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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Reading Group meeting 9/8/08

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

9.08.08
I realised when I began this blog that it is rather neatly number 79 and the last one on The Silmarillion. The last chapter concerned the Rings, of which, apart from the One and the Three, there were 7 and 9. It also seems quite neat that blog 80 will mark the beginning of our discussions on The Hobbit.
As Carol remarked by email, this final chapter offers a good deal of fleshing out for LotR as well as bits of back-story. But we began our last discussion of the great mythology with Angela remarking that she had discovered in the Unfinished Tales that Elendil had been the author of the Akalabeth. We debated who may have been the author of the chapter we were looking at, but swiftly moved on as Pat posed a fascinating question about the invisibility of the One Ring – not, she stressed, just the power it had to make its wearers invisible, but also its own visibility, or otherwise when it was worn.
This last matter seemed easy enough – it must accompany its wearer into the state of invisibility, otherwise a golden Ring would be seen floating about and give the game away. Pat immediately responded with the very pertinent question – then what about Sauron? He comes from Barad Dur wearing the Ring to personally confront Elendil and Gilgalad. They can obviously – there is nothing in the text to suggest otherwise, and Elendil can certainly see the Black Hand well enough to cut off the Ring. Tim responded that Sauron does not become invisible when wearing the Ring because he is a Maia, and we all agreed that his power as maker of the Ring was greater than the thing he created.
It was a very stimulating discussion about an aspect of the Ring that I’ve never seen or heard elucidated before, and it led on to Angela observing that Sauron seems to be using a different ‘weapon’ in his fight with the 2 kings – the visible horror of his presence. Tim noted then that Sauron is the great shape-shifter of Middle-earth, able to appear in various forms including fair and humble.
Anne asked if we thought Sauron was actually repentant at the start of the chapter, and we found it difficult to decide, although we noted the importance of the repentance-motif again. Tolkien said that none of his characters are wholly evil, and Christopher had in previous meetings noted the significance of the Valar denying Morgoth any chance of repentance. Laura noted this time that Sauron was expressing his apparent repentance to Eonwe, but since Eonwe is a Maia like Sauron himself he could not absolve Morgoth’s lieutenant and Sauron would not risk going back to face the wrath of the Valar.
Julie picked up the unusual word ‘abjure’ noting it as one of Tolkien’s rare uses of a Latinism. I though it picked up the full religious significance of Sauron’s repentance, highlighting the lack of absolution. It could be argued that he makes his attempt to abjure his sins to the wrong ‘person’ – Eonwe – although Boromir’s ‘confession’ receives Aragorn’s ‘absolution in LotR. It’s a rather large topic that we didn’t take any further. But Tolkien’s repetition of scenes in which characters repent, and his variations on the consequences deserve very detailed consideration.
Laura asked at this point if we thought TS could have been written by anyone who wasn’t a Christian. To which Anne responded swiftly that ethical questions exist regardless of religion.
There is a larger point, however, which Laura’s question opened up but which wasn’t addressed, and that is not to do with good and evil in any form, but to do with the way the mythology is presented. It resonates so intensely with the modes, lexis, and register that are familiar to anyone brought up on the Authorised Version of the Bible. From this point of view, the answer to Laura’s question would seem to be NO. Anyone with a working knowledge of northern myth and legend could construct a mythology as complex in form and as bleak in atmosphere and themes, but it would not have the same elevated tone. Readers of any race or religion may respond in similar ways to the unique tone of TS, but no one lacking Tolkien’s deep absorption of the seventeenth-century language of the AV could create such a work. And this has been unhappily demonstrated over the intervening years in attempts that merely adopt superficial archaisms without understanding their full signifying scope.
Anne then asked ‘why a Ring’, to which Pat and Tim responded with various suggestions, all of which picked up the importance of the endless circle, the Orobouros, and the practical fact that a Ring is more closely ‘attached’ to its wearer and more portable than any other symbol. Brooches, were mentioned but like chains and crowns they are not so intimately attached to the body, or so conveniently worn, and concealed.
Christopher asked where was Gandalf’s Red Ring when he ‘lay on the hard horn of the world’ after his fight with the Balrog? This led to a lengthy discussion about whether he had it with him – I thought he might have left it in Rivendell or Lorien rather than taking it out into the wilderness where anything could happen to it – but everyone reminded me that Cirdan had given it to him to strengthen him in his travels/travails.
Diane, however, in a later conversation, proposed that Gandalf was vulnerable in Moria against the Balrog precisely because he wasn’t wearing the Red Ring. This, she suggested, explains Gandalf’s reluctance to go through Moria, and as we discover, the confrontation is finely balanced, Maia against Maia.
Carol pointed out that the Istari are forbidden to match Sauron’s power, which again seems to complicate the question of whether Gandalf actually wore his Ring while ‘on active service’, of whether, being Maia, he could have made it invisible to other eyes?
Pat remarked that Sauron seems to prefer Men as being more easily corrupted, and both Mike and Laura noted that Men live briefly and fast compared to Elves and as Tim observed this leads to a desire for knowledge in haste, making them exploitable. Tim also commented that with the Elves leaving, Men are the coming Race, the new power to be reckoned with, the competition that needs to be weakened so it cannot resist Sauron’s eventual mastery.
Pat took us back to Tolkien’s vocabulary after this and noted instances both of very Tolkien words – she picked out ‘fastness’ in this category, and very ordinary expressions such as ‘multiply like flies’, said of orcs. Tolkien’s sensitivity to language suggests this latter commonplace expression was chosen both for its unsavoury image and its very common use. It would be inappropriate to describe the proliferation of orcs in the Second Age in the kinds of language used of them in the First, when their derivation from Elves permits a less common mode of expression.
Christopher at this point picked up a unique instance of the Valar becoming pro-active in the protection of Middle-earth, rather than reactive, as they send in the Istari. Angela thought that Radagast spent so much time with the birds that he ended up shirking his responsibilities. It was suggested that Saruman makes use of Radagast’s friendship with the birds in order to corrupt the crebain to his use.
Pat and Tim were united in their observation of the ‘surveillance society’ that seems to operate in Middle-earth. Pat said seemed impossible for anyone to do anything without someone or something watching! Especially via the palantiri. This led on to the consideration of their use as a means of disinformation as Pippin misleads Sauron into thinking he’s the hobbit with the Ring, and Sauron convinces Denethor that Minas Tirith is doomed. Pat also commented that the connection between the One Ring and the 3 constituted another form of surveillance and Christopher pointed out that Sauron was, in effect, betrayed by his own Ring as soon as he put it on, because the wearers of the 3 could perceive him. Angela brought the full scope of the making of the Rings into focus when she remarked that Celebrimbor, maker of the 3, was a son of Feanor.
Carol, by email, picked up the long-unnoticed fact that while the Rhyme cites ‘9 mortal men doomed to die’, they don’t actually – at least not until the Ring is destroyed, and then its not exactly death. The obvious interpretation is that the 9 originally come under the ‘doom’ of all mortals – in Numenorean terms this is bad, although it is the gift of Iluvatar. It is only once they are corrupted that they suffer the existence of the Undead. In this context our observation that the dwarves could not be infected in this way is more significant than just their connection to the strength of the stone and metal they are so closely aligned with.
Julie, on a more human time-scale, noted that the description of Osgiliath reminded her of medieval London, while Tim and I picked up difference between the funeral arrangements of Arnor and those of Gondor. We had noted last week that the use of green barrows contrasted with the Gondorian obsession with stone mausolea. The repetition in 2 consecutive chapters does not seem coincidental, but an assertion that the people of Arnor were more interested in life and living with the land while Gondorians seem obsessed with death.
Christopher went on to direct our attention to the implicit censorship in this chapter. It purports to be an account written from an elite perspective, probably by an elvish scribe, and it leaves out all reference to Gollum. Frodo gets to Mount Doom and it said to cast the Ring into the Fire. Mike noted the inclusion of histories and references to other races, but there is no mention of the Fellowship, and no history for the hobbits in spite of Frodo’s importance. Pat was surprised too that Sam is described simply as Frodo ‘servant’, and Tim and Angela remarked on the selectivity of history anyway – it is written by the winners.
Julie, however, added a sidelight to the matter of Sam as servant when she observed that in religious (Christian) terms the role of servant is not regarded as menial but as a position of honour. All priests begin as ‘deacon’ a word deriving from ‘deaconus’ a servant, and even prelates remain deacons – servants no matter how elevated their ecclesiastical position.
Laura drew us towards the close of the afternoon with her comment on weariness of the world in the Third Age. Pat remarked that this final chapter would be a good introduction before launching into LotR, because it sets up the background and introduces so many characters. We all agreed that reading The Silmarillion in its entirety before LotR would not have worked for us, and Anne said she was glad it was over! We agreed to start The Hobbit for our next meeting, and to look at the first 2 chapters, as they are going to be a remarkably light and pleasant read. It remains to be seen if we will be able to cope with Tolkien’s quirky early style as well as we have coped with his intense mythology

2:26 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

It would be an interesting sideline to know WHICH version of the Bible it was by which Tolkien was chiefly influenced. It's easy for us to assume it was the AV or King James Bible, but this is quite a dodgy assumption! Tolkien was after all a Roman Catholic, and the English translation of the Bible which English-speaking Roman Catholics have used until comparatively recently is the version known as the Douai-Reims Bible, which was prepared by English RC scholars in exile in the late 16th C. The Old Testament section of this version was eventually published in 1609, which predates the appearance of the AV by two years. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church it actually exercised quite an influence on the language of the Protestant AV, although the two versions had been prepared by scholars from opposed religious camps, both pursuing rather different agendas. The Douai-Reims Bible was a translation of the Latin Vulgate, so it contains many words which are really Anglicised Latinisms. The scholars of the AV (which allegedly included William Shakespeare), on the other hand, had gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek sources. Also, the AV New Testament owes a great debt to Wycliffe's 14th century translations and so is characterised in places by many words and forms which would have struck its first hearers (the Bible was then for hearing rather than reading, after all) as quite archaic (Wycliffe was a near-contemporary of Chaucer), even at the time of publication. So whilst Tolkien often appears to be writing in a style which we modern undiscriminating types tend to refer to as simply "biblical", perhaps those passages could do with some closer attention!

It's well-known that Tolkien in his turn was one of the RC scholars who worked on the translation into contemporary English of the version known as "The Jerusalem Bible" which is nowadays popular with English-speaking Roman Catholics. The JB version of the Book of Jonah is his work.

12:34 PM  

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