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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reading Group meeting 23/8/08

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

23.8.08
This was a rather special meeting. Not only were we starting a new book – The Hobbit – but we had guests. Carol from Scarborough and Rosemary from Guildford came to join us for the afternoon. It was lovely to have their company. Some of us had met them before and were renewing old acquaintances, for the rest of us, it was good to be able to meet face to face.
Sadly, we began with the disquieting news that Tim had been attacked by orcs on the previous Saturday evening, and was still bearing the scars of the encounter. After we had all expressed our concern, our first foray into The Hobbit produced a wide range of topics – more in fact that might have been expected from a book so often regarded as simply for children. The discussion began with our unified observations of the Victorian comfort that seems to characterise Bag End. We got very nostalgic as a group for simple pleasures like making toast at an open fire using a proper toasting fork, and we noted the use of terms such as ‘pantries’, wondering if these would need ‘translating’ for today’s younger readers. Rosemary suggested the need for a glossary! As we were all using our treasured editions of the book, except me, and I was using a schools edition because my original one is so fragile, it is possible that the book may come with a glossary now.
As part of our discussion of the first page and its delights, Angela remarked on her surprise at Bilbo’s extensive wardrobe, and the similarity between the description of the comforts of Bag End and those of Mole’s and Ratty’s dwelling in The Wind in the Willows were noted. Laura added a more sombre moment with her recollection of W.H. Auden’s association of holes in the ground with WW1. The command posts in the trenches could not have been less like Bag End.
Anne took us into very different territory when she commented on the very different psychology of Baggins and Tooks. The one opting for security, the other for adventure. We remarked on Bilbo’s initial resemblance to the Baggins side of his family, but decided that his latent Tookishness accounted for the suddenness with which he joined the expedition. Later in the discussion we touched on the possibility that Gandalf had done more than just remind him of his appointment with the dwarves, but the Tookish love of adventure seemed to outweigh any further wizardly intervention.
Carol then picked the exchange between Bilbo and Gandalf at their first meeting, and the variety of ‘meanings’ and implications that can be loaded into a simply ‘Good morning’. Pat was interested in the unexpected arrival of Gandalf and Bilbo’s ability to blow smoke rings which was later topped by Gandalf’s series of green rings. Pat wondered if the use of tobacco was anachronistic, but Tim explained it was Longbottom Leaf, or some other Shire hybrid, and I added that Tolkien names it as a species of Nicotiana in the Preface to LotR. This led us to wonder about Bilbo’s enormously long pipe. Of course, we could have accepted the description as merely entertaining hyperbole for the children, but we had some fun trying to work out how to light a three-foot long pipe!
Carol moved the topic on to the question of the fairy-wife and we came to the conclusion that this was the kind of family myth that happens especially in old families. We also noticed in the description of hobbits that Tolkien uses a particularly confidential tone, reminding us that he was originally telling the story to his own children. We also agreed that it takes a bit of getting used to because it tends to strike the modern (adult) reader as patronising. However, those of us who have read it before also observed that the tone changes substantially as the story continues.
In a flurry of observations, Tim remarked on the way Tolkien introduces the idea of the disappearing Baggins through the information that hobbits could ‘disappear’ but through skill not magic. Anne said she thought that Bilbo had trouble with dwarves as we have trouble with hoodies! And I thought they showed an unusual sense of humour (for dwarves) and a rather unkind and discourteous attitude when they teased Bilbo about his washing up. To be fair, apart from their discourtesy, it is Gandalf who commits the act of vandalism by scratching the newly painted front door of Bag End. Happily, in the spirit of Community Service, he does put it right. Pat was rather taken up with the idea that Bilbo is a snob because of his ‘not quite his sort’ comment about Gandalf. It reminded some of us of hearing this kind of comment, and we thought it might still be a justifiable observation. Anne remarked on the amusing derivation of golf, and Angela noted with approval that hobbit lasses went off on adventures as well as hobbit lads. Pat picked up another instance of THE anachronism with mention of a train. We returned to our former conclusion that this was not intended as a comment ‘within’ the story, but a means of impressing readers ‘outside’ the story by drawing what would to them be a relevant parallel.
Carol and Tim went on to consider the naming of things ‘as they are’. The hobbits, as Tim noted, name things simply – The Hill, The Water, The River Running, The Long Lake etc. and these names contrast with the Elvish, Dwarvish, or other names given to the same things. It is remarkable that Tolkien has the hobbit names ‘coinciding’ with the things themselves in this way. And although the Elvish and Dwarvish names may in effect do the same thing, yet they do not look as though they do unless we see them translated or broken down into the etymological parts. It would be nice to know if he was taking a swipe at Saussure, or simply observing how historical change and distance serves to distance speakers from the meanings of their own language.
Pat as always drew our attention to the use of colour in the first chapter. She reminded us of the many times in LotR that she had commented on the lack of colour or monochrome descriptions, and in all cases had noticed that Tolkien uses a descriptive palette full of symbolism and significance. In the first chapter of The Hobbit we are treated to a dazzling sequence of colours as the dwarves arrive, and even in the description of Gandalf’s outfit. Tim was particularly impressed with Dwalin’s blue beard, and Laura went on to remark on the ritualistic form of the dwarves arrivals.
When we got to the first song/poem Carol commented on the way Tolkien uses it to add new dimensions to the background and to slowly bring in the underlying myth. Tim noted that bits of this are continually being drawn in so that while Tolkien could not get the Silmarillion mythology into print he could include it in this story as ‘history’ and motivation. Carol went on to note the change of tone from the dwarves songs of mythic history to their letter to Bilbo which is constructed like a letter in 20thC commerce.
In a quite moment Tim came up with one of his ‘asides’ when he asked if the ‘tramp of doom’ referred to a ‘gentleman of the road’! Julie remarked that Gandalf clearly was in both contexts, and Pat picked up the significance of the idea of a Gandalf as a tramp when she recalled that tramps would often leave markers besides the gates of houses to tell other tramps whether they would get a cup of tea or a flea in their ear if they rang the door bell. Their markers might be stones or leaves or flowers. Gandalf’s is most likely to be his G rune.
Christopher commented on the extent of Gandalf’s belief in the stay-at-home Bilbo, and Rosemary asked ‘why Bilbo’. Without getting into metaphysical questions of destiny, fate, and the Music, or even latent Tookishness, Carol suggested that it was because Smaug wouldn’t recognise the smell of a hobbit! Julie went on to comment on the description of Gandalf and the search for a Hero which Tolkien makes into a parody of the heroic ‘Types’. Tim picked up Tolkien’s ‘breaking of the fourth wall’, as he continually intrudes the narratorial voice, and Rosemary considered that this made for an inconsistent tone. Julie thought that when Bilbo starts doing the washing up after the visit of the dwarves, his remarks to himself may actually be Tolkien’s thought about his writing. Carol put all these elements together in her comments on Tolkien’s constant juxtaposing of linguistic registers. We had noted this in LotR, but this sophisticated technique is also evident in The Hobbit, in spite of the book’s reputation as children’s reading.
Tim then proposed that we should think about the Party as a test set up by Gandalf to see how Bilbo coped with the unexpected, as well as coping with a bunch of demanding dwarves. Christopher was interested in the comparison between Gandalf’s assertion that Thorin is the ‘rightful heir’ to the map and key, and Tolkien’s later inclusion of the same words in LotR when Boromir asserts that he, or at least the Men of Gondor were the rightful heirs to Isildur’s Ring. Gandalf’s words to Thorin illuminate the LotR situation vividly, but still set up an inheritance those who try to claim it.
Anne and Carol were both interested in the anxiety caused by and significance of the pocket handkerchief. Of course, it is only a device to show Bilbo’s profound attachment to the trivia of his life before Gandalf intervened, but Gandalf seems to recognise how important small signs of continuity can be to those suffering dislocation, since he brings some along. We wondered about the white horse he arrives on, and since it cannot be Shadowfax, we concluded that he must have had a preference for white horses. Certainly, Tolkien must have regarded the combination as appropriate, or significant, as he repeats it in LotR. We noted that already there are a number of echoes of LotR in The Hobbit.
As we got on to the trolls, Carol also remarked that Tolkien gives his readers many clues to the fact of Bilbo’s safe return from his adventure. Some of us agreed that we would like a talking troll purse, and Julie commented that Gandalf’s skill as a ventriloquist and mimic reminded her of Saruman, while Carol recalled that the Elves in Lorien spoke with feigned voices to lead the pursuing orcs away from the Company and towards Elvish ambushes.
We covered a lot of topics considering that we only discussed the first two chapters, and it was good to have Carol’s and Rosemary’s input there and then. We all agreed to move on to the next 2 chapters ‘A Short Rest’ and ‘Over Hill, Under Hill’.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

Bilbo's pipe is reminiscent of the kind of pipe which was once referred to as a "Churchwarden", i.e. long-stemmed (? perhaps after the Churchwarden's long staff, now only ceremonial but once actually used for enforcing discipline in unruly congregations!). According to an article on Wikipedia, the German name for such a pipe is "Lesepfeife" (reading pipe) i.e. it allows one to read without the pipe getting in the way of the page (or burning it presumably), which certainly sounds suitable for Bilbo!

12:46 PM  

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