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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading Group meeting 28/6/08


Blogger Julie said...

Hullo all. I couldn't make the meeting today as we were picking up the boys from Sherborne and getting ready to go on hol tomorrow. I will also have to miss the next meeting as that's the day we come back, so here are some sketchy notes I made on "The Ruin of Doriath", "The Fall of Gondolin" and "The Voyage of Earendil":

Ruin of Doriath etc

Jesse says: this week I ‘ave bin mos’ly lookin’ at Norse Myths in the form of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s brilliant book on the subject. Luthien wearing the Nauglamir with the over-bright flame of the Silmaril reminds me of Freyja wearing the Necklace of the Brisings (Brisingamen). Only Odin could bear to look at her because of the splendour. Cf the over-bright splendour of the beauty of Luthien when she wore the Nauglamir, which it was said hastened her death.

No-one knows if the name refers to a people (the Brisings) or if it is just a reference to ae Norse word for fire (brisingr), i.e. that the name is a homage to the brilliance of the carcanet (I love that word! I want a carcanet, o yes, preciouss!). In Beowulf when Beowulf is rewarded with the gift of a necklace for slaying Grendel, it is compared with the Brosinga mene. Apparently necklaces are widely associated with fertility goddesses in the ancient world (Luthien, who wore the Nauglamir, is the mother of a whole dynasty of kings, both Elves and Men).

Back to the Necklace business. Freyja acquires it by sleeping with the four dwarves who made it, including one called Dvalin (but not all at once!). This really hacks off Odin (who in some traditions is actually her husband). Things then go from bad to worse and there is a lot of slaughter of innocent mortals on account of it.

A skald rejoicing in the name of Ulf Uggason first recited the lay of the Necklace of the Brisings (Husdrapa) at a wedding feast in AD 978, presumably in Iceland.

(Also, just spotted something interesting, following our various discussions about Tolkien and cats - Jormungandr the terrible world-serpent and Thor’s nemesis at the Ragnarok being jokingly described as a “cat”...)

Cats in general: cats were apparently associated with Freyja. Is she the original Queen Beruthiel then? 8-)

Leaving Dior’s sons to starve in the forest reminds me of “Babes in the Wood”, “Hansel and Gretel” etc. It’s such an orcish thing to do. It shows how far the sons of Feanor have fallen. Maedhros (who has himself suffered terribly at the hands of Morgoth) repents and tries to make amends but it is (of course) too late. But that hardly redeems the evil. Once again, I wonder how difficult is it to make an Elf into an Orc? (Not very, evidently. There are several notoriously famous psychological experiments which show how scarily easy it is to turn an decent average Joe into a death-camp guard.)

Why is it that Ulmo alone seems to be taking an interest in Middle-earth during this period? He is making great efforts to help. Manwe, Varda and the rest of them there in Valinor in contrast are doing b***er-all!

Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin

It has struck me in the past that LOTR’s Minas Tirith is a kind of re-run of Gondolin although the name is borrowed from elsewhere in the Sil. In LOTR there is the “right” outcome: the Dragon (in the form of the Witch-King’s mount) is slain by Eowyn, the forces of darkness are thrown back from the walls, the White City does not fall etc etc. Ecthelion of the Fountain, trumpets, the white walls of the city, is such a clear pre-echo of the later situation. Even Gondolin is not the original however. Minas Tirith of LOTR is a kind of distant reflection of Tirion upon Tuna, far far down the galley of mirror-in-mirror reflections… Tuor’s arrival before Fingolfin foreshadows Gandalf’s audience with Denethor much much later. Although with typical Tolkienian reversal, Turgon is burying his head in the sand and shutting out the wider world, whereas Denethor will be over-eager to gaze into his Palantir and know the worst.

Glorfindel and the Balrog. Is the Glorfindel in LOTR this one come back from Mandos or someone named for him? At any rate, here is the inspiration of Gandalf and the Bridge of Khazad-dum!

Ulmo plays a major part in these events, whereas Manwe is always reluctant and distant. I was wondering why this could be. Although the air of Manwe fills the lungs of elves and mortals, there and gone again, Ulmo’s element makes up the principal part of what they are physically, passing through them constantly as a river. Every being is a tributary of the Rivers of Arda which eventually flow to the Sea. The power of Ulmo runs in all waters, which one would think necessarily includes the water present in flora and fauna. Anyway yet again the warning of Ulmo is disregarded (why does he bother? one asks oneself). I remember years ago when I was in junior school my form teacher once said “All human beings are 90% water! Even the Archbishop of Canterbury!” That must have been in around 1968 but it has stuck with me ever since. Ulmo runs in the veins of us all.

Tuor and Voronwë pass Turin without speaking (was reminded of those Ronald Searle books with their illustrations of a Gaul marching to Rome, a Roman marching to Gaul, and a Gaul and a Roman passing each other in the Alps!). At any rate, it gives the impression of things happening simultaneously in different but related story-lines.

The seven year wait of Tuor for Idril – reminiscent of Jacob’s seven-year wait for Rachel, only he was tricked and ended up marrying her sister Leah, then had to wait another seven years for Rachel!!

Eol’s prophecy of the grim fate of Maeglin comes to pass.

The Voyage of Earendil

Every Tolkienista knows of that snatch of Cynewulf, that evocative couplet hailing Earendel (sic), brightest of angels (messangers) over Middle-earth, sent to Men. Who was Earendel? Who knows? But Tolkien at least had a jolly good guess. The rest, as they say, is history.

The name Earendil has a long history stretching back into our deep Indo-European past. We have touched on this before. We have Orvandil and Aurvendil etc etc. The name is found in related forms in the writings of Saxo Grammaticus, where the hero is the father of Hamlet!! At any rate, he has a long history of being related to the stars. His toe froze in a mishap and Thor threw it into the sky where it became the star known to the Norsemen as (wait for it…) Aurvandil’s Toe, which might have been Venus.

The business of Elwing rising to meet Earendil. There is a very interesting article in Amon Hen 209 by Kristine Larsen, who happens to be professor of astronomy at the Central Connecticut State University, who likens Elwing’s appearance in rising to greet Earendil her husband to that of the planet Mercury when viewed in the sky with Venus.

The Silmarils end in fire, water and air. I wonder whether the Elven rings, forged by Celebrimbor, grandson of Feanor – the rings of fire – Narya; water – Nenya – air; Vilya – could be seen as carrying forward the elemental symbolism of the lost jewels into the Second and Third ages.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Well, having survived the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and the hubris of Turin Turambar we embarked on yet another disaster – The Ruin of Doriath and the Fall of Gondolin. The latter, majestic in its epic vision prompted Carol to ask where she might have seen the long version. It is in The Book of Lost Tales 2, and includes the descriptions of the weird ‘living machines’ that serve as siege engines and heavy armour. It’s very hard to keep up with all background the reading and remember which book contains each version or variant form of some of the Silmarillion stories. Angela has the latest in the History of Middle-earth series, while I only have up to part 11. However, thanks to Tim’s forethought and generosity, I am now in possession of Robert Foster’s very handy Complete Guide to M-e, which Tim has had for ages and brings to every meeting. All we need is a similar guide that takes in all the later publications of all the versions of the Silmarillion stories!
As we worked our way into the chapters for this session, lots of different topics came to the fore. Anne began our discussion with her observation that these chapters are characterised by the lack of engagement the reader feels because characters keep on dying. It is impossible to develop a real emotional or empathic feeling for any of the major characters when they disappear so rapidly. Pat went on to remark that many of the main male characters have a ‘Sam’ kind of companion, someone who supports and assists. Laura drew our attention to the arrogance implicit in ignoring Ulmo. Not only is it arrogant and unwise in any case to ignore a god-like Vala, but unlike all the others, Ulmo continues to keep a caring eye on the lesser inhabitants of Middle-earth.
Angela was commented on the corruption of Thingol as he fell increasingly under the ‘spell’ of the Silmaril, and this became a topic that prompted discussion from analogous angles. Laura remarked the Silmarils are not like the Ring – they are not evil in themselves through the intention of their maker, they do not have the inherent power to seduce those who obtain them. I suggested that an emerging theme in these chapters, but also up to this point throughout TS was the desire to possess, and Diane noted that this was actually a desire for the most pure – whether it is the holy purity of the Silmarils, or the beauty and purity of the ideal female.
Ian remarked that the Ruin of Doriath reveals the start of the Elf/Dwarf hostility that lasts down to the events of LotR and is very strongly expressed by Celeborn when the Fellowship enter Lothlorien. Angela reminded us that Celeborn would have been present in Doriath as the dwarves murdered Thingol, as he was one of his kinsmen.
Moving on to the next chapter, Pat was puzzled by Tuor’s cloak of invisibility and wondered why, when he is wearing it, he could be arrested by Turgon’s watchmen at the approach to Gondolin. Ever inventive, the group suggested that it might not be just bad continuity, but that like the Elven cloaks given to the hobbits, it was more like camouflage. But more precisely, it is said to help the wearer avoid the eyes of the enemy, and so those who were not actually enemies – i.e. Morgoth’s agents – could see through it.
Laura took us back to Doriath with her comments about Melian’s grief, and particularly her observation of the pictorial quality of the description as well as the sense of stillness after the violence of the conflict between the Elves and the Dwarves. Diane thought she detected an ongoing theme of women ‘stepping down’. Melian ‘steps down’ as a Maia in order to marry Thingol, Luthien steps down from her Elvish immortality as Arwen ‘steps down’ in order to marry Aragorn. Angela remarked that this is not the same in the case of Idril and Tuor. Turgon gives Idril to Tuor very willingly. I suggested this might be because Tuor has been ‘appointed’ by Ulmo to contribute to the saving of some small part of the people of Gondolin.
Mike commented on the very sad end of Morwen and Hurin that introduces the Ruin of Doriath, and was surprised at the contracted nature of the description of this episode. Laura and Angela both suggested that the brevity was an indication that the full story was too sad to tell. I remarked on the description of Hurin’s anger ‘rising like smoke’ and I wondered if there was any connection with the moments in LotR when The Witch-King and Saruman are destroyed and seem to vanish like smoke. Diane thought that in contrast to the assertion that his anger ‘mastered reason’ his reaction showed a lack of reason. Christopher picked up the ‘smoke’ motif and suggested that in LotR it was an indication that the spirit of the deceased was not allowed to go into the West but merely dissipated. Christopher went on to observe that Maeglin’s desire to possess Idril is described in terms similar to those used of Grima’s unpleasant desire for Eowyn, and we noted again how often motifs are repeated from TS into LotR. Although it is sometimes hard to remember that Tolkien was indeed working on TS long before he created LotR, this repetition of motifs creates a kind of organic continuity across epic sweeps of time.
Christopher picked up the theme of repeated motifs when he reminded us of the similarity between Maeglin and Gollum – not an obvious pairing but both are associated with digging and secrecy.
Tim drew our attention to the use of the word ‘moveless’, wondering if it is actually recognised as a word, and Ian added that it is also used in the Glaurung/Turin episode. It’s another of those words that Tolkien uses, or coins, like ‘unlight’, that expresses a condition that everyday words don’t adequately cover. Laura picked up the word ‘amidmost’, and Anne joined in the observation of remarkable words by pointing out that ‘leaguer’ is an uncommon word. I added an unusual construction, rather than a single word to this – Idril is said to ‘let prepare a secret way’. Tolkien’s uses of language never fail to interest us all.
Angela took us into another area when she remarked on the fate of the children Dior who were taken by Celegorm’s men and left to starve in the forest. There were general expressions in the group of relief/satisfaction that Celegorm and his brothers had finally got their comeuppance, and recognition that Maedhros isn’t as bad as the others. Diane picked up echo of the story of Hansel and Gretel in the fate of Dior’s sons, without the witch and the breadcrumbs, but there was mention of the opening here for a Nigglings tale.
We noted too that when Dior inherited the Silmaril it acts like a curse on his family, but is also said to have contributed to the relatively ‘early’ deaths of Beren and Luthien. The Silmaril thus seems to have a negative effect on everyone, as Pat remarked it burns evil flesh, corrupts good hearts, and even hastens the fate of the two greatest ‘heroes’ of Beleriand. This led to a debate among us prompted by Anne concerning the inherent fascination of the Silmaril – Anne was using this word in a more technical sense than its common use – was the jewel capable of exerting some kind of power, or was its apparent power, influence, or fascination symbolic? Chris and Mike revisited the topic of the whether the jewel dilutes Feanor’s power once he had made it, as Sauron invests the Ring with his power. Overall, our conclusion seemed to be that there is a difference between Feanor not being able to recreate the Silmaril and Sauron’s creation of the Ring.
Tim took us into less intense areas of the story when he noted that Ents appear for the first time under the name of Shepherds of the Trees. Angela wondered why they came to help the Elves destroy the Dwarves and the group response was that it is because dwarves have axes! Laura thought that through the Elf/Ent alliance Yavanna was taking revenge on Orome for not protecting her trees.
By this time we were in need of a little light relief which pat provided when she misread the method by which Dior was informed of his parents’ death. Pat read that a messenger ‘gave to the King a coffee’. Of course he gave the King a coffer, but we all enjoyed the image and suggested what kinds of coffee it might be!
After this little merry interlude Tim took us into Gondolin and drew our attention to the problem of isolationism that Tolkien seems to address. It would have been, as Tim pointed out, a very live political issue throughout Tolkien’s life and it is very forcefully presented through the images of secret kingdoms, especially Gondolin, where no one is allowed in - or out. But this fictional isolationism is shown to be unworkable in the end. Mike observed pithily that the story shows that ‘you can hide but you can’t run.’ Tim continued with the 20thC political analysis when he remarked that Turgon’s death was just as anonymous as any death in the Blitz and Diane noted the anticlimactic feel about the way it is described.
Mike picked up the theme of echoes at this point, commenting on the way the fight between Glorfindel and everyone’s favourite pussy cat – Gothmog the Balrog, serves as a paradigm for the fight between Gandalf and the unnamed Balrog in Moria.
We all noted the repetition of eagle rescues, but Tim said that the imagery here reminded him of Stukas screaming down, and we are beginning to realise just how often Manwe’s eagles intervene. They always seem to be on watch – apt for the far-sighted Manwe – to use birds with extraordinary eyesight anyway, but in this case we noted that the eagles nest in the mountains around Gondolin.
The reference to Glorfindel had prompted Carol to ask by email if this was the same Glorfindel that the hobbits meet. Some of us thought it was, some of us were sure it wasn’t. But Angela has Book 12 of HoM-E and a section called ‘Last Writings’ provides the answer – it is the same Glorfindel.
We went on to consider the description of Tuor’s petition to Turgon. I thought it reminded me of Moses before Pharaoh, but Mike said it had more in common with Isaiah’s prophecies being ignored.
The chapters this week gave us plenty to discuss and we almost ran out of time. We decided that for next time we would only tackle Chapter 24 as it is quite long and marks the end of the Quenta Silmarillion. So we will finish this before launching into the Akallabeth which is a long chapter in its own right.
We all seemed to be mildly surprised at how quickly we are getting through the book that has the reputation of being Tolkien least accessible organised text.

12:19 PM  

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