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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Reading Group meeting 11/7/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Present at the meeting: Laura, Angela, Chris, Ian, Carol (by email) and me (Lynn).

As you see, we were a small group, but we tackled the chapters with vigour and enthusiasm, as might be expected! We were discussing 2 chapters ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’.

Laura got us into the discussion with her observation that the hobbits, and the readers, are now out of their comfort zone rather earlier than might be expected. She also noted that the title ‘Three’s Company’ is far more inclusive than the content initially suggests because Sam is included in the title. The colloquial expression ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ might have suited the first few pages where Sam is still more servant than companion, but it isn’t long before Frodo is asking his opinion, making Sam part of the group. The cheerfully recognisable change to Three’s Company belies the opposing of the innocent hobbits to the Black Riders who are hunting them.

Angela moved us on with her observation that Gandalf seems oddly relaxed about leaving Frodo’s departure date until September. To this Laura asked ‘what are Gandalf and Frodo doing?’ Angela suggested that during the summer Gandalf is probably meeting Aragorn and gathering news. Ian suggested that Gandalf seems to treat the Shire as a place of relative safety and security where he can take a bit of R&R. Carol noted that after Gandalf has left Bag End, at this point in the composition even Tolkien didn’t know what was keeping Gandalf out of the way.

Ian went on to remark that there are no details about Shire society now, and he suggested that in fact there is no need for details at this stage – all that is necessary is a sense of ordinariness. I asked if this was to be seen as a structural decision, setting lack of detail about everyday life in the Shire against the sweep of history in ‘Shadow of the Past’ and then against the growing threat of the Black Riders?

Everyone expressed an interest in the identities of the Black Riders. Angela explained that on Frodo and Bilbo’s Birthday the attack took place at Sarn Ford. Aragorn was not there because he was watching the East Road, so while the small Party was going on in the Shire, invasion was being attempted and infiltration was taking place!

I wondered about the effect and non-effect of the Black Breath which doesn’t seem to affect either the Gaffer or Farmer Maggot.

Laura thought lack of details allow us to fill in the gaps as our own imaginations see fit, so any fear or horror takes on the form most potent in our own minds.

Chris took us back to the very beginning of the chapter with his observation that Frodo does not tell all his thoughts to Gandalf. I wondered if the Ring was exercising some effect on him. Ian observed that this constructed the Ring as ‘active’. This is a topic we have come back to more than once.

Laura was interested in Frodo’s use of the word ‘steer’ which she thought would be more relevantly associated with elves and stars. It was noted that hobbits enjoyed walking at night and so would be used to steering or navigating their way by stars.
Part 2 of this report follows...

11:59 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Part 2 11.7.09 cont:

Chris thought the phrase ‘all aboard’ was strange but Ian reminded us that Tolkien was writing during the great age of trains. Angela remarked on Frodo calling ‘Time’ when Sam is having a last drink. And I wondered if these were part of a vocabulary of familiarity, again setting a tone of comfort against which the increasing danger would seem the greater. Carol noted that Sam’s hat is never mentioned again in the story.

Chris went on to note that hobbits prefer local news to distant wonders. He also observed that the famous fox and the elves have the same response to seeing the hobbits! Carol remarked that the ‘sojourn with the elves above Woodhall seems stilled in time’ and that ‘the last verse of the elves song is repeated as Frodo leaves Middle-earth for good’. Carol also commented that Sam doesn’t have a bower made for him and she went on to point out that the statement: ‘the elves have their own labours and their own sorrows…’ reiterates her feeling that Frodo is being charged with doing the dirty work of the elves that they began in ages past.

Angela picked up Pippin’s (non)ignorance of Frodo’s real intentions to leave the Shire. She thought there was a childishness about their characters, and Ian thought the hobbits’ were rather student-like. Carol described Pippin as ‘irrespressible’.

I was interested in Frodo’s 2 forms of ‘thinness’. While in the Shire he refers to himself as likely to become as thin as a ‘willow-wand’. But in the Wild he says he’ll become as thin as a wraith (for which he gets ticked off by Aragorn of course). Ian thought that in the latter case ‘wraith was acting as an intensifier or even an expletive, while Aragorn picked up the word from his own informed context. Laura reminded us that we had discussed this before as the ‘cocktail party’ effect – hearing something significant to yourself despite distance or noise. Ian added the old notion that one should not speak ill of the dead!

Chris wondered about the significance of the wind being in the west and the hobbits hearing the Black Rider. He likened it to a similar west wind that carried away Saruman’s spirit. Chris also noted that on the Road to the Ferry, with the Black Riders closing in, there is no wind, but fog. This reminded me that Aragorn temporarily lacks a wind to drive his ships up Anduin. We have discussed before the possibility that the powers in the West continue to have some influence at times. Ian suggested that the effects of atmospheric change reflect the effect on and concerns of people living on this island!

Laura then noted the interest in the genealogy among the elves. They are precise in naming Frodo and ‘son of Drogo’, and they themselves are High elves and so distinguish between those who went and those who stayed. Laura remarked on the pleasure of hearing this bit of backstory.

I picked up the Road poem and Bilbo’s association of all sorts of places so that they all seemed linked – from the quiet of the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, so that there is no such thing as isolation or actual security. Laura said it suggested things coming at you!
Part 3 follows ...

12:01 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Part 3 11.7.09 cont:

Chris noted Pippin’s dream, and Angela remarked that Frodo and Sam had not seemed very close until later in this chapter. Chris observed that Sam seems to change after the encounter with the elves. Ian suggested that this changes Sam’s sense of place in the world now he has been able to achieve one of his ambitions. Carol suggested that we see there is more to Sam than just gardening and that merely living in the Shire wouldn’t bring this out, and this encounter has started drawing out his latent courage and importance.I noted that Frodo recognises Sam’s sharp hearing, and Ian linked this back to the eavesdropping incident, asking if Sam could be regarded as ‘sneaking’ – a worrying thought!

We all wondered about the derivation of the name ‘Maggot’. [Nothing useful comes up in my A/S dictionary, but Ian offered the connection between ‘fly agaric toadstools, and Laura added mushrooms. I have checked since and apparently ‘maggot’ derives from the ON ‘Mathkr’ via ME ‘Mathek’ and ‘Maddock.] Laura remarked that the encounter with the farmer leads to another comfortable ‘fireside moment’.

Carol noted the brief insight into Frodo’s misspent youth and commented that ‘you’d never think it when Frodo reaches the end.’

Chris pondered the possibility that Ulmo and his Maia may have supplied the river mist. I said the description of it crawling echoed the crawling of the Black Rider and after the comfort of the farm this enhances the suspense and horror. However, Ian thought the mist was a neutral feature.

Laura got us out of the fog and back to an instance of hobbit innocence with Pippin’s drinking song, and the shock of the ‘wail’ of the Black Rider. Carol said the description of the cry always struck her as sad as well as spine-chilling. ‘It’s the only instance we’re given of what it must be like to be a Nazgul – lonely, serial existence, no will of their own, who once knew comfort and power, maybe even love.’ And she remarked that she was surprised to find on a trip to York a signpost for ‘High Marishes’. Still moving backwards through the chapter, we then considered the equally cheerful ‘Upon the Hearth’, which is also followed by the intervention of a Black Rider, but at this early stage it is only the hoof beats of his horse that cause the sense of approaching danger. While we were discussing the song, Angela noted the significance of the last 4 lines of the final stanza, while Laura commended the vocabulary generally. Ian suggested that the apple and thorn references seemed particularly drawn from Celtic sources, while Laura noted a sense of a second chance, and queried the nature of the ‘standing stones’ – who erected them?

Still going backwards, Angela remarked that Frodo leaves Bag End via the low hedge just as Bilbo did.

I picked up Sam’s report that the visitor to the Gaffer ‘spoke funny’ and I wondered if this meant that rather than just hissing at the Gaffer, he had an accent, being actually the wraith of one of the kings from distant parts. Angela reminded us that it was indeed Khamul, the Black Easterling, who came to Hobbiton! Carol observed that this was just the first of many fortuitous near-misses between Frodo and the Riders who are hunting him. It begins a pattern of increasing fear and horror (if you’ll excuse the plug!]
Part 4 follows ...

12:02 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Part 4 11.7.09 Cont:

Chris noted the similarities between the Gaffer and Farmer Maggot when confronted by a Black Rider, and Angela attributed this to a degree of insularity. I added something Diane and I have often discussed – the possibility that the Gaffer and Maggot are able to withstand these confrontations because they are closely linked to the earth and all such characters in the story seem to have the same ability to resist the evil influence of Sauron as transmitted through both the Ring and its servants.

We discussed the power of the Ring and Ian commented that the Ring as found or inherited has less significance, and that Gollum knows no other significance to it that gaining more fish!

After a busy afternoon we agreed to read the next 3 chapters as they are all short ones.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Acc. to my good old Anglo-Saxon dictionary, "steer" and "star" would appear to be closely connected - being "steor" and "steorra" respectively whilst "steora" is a steersman (although I am certainly no expert) - so (without having been at the meeting) it looks to me like Laura is right!

12:27 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Interesting (or perhaps not) note on "Maggot/Maddock". We spent last week in North Devon (which is why I wasn't at the meeting) in the course of which, on one of the rare sunny afternoons, I walked along the cliff path from Woolacombe to Mortehoe, where I visited the heritage centre. Amongst other stuff there was a display of farm implements from the 19th Century, one of which was called in the local dialect a "Teddy Maddock", i.e. a mattock for grubbing up potatoes. So Maggot is an eminently appropriate name for a farmer. Also there is the alternative meaning of "Maggot" which is fad or whim or trifling piece of music, although I can't see how that relates to Farmer Maggot. And also there is "magus" which might possibly be a hint at the nature of his relationship with Gandalf.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Maggot/Maddock continued: Lateral thinking suddenly made the Welsh name "Madoc" or "Madog" pop into my head, which apparently can mean "good", "generous", "forgiving", which absolutely fits the bill! Also it can apparently mean "fire". Perhaps Farmer Maggot was also a servant of the Secret Fire then, hence his affinity with Gandalf!

1:27 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Sorry to be a pain and do yet another comment, but Maggot's name being influenced by Welsh would make a great deal of sense, as the Brandybuck family just over the river from Maggot's home territory have names which take strikingly Celtic-sounding forms such as Meriadoc and Rorimac. (Although I have often wondered whether the latter first took shape as a kind of joke, i.e. "Our distant cousin from the Borders, Rory MacBrandybuck"!)

1:36 PM  

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