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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reading Group meeting 13/9/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

The blog for this meeting is made up mainly of the notes kindly taken by Angela and Christopher. I have included Carol’s email comments and a few of my own.

The Hobbit chapters 3 & 4 (‘A short rest’ and ‘Over hill and under hill’)

Julie started off with her observation that Rivendell resembles the Palace Beautiful in Pilgrim's Progress. There was a debate as to whether Tolkien was influenced by Bunyan's work as the latter was staunchly Protestant. However as Anne remarked there are only so many basic plots, with that of the quest appearing in many works.

Tim then mentioned the idea of an oasis in the desert, with Rivendell being a prime example, along with Bombadil's house. Lothórien and Henneth Annûn were also mentioned. Ian added to this by saying that these oases are often places where information is revealed, e.g (in the case of The Hobbit) the moon-writing and the significance and history of the swords from the trolls' hoard. Also time is often suspended in these places. Tim added that Rivendell is also a repository of knowledge, like Oxford, and Pat mentioned the Garden of Eden in the same context.

In a slightly frivolous interlude, we wondered what elves smelt like, as Bilbo says he can smell Elves. "Eau de Gondolin" was mentioned!

Laura drew our attention to the question of the name Rivendell: it seems to refer more to the valley (as in the fair valley of Rivendell) rather than to the actual house.

Chris mentioned that the elves in these chapters appear somewhat childish and comical, with Gandalf having to admonish them for being indiscrete. As Ian went on to say, this is probably because the story is being told from a different perspective from that of the LotR and The Silmarillion, being primarily written for children.

Carol also picked up the difference in the way Rivendell and the Elves are treated in TH, suggesting that perhaps Tolkien hadn’t fully realised his concept on Rivendell at this stage. I would suggest that since he had been developing the depiction of Elves in The Silmarillion for several decades, it may be that he was representing them here in a way that would have been familiar from other fairy stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but only so as to puncture this established and ‘trivial’ view. As Carol points out, the doggerel sung by the Rivendell Elves is twee, and Tolkien expresses a negative view of it as ridiculous, only to rather subvert this dismissive attitude almost at once when he says that elvish singing is not to be missed. Of course, there may not be so much tension between his views as at first appears – his earliest concepts, expressed in The Cottage of Lost Play (The Book of Lost Tales 1) envisages elves that seem child-like, but not childish. Although TH was written for children, and this might be thought to account for the twee elves, the opinion Tolkien expresses seems to alert his readers to his satirical intention.

Still on the subject of elves, we joked about them being somewhat camp and Scottish, while Angela pointed out that according to the text Bilbo had apparently met elves before, with Laura adding that this would have been a sign of the inherent Tookishness in him which Gandalf had noticed.

Julie pointed out that the dwarf Balin is the only one not called after a character in the Elder Edda (Balin comes from Malory's Morte D'Arthur). Tim said that Tolkien seemed to like names which rhymed with each other, and Balin rhymes with Dwalin. At the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to add that rhyming names can have 2 functions, the first signalling either an oral source for a story, or a storyteller’s awareness of oral tradition, and the second reminding us of the real naming tradition in pre-Conquest England.

Anne drew our attention to the personification of the boulders during the mountain crossing, when we are told that they come galloping down the mountainside. Angela said that this is continued in LotR too, with Boromir talking about fell voices and the boulders being deliberately aimed at the Fellowship. Laura referred to a similar incident in The Silver Chair in the Narnia series, while Ian mentioned a weather phenomenon where a thunderstorm takes place near an erupting volcano.

There was a discussion about the aging of the elves which led us to the matter of Elrond being described as an elf-friend (rather than Halfelven) and it was decided that this was due to the different perspectives of writing for children and adults, as discussed earlier. Thus Gondolin is mentioned but no other information is given; ditto with the hostility between elves and dwarves.

Pat and Laura compared the two songs in these chapters - that of the elves sounding feminine and the goblin one masculine. Laura pointed out that the goblins were shown as being inventive and compared them with Saruman, with Ian emphasising the significance of killing-machines. He also observed that Gandalf's staff was later described as a wand, while Julie told us that a church warden's staff is also called a wand, and that Gandalf means "wand-elf".

Tim pointed out the anachronism of football, while Laura mentioned the detailed description of the different greens in the landscape with the moss green indicating where it might be boggy, and Pat liked the scene in the cave where Gandalf creates coloured smoke-rings. The description of the boggy terrain always reminds me of the Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

We returned again to the different perspectives in writing for adults and children and this started a discussion about the need to study the change in style between chapters 1 and 2 in LotR.

Angela thought it was interesting that even early on in the story Bilbo would like to know the elves' opinion of his adventure. She also thought it was prophetic that Bilbo wants to stay in Rivendell "for ever and ever".

Julie talked about the personification of Glamdring when it turns blue as it delights in the killing of the goblins. Leading on from this we wondered what it was which made elf blades turn blue when orcs were about: forging temperature?

Tim said it was interesting that the phrase "not for the last time" occurs in both chapters. It occurs to me that Tim’s observation of the repeated phrase continues earlier reassurances and other ‘ongoing’ techniques, so that the story is forward-looking and does not keep its young readers in suspense about Bilbo’s overall well-being, but alerts them to difficult times to come for the hobbit ‘hero’.

Ian raised the interesting question of whether orcs are immortal, given that they are corrupted elves.

We noted the "posh" English used, with Dori being described as a "decent fellow" and and Gandalf being willing to help his friends when they are "in a tight corner". For some reason (which we can't remember) this led on to a discussion of Noddy and Big Ears!

Carol noted with satisfaction that ‘skriking’ is ‘Lanky Twang’ – Lancashire dialect. It is not onomatopeia, but may be phonosthesia – a word that produces a ‘sound sensation’ that seems suited to the thing it names or describes, or at least strikes a particular hearer as apt or memorable.

Carol also observed that there are lots of instances in TH that seem to be small-scale versions of incidents that become fully developed later in LotR. Tolkien’s use of archaic language is less in TH, but Carol comments that words like ‘thriven’ seem to creep in quite subconsciously. I’d suggest that there is an unselfconsciousness about the way Tolkien uses archaisms that is hardly ever matched successfully by other writers. It also interested me to see how ‘partial’ our language has become. We have all but lost ‘thriven’ as the past participle of ‘to thrive’ – a verb that is still in use, while in the following line a past participle in the same form ‘driven’ is so commonplace we hardly notice it.

Angela and Christopher noted that 'We agreed to read chapters 5 and 6 for the next meeting (on October 11th)'.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

This is a totally trivial comment (in keeping with the Rivendell Elves as seen in "The Hobbit") but I have sometimes thought it might be quite illuminating to travel through the British Isles visiting and photographing all the houses called "Rivendell". Then to give a talk on the subject at Oxonmoot ("Buy my book! Buy my book!" flashed up subliminally in the PowerPoint display, of course...)

1:55 PM  

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