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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reading Group meeting 23/5/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

I have to post this in 3 chunks. So here goes:
Present at the meeting; Laura, Ian, Anne, Pat, Angela, Chris, Mike, Julie, Vicki, Tim, (Carol by email) and me (Lynn).
Well, we’re back! This afternoon we began another reading of LotR, with the Prologue and Chapter 1. In line with Carol’s comment, for the benefit of those of us who remember TV in the late 60s and early 70s, let’s acknowledge that any mention of *The Prologue* echoes, for us, with Frankie Howerd’s voice at the start of Up Pompei. Apologies that this will mean nothing to our younger members, but now it’s out of the way.
Laura led us into our discussion with her observation that even before the Prologue, the Ring poem, set on its own as part of the front matter of the book, sets an ominous tone before all the details, and then the jollity of the Party. Ian remarked that, since he had been reading the Anglo-Saxon Riddles, he wondered if the Ring poem counts as just such a Riddling verse.
Anne said she was struck by the first Road poem and its clear analogy to life as a journey.
Pat and Anne and Angela picked up the point that Tolkien makes about the difference between allegory and applicability – one being the author’s intent, the other being the reader’s interpretation. Angela went on to note the way that Tolkien seems irresistibly drawn, in LotR, into the Older World that he described in the Silmarillion.
Pat noted the inevitable influence of War on Tolkien’s writing as he had lived through 2 in various ways.
Mike introduced the first of several provocative questions. He asked if we agreed with the first statement of the Prologue : ‘This book is largely concerned with Hobbits.’? Laura responded with a ‘Yes’, remarking that the story traces the maturity of the hobbit race. Tim agreed, because Frodo and Sam take the Ring, and bring about its eventual destruction with the aid of Gollum – all hobbits. Mike went on to point out that the hobbits are removed from hobbit lands, but Pat commented that the story is about how they develop. Mike then asked why we hadn’t been focussing on that during the previous years of your discussions. Angela recalled seeing the story described as ‘hobbito-centric’ but couldn’t at that moment recall where she had seen this. Later by email she sent this: Re "hobbito-centric": In Tolkien's Letters 181 (draft letter to Michael Straight) he says that the tale of Aragorn and Arwen is part of the essential story and is only put into an appendix because "it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be 'hobbito-centric', that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble." [Angela’s emphasis].
Tim went on considering how the story could be defined in this way by remarking that if LotR is ‘our version’ of the Red Book, then the story must be told from a hobbit point of view.
Still on hobbits, but from a different angle, Anne observed that 3 types of hobbit are described and she saw these as conforming to the 3 types of human forms – endomorphs, ectomorphs and mesomorphs. Vicki commented of the uniqueness of hobbit feet.
Mike then proposed that if the story is actually hobbit-centric, it is also remarkably physically ‘human-sized’. We took a moment to adjust to this idea. Mike’s point was that the story doesn’t seem always to

8:28 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

acknowledge the problem of the hobbits’ small stature, they can walk as far as the Men etc. Chris commented that the hobbits fulfil other purposes than being warriors, and I noted that they need the Men to rescue them in the snows of Caradhras.
At this point Ian asked ‘which book?’ This took us rather by surprise, but as he pointed out, LotR is not just divided into 3 volumes, each volume is divided into Books, so did the statement refer just to Book 1 of FotR? And Mike then wondered about the statement in the context of LotR being originally created as a sequel to The Hobbit. Chris wondered if the statement had been included as a ‘sales pitch’; and Tim reminded us that in early drafts of LotR even Butterbur and Strider/Trotter were going to be hobbits.
The problem of the sedentary hobbit heroes like Frodo and Bilbo cropped up at this point, but Julie reminded us that C.S. Lewis has an unfit middle-aged hero in his science fiction stories, and Laura wondered if C.S.L. and J.R.R.T. were reflecting themselves in these unlikely heroes.
Pat was interested in the long life-span of hobbits and Tim observed that being half as tall they live twice as long!
Anne took us back to the connection between Tolkien and War in the Primary World as she pondered on the possibility that trenches were the origin of ‘smials’. Tim thought it possible and quote: ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and …’
Pat then asked why the Ring needed so many bearers? It was interesting to tot them up, because Julie commented that apart from the obvious ones, Deagol too was briefly a bearer for about a minute.
Pat then asked why Bilbo had told 2 stories about the finding of the Ring. Julie remarked that he had had to do a good deal of back-revising to make the story of The Hobbit align with LotR. Angela observed that Gandalf’s suspicions had been aroused by Bilbo acting so out of character as to lie.
Angela then went on to consider the story of the founding of the Shire and Laura noted that Bree is still important as a place inhabited by hobbits – a fact studiously ignored in the film.
Mike then asked if we thought the Ring was good or evil. Some of us had tackled this question a very long time ago, and Tim remarked that Sauron had invested much of his power in it, so whatever he was the Ring must also be.
Anne was surprised by Bilbo’s anger at relinquishing the Ring. Chris remarked that this anger harks back to Isildur’s reluctance to give it up.
Angela noticed the reference to the forgotten ‘Guardians’ but saw this a sign that the presence of the protecting Rangers had been known.
Laura then wondered about the identity of the stranger in the inn who was in the Shire ‘on business’. We considered what kinds of business were carried on in the Shire, and Laura concluded that he must be a commercial traveller dealing in agricultural materials.
Mike expressed his interest in Gandalf’s statement to Bilbo before the party ‘stick to your plan – your whole plan mind – and I hope it will turn out for the best, for you, and for all of us.’ Mike saw in this a range of future echoes, and a great deal of drama.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Julie came up with an observation about the colours and plants in Bilbo’s garden. The red and gold flowers of nasturtians, and the snapdragons were, she thought an interesting ‘tribute’ to Smaug!
The unauthorised excavations of Bag End drew Angela’s attention, and Julie remarked that the vandalism reminded her of teenagers generally. Laura thought the description referred at an underlying level to a sense of middle-aged shock. Mike suggested that it illuminated a less pleasant side to hobbits, and Ian said it repeated the situation Bilbo confronted on his return in The Hobbit when his home was again being ransacked.
Tim found an echo of Grond in Frodo’s injunction, ‘Lock the door, and don’t open it to anyone today, not even if they bring a battering ram.’ which, he thought, implied an Orcish potential about hobbits.
Laura wondered how much eves-dropping had been going on when Gandalf was talking to Bilbo and then Frodo – was Merry listening in the kitchen?
Mike noted the description of Frodo fidgeting with something in his pocket and Angela wondered if it was a symptom of the Ring getting to him.
Julie had discovered that 22nd Sept. in 1938 fell on a Thursday and she picked up the idea of Thursday’s child in the old rhyme ‘Monday’s child is fair of face …’ we all joined in ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’.
After this flashback to our childhoods, Mike suggested that the story made up about Gandalf, that he had spirited Bilbo away, or worse, and was a trouble-maker, could be regarded as a cautionary tale for (hobbit) kinds about keeping society stable. Chris also observed that the story of the drowning of Drogo and his wife gave rise to the creating of another story.
Julie thought the removal of Frodo to Bag End rescued him from and ‘institutionalised existence in Brandy Hall among hoards of relatives. Tim remarked on a society that enjoyed hearing stories retold, while Angela noted that there’s always one person in a group that will look for the worst interpretation.
We agreed to read only the next chapter, The Shadow of the Past for our next meeting because it is long and detailed.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Carol’s comments:

‘The Long Expected Party’ is obviously a mirror of 'The Unexpected Party' of TH. Thrust right into 'legend', albeit local legend and story being very important ideas in LotR. Words that become very true, even if at the time it's only hobbit curmudgeonliness about Bilbo’s 'wealth and youth'. 'It will have to be paid for...trouble will come of it.' C.S.L. might have thought there was too much hobbit talk but I like it. Not only do we get a bit of background but it's also homely before hard times to come. And we get some measure of the hobbits too.

Gaffer's comments on Sam being 'crazy about stories of the old days...Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters - meaning no harm, mark you... elves and dragons...cabbages and potatoes are better for you and me". Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you'll land in trouble ...' speaks volumes about hobbit attitudes and Sam. Reading, writing and adventures are ok for the rich. They're allowed to be eccentric but not a gardener like Sam who never does become eccentric but who does land himself in big trouble. And he's the youngest son, often the achiever of quests in tales.

Hobbits are also deferential, never questioning that some are rich while other are poor. This lack of inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness though is why it's hobbits who achieve the quest without succumbing to the temptation to take the ring for power, even though Frodo is one of the 'betters'.

A bit of the old whimsy from TH creeps in with the description of Gandalf when it says 'hobbits were easy-going with children in the matter of sitting up late'. One gets the impression that Tolkien was too. I think he liked children very much even if they did need 'a lot of provender'. I also think this is the kind of party J.R.R.T. would have liked.

‘Engrossing entertainment' a pun on 144 guests? All versions include Bilbo’s speech. 'I don't know half of you' does indeed come 'to a compliment' but a very backhanded one. Only Rory Brandybuck guesses that Bilbo 'is off again' but a few pages later calls him a 'capital fellow' after the present of Old Winyards. Nice bit of writing, again a bit of levity to carry us into very dark places later on. The presents left for various hobbits - mildly amusing but could be seen as padding, or Tolkien fumbling about where to go next.

Here the Ring is still the ring in lower case but already it is wielding its influence over Bilbo, reluctant to let it go. 'I butter that has been scraped over too much bread': the wraithing process is happening. I don't understand Gandalf's comments that nobody will read Bilbo’s book and why he's kept it quiet. Merry admits later that he's sneaked a look; why did he have to sneak?

Bilbo’s getting waspish with Gandalf pestering him about the 'ring'. I think Gandalf and Tolkien are both the same in only suspecting about the ring.

After the tension Bilbo feels immediate relief at leaving the ring, probably caught just in time before it really took hold. The 1st rendition of the road song - eager feet - going on another journey with dwarves.

Hobbits say things about stuff they know nothing of and very often hit close to the mark. So when Lobelia S-B says: 'you'll live to regret it,' although she's only trying to be mean, she hits the nail on the head. Again, the hobbits aren't far off the mark when they call Gandalf 'a nuisance and a disturber of the peace' and of 'spiriting Bilbo away' and plotting with Frodo. The chapter ends with Tolkien probably not knowing where Gandalf was off to in such a hurry and probably didn't write again for a long time.

I love the idea of Tolkien writing it being like the first-time reader - not knowing what's going to happen next.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

He he! "...a lot of provender" indeed! Thank Crunchie Half Term is nearly over!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

I think I can see why Merry would have had to sneak a look at Bilbo's book. I know I'm very secretive about work in progress. I really don't like people looking at it until I've got it just right. Perhaps this is the point of the remark. Also, I can see that by this time secrecy and cunning would have begun to be part of Bilbo's habitual attitude, on account of the influence of the Ring.

Re: teenagers. I didn't mean they're all without exception boors or vandals, or would rip up the floor-boards in the quest for one's hidden hoard of Hobnobs, or knock holes in the walls searching for one's beer-money or anything like that. Most of them are OK. Even if bringing them up does indeed take a lot of provender!

(I just this minute intercepted another fridge raid. It's nearly supper time, for heaven's sake!)

9:55 AM  

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