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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reading Group meeting 14/3/09

1 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

14.3.09
at the meeting – Pat, Laura, Anne, Tim, Ian, Julie, Vicki, Angela, Chris, Lynn, Carol by email

We were discussing Smith of Wootton Major once we had decided on the venue for our Reading Day dinner. Ian had also come up with a cracking idea for a parallel text display of extracts from Beowulf and The Hobbit for display in the Library. Based on this idea, we hope to have a Reading Day display.

Pat started the discussion with her comment on the size of the Cake. She wondered just how big it really was when judged by the size of Marks and Spencer’s party cakes. Fortunately, some of us had editions of the story complete with Pauline Baynes’s delightful illustrations, and we also noted that only the children partook of the Great Cake, while other people enjoyed exactly the same recipe, but without the trinkets and the fairy on the top.
Laura, Tim, and Ian, remarked on the rise of the Celebrity Chef in Wootton Major! Led by Ian we briefly digressed into Heston Blumenthal’s amazing ‘medieval feast’. Going further into experimental cookery (like each Cake), I mentioned Heston’s extraordinary lemon meringue pie, and eventually everyone ended up wanting lemon meringue pie for tea.
Pat noted that no women are involved in the baking and serving of the cake. Tim, being quietly ‘controversial’ (which it wasn’t!) said ‘of course!’
Laura and Anne picked up the notion of a communal kitchen, which was a very medieval and early modern institution. The kitchen at Wootton Major only appears to be used for baking the cake, and for practice runs presumably, but it may have been used by the village wives for baking their pies and pastries as the communal bakehouses of medieval villages and towns were.
After consuming quantities of biscuits to stave of the lemon meringue pie craving, we went back to the text. Tim remarked on insularity of the villagers who prefer a second-rate cook like Nokes over a dazzlingly talented apprentice like Alf. We noted that it was not to do with Alf’s youth, but rather sticking with one of their own in preference to an ‘outsider’. It was generally observed that English villages can still be like that. Pat, however, came up with an alternative explanation: did the villagers, she wondered, avoid Alf on account of the legend of King Alfred burning the cakes!
Julie was struck, as I was, with the description of the Hall in Wootton Major. We both thought it reminded us of a church, and especially of the churches at and after the Reformation, when the brightly painted interiors were whitewashed over, then stripped back during the reign of Mary I, then whitewashed again at the accession of Elizabeth. Julie noted that during the 19thC there was a move towards restoring the old whitewashed churches to their former medieval glory, revealing the bright paintings. There are still churches today where the medieval paintings remain preserved by that original coat of Tudor whitewash.
Ian continued the Christian theme when he drew out a parallel between Alf and a messiah figure, especially the ‘Lazarus’ moment when he changes the fat, old, idle, Nokes, bringing him ‘back to life’ metaphorically. Ian then noted that Nokes and Alf have different views of the children they discuss, according to their different natures. This is different to Nokes’s attitude to the fairy, which is based on ignorance and reflects the 19thC loss of knowledge about the true scale of fairy folk.
Vicki was interested in the weeping birch tree, and saw a further religious or spiritual allusion when Smith blesses the tree. Julie noted later by email the obvious idea of the weeping birch, like the weeping willow, and wondered if the birch was just Tolkien taking a familiar thing seriously and giving it an aetiological explanation. General comments were added about Kipling and the ‘Just So’ stories. Julie added a further note that “According to Kevin Crossley-Holland ("The Norse Myths") even the trees wept for Baldur. Including the birches, presumably”. Later Ian picked this passage up again, remarking the he had discovered Tolkien the tree-hugger, since Smith embraces the birch! [There is something unsettlingly subliminal about this.]
Pat remarked on the Perilous Realm, which is not like a fairytale place, and I mentioned the very unpleasant behaviour of the fairies in the fourteenth-century English poem Sir Orfeo where a mortal queen is abducted with threats of being torn limb from limb. The 19thC did us no favours with its twee little fairies because they obscured the stature and nature of the people of the Sidhe. Ian was also interested in the scale of the fairies as Tolkien depicts this division with the fairy doll and the full size Alf. Angela’s remark that Alf is often described in terms that are reminiscent of Aragorn, and particularly at his first appearance in Bree, confirmed the sense of the stature of Mr. Prentice.
Laura commented on Smith’s encounter with the elven warriors. She thought it was as if Tolkien is trying to get back to The Silmarillion. The chronology is relevant. He had been working on TS since WW1, he wrote and published SoWM in the second half of the 1960s. Pat referred us back to Sir Orfeo because she was interested in the fact that Smith sings, and there are elven ladies dancing in this poem, just as Orfeo sings, and fairy ladies dance in SoWM. This image of the queen and her elven ladies dancing is also in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale.
Pat went on to comment on the concept of the ‘hunting wind’. Ian observed then that the elements, like much else in the Perilous Realm, are encountered but not explained as Smith’s quest to get deeper into the Realm is thwarted, leading to increasing danger. Tim remarked, that Faery realms are never easy, or safe, to enter. He added that as we have so often noticed while reading the shorter fiction, Tolkien again seems to be revisiting themes. This is particularly significant in SoWM because it was almost the last story Tolkien wrote, so he would have been looking back at a vast body of work and picking up perhaps favourite themes, or ones not fully explored elsewhere.
Angela then remarked that Smith seems to be getting above himself as he travels more often into Faery, while Chris saw him as resembling Frodo and Bilbo as he refuses to make, let alone carry weapons, and is described as giving up the Star willingly in the end.
Julie wondered if Alf is just a dialect form of Anglo-Saxon Aelf. This was confirmed (but sadly I can’t remember who explained it). There are parts of London where the pronunciation of Alf sounded like Aelf/Elf within living memory.
We briefly considered what was meant by a ‘kilted skirt’ and decided it was not tartan and split, but was one which was gathered up over a belt in the ancient Scottish tradition (again rejecting the 19thC version promoted by Victoria and Albert). Anne noted by-the-bye that tartan originally got its colour from people sleeping on heather. [ouch!]
Ian then told us that his edition of the story included a serendipitous typo – it mentioned a ‘ray-star’. We were puzzled, so was Ian, but he looked it up on the web and found it was a star depicted with rays of light coming from it. We all said – you mean the ‘fay-star’, which he did – thus the typo. But as Ian pointed out, his definition is reminiscent of the Star of Earendil, which is worn on the brow, as Smith wears the fay-star.
This led Julie to tell us that paintings of St. Dominic conventionally show him with a star shining on his brow. She went on to say that Tolkien is known to have served at Mass for the Dominicans in Oxford. She then remarked on the pattern of dark cloaks over light robes – the Dominican outfit, and Alf’s dark green cloak hiding his identity. Anne said this is also reminiscent of Gandalf’s grey cloak over his white robe. I mentioned that dark cloaks over white robes was the medieval symbol of the sinful flesh covering the pure soul.
Angela, Chris, and Carol remarked on the King’s Tree – Chris thought it was like the White Tree in Minas Tirith, I thought it was like Telperion in TS, and Angela and Carol saw a similarity to Yggrasil – the World Ash tree in Norse legend. [Carol’s full, and very perceptive, comments follow this report] Tim took us into the realm of other large plants, and noted that the Beanstalk, from the pantomime, is thought to derive from the World Ash, as it takes mortals into the immortal realm. Ian noted the way the Beanstalk links folk tales and myth.
In a flurry of diversity, Julie wondered about the changes that do or don’t seem to happen while Smith is away. Chris noted that the lake is like the Dead Marshes, and Angela and Anne pondered the choice of children as an introduction to children to the idea of injustice and blame. Ian and Carol both noticed that although Smith is never the Cook, his role seems to be to enable regeneration. Laura thought that the description of his gates sounded like part of the Arts and Crafts movement. Pat and Tim were surprised that Smith does not kneel to the Queen and Tim wondered just how astonished you would have to be to be too astonished to kneel! They concluded that there could be times when ordinary courtesy is not enough, citing Gimli’s refusal to name the gift he desires from Galadriel. Laura had looked up the phrase ‘bees knees’ and found it from 18thC, and Julie drew our attention to another Nokes, Old Noakes of Bywater, apparently a regular at the Ivy Bush on the Bywater Road.
And so we have come full circle, from LotR via TSil., The Hobbit, Farmer Giles, and here in Wootton Major we are returned to the Shire – There and Back Again, just in time for Reading Day, and all the primroses are in flower.
Next time, we will embark on a journey from which there is no returning when we read Leaf by Niggle.


CAROL’S COMMENTS:
SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR Unwinhyman 1990, illus. Roger Garland.
p.4 master cook coming back from his holiday of merrier temper. p.5 and bringing back alf prentice, alf being a variant of elf - in Alan Garner lios alfar light elves. p.6 master cook goes off again, this time for good - the pull of faerie? p.9 Nokes: 'faires he thought one grew out of', which is a mistake most adults make, consigning fairies to the nursery. p.10 and he can't access with his mind the old recipes, being unimaginative. p.11 the old black box with 'dry and musty' spices could be a metaphor for lack of imagination. Prentice might have a lot to learn about being adult and ordinary everyday things but Prentice 'knows' far more than Nokes about imagination. p.12 Nokes sniggers at the idea of fairy and tells Alf 'you'll grow up some day' and views such things as children's amusements. p.13 even though Nokes scoffs at Faerie, is its being his idea to have a fairy queen on top of the cake an amelioration of his attitude, something in the back of his pragmatic mind being pushed forward? p.14 it seems like even the children regard fairies as fictional. Tolkien talks of the luck of which slice a child gets, an apportioned lot like life. p.17 the star being swallowed and taking its time to 'mature' reminds me of the parable of the mustard seed. Ask Julie. p.18 the boy's awakening to wonder and his strange words are like those spoken by many green in understanding like Sam in Cirith Ungol summoning Varda's intercession. The boy sings. p.20 the star makes his face and voice beautiful, the internal star of wonder becomes external as magic glows from him. The boy becomes Smith and makes ordinary things elegant. p.21 'but some things...he made for delight.' Yes, we have to be functional if we are to eat but let's not forget things made for their own sakes 'for delight'. Most of us lose this capacity. p.22 speaks little of his knowledge of Faerie because most ordinary folk would think him bonkers, rather like some fans of LotR are regarded. p.23 and only those close to him could see the star shining on his brow - reminiscent of Elessar? Those who had eyes to 'see'. pp. 23-4 'perilous country' Yes, there are many tales of the peril of mortals getting involves with fairies. Alan Garner called it 'spiritual gelignite'. p.24 Smith is open-minded and maybe the star made him like that and protected him but we have to be open-minded without a star and to be willing to enter the 'perilous realm' with just our own selves. p.26 wisely Smith starts by making tentative forays into Faerie - by way of looking at a tree or flower. See how easy it is just to take the first steps into wonder, not from a scientific point of view but by merely feeling the energy, beauty and growth of Nature - like Frodo feeling the Mallorn on Cerin Amroth - for its own sake, and wondering. It's like going through that invisible barrier into the poetic, of just being, and most of us are scared of it. p.27 here Tolkien uses Unlight as a proper noun and infers that war is ongoing with Darkness. Faerie isn't all twee beings fluttering about and singing. There's more behind the Rivendell of TH and the Shire of LotR guarded by rangers. If one dares to enter this domain one must be prepared to take the consequences, however much, like Sam, one wishes to enter. p.29 King's Tree reminiscent of Yggdrasil?
Some of these 'trips' of smith could be physical, mental or hallucenogenic. It was first published in 1967, the right time for the latter, though I'm sure Tolkien had no notion whatsoever of this. p.32 Faerie can be a sad place too as we learn all too well in LotR, reflecting the 'ordinary' world but there trees don't weep or talk, at least not to our dull senses. It also seems addictive, the wish to return despite the peril and sadness. p.33 it could almost be a dreamscape. Smith's like Beren coming through great terror and discovering the forest of Neldoreth. And everything is so much more vivid, like the hobbits' experience of Lorien. p.39 Alf chooses Harper as prentice, music being one of the staples of Tolkien's ideas on beauty. p.40 like the fellowship being greeted by Galadriel - sorry to make so many references to LotR but some of this seems like LotR writ small and ethereal, not physical. p.43 'better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of faery at all.' some like Nokes only 'glimpse'. Some like Smith are awakened. Alf the king? pp.48-50 this passing on of the star is like passing on a baton in a relay race to someone who will continue the journey of belief in Faerie so that it never quite disappears. p.51 the journey ends for Smith at sunset on an autumn evening. p.52 the great hall refurbished according to old custom, a solid old building given a new lease of life like Tolkien writing 'fairy' stories in a new way. Same with the black box being restored p.53 and filled with fresh pungent spices to be used by a new generation. p.54 like Bilbo with the ring, Smith gives up the star voluntarily. These magical things cannot be possessed just as anything shouldn't be possessed coz that's greedy and ungenerous. p.55 to pass on the star to Nokes' great grandson shows that dullness doesn't always run in a family and seems a kind of forgiveness for Nokes' lack of imagination. p.57 'daybreak to evening', a life's span. p.67 Nokes sounds like Ted Sandyman in the Green Dragon deriding the idea of walking trees. p.73 Nokes recalcitrant to the last.
This isn't an allegory, rather a series of metaphors on mythical thinking. Whatever state of high technology we mere mortals achieve, I think we still needs something spiritual and other in our lives whether we go walkabout, or perform sun dances, or got to church/synagogue/mosque/temple, or 'merely' indulge in fantasy, there's still a need for something 'other'. Trouble is whatever the need, most of us just don't go there and hence the planet is doomed.
Smith developed the right balance between the practical and the mythical and he had a sympathetic family which always helps. We don't have the balance any more.

4:32 AM  

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