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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reading Group meeting 28/3/09

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

28.3.09
At the meeting: Julie, Mike, Ian, Tim, Laura, Angela, Christopher, Claire, Carol (by email) and me (Lynn).

We began our discussion of Leaf by Niggle with Julie’s observation of the story’s heavyweight allegory, even though, as Carol observed, ‘we all know Tolkien’s attitude towards allegory’. However, we have noticed before that this seems to be directed primarily at early attempts by readers to allegorise LotR which is actually a medieval romance. Ian admitted he had looked up the text of LbN on Wikipedia (murmurs of astonishment were heard!), but in fact the Wiki entry summed up the range of allegorical possibilities very well (causing more murmurs of astonishment!) We all looked at one another and wondered if there was anything else left to discuss; but we found a great deal as we took apart the layers of allegory that the story seems to address: the religious, the artistic, the subcreationist, the eschatological (how to die well), and life and death.
Mike thought the story read as statement about Tolkien’s discontentment and disillusionment at his work not being appreciated. This got us into a consideration of dates – comparing the date of composition of LbN (1938-39) against the stage of composition that LotR had reached. Tim saw the story as, in part, a railing against institutions, including the possibility that Tolkien was disenchanted with the institutional aspect of University life, but also saw in it his fear of not being able to finish LotR.
Laura said that the Institutional episode reminded her of Orwell’s 1984 but Mike did not see this episode as a reflection of the elimination of the individual in society in 1984; instead, he saw the Institution as Purgatory. Laura, however, thought that the process by which Niggle gets used to things read as very totalitarian. Chris saw an opposition between Niggle being allowed to be creative and the suppression of individualism. Tim thought he noticed overtones of Stalinism, so too did Carol.
Laura had been looking up some of the names Atkins, Perkins and Tompkins which we noted are diminutives. This creates a tension in the naming of the petty beaurocrat Tompkins, who is described by Carol as a philistine! Laura wondered if Atkins the schoolmaster was a sign of Tolkien being ironic, and Mike considered that it might be a reference to Tolkien’s day job as opposed to his creativity. Chris noted that Atkins at least preserves one leaf from Niggle’s tree and this is positive. Niggle’s name was a word first first noted in 18thC, and Angela commented on the image of ‘niggling away’ at something.
Julie (naturally) picked up the problem of Parish always intruding, and symbolising the pressures of society. Laura was interested in the idea of the Inspector who checks up on homes and gardens, remarking that when she lived in Guernsey the local constables, not policemen but specially appointed officials, did in fact go around the island checking to see that people kept their gardens on order! Carol at all points condemned Parish for his complete preoccupation with practicalities and his selfishness.
Laura wondered if the early part of the story described Tolkien’s mode of working, including its many interruptions. Mike and I considered the possibility that Niggle’s impatience at the demands of Parish, and his ‘re-education’ in the Institution were an allegorical rendering of the Catholic concept of ‘good works’ – that one could achieve Redemption by doing good during one’s life, as opposed to the Protestant/Anglican belief the this can only be achieved through the Grace of God. We talked about the medieval obsession with good works such as chantry chapels, and Julie added the medieval belief in the benefit of pilgrimage as an act of piety.
Angela and I picked up a religious context for the First and Second Voices, wondering if these represented 2 of the 4 Daughters of God – the First Voice being Justice, or Righteousness, and the Second Voice being Mercy (Misericordia). Tim thought they deserved a Freudian reading as the Ego and Superego, while Laura saw them as angels, but also as clear depictions of the behaviour of contemporary doctors and nurses. Carol remarked that they reminded her of the theatre of the Absurd – faceless abstractions in surreal situations.
Tim moved us on from Niggle’s supposed neglect of Parish and saw this from a more political angle, suggesting Niggle was like Winston Smith in 1984 – undergoing re-education in the Institution via useful work.
Mike picked up the autobiographical thread at this point and asked ‘where was Niggle’s wife?’
Chris saw a rejection of material goods in the story, and both he and Mike noted that what Niggle had by way of creative talent was not what was wanted.
Ian took us on into the late part of the story when he remarked on the benefit of discipline, which seems to suggest that Niggle doesn’t need to complete the picture because he finds it IS completed. Chris observed that Niggle needs Parish to complete it. Laura remarked with reference to the late scenes that she saw Jesus clearly being included in the story in the form of the shepherd. Chris and Angela suggested that the Communion was presented in the form of the biscuit and the glass of wine.
Mike and I succeeded in stalling the discussion completely as we launched into a consideration of the Tree and Niggle’s tree in terms of Plato’s forms. Sadly, our philosophy specialist, Anne, wasn’t with us, but we suggested that it was possible to see the Tree in terms of Plato’s forms and the transmission of this concept of a single perfect form into Christianity through the neoplatonism of early church fathers such as St. Augustine, who recast the idea in terms of God creating the perfect form of which all others are mere reflections or diminished copies. Tim picked this up with his suggestion that Niggle’s canvas is Sub-creation, in Tolkien’s terms. Mike then posed the question – was the Tree existing, or did Niggle’s painting make it where it was? Chris extended this, asking did it take Niggle’s painting to make it? Carol extended the Platonic theme when she suggested that the episode with The Tree is like Niggle’s emergence from Plato’s shadow cave into bright reality, and she wondered if the absence of Parish would have meant that Niggle would not have his tree to ‘counteract the mundane’. Take away the threads of Parish memory and Niggle wouldn’t have realised what art was.’
Ian tackled the problem of the forest as being a place one is always heading towards even when there. In illustration of this difficult concept, Ian produced a picture of Richard Dadd’s ‘Fairy Feller’, a typically weird painting by Dadd full of disturbing, Bosch-like fairy creatures and grotesques. The picture does seem to capture a sense of collapsed distance, where everything exists on the same plane at the same time.
Getting us out of Dadd’s troubled imagination, Tim proposed that Niggle is The Creator, and the journey he takes is a journey into his own imagination. Claire wondered if the scenes of his journey represented Niggle’s idea of heaven. Carol declared that it would be her idea of heaven.
Angela noticed the range of things Niggle does and doesn’t do right at the start of the story. Tim picked up the sequence of what people do, leading to the fate of the leaf, and the problem of Niggle finishing the painting all of which points towards the desire to leave something to be remembered, or remembered by. Laura asked, why a tree? Claire observed that Niggle only seems to be able to paint leaves. Mike said it reflected Tolkien’s love of trees, Tim saw symbolism in it – from its deep roots it joins earth and sky. Julie saw this as symbolic of renewing and as a microcosm of life, including fairies!
I didn’t get round to the thought at the time but it occurs now that the philology implied by ‘leaf’, ‘leaves’, ‘leaving’ seems highly significant.
I went on to ask - what about the mountains? Chris thought they represented heaven, Laura thought they were another goal to achieve. Angela pointed out that the mountains of valinor are much higher than normal ones and the land of the Gods. She also said that Parish gazing at the golden flower reminded her of Lothlorien.
Being provocative, I then asked – what is this tonic given to Niggle and Parish? Mike suggested it represents death as a healing. Laura remarked that the fountain image suggested a healing spring like Lourdes. Ian then posed another question – is it the spring water that is beneficial, of the act of drinking? A subtle but important distinction implying the difference between reality and faith. Tim drew out the connection between the water of the spring, the Word, and the living Water while Julie remarked that the association of a Tree and a Spring in The Book of Revelation, and elsewhere. Angela observed a similar association between Fangorn forest and the Entwash, which is so refreshing and reviving.
Tim went on to suggest that the strange Forest in LbN might represent similarly inconclusive regions in Tolkien’s writing, while Ian suggested that the Mountains in the story might be seen as representing a cultural inheritance. Mike asked in turn what effect WW2 was having on Tolkien’s writing as it was happening. Ian suggested that Tolkien saw the War spreading out in the same way that he envisaged evil spilling out of any gaps in the mountain ‘fence’ around Mordor.
We went on to consider the topic of trains in the light of Tolkien’s aversion to machinery. It was observed that the first train is not described in any detail, but the second train is brand new and the description echoes the Victorian view and scale of trains. Julie thought the description of the Driver defined him as the Grim Reaper. Mike asked why Tolkien wrote this story and Ian wondered if it was a kind of exorcism for Tolkien. Carol took a look at the idea of the stations as places of arrival and departure – boundary places that could be associated with shamans.
If this report of our discussions reads as rather fragmented, it is a true reflection of the way the afternoon went. We found a huge amount to talk about, but much of it was quite philosophical as we wrestled with the layers of allegory, and we kept coming back and picking up threads so as to knit in new points. In a few instances I have gathered these together into paragraphs to show how ideas developed.
This story marked the end of our current wanderings through the shorter fiction and we began to consider what we wanted to read next, having already agreed to try a topic or theme. As we opened up the discussion, it became very clear that everyone felt a deep desire to ‘go home’ – to go back again to LotR. In fact we decided to investigate the lost kingdom of Arnor – the Northern Kingdom, taking in any of Tolkien’s works that might shed more light on this ancient and ruined realm. It was with a good deal of delight that we looked forward to going back to Middle-earth. See you there!

Blog update:
Julie sent the following in response to our debate about the TREE/tree:
A Fellow of Oxford said 'God,
It has frequently struck me as odd
That that sycamore tree
Simply ceases to be
If there's no-one about in the quad!'
Diane also queried in conversation later whether we had addressed the connection between The Tree and the Cross (the tree on which Christ was crucified, with especial reference to ‘The Dream of the Rood’ poem. Strange that we never thought of that!)

4:02 AM  

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