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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading Group meeting 25/4/09

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

25.4.09
Present at the meeting: Anne, Laura, Tim, Ian, Vicki, Julie, Mike, Angela, Chris, Pat, Carol (by email), and me (Lynn).
Our usual lively meeting began with Ian showing us his new online discovery – word clouds. He told us that there is a website that creates these strange and fascinating diagram/images out of the text of books. I certainly didn’t understand quite how the process works, but the effect is startling and very interesting, as the web ‘engine’ sorts through all the words in a chosen book and creates a cloud-like diagram in which the largest word is the one that is most prominent in the chosen text. Ian had chosen the 3 volumes of LOTR to be done separately, and it was perhaps no surprise that FRODO came out as the most prominent word in FotR. The result for The Two Towers was clear enough for us to guess the book when Ian challenged us, but the result for RotK was not what we might have expected and generated some discussion. It’s a fun thing to do, and could be really interesting as a way of creating posters.
After this we moved on to our topic for the afternoon which was symbolism in any favourite poem from FotR. Anne said she hadn’t prepared a poem but instead had brought Ean Begg’s pamphlet, from which she proposed to read his analysis of the position of the feminine in LotR. I confess to having almost exploded with barely suppressed anger at the opinions offered in the pamphlet. Thankfully, everyone else was far more restrained and offered more considered and balanced comments on what we had heard.
It was Ian who took us on into the poetry with his choice of ‘Ho, ho, ho, to the bottle I go’. Its simple form suited to this drinking song, it also reveals a good deal about the naiveté of the hobbits simply from its placement in the text. Tim wondered if it might have been influenced by the piratical ‘Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum’, which is also a drinking song.
Tim went on to discuss his own choice of poem – ‘The Road goes ever on and on’, which, he said, sums up the story. We considered the Road as a metaphor for Life and as the pattern of life happening, and Julie found a poem similar to it in her book of William Morris stories, so, as she remarked, it is likely that Tolkien knew that. Mike picked up Tim’s idea about the Road as Life and asked if life does just happen to you? Tim agreed that there are choices suggested in the poem, and Pat, Julie and Anne all recalled the Robert Frost poem ‘Road Not Taken’. Ian observed, however, that there is a lack of choice when the Road joins the ‘larger way’.
This was Carol’s choice too. She suggested that Tolkien was obviously thinking about Road poems for a long time, starting with The Hobbit, in which there are ‘roads’ that go ever on and on, until in LotR there is just one road and that is capitalized. Carol notes that in LotR ‘The Road goes ever on and on’ has 3 versions – the first is Bilbo’s when he leaves after the party and its ‘tone is enthusiastic and lighthearted. Bilbo is pursuing it ‘with eager feet’ – because he has just relinquished the Ring, which puts a real spring in his step.
The second rendition is virtually the same except for one subtle difference: ‘eager feet’ become ‘weary feet’ because Frodo has taken on the burden of the Ring and he doesn’t know where he’ll end up or what will become of him. Shortly after this Frodo makes his famous Road speech.
The third rendition is very reflective and comes at Rivendell on the return journey when the hobbits are recounting their adventures to Bilbo who is very old now and he too has ‘weary feet’. The verve of his outward journey has gone in favour of the comforts of home. This could also apply to Frodo.
Carol goes on ‘The road is a physical image of going on an actual journey, and especially in Middle-earth where there are few roads like the treat east-west road that runs from at least Rivendell to the Grey Havens, traversed by dwarves and Elves wishing to sail into the west, and a few other travellers like rangers. The road and the journey are also often used as metaphors for life and death. The road could lead us anywhere, especially if we don’t take care where we tread. Or one can travel the road in one’s head rather like Tolkien did and create something wonderful and beautiful.’
The poem turns out to have quite complex metaphysical or psychological potential.
However, Chris led us on to a new consideration – that all the poems he had looked at seem to be prophetic so, he wondered, is the ‘Road’ predicting the situation at the Council of Elrond? He also suggested that the mention of lying under a tree in ‘Ho, ho, ho’ may be similarly looking ahead to the hobbits falling asleep under the Willow; while the second stanza of ‘Upon the hearth’ is echoed later at the Grey Havens.
Pat noted that besides the ‘prophetic’ poems, there are many that are plainly narrative, either filling in backstories, or, as Mike and Angela remarked, setting out history.
Angela noted (with acknowledgement that the poem was an obvious choice for her as she specialises in Aragorn’s biography) the many levels to be found in ‘All that is gold’. Julie remarked that it is quoted by Gandalf in the letter he leaves at Bree. Angela defined the use of ‘ashes’ and ‘shadow’ as constant elements in the vocabulary that is used to define evil in LotR. It was noted that the mention of ‘deep roots’ represents age, but as Tim observed, the phrase has symbolic significance, as a reminder of the connection between the White Tree and the line of Numenor.
Tim nominated 2 more poems for consideration – The Merry Old Inn, and The Troll Song, asking if they were more than just entertainment. Julie thought Tolkien was having fun with different forms. I mentioned that The Troll Song as we have it in FotR is only the latest version of the poem that Tolkien started writing when he was at Leeds University. The early form has Christian references suited to the pre-war cultural context and was published in that form in Songs for the Philologists. It lost the ‘churchyard’ and ‘Sunday’, during its many revisions.
Vicki asked about water symbolism and whether there were any instances that could be seen as symbolising baptism. Some of us couldn’t recall any such poem, but Julie remarked that streams and rivers were often associated with baptismal imagery. Angela picked up the watery theme and as we explored watery images other ideas came forward.
Angela commented on the unchanging surface of Mirrormere that reflects a scene that doesn’t exist in the time and space of the hobbits’ journey. Tim noted that it should be compared and contrasted with the similarly unnatural pool at the West Gate. Julie observed that Goldberry is surrounded by water-lilies and their cup-like shapes may be read as female symbols.
Chris saw the Bath Song as having prophetic elements, and it was also noted that on the recording of him reading this poem, it makes him laugh. Mike asked then, how does Pippin know Bilbo’s favourite bath song? We had no answer for that.
Angela remarked then that in the sad song of Nimrodel, especially in stanza 4, the maiden and the river seem to be one, interchangeable, and undifferentiated. While most of the poem narrates a story from the history of the Elves, the close link between Nimrodel and the stream repeats in a different ‘key’ the identity of Goldberry, who is the River Woman’s daughter, a water spirit drawn to land by Tom Bombadil.
We noticed the reference to Nimrodel going ‘light as linden-leaf’, and we identified the linden as the beautiful English lime tree, noting that it was known as the linden in German, hence the famous Unterdenlinden in Berlin. Ian added that one should never park a motorbike under lime/linden tree in summer as they drip copious amounts of sticky sap or honey-dew from their leaves.
Laura picked up the song ‘O Wanderers’, that Frodo sings in the Old Forest, and suggested that it is intended as a charm against the woods, even though Tolkien himself actually loved trees. She wondered if it was predicting or commenting on the loss of trees in Warwickshire because of its disturbing last line. It is, of course, a deeply unwise thing to stand in a sentient forest and predict ‘all woods must fail’, as Merry points out. It may be that at this point Frodo represents the thoughtlessness and self-interest of otherwise sensible and sensitive people until Merry, and then Tom Bombadil educate him. Tim, however, picking up Chris’s earlier theme of prophecy, wondered if the song actually prophesied the situation with Saruman, before whose industrialisation the woods really did fail, at least until Treebeard got moving. Julie took a less bleak view and wondered if the song simply looked forward to getting to the end of the Old Forest.
Laura turned back to bleakness at this point to consider the Wight’s incantation ‘Cold be hand…’, saying it made her think of a shattered planet with just one tomb on it. This picked up an initial digression at the start of the afternoon when Ian drew our attention to a programme about C.S. Lewis that read his Narnia novels in terms of science fiction. It was noted that Morgoth is still enduring banishment in the Outer Darkness but is predicted to return, and Angela reminded us that the wights had been stirred up by the raise of the Lord of the Nazgul. Tim and Laura lightened the mood by reprising their joke about Barrow wight/ Barry Wight.
Finally, I offered Frodo’s and Sam’s elegies for Gandalf for consideration because I thought they included some symbolic elements, including structural ones. I commented on the use of ‘grey’ in the first stanza as the colour most associated with Gandalf, and that besides cloaking his power, in the grey evening it allows him to pass unnoticed – nothing but his footsteps are heard. I thought the whole first stanza implied a sense of rootlessness that may not have been significant to Gandalf, but seems to have been so for a home-loving hobbit. I thought stanza 4 set up important contrasts between the wizard’s power symbolised by his deadly sword, healing hand, trumpet voice, burning brand, and his physical appearance. Mike remarked on the significance of the trumpet, and especially on the interesting and complex Christian colouring to the use of ‘pilgrim’, which we all thought could be relevant to Gandalf. Further contrasts in the next stanza end with the potentially metaphoric use of ‘thorny staff’, less perhaps a staff of blackthorn than a symbol of the hardships of Gandalf’s many journeys.
Bringing the afternoon almost full circle, I proposed that Sam’s little verse expressed the ‘completeness’ of Gandalf as its first couplet is ‘perfect’ or ‘masculine’ rhyme, while its second couplet is ‘feminine’ rhyme with the falling stresses of ‘showers’/ ‘flowers’. Thus we see symbolically Gandalf’s masculine and ‘feminine’ sides.
We agreed that we would do one more meeting on poetry – so next time will be ANY favourite Tolkien poem. After that we will start LotR, beginning with the Prologue and Chapter 1. Chris proposed that we should, where relevant, read Unfinished Tales in parallel. This was agreed but only for those of us that have them already. We suggested that our newer, less experienced members, should not attempt to doo this but should concentrate on the main text.
Anne and Laura put forward the suggestion that we should consider doing one or more sessions at some later time on Norse mythology to fill in our understanding of Tolkien’s use of this. We all accepted this suggestion. I followed it up by proposing that as it is such a massive topic we might begin a bit of reading around it whenever we have the time and/or inclination.
However, next time – it’s any favourite poem.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Tom Bombadil reminds me - that perennial chestnut "Who is Tom Bombadil?" (which as we all know is to Tolkienistas as the question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" allegedly was to the schoolmen of old) - when I read the Tom Bombadil poems in preparation for this session, I found it very refreshing to be reminded that when Frodo asks Goldberry "Who is Tom Bombadil?" she answers him: "He is." So there you go. We can only bow our heads before the mystery! 8-)

3:13 PM  

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