beren’s unspeakably terrible journey through the haunted wilderness reminds me of the journey of the hero in that. (The terrain in “The Night Land” also comes across as the blueprint for Mordor.)

Beren’s vision of Luthien was in reality JRRT’s own memory of how Edith Bratt danced and sang in a woodland glade on the Holderness peninsula (Humberside) on a certain day in the early part of the 20th C during WWI when he was in England recuperating from trench fever (I think, rather than injured). Because he’s writing from life this passage has a real vivid urgency which has been missing until now. It’s with this story of the love of the mortal man Beren for Luthien the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar whether of Elven or of Human-kind that The Silmarillion finally comes alive, I think. One gets the impression that this is what Aragorn and Arwen are meant to be like in LOTR, only there was not the room to digress! except in the form of the song of Beren and Luthien that Aragorn sings on the way to Rivendell. NB I read somewhere that the “hemlock” which features in the Lost Tales version of the story was not botanically accurate and that JRRT was using it in a generic sense – what he actually meant was the weed called Cow-parsely or Queen Anne’s Lace or Our Lady’s Lace which is so prolific along hedgerows in May-time. I was relieved to discover this as hemlock has deeply sinister overtones (it’s lethally poisonous – famously, Socrates was forced to drink an infusion of it, having been found guilty on a trumped-up charge of perverting youth with his teachings). NB the hemlock umbels “tall and fair” of the ballad version of the story in LOTR are probably actual hemlock.

I have to mention that the Lost Tales version includes mention of an Elf musician called Tinfang Warble – doubtless known to his friends as “Biscuit Barrel”… and there’s also an Aged Gnome called Gimli.

I admire the way Beren speaks up for himself (and by extension, all humans) before snotty I’m-too-elfy-for-my-shirt Thingol. Good for him.

Finrod, poor old Finrod, the Decent Elf of the House of Finarfin, does what he must and it’s his undoing… We discover at last what the end of chapter 15 was all about!

Curufin so puts the wind up the elves in Nargothrond with his scaremongering that they start using wizardry (as well as poisoned darts) against anyone they find wandering in their land. Then Finrod uses his arts (not polyjuice potion then?) to disguise everyone as Orcs. Then we have the contest of Finrod and Sauron. This is an account written from the pov of a scribe of the Elves, and even so it seems very plain here that Finrod is actually engaged in what we would call magic or sorcery. Then Luthien engages in some “magic” of her own in order to effect her escape from her dad’s maximum-security tree house. So the elves in LOTR who claim not to know what the hobbits mean by “magic” are perhaps being disingenuous?

Note on miraculous growths of head-hair that then serve as coverings for the body – a legend of Mary Magdalene (unfairly long-regarded as a prostitute prior to her conversion – it never says that in the NT!) describes how when she later decides to go and live as a penitent in the wilderness she casts off her glad-rags, and her hair then grows miraculously to serve as a covering in place of her fine clothes.

I like the way it so very nearly says, “…meanwhile, back in the pits of Sauron…” shifting the focus of the narrative in a way which is familiar to us – a traditional story-telling device to keep the reader’s interest and add to the dramatic tension, as now we’re having a pit-stop (so to speak) we don’t know what is happening to Luthien any longer and consequently we feel anxiety for her. This chapter I find so much more readable than anything else we’ve had so far, and emotionally engaging. It can’t be a coincidence that it’s also the chapter where we first meet a believable human character (Beren) and an Elf (Luthien) who are impelled by motives with which human readers can empathise as they go beyond the epic vengeance-on-Morgoth fixation and actually become personal. Beren wants to succeed in the quest to bring back at least one Silmaril so he can wed Luthien; and Luthien wants to rescue Beren for his own sake, not merely in order to wrest the Silmarils away from the Dark Lord. Now the story is at last becoming believable (in its own terms).

We have the Richard/Blondel motif again. (I hope I mean Blondel and not Blondin?!)

And Beren sings a song of the Seven Stars, the Sickle of the Valar, i.e. the Plough. Of passing interest to note an alternative name for this constellation, King Charles’ Wain, the Charles in question being Charlemagne, with whom as an imperial character Aragorn, Beren’s distant descendant, has many similarities.

Funnily enough, Huan’s slaying of Sauron’s wolves silently and one by one reminds me of how Peter Pan dispatches a few of Captain Hook’s pirates towards the climax of that story. This is not the first echo of Peter Pan I’ve noticed in various versions of this tale. The description of Luthien’s prison-treehouse in the Lost Tales version is very reminiscent of that of the original Wendy-house (although that wasn’t three-cornered). Perhaps that’s why it’s cut from the version in The Silmarillion? (And the spiteful, even murderous capriciousness of Tinker Bell is not a million miles from Gollum either!)

Sauron shape-shifting in his attempt to escape capture by Huan reminded me of Proteus and Menelaus in the Odyssey. Luthien threatens him with being a naked ghost before Morgoth forever. cf ROTK “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” –

Eowyn says,

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”
A cold voice answered: “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”


“The green grave of Finrod Finarfin’s son, fairest of all the princes of the Elves, remained inviolate, until the land was changed and broken, and foundered under destroying seas.”

cf the fate of Arwen:

“There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.”

(Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, LOTR, appendix A)

Celebrimbor son of Curufin – is this the same Celebrimbor who made the three Elven rings in the Second Age? It would fit, as grandson of Feanor, creator of the Silmarils. I must just say it here, I think this Curufin is a total sh*t! with his parting shot and all! Can’t be a coincidence that his name shares an element (cunning or crafty, I think?) in common with Saruman, i.e. Curunir, who at the end of ROTK similarly tries to murder Frodo as if as a treacherous afterthought.

Beren dismisses the horse of Curufin within sight of Thangorodrim, telling it to leave dread and servitude and seek green grass, just as Gandalf dismisses Bill the Pony outside the gates of Moria.

The journey to Angband and the audience with Morgoth is real Heavy Metal.

The escape from Angband by means of the light of the Silmaril prefigures the escape from the Orc-tower by Frodo and Sam by means of the light of Galadriel’s phial, which is of course the light of the Silmaril which was set to shine at the masthead of Vingilot (I think it’s the same Silmaril).

Ah, and of course, “the Eagles are coming!”

Luthien’s tears upon the feet of Mandos. Another echo of Mary Magdalene.

Er... that's all, folks.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Profound apologies. I mis-remembered the story of Earendil. The Silmaril is of course bound upon his brow and not upon the mast of his ship. (Grovel grovel.)

11:07 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

25.5.08
The date refers to our last meeting and what a long time it seems since we last met. But we did get through a lot of discussion points last time, and we have been reading the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and the Turin chapters, so it’s probably just as well that we have had a longer-than-usual break.

I have included some of Julie's comments here as they fitted into our discussion, but please see her Comments for a better view of the scope of her contribution

We were only discussing one chapter on 25th May and that was ‘Of Beren and Luthien’. As Laura remarked, we were into the real ‘faerie’ part of The Silmarillion now. Julie and Laura both then commented on the fact that Tolkien had watched his own beloved Edith singing and dancing in a woodland glade just after they were married. Tim added that for a time, as we know, Edith was as unattainable as Luthien when Father Francis forbade Tolkien to see her.
Leaving aside the conflation of biographical matters and fictional incidents, Anne was confused by the fate of Beren’s handand the Silmaril, so we all contributed to explaining that the hand that the wolf bit off remained uncorrupted and holding the Silmaril inside the wolf. It was noted in passing that there are many instances of hands being lost in TS, and it is tempting to think that Tolkien was constantly replaying the Beowulf/Grendel motif.
Tim observed that this chapter on Beren and Luthien is more like LotR than the chapters we had so far read in TS because it reads easily. Some of us thought this was because it is a love story, as well as being an element in the mythology. It has characters who are more developed, or who at least have recognisable relationships beyond those demanded of myth and symbolism. This is also the case with the story itself – it is a quest with all the changing elements of adventure.
Laura noted however that all the predictions that occur in the chapter are unassigned in the manner consistent with Faerie. She also remarked on the passing reference to Curufin’s ‘smile’. Among the sweep of myth and adventure, Tolkien often adds such brief and telling descriptions.
Tim and Julie went on to pick up the fact that this is the first chapter in which Sauron appears. Continuing this topic Laura noted that there seem to be different kinds of werewolves in the story, and Sauron is at this time called ‘Lord of werewolves’. Laura and Julie were interested in the effect that Sauron and Melian have on the environment as the borderland of their two spheres of influence is described as a place of madness. While this might not seem odd as far as Sauron is concerned, it seems a strange condition to associate with Melian the Maia. I suggested that maybe where their respective influences or powers abutted this created a kind of tension or warping of the environment and this ‘disturbance’ manifested itself in travellers as madness and confusion.
Angela was impressed by Luthien’s ability to knock down the walls of Tol-in-Gaurhoth and remarked that it reminded her that Galadriel does the same thing to Dol Guldur in an Appendix to LotR. Angela recalled too that Doriath and Melian provided the connection between Luthien and Galadriel. It seems clear that while Luthien was Melian’s daughter, Galadriel was Melian’s ‘pupil’ or apprentice.
Tim brought us back to the topic of hands at this point, but in a less gruesome context, when he noted that the quest for the hand of a lady or princess is very much a fairy-tale theme. And Anne remarked of Thingol ‘that’s the patriarchy for you!’ She was, however, delighted with the poetry of the singing contest between Sauron and Felagund. Tim thought the poetry complemented the text in the same way as the verses in LotR.
We returned to the gruesome when Tim and Laura commented on the similarity between the werewolf preying on Beren’s companions and the predatory behaviour of the Cyclops in the Odyssey. Thankfully, Angela brought is some relief when she remarked that in this chapter we have more eagles.
Anne noted that when Beren set out he had 12 companions, and she saw this in biblical terms. Laura was intrigued to know why Gorlim was described as ‘the unhappy’ – watch this space!
Laura and Julie were surprised by Barahir’s snake ring, and I got my facts wrong, thinking it may have been merely a ring made by Men in the East, but as Angela pointed out, it is actually an elvish ring, which puzzled us briefly until it was pointed out that in ancient times the snake was a symbol of wisdom.
Chris was interested in the fact that when Celegorm and Curufin had tried to kill Beren and Luthien, Luthien prevented Beren from retaliating. As we noted, this fits with other instances in the legendarium where evil deeds are left unpunished by virtuous characters.
Laura drew our attention to Beren’s dream, and observed that with Gorlim’s appearance and warning a new supernatural element enters not just the story but The Silmarillion as a whole; and Tim called our attention to similarities with some of Shakespeare’s ‘apparitions’.
In a brief pause, I said I though ‘Wolf-Sauron’ was a great piece of naming, and Chis noted that Wolf-Sauron over-reaches himself in this story, as he will do in LotR. Tim remarked that Sauron’s pride always lets him down, while Angela suggested that he miscalculates.
Moving away from these violent images, Chris addressed the topic of Luthien before Mandos and remarked that as in other story elements in the wider legendarium, pity leads to a major change. Mandos refers Luthien’s plight to Manwe, who then consults Iluvatar himself, who provides the ultimate and repeatable choice. Chris went on to note that this implied Iluvatar’s plan for a mixed-race population, and Angela remarked that the motif of ‘doom appointed’ occurs in TS and in LotR.
We turned our attention next to the loyal hound Huan, and encountered a whole range of bad jokes centring on this name. It got so bad in the end that the suggestion was put forward that we should have a box for bad jokes, like a swear box. Anyone guilty of a bad joke would have to pay a fine! Having got our sensible heads on again, Angela noted the instances of dogs responding to their masters’ voice, and Chris drew attention to the importance of the disobedience of Huan.
Anne picked up the ongoing curse associated with the Silmarils, and the lasting power of language, while Angela commented on Orodreth’s stinging remark that a maiden had achieved what Elvish warriors failed. Laura and Tim considered the significance of an iron crown, as it seems odd to put the most precious of jewels into such a purely functional metal. We noted connections with industrialisation, which Tolkien disliked.
Tim reminded us that the reference to Luthien being ‘spent’ is echoed exactly in LotR when Gandalf is also ‘spent’ after his first encounter with the balrog. The sense of being seriously fatigued is surpassed in both instances as ‘spent’ provides the perfect image of someone whose super-natural powers have been utterly depleted. It’s a brilliant choice of vocabulary.
Tim went on to say how much he liked the description of Carcharoth when he ‘burst forth’. The words themselves have rather explosive sounds and confirm Tolkien’s innate poetic ‘ear’ while the description of the wolf’s rampage is powerful. Angela, however, remarked that Carcharoth behaviour at this point reminded her of the effect of rabies.
On that cheerful thought we turned our attention to our next chapters and decided that although ‘Turin Turambar’ is rather long, we would read 20 and as much of 21 as we could. It may not be a jolly read, but it seems compulsive.

9:32 AM  

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