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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reading Group meeting 22/8/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

As previously, this blog report comes in several parts.

Present at the meeting: Angela, Chris, Julie, Diane, Ian, Laura, Mike, Vicki and me (Lynn).

Angela began the proceedings by remarking on the scary start to ‘A Knife in the Dark’ and how this is enhanced by the reference to a ‘soft blow’ that nevertheless starts to shatter the door. Laura observed that rather than needing numbers or strength, the Ringwraiths depend on fear to command obedience.
I have always thought this episode one of the most frightening because Fredegar is all alone, and the point is made that while he is facing at least 3 Black Riders on his own, the other hobbits are relatively safe in the care of Strider. However, Julie and I were both surprised that the Riders don’t seem to know about back doors, but Julie put this down to them lacking human intelligence in their wraith state. Diane drew attention to the way in which Dracula in his vampire form does not have a fully developed adult intelligence, in contrast to his abilities as a human nobleman.
Diane then noted a similarity between Death and Cockcrow in this episode and in Hamlet, where the Ghost retreats when the cock crows and the Undead Riders go into action as the cock crows, rather than during the depth of the night. Ian observed that this very early morning time is the preferred time for police raids, when most people are asleep, and it was generally noted that just before dawn is the hour when people most often die and the body is at its lowest ebb.
Laura noted that the alarm shouts of ‘fear, fire…’ were the Shire equivalent of WW2 churchbells used to give notice of enemy paratroopers, and similarly they gain popular response.
As we considered the extent of knowledge among hobbits Ian remarked that Pippin expects Black Riders to attack, while Fredegar avoids running into the Forest even when attacked. Laura was interested in the implicit comparison between the White Wolves of ‘history’ and the Black Riders of the ‘present’.
Ian drew our attention to a rare insight into wraith thinking with the dismissive ‘Let the little people blow!’ and took this as a sign that they were not just being controlled but were thinking for themselves. Mike then remarked that in Unfinished Tales the wraiths engage in dialogue with Saruman, and Ian took this further by observing that in this paragraph Sauron is just Sauron to the wraiths, not the Dark Lord, or Master, or any other honorific title.
Laura suggested this was a sign of a team-bonding session(!) while Diane and Ian wondered if palantirs were used like GPS to keep track of where the wraiths were. Ian conjectured that apart from Khamul, the Black Riders may have included Tomtom and Garmin!
Chris brought us back to the text with his observation that the start of the chapter is made up of short sentences – the classic structure to create pace and tension for the reader.
Angela and Diane wondered when Strider gets any sleep, and Laura remarked on the spying that was necessary to locate the hobbit room in Bree. There was a general consensus that (1) it was Bill Ferny who did this, and (2) hobbit rooms would be easily identifiable from their round windows. Julie defined another case of bad wraith thinking when – not finding the hobbits where they expected – they did not go through the inn slaughtering everyone anyway. It is interesting that Tolkien avoided this ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ motif –or did he?
Angela wondered about Strider’s use of fire - was it linked in some metaphysical way to the ‘Secret Fire’ in its protective power?
Chris picked up the blowing of horns again, noting Frodo hearing an echo in his dream, as well as comparing Strider’s desire for secrecy when leaving Bree to Boromir ‘winding’ his horn when leaving Rivendell. Chris took this as a sign of their different natures among other things.

2:47 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Ian picked out the fact that Strider is known in Bree and named there, and by Bill Ferny. In this case the naming reflects back on Ferny. Angela noted that Ferny had been spying on Strider and Diane remarked that Strider displays a bit of a temper.
Laura and Ian drew our attention to the biographical detail that Tolkien had looked after horses when he was in the army and thought this accounted for his knowledge of horses, and his particular care for Bill the pony.
Laura then wondered if there was any Christian significance underlying the total of 30 silver pennies (30 pieces of silver?) paid for the replacement ponies. We could not see clear links with major betrayal in the story, but Chris observed that it was the first mention of money in the story, and a rare instance anyway. We debated the use of money in Middle-earth and generally agreed that Bree and the Shire had their own currencies but at parity with each other, while for wider trading gold and silver in their ‘raw’ state would have been the most likely currency.
Diane wondered about the ‘slant-eyed southerner’ and Julie remarked that he sounded like Fu Manchu, while keeping to the early 1950s context Ian suggested he was ‘Cash Mycheque’. Only Goons fans will really get this joke which is a play on the name of the Chinese republican general Chang Kai Shek. Whoever the southerner was, he clearly didn’t impress anyone as Ming the Merciless!
Laura noticed that the word ‘goblin’ is used in this chapter and wondered if its use derives specifically, in hobbit terms, from Bilbo’s account of his journey. Ian thought it was actually considered un-PC (!) hence the more general use of ‘orcs’.
Mike then remarked that Strider shows good field-craft, and linked this to the rise of Scouting and a fascination with survival tactics in the Edwardian period. He noted that such interests had their serious origins in the South African campaigns, and that between the wars there was a widespread interest in the outdoors.
Angela observed that Strider is starting to hesitate, and Chris wondered about the significance of sleeping by the stream – was it, he wondered, the influence of Ulmo again. Mike pointed out the Christian significance of moving/Living water as cleansing and good.
Diane drew attention to the fact that Strider indicates that he knows Bilbo through his poetry, and Angela and Ian remarked on the fact that the other hobbits don’t pick up this familiarity.
Laura and Ian noted again the interdiction against speaking certain words. It is a fascinating topic and might be linked to the old belief in the efficacy of certain words. I referred to the Anglo-Saxon 9 Herbs Charm which requires not only herbs for healing but the recitation of particular words to accompany their application. It was mentioned that this could be auto-suggestive – in any community words that are held to be effective are likely to take effect when they are heard spoken. The notion of ‘speech acts’ – speech that makes things happen (J.L. Austin) - existed during Tolkien’s creation of LotR, and might have appeared over his horizon, but the ancient beliefs seem more applicable.
Mike wondered about the G-rune on Weathertop, and likened it to the Romany use of signs. Julie was reminded of tramps’ marks left to show houses where begging was either effective or not. Mike also remarked that Tom Bombadil reads like an acid trip after Tolkien had been talking to Huxley!
Laura and Diane and Angela noted the use of a cairn on Weathertop and related it to cairns used by walkers today, especially those made ‘unofficially’ by walkers placing stones together. They also regarded the (re)placement of firewood as a gesture common to all walkers in wild places. Even in bothies firewood should be replaced before leaving.
Chris drew our attention then to the appearance of the moon over Weathertop behind Strider and regarded it as a prophetic sign of the eventual crowning of Aragorn.

2:48 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Mike noted the huge paragraph after the Beren and Luthien song which he took to be a visual sign of a riveting story that was the being told. Diane noted the reference to the strange look on Strider’s face and Mike suggested it referred to the melding together of the man and the story.
Laura observed that we learn even more about the wraiths, such as their ‘smelling blood’, a reminder again of Dracula. Like Dracula, they are not twisted and monstrous, but tall and impressive. Ian drew attention to the number of them ‘no doubt 3 or 4’, which actually shows that there is doubt about their number. Laura pointed out that Merry and Pippin give various numbers until 5 are realised.
Angela took us back to Strider with her comment that he understands Sam’s doubts about him, and this is in contrast to Sam’s feelings about Gollum. Angela also remarked that the comment that ‘all blades perish’ is a flash forward to the final act of destroying the Witch King. Ian suggested a duality emerged- as the Witch King’s blade perishes in the dell, so the barrow blade will perish when it touches him.
I picked up the statement that Frodo’s voice seemed to come from under the earth, revealing his shift into a wraith-like state at that point. Ian commented that once there sound rather than sight took over.
Laura pointed out that although Glorfindel shrank from touching the Morgul knife, Strider had no reservations about touching the cloak, and Julie added that at the Ford only 8 wraiths should be visible – one has lost the garment he needs to make him visible to mortal eyes.
Mike noted that from Weathertop onward the only colour is grey, and Angela remarked that during this journey Merry speaks to Strider as an equal and with great common sense, while Ian picked up the journey as the next challenge to Strider’s confidence. Julie noted another of Frodo’s prescient dreams – this time about winged wraiths, and she asked if we thought the description of fading into the wraith world read like a perfect description of depression. Some of us agreed.
Angela noticed that Pippin was needlessly doubtful about the trolls, and Laura remarked that Glorfindel’s description of the hobbits as ‘astray without guidance’ reads as descriptive of the human condition, especially as imagined without the benefit of Christianity. Diane observed, however, that Sam confronts Glorfindel over Frodo’s condition regardless of his status, and Angela noted that Glorfindel is the first to refer to Aragorn directly, rather than by letter, or implication. Ian noted a similar reference to Gandalf’s absence.
We discussed the bells on Asfaloth’s bridle, wondering that Glorfindel would announce his presence with wraiths around, and Julie suggested they referred to the use of bells to ward off evil spirits. I thought they might be a sign of Glorfindel’s high elven status – that he doesn’t need to creep about and hide.
We ran out of time again as we finished Book 1, and I forgot to note down the next reading but thankfully everyone else knew it would be the first 2 chapters of Book 2, ‘Many Meetings’ and ‘The Council of Elrond’. Oxonmoot will cancel out the meeting on 26th Sept. So October’s meeting may have to be worked out by email nearer the time. Julie has proposed a session in which we can discuss everything we’ve read in LotR so far, and pick up any matters arising before proceeding.

2:50 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

With apologies for delay as I mislaid Carol's comments, but here they are in full to expand those already posted:

Carol’s comments:

‘A Knife in the Dark’

The opening of this chapter is great. There’s a real build-up of atmosphere and Pippin’s words to Fatty before they leave the Shire that he’s be better off travelling than sitting waiting for Black Riders to appear turns out to be true.And for a few paragraphs we don’t know if Fatty’s still inside! Then from the spooky quiet start of impending doom the Horn of Buckland blasts out to shriek the night and freak the Black Riders. It’s an unexpected opening too as I at least wasn’t expecting to be taken back to Crickhollow on first reading. P.193, again Frodo has a dream synchronous with action elsewhere but could also be uneasiness at the presence of the other Black Riders trashing the hobbits’ room at the Pony. P.195, trust a hobbit to retrieve some good out of the stable debacle: ‘We can eat breakfast while we wait - and sit down to it.’ This chapter turns from the very particular of conversation and character, action and time, to vast expanses of wilderness and days related in a paragraph. We meet Sam’s neekerbreekers. P.199, Frodo and Strider view in the far distance lights and flashes. What could it be? Pp.201-2, if meeting Gildor was one of the chief events in Sam’s life, this is one of my chief events of Sam, the absolutely surprising event of Sam piping up with ‘Gil-galad was an elven king’. This is the first song he sings and though it’s others’ words, not only Strider knows ancient lore, part of the making of Sam Gamgee, or should I say the drawing-out of Sam Gamgee. He’s been sneered at in the Shire for talking of elves and walking trees but among his ‘betters’ and Strider, he’s beginning to feel brave enough to show a bit of his knowledge. Lovely! Also fills in a bit of back-story. P.203, arriving on Weathertop they might be seeing the answer to the riddle of the flashes a few nights before, stones and grass are scorched. P.204 and after, finding the possible G rune. Strider thinks it was Gandalf on the hilltop in danger who scorched the surroundings. And then the danger imminent to them: they’ve been rumbled by some of the Black Riders. Pp. 208-9, the song of Beren and Luthien and so far we don’t realise it relevance to the story but of course they’re in the same dilemma as Arwen and Aragorn, and ann-thennath is a very difficult form to sustain. I only manage 4 stanzas while Tolkien manages 8 but he does double-up sometimes on the rhyming words which I don’t do except on the ‘el’ sound to rhyme with Rivendell. P.210, a very potted history of Beren and Luthien, the silmarils and descendants, skilfully related. ‘as Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.’ - the 7 stars on a sable ground? To me there’s no need for the description of Strider’s face; it’s implicit in the way he speaks. And Tolkien too seems to be outside himself in writing passages like these. It’s as if he’s remembering something long embedded in his psyche, as it is also with Strider. And this is the perfect way to tell stories: a small fire the only source of light surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness and an enemy - real entertainment. P.211, the Riders are described as being ‘like black holes’ and though Tolkien wouldn’t know about black hole theory then, that’s exactly what the Nazgul are, black holes so the theory goes that if you get caught in one you’re thrust into other dimensions like spaghetti, long, drawn-out, thin and lost.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Part 2 of Carol's comments:
‘The Flight to the Ford

P.212, why aren’t all the Riders at Weathertop? If they had have been the party would have been done for. So what turn of good luck made it only 5? We shall see. Pp.214-5, first signs of Strider the healer. P.217, they find Glorfinel’s beryl on the last bridge. Pp.221-4, here we encounter Bilbo’s trolls and their cave, another piece in the puzzle of the whole back-story to this adventure. A while back it was Beren and Luthien from long ago while this is more recent and yet all part of the same story as Sam discovers at Cirith Ungol and Pippin doesn’t at the battle of the Morannon. There’s also a bit of light relief too - over the 3 trolls and Sam’s troll song, another indication of his development, though hobbitish verse in a light vein, Sam’s composed it himself. P.225, then the suspense of hoofs on the road! I find this account of the final flight to the ford far more exciting than the film version. Jackson could have done so much with this rather than a straight-forward chase. Ralph Bakshi got it better because he stayed close to the text, and by this time all the Black Riders were uncloaked, unlike the many pictorial depictions of them still in black.

Well, that’s my take on these 2 chapters. Sam, the story/backstory are interests of mine. The story comes in so many ways - poetry, topography, straight narrative, bits of vision as Merry after being rescued from the barrow. I’m sure much more too.

1:25 PM  

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