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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading Group meeting 26/7/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Catching up at last! Angela started our discussion with the observation that Ar-Pharazon, last king of Numenor, is ‘up there with Feanor’s sons’ when it comes to being bad. Laura remarked that the entire Akallabeth chapter traces the story of hope diminishing, and Tim noted the insistent theme of a longing for the West that characterises the race of Men now. This seemed to be based on bad logic.
The major theme of our discussion during the afternoon was the constant influence and use of biblical registers and biblical references, and Julie observed that the differing registers that we perceived in the text reflect actual differences in the biblical texts, especially in the Old Testament, as one scribe or priest-scribe takes one view of events while the same events may be told differently, or with different emphasis by another priest or scribe. Of course this is more familiar from the synoptic gospels.
Carol too picked up the biblical theme when she noted that the long life spans of the Numenoreans reflect the longevity of biblical characters like Methusalah and Noah.
Julie also noted the references to mountains, both in the Bible, where people are not supposed to worship on them, and in this chapter, where it is a sign of devotion opposed to the great Temple. Julie commented that Tolkien seems to be reversing the biblical idea, and this reminded me that I have a notion that he does this kind of ‘reversing’ with elements borrowed from The Battle of Maldon, and also perhaps with his depictions of caves.
Angela developed her observation about Tar-Palantir’s prophecy and Isildur saving the Tree, alerting us to the significance of this sequence in the context of Aragorn’s anxiety about finding the right ‘sign’ of his kingship. Laura remarked on the use of ‘prophecies of doom’ that we are familiar with, such as the one about the ravens leaving the Tower of London.
Carol drew attention to Ar-Gimilzor’s tyranny, likening the prohibition on the use of Elvish language to the prohibitions against the use of Gaelic, Welsh and Irish. However, we could define a significant difference here. The British assault on the Celtic languages was an imposition from outised by an occupying or colonial power. Ar-Gimilzor’s prohibition comes from within and operates at (almost) the highest levels of Numenorean society. The threat from within or the loss of respect for one’s ancient history and its cultural manifestations is a different kind of threat to cultural identity.
We were all saddened by the change in the visiting Numenoreans who seem to change from educators to slavers during their visits to the east of Middle-earth, and we all wondered who exactly the Messangers were. We began by thinking they were ‘angelic’ – taking the interpretation of ‘Angel’ as ‘messenger’. We wondered if they were Maiar, like Eonwe the herald, but it was pointed out that they seem rather to be Elves chosen to be envoys of the Valar, and , as Carol observed, they have no real ‘argument’ as such, simply relying on asserting the need to accept the will of Eru.
As we were discussing the siting of Numenor, and relying on Tim’s Atlas of Middle-earth to appreciate distances, shapes, and sizes, Julie commented that the story of St. Brendan’s Voyages – a topic noted by Tolkien and informing his short story Imram – tells of Brendan being able to see distant Islands and views like mirages that have been interpreted as early accounts of the shores of the New World.
Laura and Tim were both interested in the accounts of monumental burials and mausolea that characterise funeral rites in Numenor, as opposed to the Pyre of Denethor and the Steward’s claim that he will burn like the pagan kings. We debated whether this referred to an earlier time, but it seems likely that it was a rejection of a cultural symbol in favour of a practise that was suitably alien in a world that Denethor expected to vanish. While discussing funeral customs we realised the need to distinguish between tombs of stone, and the grass-grown mounds of Rohan which do not – presumably – leave such a harsh ‘footprint’ on the land.
Tim went on to define an echo of Wormtongue’s evil seduction of Theoden in the seductive effect of Sauron on Ar-Pharazon. We had a rather subversive interlude as we noted that Sauron took on a new form and clothed himself in malice. We didn’t know what exactly Sauron would look like after his (temporary) defeat, but my abiding memory of our suggestions for suitable garb was Julie stopping the conversation dead with her suggestion ‘…and a spiked cod-piece’. Cue stunned silence, laughter, mutterings of ‘Blackadder’, and heavy metal!
Following our own laughter, Christopher brought us back to the topic of Sauron’s laughter, and the fact that he laughs arrogantly as the downfall of Numenor begins.
Laura, Angela, Carol, and I all remarked on the unhappy fates of the two Numenorean women named in this chapter. Both are married off against their will, and Tar-Miriel loses her right to rule to her odious husband. She also loses her life even as she tries to reach safety as the great Wave hits, recalling images of Noah’s Flood and the drowning of the sinful people.
We all accepted the idea that in ‘real terms’ the drowning of Numenor is a description of and undersea earthquake, which unleashes a tsunami that overwhelms not only the island but also the western shore of Beleriand as Meneltarma reveals its volcanic identity. Maybe Tolkien was thinking of Thera, or Santorini, or Krakatoa. He could not have been aware of the relatively recent academic category of geomythology, but there are societies throughout history and all over the world who have created myths to explain to themselves folk-memories of cataclysmic natural disasters such as explosive eruptions, earthquakes, and meteor strikes.
Carol noted that the description of the eagles coming with lightning and thunder reminded her that in Native America folklore the eagle if known as the thunderbird. In spite of this, she also noted that the narration at this point ‘gets more St John the Divine by the sentence’.
Angela drew our attention to a situation that seemed strange to us. Ar-Pharazon breaks all the rules when he sails to Valinor to demand immortality for Men. He should be punished by the Valar, and it seems that the hills fall upon him and his companions in rebellion. But Tolkien does not tell us that they where killed, crushed, or annihilated. Rather, they are said to lie imprisoned in the ‘Caves of the Forgotten’ until Doomsday. As Angela observed, this sounds as though they actually achieved a kind of immortality, and Tim said it sounded remarkably like the Arthurian legend in which Arthur remains asleep under a hill or mountain until the time when he will emerge to save England again. It’s odd that a character as arrogant as Ar-Pharazon should be treated so like our national mythical hero. Another of Tolkien’s revisions, perhaps?
Tim noted that the arrival in Valinor is full of foreboding, and by the time Ar-Pharazon reached Valinor the Valar had laid down their power and passed the responsibility to Iluvatar.
We agreed that we will finish the last part of the book, and we began discussing what to read next. There was general agreement that something lighter would be nice and The Hobbit was proposed and generally found favour, but as we were reduced in number by holidays and other commitments we’ll make the final decision about this next time.

2:14 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

I knew that there was a "Thunderbird" but I didn't know that it was the native American name for the eagle! Well I never! "The Eagles are coming, Jeff! FAB!"

I just checked, Denethor actually says that he and Faramir will burn like the heathen kings (not pagan). I didn't say so at the time as I thought it might just have been the Film, but it is actually the Book. But as heathens are those who live on the Heath (wild place) and pagans are those who live in the countryside (paysan = peasant = pagan), and the gist of both is that they are by definition not sophisticated city-dwelling types, there isn't a vast deal of difference, except that in our culture for some reason "pagan" seems to have particularly negative overtones. It's a semantic thing I suppose!

3:00 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

PS Verwood was originaly a settlement on the swathe of heathland between Cranborne Chase and the Sea, so I guess that makes Mike and me both heathens!

3:03 PM  

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