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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Reading Group meeting 8/11/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

With thanks to Chris for sending on his notes, to Carol for her comments, and to Angela for her perceptive and cheeky(!) after-thought.

The first half an hour was taken up with a discussion about the dates for 2009 meetings and a Christmas social gathering. Congratulations were also passed on to Ian for breaking his previous record in this year's Great South Run.
Julie started our literary discussion with a comment that spiders do not seem to be found in earlier mythologies except Japanese ones. Tim then gave a history of the word “Attercop” and how cop, cob and lob are all words for spiders. Ian has subsequently distributed a detailed etymological document to all group members. [Rainer Nagel has discussed the moral significance of Tolkien’s choice of names for spiders depending on whether they are based on Latin ‘aranea’, or northern European roots.]
[I noticed that the Mirkwood spiders not only speak and express emotion, but use a colloquial vocabulary akin to that of the trolls, full of contractions and loose dialect forms.]
Continuing on the theme of unusual words, Laura mentioned “helter-skelter” saying that “skelter” is Middle English for “hurry” or “hasten”.
The word “Butler” was also discussed as it seemed an odd word for Tolkien to use. Julie says it is used in the Bible (Joseph interprets a Butler's dreams). Ian then said that the Butler and the guard seem more like people than elves in their behaviour – for instance they hoard valuable goods and trade with men. There is also a hint of the enmity between elves and dwarves, even though these dwarves were not involved in the original altercation.
Comments were made that although it is meant to be a story written by Bilbo the work includes other material, such as the history of the different types of elves, which is directly aimed at the reader.
Ann said she was very worried when Thorin was put in a thong by the elves. Jokes were then made of an unprintable nature! [See also Angela’s comment below.]
Ian commented on how “the patch of midnight that had never been cleared away” was similar to that in Discworld and Ann mentioned how Tolkien personifies the sun in the words “a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above”.
Carol comments that entering Mirkwood is like entering the Old Forest but far more sinister, and she too remarked on the ‘patch of midnight’, regarding it as a ‘wonderful description’.
A discussion then followed concerning the black squirrels, bats and butterflies. This led on to the shooting of the deer. Laura said that such an event often causes a curse (Bombur falls in the water as a result of this action) and mention was made of the catching of the white stag in Narnia.
Laura has since mailed the group with further details and I include it here for completeness. “The stag who curses his killer was in Flaubert's story of St Julien the Hospitaler. Before he gets religion, he is an obsessive hunter. After killing many animals, he sees a huge black stag and a hind and fawn. He kills the fawn and then the hind. He shoots the stag and his arrow lodges in its forehead and the stag curses him three times (!) saying that Julien will kill his mother and father (which he does later without realising) and then the stag dies.” It was also claimed that the appearance of a white animal signifies a Faerie. Questions were asked as to why the animals appeared at that moment and Chris said that it showed they were near the edge of the forest and if the dwarves had thought about it they could have deduced this. In the same way Bilbo could not see the edge of the forest when climbing the tree because the tree was in a dip but again was unable to deduce this.
Carol observed that the hunting is like the fairy hunt in Sir Orfeo but as with Bilbo stealing the cup from Smaug – a trope from Beowulf – or the names fo the dwarves coming from the Elder Edda, one doesn’t need to know the background. [As Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova point out in their book, it’s a great way of introducing some of the rarer works in norther European literature].
Discussion returned to spiders and Angela pointed out that these spiders were the children of Shelob (mentioned in the "Shelob's Lair" chapter in LOTR) and as such were “unaligned” evil. Claire joined the group and mentioned that the spiders' eyes (insect eyes) seemed to be like those of Gollum's and asked if Gollum was actually in the forest. Angela said that Gollum did not leave his cave until 2 to 3 years later so he could not have been there. (Have since confirmed this by reference to LOTR Appendix B and the "Shadow of the Past" chapter). Claire demonstrated her expertise concerning spiders and confirmed that spiders bite rather than have a sting. Chris mentioned that Tolkien was “stung” by a scorpion [it was a tarantula according to Carpenter], when he was very young and suggested that this was the reason he gave spiders an equivalent stinging mechanism (details to be found in Rateliff Part One p332-3). Also Bilbo names his sword Sting at this point. Laura pointed out how Bilbo's sword shone with delight when killing spiders. [It surprised me when I realised that Sting shines when it kills spiders as well as orcs.]
Tim referred to the episode concerning the river crossing as a typical management team building exercise with the group given a problem to solve and then using various skills to achieve it. [The soporific quality of the strange river reminded me of Lethe, which I think was one of the rivers of Hades, and also sent people to sleep.]
Laura mentioned that Balin was often significantly involved in events and Angela added that later it was Balin who tried to recolonise Moria, partly in the hope of finding the last remaining dwarf ring. Chris said that Balin seemed to be particularly obsessed by the Ring and is described as “muttering and chuckling” to himself, while Julie asked: Did Balin have his own agenda from then on? The fact that no one missed Thorin after the escape from the spiders was discussed and Chris said he felt that the dwarves were now so reliant on Bilbo they just took him to be the leader so did not miss Thorin.
A question was then asked whether Legolas was at the elven feast. Julie said that Rateliff claims that, at the time of writing The Hobbit, the LOTR had not been written so at that point neither Legolas nor his father Thranduil actually existed. However, in retrospect, Legolas would have been there as the son of the Elvenking Thranduil, as this fitted in with the history outlined in LOTR. (Also Thranduil and his father Oropher are discussed in some detail in Unfinished Tales). This is really a problem of an author developing a mythology over a period of years where earlier works could not include details of characters created in later works!
Carol notes - the Mirkwood elves' cave and bridge gives echoes of Nargothrond and the elven king makes a nice transition into LotR, but the Mirkwood elves are less benign than those of Rivendell.
Laura mentioned the significance of the number three – the use of three replies of "starving" by Thorin in his interrogation by the elves, seeing the elves three times in the wood and three warnings by Gandalf about not leaving the path.
Angela commented on Bombur's dream foreseeing the elf feast {Carol also mentioned this} and Julie mentioned that the lights going out each time they approached the elves was similar to Faeries.
Angela said that the wine came from Lothlorien (“kinsfolk in the South”) then somehow mention was made of butter churns which led to various quips about Lothlórien Lurpak, Fangorn Flora etc.
A question was asked about the shadow cast by the wearer of the Ring and it was agreed that no mention of this feature was made in LOTR. Tim said that having a shadow showed that it was not perfect invisibility as the Ring was impure.
Julie said the elves are referred to as “Good People” - and this was done to ward off evil by speaking of them nicely. A discussion then took place concerning good and bad elves. Strangely only Galion is named which Julie said means “Son of light”.
[I was surprised at the number of times ‘magic’ is mentioned in connection with the Elves, even by the King himself. I suppose this is less complicated for children, and keeps the story within a fairy or folk-tale mode for them.]
Carol notes the feast happens at the autumn equinox, the day before Bilbo's birthday; the date on which The Hobbit was first published ‘which I guess gave JRRT the idea of making Bilbo's and Frodo's birthday on 22.9. Pity nobody these days takes much notice of equinoxes and solstices or cross-quarterdays but of course they would in Mirkwood.
Tim said that leaving the elven stronghold was like the “Great Escape”. Laura praised Bilbo's kindness in giving back the keys to the guard to save him further trouble. Ian described how one course of action leads to another – he takes keys, lets the elves out, puts them in barrels, then there is the problem of Bilbo getting out himself. It was impossible to go back at any of these stages, and Ian felt that Tolkien was instilling the need to adhere to a plan. [It surprised me that Bilbo considered swimming at this point.]

The idea of barrels was too much for the group so out came phrases such as “roll out the barrel”, “barrel of laughs” etc.
[I was interested in the song the elves sing when sending the barrels into the river. It doesn’t have what I would have expected in the way of and ‘elven’ register or vocabulary, even allowing for the fact that barrels don’t need starlight, or the help of the Valar. It rather reminded me of an Anglo-Saxon journey charm, only even longer. But it’s a good rhyme for children.]
Ian said that Tolkien was trained in horse riding and Bilbo's “riding” of the barrels was much akin to horse riding.
Discussion took place as to the type of pie that Bilbo stole. Julie said that Rateliff had to interpret this for American audiences as they would think it contained apples. It was suggested it could be a ham and egg pie as Bilbo likes bacon and eggs. This led onto Joseph's interpretation of the Butler's dream in the Bible which mentioned kine. This turned the discussion to oxen and Oxonmoot, which Angela pointed out had once been mistyped by Chris as Oxenmoot. Embarrassed by this I totally missed how we got onto the next subject, which concerned Crackerjack and holding cabbages if you answered a question incorrectly. This in turn led to a discussion of Friday at 5pm when the programme used to be broadcast, with Julie saying that on finishing work on Friday she says it's Crackerjack time etc. Some people sensibly said they just retired to the pub at 5pm Friday!
On the subject of kine - Carol wondered if children (or adults for that matter) know what 'kine' are. She considers however that they might have come across 'oxen' in Christmas carols.
Julie contrasted the magical aspect of Faeries/elves and the practical nature of the transportation of barrels.
Ian said that when the elves kept the dwarves in solitary confinement they were being unpleasant. He also said that the dwarves' consistent story to the elves demonstrated their stubbornness. They also showed passive resistance when they just sat down as they were being captured by the elves.
Carol commented that the dwarves are always ungrateful and grumbling but Bilbo now has the courage to retort, quite rightly so too.
Tim said the end of each chapter was like a "tune in next week" advert. He also thought the ending of Flies and Spiders was like that in some of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
On that merry note the meeting ended.
Next time we decided to read Chapter X “A Warm Welcome” and Chapter XI “On the Doorstep”.

An afterthought from Angela who writes: In the "Passing of the Grey Company" chapter in Lord of the Rings, Halbarad and the rest of the Rangers join Aragorn in Rohan. Halbarad is carrying the battle-standard made by Arwen and the text describes it as being "close-furled in a black cloth bound about with MANY THONGS"! No wonder that banner proved an inspiration to Aragorn!

6:48 AM  

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