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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reading Group meeting 22/11/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

November 22nd 2008
THE HOBBIT, Chapter X “A Warm Welcome” and Chapter XI “On the Doorstep”

Tim, Mike, Julie, Angela, Chris, Ian, Vicky, Anne, Laura

This report is created with thanks to the note-takers, and includes Carol’s comments and mine.

We haven’t been able to let the thong theme go yet as Angela reminded us that the staves that Faramir gave Frodo and Sam had “plaited leathern thongs” on them!

Returning briefly to the previous chapters, Angela said that we should not have been surprised that Sting shone when Bilbo killed the spiders as in LOTR, it gleams during the attack on Shelob.

Ian also referred back to the pacifying expression “The Good People” for the Elves. It recalls Irish and Scots beliefs in fairies such as the Sidhe (People of the Mounds, the Lordly Ones, the Good People). These beings inhabited these islands before men and continued into the time of the first men who treated the fairies well. The expression has been put in by the narrator of the Hobbit and not by the story. There is an expectation that the reader knows who the Good People are and it also appeals to readers who are children.

There was a debate on the Victorian spiritualist movement including Arthur Conan Doyle and the belief that other worlds could be documented like the infamous photograph of children with fairies (the Cottingley Fairies 1917). There was a belief at the time that the camera cannot lie. Anne said that theosophists of the time carried out scientific recordings. Julie said that in 1895, an Irishwoman called Bridget Cleary was exorcised and murdered by her husband in the belief that she was a changeling.

As light relief, Ian told us that we could go down to “Toys R Us” and buy “Elven” figures which have wings! So Balrogs don’t have wings but elves do! We all thought it was too risky as Sauron would only pull them off!

Carol also notes that Tolkien gives vent in Chapter X to his love of landscape writing.

[There were several things about the Mirkwood elves that seemed noteworthy. I wondered if the elf guards sing as a signal, otherwise, it seems very elvish but a bit odd under these exact circumstances. Then I was surprised by the statement about elven magic – but of course this is an early story and for children. The Elvenking’s objections to the dwarves wanderings did, however, seem to change the tone. The statement about rousing the spiders seemed to suggest a tentative peace between the ‘monsters’ and the Elves, and hence an embryonic political situation.]

Tim said that we like to think that we are living in an enlightened and scientific age but we still have our superstitions like throwing salt over the left shoulder. We also have a morbid fascination for haunted houses; there is still an interest in magic. Mike said that most people need to have faith in something such as science itself – people will believe in the latest scientific development eg carbon dating until something newer comes along. We constantly shed superstitions to take on new ones.

Anne said that faith is a belief in something without proof. Tim said that one can have faith in people and Angela added in someone’s expertise.

As another link between superstition and the book, Julie drew us all back to the description of the Lonely Mountain. It’s all on its own, there is smoke and one or two earthquakes (although Ian pointed out that there is a river flowing from the entrance – maybe geo-thermal). It is a rumbling volcano so there must be a dragon.

(Vicky arrived and Ian kindly gave a Reduced Hobbit summary up to the current chapters.)

Anne wanted to know how Gandalf knew about Bilbo and the dwarves’ situation. It was thought via animals passing on messages and Rhadagast.

Tim said that as the book has progressed, the story line has become more complex. The Elves are portrayed as not nice but not evil. The tensions are reminiscent of LOTR.

Carol remarked that ‘Barrels Out of Bond’ is a commercial term and the talk in the chapter is of a commercial nature, such as ‘out of pocket expenses’ marking the book out as a product of the 20th Century, another example of the way myth and modernity are constantly juxtaposed to aid the reader’s understanding.

Anne was intrigued how the dwarves arrived at the hidden door and by their actions and wondered if they had a sixth sense about its presence. There was a further debate on dwarvish craftsmanship and their experience of hiding entrances such as the gate at Moria. Chris pointed out that it is Bilbo who finds the door and that the dwarves respect him. Angela said he is becoming more confident and is capable of giving the dwarves a piece of his mind when they complain after being in the barrels. Mike compared Bilbo and Frodo, describing Frodo as a cork on the river of events and that Bilbo is more decisive. Frodo was almost coerced into undertaking the mission at the Council of Elrond.

On the topic of Bilbo, it surprised me to find a hobbit who could swim so well. If he had had mainly Brandybuck blood it wouldn’t be so strange, but maybe his adventurous Took genes account for his less-than-hobbitlike ability.

Angela said that the Elves are acting like Men – complaining, joining in with Men’s activities rather like Men and Hobbits in Bree. Chris said that Men aren’t seen as good for example the Master who is like a capitalist business man who ensures the best arrangements for himself.

Julie referred to John Ratecliff’s The History of the Hobbit in which inspiration for Lake town is described as the nineteenth century archaeological dig at Zurich which impressed Tolkien. Also Neolithic settlements called crannogs in or alongside lakes. Julie felt that Lake town could be like Venice particularly with the Master/Doge in charge.

Anne was impressed with Thorin’s finely tuned sense of the right time to leave; not outstaying the dwarves’ welcome at Lake town.

In connection with the old song “The King beneath the mountains”, Tim compared Thorin with Aragorn. Aragorn has to provide proof. Thorin’s kingliness shows through. The language of the song is grand but Thorin is not as important as Aragorn. Anne said that the townspeople believed the prophecy in the song although Ian, returning to the cynical views of the Master and some of the townspeople, said there was an expectation that the dragon will get the dwarves. Anne also said that the song needed a really rousing tune and suggestions were “The Church’s one foundation” and “All things bright and beautiful”. There was a discussion on harps: Irish, Anglo-Saxon, lap and orchestral.

I’d like to pick up the theme of songs because the song the elves sing as they dispatch the barrels reminds me of an Anglo-Saxon journey charm.

Mike pointed out that Tolkien uses hyphenated words a lot and wondered if there was some Germanic language antecedents eg Wood-elves; town-hall. Ian believed it stems from academic translations, lending the gloss of truth to the story. Lake-town has a proper name and “Lake-town” is the translation of the original name which is shown by the use of a hyphen.

Single words were discussed. Anne had noticed “wet straw was in his draggled beard”.. we use the word bedraggled but not draggled. (OED: draggle – to make something dirty or wet; draggled – hang untidily. Early 16th century. Draggle-tailed – having untidily trailing skirts. Bedraggled - dishevelled. Early 18th century be+draggle+ed. ) Laura had noticed “gammer”. OED states that gammer and gaffer were contractions for godmother and godfather not grandmother and grandmother as thought. It brings a whole new slant to the film! Julie said that there is a Gaffer Gamgee in Mr Bliss.

Anne liked the humour of Bilbo saying: “thag you very buch” which is repeated in LOTR.

Chapter 11
Carol observes that ‘the adventurous wandering have stopped … from now on the action is located more or less around the same area.’

Angela noted that the atmosphere and description of On The Doorstep is like the Paths of the Dead: the darkness flowing out - making it very forboding.

Mike described the enjoyment he had in the late 1970s using a computer program called “Adventure” (an early Dungeons and Dragons). The descriptions in it are lifted straight from Tolkien.

I remember being given a very early ‘Lord of the Rings’ computer game that infuriated me because Gandalf kept getting eaten by wolves!

Tim liked the very dynamic language describing the speed of the barrels. “they swept along at great speed.” The waterfalls reminded him of the Falls of Rauros.

Anne pointed out the author addressing the reader when Bombur said the ropes would not hold him. “Luckily for him that was not true, as you will see.” This hint of what is to come increases the tension although Angela wondered why Bombur was brought at all given the previous problems!

Carol also remarked on Tolkien technique of tantalising the young reader with remarks such as ‘which does not come into this tale’, implying the greater depth of Middle-earth beyond the immediate tale.

The role of the thrush was discussed and what sort of bird he was; whether black thrushes really exist although he has the typical spots and enjoys snails.

There was a discussion on the use/symbolism etc of eagles in Tolkien’s works as messengers and saviours. Julie said that there is a precedent for birds being involved citing the black bird in the Mabinogion. Tim said that the soul of Arthur was carried away by a Raven (this is the pre-Norman conquest legend). Also Odin’s companion birds were ravens. Julie also mentioned Bran the Blessed whose name means raven and whose head was buried under the Tower of London leading to ravens being kept there. Tim was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush”

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom…………)

Julie also mentioned the Norse legend about Sigurd tasting the blood of the dragon Fafnir and then being able to understand the language of birds.

This led onto the animals that Tolkien favoured and didn’t! Ian said that Tolkien enjoyed the company of horses because of his experience training them in the Great War, hence the beautiful mearas and Shadowfax.

If I remember aright, the original mearas could talk. The motif of talking horses belongs to the ‘helper animals’ folk motif, and crops up in the fairy story of The Goosegirl, which would fit with Tolkien’s interests.

Chris felt the moment of the sun gradually going down and the gleam of light shining onto the keyhole was reminiscent of the description of the sun shining on the yellow flowers growing on the broken statue in LOTR, giving the king a crown again. It gives Frodo and Sam the strength to go on; there is the hope that right will win.

Tim thought there was a humorous aspect to this moment when everything has to occur at the right time in that it was like Indiana Jones in the map room! Also the H Rider Haggard moment! Ian agreed that Bilbo is the one who gets everyone in the right place despite the dwarves querying what their burglar is doing for them. They have the map, the key, the knowledge from the moon letters and yet it is Bilbo who ensures the door is opened. This epitomises the dwarvish mentality. They are just stolidly going to sit there. Only Bilbo is alerted by the thrush. Their mission was to get to the mountain; they have arrived and cannot see what to do next.

The dwarves seem to get the nature of the Ring mixed up as they wait for something to happen. Dwalin refers to Bilbo having ‘an invisible ring’.

There was a long debate on the science of the sun’s rays entering man-made holes in barrows or through gaps in stone circles during summer and winter solstices eg Newgrange and Stonehenge. Tim said that light comes in through the doorway at Newgrange and lights up the chamber; there is a two year waiting list for the solstices. He said that Stonehenge is a timekeeping device. Ian raised the questions: why these stones; why this arrangement; why do they line up? Because if the “scientific” men of the time could predict the movements of the sun, moon and earth, they wouldn’t have to guess about seasons; they would take over from priests. They were running scientific experiments. The scientists were the shamans and passed on knowledge.

If the dwarves had missed the second the sun shone on the keyhole, they would have had to wait at least a year to get exactly the same conditions predicted by the moon letters. Expressions involving the moon were discussed including “planting by the moon” and “once in a blue moon”. Chris said the last steam engine built was called “Evening Star.”

Julie admired the descriptions in the paragraph beginning “There was excitement in the camp that night…” particularly that of the path, described as “… so narrow and breathless was it….”. The ledge takes the dwarves’ breath away but it is a typical Tolkien trick that he transfers it to the path in order to make you think. Mike said despite that it still doesn’t lose any clarity.

(In a transferred epithet the adjective or adverb is transferred from the noun it logically belongs with, to another one which fits it grammatically but not logically. So in "dreamless night" , dreamless is a transferred epithet. The exact meaning of the sentence is "night when I (or whoever) slept without dreaming," since a night can't actually dream anyway. – Blurtit website).

Christopher felt that Bilbo had a sixth sense about the occurrence with the keyhole. He has a premonition that something is going to happen. Perhaps his Tookishness is emerging. Tim thought it could be a hint of Gandalf-like intuition. Bilbo is maturing although he is still resentful of the dwarves’ attitude. Mike said that those who seek leadership and greatness come to a bad end and those who don’t are the heroes. In this light, Tim compared Boromir and Aragorn and Anne referred to Plato’s Republic where the Philosopher-Kings are the most suitable to govern. Some of us couldn’t remember the quote about absolute power so:

This arose as a quotation by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Tim said that Gandalf knew he had to check that it was Sauron in Mirkwood and could see the potential in Bilbo. Bilbo is now the doer. Julie said that Thorin has never lost sight of his inheritance but the dwarves have not bothered to pass on their lore. Thrain had the last dwarf ring.

Angela liked the reference to the butler and the chief of the guards – that the story teller never heard what happened to them. Another trick of Tolkien’s referring to other possible tales ie there is another story in which we do find out what happened to them. Christopher said the description of the Elves being taken aback by the arrival of the dwarves is amusing and has a flavour of pantomime.

Angela pointed out that Lake-town doesn’t know about Hobbits and there is no explanation offered for him.

Mike recalled a tradition described on one of Terry Pratchett’s book involving the ceremony of handing over the keys at the Unseen University where the original event was straightforward but time has changed it into people shouting at each other. Ian compared the Master of Lake- town with the Patrician of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. The Master lets people do what they want as far as they are aware but he is in control and all is for the benefit of Lake-town so he is being even-handed between the Elves and the Dwarves. He does succeed in getting rid of the Dwarves. A bigger story could be worked out around the Master.

Tim said that in A Warm Welcome the Elven King has sent out his spies so the Elves haven’t given up on finding out about the Dwarves and are watching out for the treasure.

Carol’s additional comments on these chapters: Bilbo’s first view of the Lonely Mountain is much the same as Sam’s and Frodo’s of Mt Doom, a single ominous peak. Biblbo feels much the same too: he did not like the look of it in the least. Nice bit of alliteration of wobbly fluid understatement.
Was ‘chance’ working to bring Bilbo and the dwarves by the only viable road – the Forest River. The talk of the return of Thror and Thrain is indeed talk about the return of the king!.
There’s a good example of recycling in re-using the barrels.
The account of Thorin’s once grand appearance is comical. [One for the children, but also a good example of putting down the mighty from their seats].
Chapter 11 – the desolation of the dragon is like the desolation before the gates of Mordor – only obviously not as quake-making. Desolation is a terrible thing whether in a landscape or a person. It implies nothing can get any worse this side of death.
Valley of Dale is a tautology like ‘Bree-hill’.
I think something should be said about the similarities between Sauron, Saruman, and Smaug. They all seem to delight in devastation for its own sake. Smaug perhaps is more understandable because, though sentient, is still a beast; whereas Sauron and Saruman are Maiar but it all boils down to power – which means horrifying and scaring.
The dwarves seem almost bi-polar in their mood swings but Bilbo is level-headed. And they are a bit like sikhs in never cutting hair from head or chin. [The hair-cutting motif is also reminiscent of Samson.]
Tolkien uses colloquial terms like ‘on the door-step’, ‘front gate’, like Sam ringing the doorbell of Cirith Ungol.

 We will be reading the next two chapters, Inside Information and Not at Home for our Yule meeting on 13 December. Don’t forget – drinklings after the meeting!

3:08 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

There's an important difference between "proof" and "evidence" when it comes to faith. You can have faith without proof (if there were proof, faith would be redundant) but you can't have faith without evidence. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." St Paul (Hebrews 11.1) or more probably one of his followers.

3:16 PM  

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