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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reading Group meeting 13/12/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Present: Ian, Julie, Angela, Chris, Laura, Tim, Lynn, Vicki
Taking notes: Tim

The Hobbit (hereafter referred to as TH)
Chapters XII (“Inside Information”) and XIII (“Not At Home”)

Angela started off the discussion by saying that Bilbo is very impatient with Thorin, bringing him down to earth, similar to when Bilbo, at the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings (hereafter referred to as LOTR), is quite abrupt with Elrond.
Laura asked who Bilbo’s father was; Angela informed us that it was Bungo. Julie suggested that Bungo was an unscrupulous businessman. Angela said Bilbo obviously took after his mother. Laura reiterated that Bilbo does bring Thorin down to earth. Tim added that Bilbo is taking charge – this is what they came to do.
Laura picked up on the line “dwarves are not heroes” – but Gimli is. Ian wondered if Gimli was not a true dwarf then, but perhaps a dwarf woman (allusion to the works of Terry Pratchett). Ian continued by saying that dwarves are a calculating folk. Gimli’s appreciation of the arts (the Glittering Caves etc.) indicate that he is not a true dwarf.
(At this point, Lynn, and then Vicki, came in to join us.)
Tim resumed the discussion by saying that the architecture of Dwarrowdelf shows that dwarves are artistic, that architecture is both an art and a science. Ian pointed out that Gimli is royalty; Laura agreed – he is like Prince Charles.
Laura observed that the chapter title “Inside Information” is like a modern business term. Lynn added that there are moments of commercialism, when the modern world intrudes into the story – crossover - something grownups would understand more than children. Tolkien put it in because it’s most appropriate.
Chris observed some social comment. The way Smaug realises that a cup is missing is a dig at rich people. Tim mentioned the historical context – the economic depression of the 1930s. Laura said that dragons know their wealth to the ounce, to which Ian added, “Because they have scales”.
Laura continued by comparing the episode with Smaug to that with the dragon in Beowulf. Ian said it’s the same - the dragon represents a metaphysical expression of when things are going bad in the world. When it’s disturbed, it doesn’t like it and everyone knows about it.
(At this point my notes read, somewhat cryptically: “What the dragon means. Best left” which I’m still trying to fathom out…! TMcC)
It was further noted that the hoard is the common wealth (commonwealth?) of the dwarves, taken possession of by Smaug. To disturb it has implications for the world, leading to social tensions.
Lynn said it is fascinating to see how Tolkien lifted from Beowulf. The runaway slave in Beowulf becomes the gentlehobbit in Tolkien’s version. The cup is to show that he’s found the hoard, but still respectability – a significant change.
Chris added that taking the cup from Smaug is like taking the Ring from Gollum – the dragon sees it’s missing like Gollum with the Ring; the riddles with the dragon are like those with Gollum. Laura picked up on the comment by Bilbo’s father – every worm has its weak spot. Tim thought that the eyes of the dragon were like those of Glaurung when he bewitched Nienor. Smaug is a different dragon from Glaurung, Laura added. She also noted that the dragon is like a cat “thrumming” like a cat purring. Its wings are like an immeasurable bat, which reminded Laura of Tennyson’s description of the night sky.
The group studied Tolkien’s illustration of the dragon on the covers of some copies of TH. The head looked like a horse’s head.
Chris picked up on how the chapter brings out the mystery of the hobbits – Smaug doesn’t recognise the smell of hobbits – just as Treebeard in LOTR can’t find them in the Old Lists.
Lynn said that with peoples that don’t fit into a category, something happens and they come to the fore. There is a pattern of characters not quite doing what everyone expects them to: Bilbo – Frodo – Pippin; also Faramir – Éomer – Éowyn; all law-abiding and respectable up to a point. Tim noted the theme of a disparate group of characters being thrown together and having to work together, similar to the novels of Alistair MacLean, for example.
Ian compared passages of TH and Beowulf with regard to Smaug in his rage flying out of the mountain, leading into Bilbo being interrogated by Smaug.
Lynn remarked on the Christian references/imagery in Beowulf, and how Tolkien was bowled over by the imagery; TH was his way of introducing his children to Beowulf.
Laura noted how Smaug doesn’t sense the Ring; dragons were created by Morgoth, the Ring by Sauron. Tim thought that this was possibly because Morgoth and Sauron are separate individuals.
Vicki asked about the dragon’s name. Lynn said that Tolkien’s second rank evil creatures seem to have “S” sounding names: Sauron, Smaug, Saruman. Julie added that “Smaug” comes from Old English smeagan (to consider, think) (in my notes mistakenly scribed as “smugan”!) – same root as “Sméagol”. Tim wondered if it was one of Tolkien’s puns – “smog” – Smaug (smeocan – OE to smoke).
Lynn identified a link between Smaug and Sméagol. Tim noted that they’re both under mountains, and both respond badly when their treasure is taken. Julie added that Gollum made his way underground too, and she also saw an allusion to potholers.
Later by email Julie added the following: I think the name Smaug is meant to include shades of "smugan" as well. Smaug crept into the heart of the mountain, just as Smeagol crept down to the roots of the Misty Mountains.
Lynn was surprised at the “rough wood-elves’ cave” – they seem to be lesser elves. Tim suggested that Tolkien meant to show that elves were not experts at carving out the living rock. Laura said that elves don’t generally live up mountains, to which Chris added, except Gondolin, surrounded by mountains in a vale. Laura also picked up on this, and that usually there are mountain ranges, but this is a lonely mountain.
There was some consideration of the topography of Middle-earth - the world starts flat and becomes round.
Lynn said that the image of dragons flying about in the sky is intended to explain (super-) natural phenomena. Ian described the recent alignment of Jupiter, Venus and the (crescent) Moon in the night sky, and how a technological explanation of them, i.e. a plane’s landing lights, was applied to the two bright lights in the sky.
Vicki asked: did Tolkien not like cats? To which Laura answered: No.
(Angela later e-mailed the following extract from a letter from Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 14th October 1959:)

“[A Cambridge cat breeder had asked if she could register a litter of Siamese kittens under names taken from The Lord of the Rings.]
“My only comment is that of Puck upon mortals. I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor, but you need not tell the cat breeder that.”

Tim observed how, when Bilbo is in the passage, the tense switches to the present tense, giving the narrative an immediacy, transporting the reader there as if it’s happening as we read. Lynn linked that to the style of medieval literature.
Angela identified Bilbo’s psychological battle – a theme also present in LOTR. Lynn added that these are comments on real life, such as the First World War – the battle isn’t when you go over the top, it’s the moment before. Ian noted the social factor – what was expected of people at that time – your place in society and the expectations to go with it. To keep on going, like trench warfare. Lynn referred to a sense of indoctrination, which anyone is open to.
Laura turned the group’s attention to Old Balin, the lookout man, Bilbo, the burglar – all we need is the getaway driver.
Angela noticed that Fili and Kili are standing on one leg, like children.
Chris observed how Smaug overwhelms Bilbo with his voice, like Saruman does at Orthanc. Ian thought it was the other way round, that Smaug’s power was to let the person tell him things, although Bilbo doesn’t tell him a key piece of information.
Laura said that Smaug is describing himself – “armour like tenfold shields”. This is a magic moment when we see the weak spot. Lynn commented on Smaug’s waistcoat – Bilbo wears them, and is very unimpressed. Tim referred to Bilbo’s honorifics to Smaug as sarcastic.
Laura observed how the greatest dragon has no personality – St. George’s dragon – represents the Devil.
Lynn noted how a change in Bilbo is neatly expressed at the start of the chapter (XII) with regard to his pocket handkerchief – well conveyed. She then picked out a Biblical echo – the wolf among the sheep reference/image. Julie noted similarities to Isaiah.
Angela then said that Bilbo seems to have a premonition that the dragon is about to attack. Chris wondered if it could be the Ring. Lynn added that it affects Frodo’s foresight.
Julie drew attention to the “no blade can pierce me” assertion by Smaug, similar to the Witch King in LOTR – no blade does pierce him… Lynn told the group that dragons are always killed by sword thrusts: Fafnir, the Beowulf dragon, St. George’s dragon (?)
Tim thought that Bilbo does a Saruman on Smaug, complimenting him and getting him to reveal his weak spot.
Lynn was struck by the astonishing image at the end of Chapter XII: “(Smaug) rose in fire”. Laura noticed how Smaug, when on top of the mountain, is described as being in green and scarlet flame – not red but scarlet.
Chris said that enchantments draw in Bilbo. When Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, he is corrupted the huge hoard. Laura said that Bilbo falls under a dragon spell. Dragon-slime is everywhere – “exudation”. The question was posed: how is the treasure going to be moved?
Discussion moved on to the Arkenstone, and the origins of the name. Old English? Ærchenstone? Earchenstone?
Angela quoted from John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit (hereafter referred to as HOTH) in which it is suggested that the Arkenstone is one of the Silmarils (pp.603-609) which are described as precious/holy stones Eorclanstānas (or Arkenstones)
Chris spoke about the etymology/origins of Arkenstone:
Holy iarkna-steinn of the Eldar Edda in Teutonic mythology; Old English equivalent eorcan-stân; Gothic áirkna-stáins; Old High German erchan-stein.
These are gems made by craft. There is a necklace of gems in Beowulf: eorcanstan/eorclanstānas
And in Cynewulf’s Christ, from where Eärendil is taken (earendel)(see Rateliff) where earcnanstan (“precious/holy stone”) appears (as a metaphor for Christ) - “precious” or “holy” or “crafted”. Arkenstone could be the Anglicisation from the Old Norse.

(Laura later e-mailed the Arkenstone reference in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin [about Bath]):

“… the wreck crumbled to earth,
broken into mounds, where before many a man,
glad-mooded and gold-bright, with gleamings adorned,
proud and wine flushed shone in his war-gear;
gazed on garnet, on silver, on cunningly set gems,
on wealth, on property, on precious stone, (on eorcanstan)
on the bright burgh of the broad kingdom.”

Translated by Dr Sam Newton

(And Ian e-mailed the Arkenstone reference in Beowulf):

Hygelac Geat, grandson of Swerting, … Higelac Geata,
on the last of his raids this ring bore with him, nefa Swertinges, nyhstan siðe,
under his banner the booty defending, siðþan he under segne sinc ealgode,
the war-spoil warding; but Wyrd o’erwhelmed him| wælreaf werede; hyne wyrd fornam,
what time, in his daring, dangers he sought, syþðan he for wlenco wean ahsode,
feud with Frisians. Fairest of gems fæhðe to Frysum. He þa frætwe wæg,
he bore with him over the beaker-of-waves, eorclanstanas ofer yða ful,
sovran strong: under shield he died. rice þeoden; he under rande gecranc.

Translated by Francis B. Gummere

Lynn reaffirmed the definition of precious or holy. Tim suggested the Arkenstone is a Holy Grail for dwarves
Chris said that Bilbo knows he’s done wrong with relation to both Ring and Arkenstone. He justifies it to himself like Gollum (who calls the Ring “my birthday present”). Lynn observed that there’s always one great image of absolute value which is the most corrupting. Tim added that it seems quite Biblical – the corrupting influence of what Angela described as most beautiful things
Lynn noted the link between absolute beauty and corrupting power. Tim thought there is a character flaw in mortals and immortals – they need to rise above the corruption. Angela reminded the group that Galadriel said gold will have no hold over Gimli (i.e. a dwarf)
Julie identified a Harry Potter moment – motto – never disturb a sleeping dragon.
Angela highlighted the mention of cram. Tim suggested it was like ship’s biscuit/hard tack.
Chris thought the chapters when the dwarves are passing through were similar to Moria in LOTR. Angela added that they’re blocked in like in Moria.
Laura asked: How do dragons create fire?
Julie said they have separate sacs. Tim referred to the film Reign of Fire, in which the dragons have separate chemicals which when mixed create flames.
Lynn picked up on Bilbo’s comments on the dwarves’ hall. Tim referred to Bilbo’s tirade – he’s a burglar not a warrior. Laura and Angela both noted how supportive of Bilbo Balin was.
Lynn identified an anachronism – Dori looks up to see Smaug perched like a bird on a steeple. There are no churches in Middle-earth.
Laura said that the Lonely Mountain was massive. Lynn talked about the problems of bats in Smaug’s place.
Tim noted that this is the moment Bilbo acquires his mithril coat. Lynn added that Bilbo was vain enough to look in a mirror. The meeting was rounded off with a discussion about Bombur and sizes of armour for dwarves.

The meeting ended at 3.45 p.m. The next meeting will be on Saturday 10th January 2009, when we will be looking at Chapters XIV “Fire and Water” and XV “The Gathering of the Clouds”.

11:34 AM  

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