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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reading Group meeting 24/1/09

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

22.1.09
We began the afternoon by considering what to do next as we are fast approaching the end of The Hobbit. We agreed to go on to the shorter fiction and begin with Farmer Giles of Ham. The proposal is to them go on to Smith of Wooton Major and then Leaf by Niggle.
Following this decision, Ian launched us into ‘A Thief in the Night’ with an observation referring back to a previous meeting when we were discussing the smell of dragons. He concluded that dragon reek must smell like old tom cat, because Smaug asleep is described as sounding like the rumble of an old tom cat purring. This led us into flights of fancy such as the hoard as a giant litter tray, and wondering where the dragon-flap was. There were so many other scatological imaginings that I lost track of them!
Thankfully, Angela restored the discussion to order and propriety with her comment that Thorin’s oath concerning the Arkenstone forcefully echoes the Oath of Feanor concerning the Silmarils. We had at one earlier meeting briefly entertained the possibility that the Arkenstone was one of the lost Silmails, but we did not get very far with this.
Anne went on to remark that Gandalf seems [briefly] to have changed into a diplomat. Laura directed our attention to the selflessness of Bilbo’s act in his willingness to give up his share of the treasure, and Tim wondered if this inherent selflessness was Gandalf’s reason for bringing him along. It was suggested that since Bilbo had had enough of adventure he didn’t want a share in the hoard himself. Carol notes that while Bilbo neither kills the dragon nor participates actively in the battle, he is much like Merry and Pippin in being instrumental in bringing about a good conclusion. Carol also observed that Tolkien says of both Bilbo and Pippin that ‘he knew no more’. Once again we too noted in the meeting how much resonance there is between TH and LotR.
Mike then asked whether ‘parley’ was slang or a technical term, or, it was suggested, pirate jargon? The earliest reference I have found, without having access to the OED, is in Shakespeare’s Henry V where Henry is before the walls of Harfleur and tells the besieged inhabitants ‘The is the latest parle we will admit’. As Diane suggested by email the word comes from the French and it may have been part of the chivalric code. Pat has noted by email that she “Researched library nothing prior to 1577 - FULKE Confut. Purg. ‘This were a pretty question for a Sophister in Oxford to demand in their parleis’ Other refs. 1582 – 1589”. This use is not, of course, the same as Henry’s before Harfleur, nor its use in TH, since it refers to the Oxford examinations of rhetoric, but is interesting as an earlier form.
Tim went on to say that he liked the description of Thorin and stiff-necked, and Mike said this is a biblical description. Laura and Angela both reminded us that Gimli is described as stiff-necked by Legolas in LotR.
Tim then suggested that Tolkien uses what might be considered anachronistic language when he described dwarves as watchmen, should it not be, he asked, ‘watch-dwarves’? and also ‘sword-orcs’ rather than swordsmen. But he went on to unravel this ‘mis-naming’ by remarking that Tolkien is using the closest English equivalent for his ‘translation’ from Bilbo’s account. This translation motif is something I certainly tend to forget.
Angela and Laura both remarked that Bilbo fits in surprisingly easily with the Elves, even addressing them as ‘My good elves’, as in the Rivendell visit in LotR. Tim took us in a very different direction when he commented that when Bilbo crosses the river the description of him as a ‘queer little creature’ echoes descriptions of Gollum! Laura then asked why Bard would remember Bilbo from his brief stay in Lake- town? To which Tim replied – because he’s a hobbit and a unique presence. Mike also noted that the implication of acquaintance was a good bluff for the sentires.
Laura went on to observe that Tolkien on refers to the ‘Elvenking’ in TH, rather than Thranduil. Carol also picked this up in her emailed comments and said she hesitated to call him Thranduil yet. We all wondered at what point Tolkien decided on the name of the Elvenking, and Anne commented that he was really impressed by the Arkenstone. She went on to draw our attention to a curious parallel between Thorin’s insulting ‘descendant of rats’, and James Cagney’s famous, but apochryphal ‘you dirty rat!’. Chris kept us in the animal realm with his observation that Roac now becomes an advisor and a messenger.
Mike noted the lack of subtlety as Gandalf is needed in the story and Tolkien suddenly drops him back in without explanation. He thought it strange too that Bilbo is not really excited by the wizard’s unexpected arrival. Anne suggested these features were s sign of a more simplistic style. Ian, however, noted that Bilbo’s role develops while Gandalf is away. When he withholds the Arkenstone and takes it to bargain with he no longer depends on Gandalf to get him/them out of difficulties.
Angela and Laura both commented on Bilbo’s bravery in going back to the dwarves. Carol picked this up as well, and noted that he has hated deceiving Bombur. Laura then remarked that Thorin is threatening Bilbo with a traitors’ death on the rocks, as happens to Eol and Maeglin in The Silmarillion, although under differing circumstances. Apart from mutterings of ‘Tarpeian Rocks’, Mike picked up this form of death as that suffered by St James. Mike’s full account of this story is appended to this report. See below. Mike also asked “Eol's death, by the way - is there any other example of the Elves exacting capital punishment?” I couldn’t remember any, but assumed there must be, probably in TS, or the Unfinished, or The Lost Tales. Any ideas, please let us know.
Chris commented on the tension between Bilbo’s bravery and his act of pitting on the Ring in order to escape the fighting. Tim thought this might echo Tolkien’s experience fear during WW1 – not necessarily his own fear. Laura suggested that Gandalf may have intended Bilbo for diplomacy not for fighting.
Anne commented on Thorin’s scheming, and Chris, Julie and I picked up a thematic fascination with treasure. Laura and Julie were interested in Bilbo’s strangely Latinate ‘Misery me’, wondering where it came from. It was suggested that it might have been a Psalm.
Laura noticed the the dwarves are concerned with ‘ordering’ the treasure, and Ian observed that it may have been an ‘engineering tidy’, explaining to those of us who didn’t understand the concept that an ‘engineering tidy’ is particularly when men in sheds move lots of stuff from one place to another! [This seems to be the reverse of the female concept of clutter-clearing].
Angela got us out of the shed and fully into the battle sequence with her observation that Thorin is shown to be losing the support of some of the other dwarves. Anne noted that the presence of a mutual enemy brought about a necessary alliance between dwarves, elves, and men. She picked up the continuing importance of horns in Tolkien’s works when she noted Thorin’s horn-like voice. Tim alerted us to the fact that the language of the battle is very impressive when read aloud because of its alliterative patterning. Laura thought the bat-cloud a particularly unpleasant image, while Mike was impressed by the nobility of the image of the elf-lords at bay. As Laura observed, it recalls the Anglo-Saxon warrior ethos as depicted in The Battle of Maldon and elsewhere, as thanes regard it as a matter of the highest honour to fight to the death in defence of their lord. Tim added that this later transfers to the idea of the last stand around the Standard which is itself a symbol of the monarch. Julie questioned whether the red light in the eyes of the dwarves might be symbolic of their ferocity and readiness to fight, or bloodlust. Tim proposed that it might be a condition of the light shining on their eyes.
I was interested in the way Tolkien describes the weather from the West as dark and gloomy, which I thought unusual as a description of anything associated with the West. Tim responded that the weather is just a recognisable condition, rather than being symbolic.
Laura and Tim noticed that the number of elves who fight in the battle implied the size of Mirkwood. Mike remarked that Tolkien suddenly shifts from third-person narrative to a narratorial ‘I’, reminding us that the story is being told to children, and the inclusion of remarks such as ‘I suppose’ suggests a non-omnipotent narrator. However, Chris pointed out that Gandalf is shown not knowing everything, and even the ravens don’t know some things.
Anne thought Bilbo’s recalling the ‘worst battle’ was both amusing and had a ring of reality about it. With Laura and me, she remarked on the description of the ‘slashed’ sunset, and the effect and significance of using such a violent word. Mike noted that at this point the result of the battle remains uncertain, and Tim noted a sudden change of tense when Tolkien writes ‘hate is’. The present tense continues the feeling that the battle, or its fundamental basis, could still be part of the non-story world. Tim also noted that the reference to the ‘chill flame’ implied the ages cooling. Mike then asked if Thorin is finally rehabilitated when he leads out his dwarves in fine armour. Chris was not convinced, suggesting it was rather a declaration of his own prestige. Tim saw the charge as being like Theoden’s last ride, but without the feelings of sympathy that Theoden evokes. Chris and I both thought Thorin presumptuous, and after the reference to the dwarves ordering the hoard, I noticed the reference to disorder in the description of the goblin army. This was picked up in connection with mob violence as well as the barbarian Huns. But Tim noted that the same loyalty is attributed to the goblin bodyguard as to the elf lords. Laura commented that Bard is not the same as everyone else, and Carol remarked that he is very matter-of-fact and sensible. She also commented on Thorin’s last words ‘Child of the kindly West … if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world’. Indeed the phrase: ‘child of the kindly West’ is beautiful, and as Carol says, “what wisdom, and a pity Thorin only realises it on his death-bed”.
Mike observed that for the second time the eagles arrive like the cavalry, and Tim was prompted to share his observation that the eagles have ‘taken them under their wings’! (Groans all round, but we asked for it!) He went on to note that eventually the dwarves are described as ‘heedless of order’. Chris took us into less violent regions when he remarked that Bombur is still trying to recall the dreams he had in Mirkwood, as Bilbo keeps dreaming of eggs and bacon.
On that tasty note we had to end our meeting. Next time we shall finish the last 2 chapters.


Mike’s summary of information about St James’s death.
The apocryphal account of James' death, which I partially remembered on Saturday, seems to have come from Josephus' Jewish Antiquities which I read many many years ago. Also Eusebius of Caesarea repeats Josephus' account in his Church History. The tradition is that James was taken up to the summit of the temple so that he could be given the chance to recant in full view of the populace. When he didn't, then the punishment was carried out on him which was to be thrown to the ground. I think this was not an unknown punishment for severe blasphemy. Eusebius says that he didn't die on impact with the ground and so was set upon by the crowd, being finished off by a dyemaker's staff. My memory said that he was killed by a blow to the head from a fuller (metalworker's hammer); I don't know where that comes from.
At this point, James was accepted as the leader of the band who followed Jesus and who believed he was the promised messiah, but it's worth noting that also at that time there was no suggestion at all that following Jesus (the Christ) was anything but the most devout path of the true Jew. James was acclaimed for his devotion, in fact. So the Chief Priest and temple authorities were pretty upset about him because he was a spanner in the very works of their religious infrastructure. There were many fringe movements before, during and after that time which didn't bother the authorities very much.
James couldn't have been thrown from the highest point of the temple, as majestically worded in the judicial sentence, but from one of the corner towers on the perimeter, as the highest point would have been in the inner courtyard away from the crowds. When I visited in 2006 I think the corner mentioned was at the southern end of the last piece of temple wall (the Wailing Wall). That corner would have been at The Gate of the Valley, overlooking the the Valley of Hinnom ('Ge henna', which is translated often as Hell). In this valley would be thrown dead bodies of criminals and also animals. Fires were always burning and it was basically the rubbish dump of the city. In ancient times there were all sorts of pagan sacrifices there. Jesus refers to Gehenna a number of times to illustrate what the opposite of Heaven is like.

*Eusebius' History of the Church, although written in 320 something, is basically a list of bishops in the five main churches in the Christian world appointed through Apostolic Succession and generous quotations from works produced during the previous 300 years. He was a prodigious collector and accurate copyist, of written works.
** Interesting but trivial item - my translation of Eusebius says that in the original Greek there is a sentence 304 words long - with only one verb!

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