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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Reading Group meeting 11/10/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

With thanks to Laura and Tim for taking the notes for this blog, to Angela and Chris for additional notes.

Laura, Ian, Julie and Mike gave the rest of the group an entertaining insight into this year’s Oxonmoot weekend.
Ian very kindly gave a rpeat performance of his Oxonmoot presentation: The Search for a Rosetta Stone – Why Fan Fiction is a thriving industry. Ian compared and contrasted two well-known philologists: Jean Francois Champollion, who on the early 19th century deciphered the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone; and J.R.R. Tolkien, who created his own languages, cultures and histories.
Ian went on to explore how fan fiction, in particular stemming from Tolkien’s works, is a growth industry, in which fans pick up certain story threads that Tolkien either developed no further, or only developed so far, and create new stories of Middle-earth.
One of Ian’s points, made in the Any Questions segment at the end, was that Tolkien was the product of a late Victorian culture, whereas the current writers of fan fiction are the product of the modern age (1960s onwards).
Ian’s talk stimulated much interest and discussion. With an hour left of the session we truned our attention to the next chapter of The Hobbit. The group agreed we only had time to look at “Riddles in the Dark” this session.
Laura and Claire had both looked up definitions of yammering and skriking from the last chapters:

To yammer means to utter or whine, to complain, to howl or wail (from Old English geomrian – to grumble, complain)
To skrike, to cry, comes from the Old Scandinavian.

Ian started off our look at “Riddles in the Dark” by saying that this Gollum is not the same Gollum we meet in The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a children’s story, quite creepy – Ian cited the light in Gollum’s eyes in the dark. He also talked about the riddles, one of which is akin to the Riddle of the Sphinx.
Tim made reference to Anglo-Saxon riddles, and Ian asked if these riddles were derived from A-S riddles.
Julie felt they were more like nursery riddles. [Although I couldn’t comment at the appropriate time, the first thing that occurs to me is that A-S riddles are much more complex even when dealing with natural things such as swans and fish. Some are heavily metaphorical and highly enigmatic. Fortunately, some of these are derived from Latin models and since the Latin forms have the answers attached, they helped translators of the A-S forms to work out what the A-S forms were talking about. Even so, the answers to many of the A-S riddles are still not certain. Others, while apparently dealing with commonplace items such as an onion, a key, bread dough, are incredibly bawdy – not at all suitable for small children. There are 3 riddles in The Hobbit which are on exactly the same topics as A-S riddles, these are Wind, Sun, and Fish, but the A-S forms are far more complicated.]
It was a contest, influenced by Norse. Tim considered in a battle of wits against death/fate/a foe and made refernce to the film The Seventh Seal in which a knight plays a game of chess with Death. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was also mentioned…
Mike wondered if the contest theme was a long established tradition going back 1000+ years. [The A-S riddles certainly do, and many of these are based on Latin ones. There are riddles in classical Greek tragedy and in the Bible, but it is not clear whether riddling contests were part of these traditions. The Riddle of the Sphinx, however, was a test.]
The nature of the game, Ian noted, changed as it went along. We are also given anatomical information about hobbits – they have thirty teeth – and Gollum – six teeth, which he sharpened.
The last riddle is actually a question – a question has an answer. This is the point, Ian felt, at which the significance of the ring (The Ring) becomes important. This is also the starting point of the “burglar’s” career.
Mike observed some of the plot logistics of LOTR. The Black Riders are looking for the Ring. Gollum is tortured (in Barad-dur), but the only information he gives under torture is Baggins, Shire. Bilbo only introduces himself, but does not mention The Shire Does Gollum find out about it later after leaving the Misty Mountains?
Julie told the group how Gollum was a bogeyman for the Tolkien children: John Tolkien used to pretend to be Gollum, using flashlights as eyes, to terrify his younger siblings.
Ian compared Gollum with Grendel: the latter was physically strong, the former’s strength is his intellectual capacity – he is sneaky. Both creatures are in the same vein – dwelling in deep, dark, dank places. If you go there, you’re liable to die. [I’d like to add that Gollum is described as having an unnatural degree of strength compared to his withered appearance].
Mike described this Gollum as a creature with no history. Ian reiterated that the Gollum in The Hobbit and the one in LOTR are different – we need to make the separation. Mike called Gollum a natural creature of the dark. [I wonder if Mike means that Gollum is natural in the sense of being drawn to dark places anyway, like a pot-holer, fascinated by underground locations, or whether Mike means a natural creature of the dark in the moral sense, or a combination of both? I suspect Chris would want to look more closely at the circumstances contributing to Gollum’s troglodite existence, but to take Ian’s and Mike’s points together, at the moment Bilbo meets him, he seems uncomplicatedly a creature of darkness.]
The chapter refers to Gollum’s life above ground, with his grandmother, Julie pointed out. Laura added that Gollum literally taught his grandmother to suck eggs(es).
Ian noted that all we know from this chapter is that the ring was forged – that is all we need to know. He also said that the story is linear, everything is consistent with the flow of the story.
Claire pointed out a description of the difference (and connection) between goblins and orcs:

“ ‘a bit low for goblins, at least for the big ones,’ thought Bilbo, not knowing that even the big ones, the orcs of the mountains, go along at a great speed stooping low with their hands almost on the ground.” (p.80)

Laura likened Gollum’s search for his ring with that moment of panic we all feel when we cannot find something.
Mike picked up on an earlier comment by Tim that The Hobbit is a series of obstacles which Bilbo has to overcome, adding that it is like Indiana Jones overcoming each obstacle.
When Bilbo leaps over Gollum, Laura observed, it is a nightmarish moment. Ian said, with reference to the text, it is “No great leap for a man” which lead inevitably to comments about “one small step for a hobbit”.
Tim wondered if there were any rhyming schemes to the riddles, since there seemed to be no consistency – is there an Anglo-Saxon traditions for this (i.e. rhyme schemes, alliteration)?
[Most of Tolkien’s are just couplets, although teeth is an ‘envelope’ rhyme, and wind is a quatrain. The A-S riddles are naturally written in the alliterative long-line, without rhyme.]
Mike considered whether or not riddles are meant to be solved. Tim called them brain teasers. Ian made references to linking concepts. [some of the A-S riddles may have been originally, in their oral form, fun and entertainment, but many of them are based on Latin forms and so seem to be more like exercises in metaphorical and poetic expression. In addition, those that remain to us are written down in the 10th century Exeter Book, so they were recorded by clerical scribes. Any text that was written down at this time would only have so much effort devoted to it if it were considered worth recording. This creates a potential paradox when we look at the really bawdy riddles. It may be that these riddles in particular were valued for their brilliance, cleverness, or multi-layering of meaning. It may even be that the Anglo-Saxons looked on their riddles in a way we cannot relate to since they believed in the ‘magic’ of language – hence the importance of spells in A-S culture.]
Time read out Angela and Chris’s notes to the group, which referred specifically to the Ring and to Gollum.
Unfortunately, with that we had run out of time. Meeting ended 3.45 p.m.
For the next session, the group agreed to look at Chapters VI “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire”, and VII “Queer Lodgings”. Next meeting is on Saturday 25th October 2008, at 1.00 p.m.

11:54 AM  

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