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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Reading Group meeting 10/1/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Following Tim’s format, I’ll go on including a list of those of us attending. Present were Laura, Tim, Anne, Vicki, Ian, Angela, Christopher, Julie, Mike, and me (Lynn)

It was lovely to be back and participating again in the discussions. Ian had brought in a packet of chocolate elves which we enjoyed munching through (very orcish!), and his facsimile copy of Mr Bliss which, as he said, sets Tolkien in a whole new light. Laura brought in her curiously named book of cat pictures taken from a website to show us the Tolkien reference. It was just the face and paws of a black and white cat which was obviously hanging precariously by its paws with a wild look in its eyes. The caption was ‘fly you fools!’
I started the discussion off with the observation that while we are used to the elves looking up and revering the stars, the men of Lake-town look down into the water to look at the stars. Ian remarked that by this small detail Tolkien helps to engage and challenge the imagination of his readers. Tim said he was reminded of other mirroring waters in LotR such as Mirrormere and the Mirror of Galadriel. Ian went on to note that the waters of the Lake would not always be smooth and that the ripples would act like clouds above, similarly obscuring the stars. He went on to comment on the very brief description of the light on the mountain and the coming of the dragon which continues to demand the engagement of the reader’s imagination. Tim added that as happens at times in LotR we know the events that the Lakemen are watching, but now we are watching those events from a different perspective.
Ian went on to note that the main impression given is one of the noise and speed of the coming dragon. This drew from Mike the observation that the time when Tolkien was writing this story was also the time when flying boats were most familiar. This led us all back to the anachronistic references in Tolkien’s stories to express trains because we felt that in the darkness these would be more like dragons as sparks flew out of the smoke stacks and the noise of steam and speed was always impressive.
Laura led us back to considering the ‘real’ dragon with her observation that Smaug is no longer as chatty and amusing! She went on to observe the biblical register that emerges in the account of Smaug’s onset when the bridge to the land is ‘thrown down’, and ‘the awful beating’ of his wings reminds us of the older and more accurate meaning of ‘awful’. The ‘culturally’ sensitive construction of ‘the bridge to the land’ was also noted as it neatly reflects the priority of the Lakeman for whom the bridge starts in the town and goes to the land.
Carol, by email, noted that the chapter ‘Fire and Water’ is the only one that moves away from Bilbo and the dwarves. Anne remarked that she likes Bard, but Laura objected that like Ulysses, who is always defined in the same way, Bard is constantly defined by the same word. In his case it is ‘grim’, and it is indeed used very frequently when Bard is named. Laura and Angela both observed that Bard is a kind of proto-Aragorn being taciturn, knowledgeable, exiled from his home and a remarkable warrior who uses an heirloom weapon. Carol suggested that although Bard turns out to be the ‘doom-monger’, he’s also the one who spurs the town into action and the apparently humble bowman still has leadership in his veins.
Mike took the discussion off in a new direction with when he asked why Tolkien suddenly intrudes local politics into this children’s story. Ian suggested that he was building up a scenario that opposes a dynasty to an elected local government headed by the Master. Tim supported this assessment, and Laura remarked that that the Master had been a good governor until the disaster of the dragon, while Carol remarked that she thought the Master wheedled like Wormtongue. I thought there was an implicit observation that an oligarchic government was fine during times of peace, when commerce and business require one kind of mind, but that warriors are shown to be necessary during times of threat and disaster. Mike thought the political dimension provided a true to life scenario, while Tim commented that Tolkien creates characters who are neither black nor white but participate in disputes, thus teaching the children who are reading or being read to that people can disagree without being bad. Laura added that the political aspect of the Lake-town episodes would also get through, at a different level, to the adults who were reading to the children.
Leaving the politics aside briefly, Anne commented that Bilbo’s response to getting no credit for finding the dragon’s vulnerable spot was a lesson in modesty. The weak spot also presented us with a problem as we tried to decide the exact anatomy of Smaug. Was he actually a wyvern with 4 legs or some other kind of dragon, and in any case, where exactly was the vulnerable spot. Ian tried to assist this debate with the fine early Tolkien calendar he had brought along which had several atmospheric paintings of Smaug. Tim and Angela both remarked on Smaug’s complacency when he was talking to Bilbo, and Mike noted that Bilbo retreats from the active story after Smaug’s death.
Laura returned us to political tensions in the text with her comment on the recompense demanded by the Lakemen from the dwarves. This was linked to the Anglo-Saxon practice of were-gild. Tim noted that the Lakemen are rationalising their attempt to get their hands on the dwarf treasure, something all the groups in the story are anxious to do. Laura commented on the use of the term ‘amends’ as a noun rather than as part of the more familiar verbal phrase ‘making amends’.
Ian took us back to the dragon, by way of Anne’s observation concerning the horrible stench of its decomposing carcass. Ian noted that the dragon is not apparently angry when it attacks the town but is enjoying what is termed ‘town-baiting’. This was differentiated from the behaviour of the dragon in Beowulf, which is wholly vengeful. Mike noted that killing the dragon was more of a group effort than at first appears, as Bilbo is needed to find out about the weak spot and Carol picked up this too, pointing out that although the thrush brings news of Smaug’s weak spot, it was Bilbo who discovered it. Mike also observed that the dragon doesn’t seem to have a great deal of stamina but like chicken expends its energy quickly. This led to a great deal of hilarity.
Anne brought us back to the text by drawing attention to what she called the ‘thrush device’. Laura noted that Bard understands the bird and after observing the similarity between the episode of the wald-vogel in Wagner’s Siegfried, when a taste of dragon’s blood gives the eponymous hero the ability to understand bird language, we went into a digression concerning possible Darwinian theories of the development of language in which the ability to understand the language of other species died out. However, we later realised that Balin can understand the raven although he describes the thrush’s song as ‘too quick and difficult’. Julie picked up the linguistic thread with her observation that the episode of the dragoon’s fall is full of sibilant sounds.
From language we turned to weaponry as Mike asked why the Elves are depicted as being ‘tooled up’: they are apparently heavily armed and ready for a fight. Then Angela remarked on the generational difference between the younger and older dwarves as the younger ones (and Bombur) are not always in agreement with Thorin. Fili and Kili also long to join in the revelry in the camps beyond the dwarf fortifications at the mountain gate. Laura thought the younger dwarves had a sense of the completion of their quest rather than the sense of history that was driving the older dwarves. Ian thought they were not in touch with their ‘dwarvish side’!
Anne and Mike went on to question why Bilbo took the Arkenstone and kept it secret. Angela commented that this was out of character and Chris pointed out that Bilbo falls under its enchantment so his action is not a logical decision. Laura added that the gold of the hoard is affected by the dragon’s long contact with it. Julie then picked up the possibility that dragons and birds are related because dragons, like some birds such as magpies hoard shiny things. Angela added that jackdaws do the same thing. Ian remarked that ravens seem to be held in high regard by the dwarves, and Ian wondered whether Roac was actually bald, like a vulture, or merely white-headed through age and looking like an American bald eagle. Carol noted the onomatopoeic names of the ravens, and we had discussed in the group whether this was the case, or if there was any Anglo-Saxon connection.
We went back to politics again when Laura noticed that Thorin breaks the rules of engagement when he shoots at the messenger. Julie remarked that the dwarf song credits the king with the fall of the dragon. Carol commented that Thorin would not make a good ruler because he is ‘obstinate beyond belief, and becomes too arrogant. However, although Thorin names himself as King the messenger refuses to recognise his claim. Thorin’s claim is also treated differently to Bard’s declaration of his own identity.
Angela observed the likeness between the ‘Moria’ pool and the pool in front of the Lonely Mountain. Tim saw the creation of the Mountain pool as a demonstration of dwarf skills which would crop up again at Helm’s Deep.
After a lively afternoon we agreed to go on to read chapters 16 and 17.

3:31 AM  

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