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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Reading Group meeting 9/5/09

2 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

9.5.09
Present at the meeting: Julie, Pat, Tim, Ian, Mike, Vicki, Carol (by email), and me (Lynn).
We were quite a small group for this meeting, our second on Tolkien’s poetry, but we knew we would be missing a few friends and chose the topic accordingly, putting off starting our second excursion into LotR until we were more likely to be all together again.
The topic for this meeting was extended to include ANY of Tolkien’s poems.
Julie gave us a lovely introduction into the topic, having taken the trouble to bring in her laptop onto which she had copied the songs of the Tolkien Ensemble. So we began our meeting by listening to a beautiful setting of Galadriel’s ‘Naramië’ sung in the original Quenya. While it might occur to an absolute purist to wish that the singer had more of a mezzo-soprano sound, (Pat remarked that it could have been Goldberry singing), it was nevertheless a very lovely voice and the singer captured the intense pathos of the farewell.
Pat went on to remark that ‘you don’t need to know the words’ in order to feel the emotion of the song, and, as Diane later commented, this is a tribute to the composer. I also wonder if the beauty of the sound of Quenya also seems to carry something of the sense of nostalgia and regret – although that may simply come from knowing the backstory and the fate of the Elves.
Ian picked up Pat’s point and observed that the Quenya functions like medieval Latin, understanding is not necessary, it is enough to hear it, and even without knowing what each word means, the sound of the language conveys a deeper meaning to do with various kinds of status.
While we paused to consider this point, Ian went on to tell us that in the new X-Men Origins film, part of Wolverine’s escape involves a pick-up truck bearing the sticker ‘Not all who wander are lost’. It is a very apt quote for the character, apparently.
Mike then got us into the actual reading of poetry with his choice of Beren and Luthien as recited by Aragorn in FotR. Mike noted the complex rhyme scheme Tolkien uses based on a double quatrain with the 4th and 8th lines of each 8-line stanza rhyming so that what could have been short ballad-like stanzas are linked into a more stately longer form. Pat noted the use of ‘feminine’ rhymes for the 4th and 8th lines.
Mike went on to remark that later in the story (in RotK) Tolkien writes without rhyme at all in the prophecy of Malbeth the Seer which is heavily alliterative, and again in the words of the great Eagle ‘Sing now ye people…’Mike noted that this is written in the rhythm of a psalm. It was noted that the alliteration in Malbeth’s prophecy has less to do with Tolkien’s interest in Old English, than with situating the prophecy in an oral tradition in which alliteration would be used as a mnemonic device.
I asked what Mike thought of the vocabulary Tolkien uses in Beren and Luthien, and he said it seems to him ‘super-concentrated’. Tim remarked that it reminds him of the poetry of W.B. Yeats, it seems also reminiscent of the kind of late-Victorian poetry that was concerned myths and legends.
We changed direction after this as Pat gave us her reading of Tom Bombadil’s verses from FotR, not from the Collection of poems. She noted that Tom’s rhythmical style pervades not just his songs but his prose too, and she observed that his apparent nonsense rhymes contain narrative, and express his power, as well as being exuberant expressions of pure joy. Pat said Tom’s songs always to be in couplets, except for his incantation in the barrow and his description of meeting Goldberry. In Goldberry’s own song, Pat saw cosmic references, and thought the ‘spell’ against the wight had the tone of a trumpet call.
Mike asked if she thought Tolkien was writing Tom just for pleasure, to please his young children perhaps, although he could see Tom as the good power of the Forest. Julie had also brought in a beautiful card with a painting of Tom on it, and we were all rather astonished to see how young the artist had made his face. It gave a whole different idea of the ‘Oldest’ of beings.
Ian picked up Tom’s nonsense rhymes from another perspective, likening them to a peel of bells – an announcement in which the sound, rather than the actual words, is significant. Then from language as pure sound his songs move into story-telling then back to pure sound as the ‘external’ story moves on. Though I didn’t mention it at the time, it occurs to me to think now that those critics who are interested in the so-called Tolkien ‘heresy’ have material here with which to debate the issue of language with the modern mainstream linguists.
Mike, at this point, threw in one of his merry provocations when he asked if the episode in the Old Forest wasn’t just a case of hobbits on acid? Too many mushrooms of the wrong sort? Or did Tolkien have a job-lot of exclamation marks to use up? The ‘hobbits on acid’ theory was known to some of us, as was the magic mushroom proposal. The merriment moved us gently away from difficult discussions about linguistics.
Julie noted, from delving through the Index to her LotR, that Tom’s various rhymes and songs are listed as though they are all 1 song, and this reminded Tim that all the songs of Middle-earth are taken to be fragments and echoes of the Original Music. We explained the music of Creation to Vicki, who missed all our discussions on The Silmarillion.
Still thinking about Tom, Pat noted that he wears the Ikea colours! (groans and chuckles), Ian got us back to nature when he remarked that bright blue and yellow beside a river can only be a Kingfisher!
We managed to drag ourselves away from the enchantments of Tom and the Forest as Tim nominated the ents’ song ‘To Isengard’. He noted the frequent use of internal rhyme and the insistent marching rhythm that together gave the feeling of the martial awakening of something very old and powerful. We observed the ents’ use of ‘percussion’ as they stamp and slap their hands on their sides.
We went on to try to answer the question of why the Old Lists were so incomplete. Ian asked – why were there no dragons, Julie suggested: because dragons are associated with Morgoth. Tim asked: why no woses, I asked about the absence of wolves. Thrushes, Trolls and squirrels are also absent. I suggested that part of the answer might lie in the Old English Maxims, from which Tolkien derived Treebeard’s Old Lists. They include things and animals not mentioned by Treebeard, but leave out others.
Ian asked about the inclusion of serpents and Tim thought snakes were seen as benign although the difference between snakes and serpents could be the difference between good and bad forms.
We had almost all chosen a song or poem to talk about, except Vicki, so we urged her to choose or nominate something and she chose the Troll Song, as it is such fun. Mike said it reminded him of songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, and wondered at the use of ‘axing’ for ‘asking’. Some of us were convinced that it was an intentional and dialect form, not a quirk of Tolkien’s composition. Julie said the rhythm reminded her of folk songs like ‘A fox went out on a winter’s night’, and Mike remembered ‘ Froggy went a courting’.
I had waited till the end to introduce one of my choices, because it was also Carol’s and her notes on it follow here. Both Carol and I chose Sam’s ‘In Western lands. Carol’s point is that the reader can trace Sam’s development through his songs and rhymes. Carol writes:
Sam alone trying to find Frodo in the seemingly impregnable fortress of Cirith Ungol in the Blondel-type strategy of singing in the hope that Frodo/Richard I will hear it, know he's there and reply. Sam's a 'forlorn and weary hobbit' who sits down wondering what the hell to do next. He's managed to get in so far due to the orcs' propensity to quarrel among themselves and due to the phial of Galadriel breaking the power of the gate. He begins to hum odd tunes till eventually 'suddenly a new strength rose in him, and his voice rang out, while words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune'. It isn't unknown in fantasy for words to come 'unbidden' and often in an unknown and uncomprehended language, as happened to Sam in 'The Choices' when he invokes Varda in her intercessionary form of Fanuilos.

But 'In Western Lands' is different; it's in English and Sam isn't asking anyone for help. Here he's summoned up all 'his little impudence of courage', determined to find and rescue the master whom he loves when it might have been prudent to take the ring to Mt. Doom himself. The poem shows the height of Sam's courage inspired by that love and also shows to what heights of heroism he's risen.

If we look back through LotR, Sam recites several poems: ‘Gil-galad was an elven king’, the troll's song, his little addendum to Frodo's elegy for Gandalf and the Oliphaunt song; and through these verses we can trace his development into the hero of 'In Western Lands'. In ‘Gil-galad’ he's reciting someone else's words, although about stuff nobody realised he knew and which surprises the others. While his troll song is of his own making, it's 'merely' hobbit versification though quite complex in structure - again surprising. I'll jump now to the poem under scrutiny, again his own words; not doggerel this time but poetry. Although not complex in structure: 8 line stanzas, 8/6 syllabic, alternate rhyming, the imagery is elven in style. And they just come to him in straight-forward language of things he knows: finches singing, waters running, set against the darkness and 'towers strong and high' of his immediate daunting surroundings. Sam has risen from humble gardener who can at least quote some historical lore in ‘Gil-galad’ to composing heroic verse of defiance and beauty to reflect his newly acquired status of hero - though he'd demur.

I think by this stage Sam can be classed as a hero in the mode of the heroic code; that is, although facing almost certain death, he's willing to go on and see his task through to the ending, even if it means dying in the attempt. But, as is shown in Théoden, it isn't a matter of if you die but the way in which you die, something worthy of a song hereafter. Though should Sam die it isn't likely anyone will know and therefore there can be no song. But, as we know Sam survives, rescues Frodo, and from here on in is the real hero of the quest.

I’d used ‘In Western Lands’ as a comparison. My other choice had been ‘The Man in the Moon came Down Too Soon’ from the old Collection known as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and all I wanted to show by comparing it with Sam’s ‘In Western Lands’ was how diverse Tolkien poetic creations can be. ‘The Man in the Moon’ is a sparkling example of his delight in words for their beauty, strangeness, and archaic interest. It repeats his pleasure in writing a ‘backstory’ to some of our best-loved nursery rhymes, and is entirely playful. ‘In Western Lands’, as Carol, observes, is modest in its vocabulary as befits Sam’s lack of formal education, but shows how beautifully a modest vocabulary can be used to express the most profound and spiritual emotions, thereby giving us another kind of insight into Sam’s development. We know he’s brave, we’ve just seen him take on Shelob and now he’s in an orc fortress, but the song also tells us about his spiritual and emotional maturity, something we haven’t been able to see until now.
After a rather studious meeting, we ended as we began with another of the songs Julie had brought in, this time Sam’s Troll Song. It was foot-tappingly jolly, as Mike remarked – like an eightsome reel.
We agreed that for our next meeting we would read The Prologue and Chapter 1 of LotR.

2:06 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

An interesting by-the-by thought re. words coming unbidden to mind and in an unknown language - this kind of thing is a big feature of Pentecostal-style worship, where it's known as "speaking in tongues". I'm hugely sceptical of this phenomenon - very often it's patently the product of a carefully hyped-up atmosphere, and peer pressure to "utter" - but just occasionally it really does seem as if the inspiration is genuine. Most often, in my experience, the sounds which emerge, although beautiful and musical, are gibberish. Just sometimes however a person will speak words of a real language which is (at least consciously) unknown to them, and this is the authentic New Testament "gift of tongues".

12:33 PM  

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