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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reading Group meeting 14/2/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

At the meeting: Pat, Anne, Vicki, Laura, Tim, Ian, Julie, Mike, Angela, Chris and me (Lynn).

This was our last reading of The Hobbit, - chapters 18 and 19, and we remarked on how much we had found to talk about in what is always described as a ‘children’s book’.

Julie and Angela both launched the discussion with comments on the moving description of the death of Thorin, including his realisation that there are other and better things in life than gold and treasure. Laura also commented on the names with which Thorin and Bilbo address one another. Thorin’s antithetical ‘good thief’, and poetic ‘child of the kindly West’ are hardly matched by Bilbo’s sorrowful ‘Farewell, King under the Mountain’, but console the reader that both characters have put the hard words behind them. Laura, Anne and Tim all remarked on the extraordinary insight into dwarvish belief in an afterlife, and among others, Chris noted the way various aspects of this chapter read like small versions LotR. We have discussed this before but it occurred to me that it is in these details particularly that we see how exactly LotR can be said to be a ‘sequel’ to TH, since it is a grand scaling up of incidents.

Julie went on to observe that the victory of the forces ranged against the orc army is presented as quite unheroic. Tim commented on Bilbo wearing the Ring for hours to avoid danger, and he wondered if it was consolidating its hold on him at this point. When Angela remarked that the Man searching for Bilbo was doing so for the last time, we noted Bilbo’s observation that being invisible wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Pat took us on into the next chapter with her interesting observation that the first poem ‘The Dragon Withered …’ has a stanza of 14 lines that rhyme exactly like a Shakespearean sonnet so that 3 alternately rhyming quatrains are rounded off with a couplet. Of course, the lines are not iambic pentameter, but loose iambic trimeters with lots of variation. The other stanzas of the poem are shorter. Carol notes that the song is a lot more serious than the one sung in A Short Rest. It ‘sort of echoes Thorin’s words about food and cheer being worth more than hoarded gold. ‘So why go a-roaming?’ this is double-edged, why travel when Bag End or Rivendell are so comfortable? But if Bilbo doesn’t go a-roaming he’ll end up a small-minded hobbit’. Carol went on to observe that Bilbo does 'come back to the valley' eventually but again without the quest to Erebor he’d never have had a chance to go back to Rivendell. She also remarks that Elrond foresees that trouble is not at an end, and that Gandalf foresees trouble ahead, just as he does for Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam on their return to the Shire.

We then noted that the next poem ‘O sing all ye joyful’ reminded us of the carol ‘O come all ye faithful’, to which Ian added that it is actually in the rhythm of Little Boy Blue – an ancient nursery rhyme which may have deeper meanings. Laura was looking at the vocabulary and noticed that Oak, Ash and Thorn are not only trees, but the names of Anglo-Saxon runes! Pat also noted that Oak and Ash are the trees in the weather rhyme ‘Oak before ash, sure to have a splash. Ash before oak sure to get a soak’. The first version of The Road Goes Ever On struck me as owing something to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Tolkien has ‘By caves where sun has never shone,/ By streams that never find the sea’, and Coleridge has:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to Man
Down to a sunless sea

Following this excursion into vocabulary and poetry it was observed that there are no women in The Hobbit, however, Julie pointed out that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is mentioned almost at the end, and later when we were discussing Beorn, Mike wondered about the reference to the line of Beorn’s descendants, which presupposes a wife for this shape-shifter. Tim told us there is a reference to the Beorning ‘helping’ in Unfinished Tales, and he thought at this point that Beorn might have been a mutant. However, Julie thought he was Tolkien’s version of a berserker in the way he is represented going into battle. Tim then added that Beorn is like The Hulk as he seems to grow in size and power as he gets increasingly angry! With a swift switch to traditional mythology, Tim also remarked that the name Arthur has been translated by some people as ‘Bear Prince’. This makes sense in terms of Tolkien’s early interest in weaving together existing English/ British mythology and his own created ‘myths’.

After this we got rather side-tracked by Elrond’s red handkerchief. Silk, we felt, was perfect for an Elf, but we were a bit surprised that Elves might need hankies. The possibility of it being embroidered came up, and of course if Arwen could embroider a standard she could certainly manage a simple E.H-E monogram. In an attempt at cultural historicism, pictures of Dick Wittington with his possessions wrapped in a red spotted hanky and hung over his shoulder on a stick were mentioned, but dismissed on the grounds that Tolkien would object to the cat!

Spurred on by Dick and his cat, besides digressing into considerations of Elf handkerchiefs we also revisited the question of boots, particularly seven-league boots. I thought they were mentioned in Jack and the Beanstalk. Mike thought there was something in the sixteenth-century story by Rabelais known as Gargantua and Pantagruel. Mike’s initial research is added below.

We got back to the story when Julie remarked on Bilbo’s kindly invitation to the dwarves to come for tea. Mike thought it brought the story back to normality. Carol thought that the mention of rain on the return journey was a signal that the story was turning its back on legends and coming back to the everyday. Angela then observed that different groups of Elves have different sets of values. While ‘Thranduil’ accepts a costly necklace, Elrond will only accept a few small gifts in return for his hospitality. I wondered if the necklace from the dragon hoard was the Nauglamir from The Silmarillion, but Angela and Chris pointed out that this had included a silmaril which was late bound on the brow of Earendil. On the gift-giving topic, Laura noted that Dain dealt his treasure out like a good Anglo-Saxon lord.

Anne then wanted to know why Bilbo has lost his reputation when he returned home. Tim, among others, explained that it was because hobbits don’t behave like that, going off into the wild and having adventures. I thought it was hard on Bilbo to find himself treated as an outsider and having to buy back his goods. Julie noted the black and red notice and Anne regarded them as aggressive colours while Ian thought they were formal colours. Laura questioned whether they were ‘legal’ colours. We concluded that they may just have been colours used to create impact on the posters. Red to draw attention, black for the details. We considered this sequence of events in terms of WW1 and WW2 when men had been declared missing presumed dead and later came home. It must have been very difficult and distressing at times.

Tim then picked up one of the famous anachronisms for which Tolkien’s texts are renowned – this time the reference to ‘guns’, but as Tim also said this is a reference point for the children for whom the story is told. Pat also picked up the reference to a tobacco jar, and of course, while there is much talk of pipeweed in LotR, it is not called tobacco in that text.

Anne picked up the behaviour and the hyphenated name of the Sackville-Bagginses. Julie thought this was a sign of an aspiring middle class. Anne wondered if the name was the sign of a contemporary influence deriving from Vita Sackville-West. I thought this may have been a fortunate inspiration as ‘Sackville’ is within the general ‘type’ of naming that includes ‘Baggins’ – bags and sacks.

Mike was very interested in Tolkien’s structural narrative technique as the whole story of the Battle of Five Armies and Gandalf’s exploits is only told later in the Last Homely House in an assertion of authorial control, so that the story seems to have a separate life. Anne thought it was technique that claimed ‘real time’ and distinguished the levels of story. Chris noted that Chapter 17 ‘Fire and Water’ had shown evidence of the same kind of authorial control over what is told and how the chronology is set up. Mike remarked that even the narrator has to wait for the story! Ian observed that this structuring is different to the hugely developed threads in LotR, where there is not the same sense of orality, as the narrator in TH tells us what he is doing or not doing, and again this is a technique that helps children to understand how the story is developing.

Picking up the fact that the story of the battle and of Gandalf’s part in the White Council are told in Rivendell, Angela speculated most interestingly on the possibility that the boy Aragorn and his mother might have been in the Company that listened to the tale!

Pat then asked if Gandalf is weaker – less powerful – in TH than in LotR. Mike suggested that if he had been as powerful as he is in the longer work he would have completely overshadowed Bilbo and the development of his character. Anne remarked that Gandalf in TH is not so ‘shiny’. We needed a moment to decode this term, but what Anne meant was that in TH he doesn’t ‘uncloak’, he is always Gandalf the Grey. Chris also remarked that his power depends on what he knows, and he knows more in LotR so he uses his power more obviously there.

Laura then told us that she had looked up the word ‘gloaming’, having always understood it to be a Scottish word, but she had found it to be derived from Anglo-Saxon. Pat and Angela went on to wonder what was meant by ‘dragon-sickness’ – was it greed or enchantment? Julie thought the Master of Lake-town, like Midas had starved because of his greed for gold.

Carol sent the following thoughts about coming to the end of the story:
“Of course it gets more serious as it goes on with the heroic-type Thorin getting killed and Bilbo starting to write poetry and losing his reputation, which meant something far different in the Shire than it did in the heroic wild lands where he gained a reputation. But he still says ‘thank goodness’ to only being ‘a little fellow in the wide world again’.

When I say I like the ending of the story it isn’t because I’ve finished something I didn’t like but because from Thorin’s death onwards Tolkien seems so affectionate towards Bilbo and partings are always poignant. More poignant is Balin’s visit with Gandalf to Bilbo years later and then Balin perishing in Moria, from the cosy comfort of Bilbo’s parlour recalling old campaigns over a pipe to dying fighting orcs. The point, going back, about ‘the eagles are coming’ has a bit of a significance for me. It isn’t only that the theme is repeated from TH to LotR but when Pippin says: ‘the eagles are coming’ he also says something like: but that was Bilbo's story long ago. Unlike Sam, during that magical exchange outside Shelob's Lair, while Sam realises he's in the same story as Beren, Pippin doesn't make the same connection about being in the same story, and I think that's a crucial indicator to their respective developments. Of course the end rewards them both: Sam to the Undying Lands and Pippin buried with high mortals in Rath Dinen says it all.”

So, as the sun sank into the West, we too ended our journey through TH and looked forward to starting Farmer Giles of Ham at the next meeting.

Mike’s seven-league boot research so far:
“Regarding Gargantua and Pantagruel. It tells the adventures of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, who are giants, and was written between 1532 and 1564. I remember reading this as an idle adolescent; it was a large book and several inches thick; it had engraving illustrations and was probably a first print of the English translation with illustrations by Gustave Doré in 1854. It was too old to be the 1922 version of illustrations by Joseph Hémard. Anyway, the complete set of works by Rabelais comprised five volumes and was exciting reading for me at that time, being full of sex, violence, 'earthy' humour and political satire - most of which I only dimly understood.
I thoroughly recommend reading the books; if I could read them especially as a 17-year old, then they can't be difficult!.
However I haven't yet traced any reference to magic boots in G & P, although by next meeting I will have checked all the books.
The earliest trace of magic boots I can find at the moment is a French fairy story written by Charles Perrault from French oral tradition, Le Petit Poucet (1695), where the tiny hero is the youngest of seven children in a poor woodcutter's family. His greater wisdom compensates for his smallness of size. When the children are abandoned by their parents, he finds a variety of means to save his life and the lives of his brothers. After being threatened and pursued by a giant, Poucet steals the magic seven-league boots from the sleeping giant." (Wiki)
It seems that Perrault is credited with being the originator of the literary genre, the fairy story.
Apparently there is a story of Jack the Giant Killer which puts Jack contemporaneous with King Arthur and is suppose to include boots which enable the wearer to stride huge distances. First appearance of this story is 1708. Jack is a Cornishman who befriends King Arthur's son and later goes off, as a Knight, to kill English giants.”

11:57 AM  
Blogger Admin said...

Traditional nursery rhyme (from Middle ages)

Little boy blue,
come blow your horn
The sheep's in the meadow,
the cow's in the corn
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?

Under the haystack fast asleep

Will you wake him? Oh no, not I
For if I do he will surely cry

[edit] Alternate versions
Many versions do not include the last two lines, ending the rhyme at "fast asleep."

Eugene Field. 1850–1895

5. Little Boy Blue

THE little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
The little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new, 5
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.

"Now don't you go till I come," he said,
"And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue—

Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place,
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.

5:20 AM  

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