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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reading Group meeting 8/8/09


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

As usual, the following blog is broken into several sections owing to word limitations. I hope it isn't proving annoying. Here goes:

Well, here we are, Blog 100, and still we haven’t run out of new things to talk about! Present for the discussion were: Laura, Tim, Ian, Diane, Julie, Angela, Chris, Vicki, Pat, Carol (by email), and me (Lynn).

We had prepared ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’, and ‘Strider’.

Tim, returning after a bit of a break, started the afternoon off with his observation of how creepy the chapter is even when one is familiar with it. He also remarked that he had been to the barrow at Avebury, which visitors can go inside, and found it definitely creepy. We knew Tolkien had visited locations like this and the Rollright stones and Laura and Diane commented on the legend that they cannot be counted! Pat remarked on the impression of the stones in the green grass like teeth, and also like Stonehenge, but Laura noted that the Rollright stones have a single central stone too.

Angela directed our attention to the description of the wight’s eyes and the sense of great distance. She drew out a parallel with the fiery writing on the Ring which is also associated with great distance, and thus a sense of great historical time past.

Pat, like Carol, picked up the lovely phrase ‘a guess of blue’, and several feminising images. Laura added to this a number of physical images used to described the landscape e.g. ‘the shoulder of a hill’, and she suggested that it created a sense of a body under the hills that linked very well to the actual wight.

Angela noted Frodo’s prophetic dream at the start of the chapter, and Laura commented on the way his anger and fear in the fog become a sign of his bravery later. Pat noted the phrase ‘a seed of courage’, and Chris remarked that Frodo won’t leave his friends at this time, as Sam won’t leave Frodo later. We noted these and other ‘pre-echoes’ of things that would happen later in the story. Laura observed Frodo’s consideration of ‘what Gandalf would say’ as part of his motivation. Carol commented in the hobbit’s slow-growing courage.

Tim went to the really creepy bit with the crawling hand and Vicki was reminded of the old black and white film The Beast with Five Fingers, which has a disembodied hand crawling around. Chris noted with some approval the stamping and thumping when Tom is in the barrow.

Julie wondered why Frodo was not dressed in white. Tim suggested it was because he has the Ring. Angela noted the pattern of splintering and melting blades that is later thematic in the story.

Laura remarked that having recently read The Silmarillion, we discover that the people in the barrows were not originally evil, but that the Witch-King brought the wights there. Angela noted that the real tenant of the barrow had been the last prince of Cardolan, and Laura commented that once again after our reading of TSil we know that it is Morgoth who is being referred to in the wight’s Incantation.

As we moved beyond the Downs, Angela observed that the border Tom mentions is the old boundary of Cardolan, and Laura said that in fact the hobbits haven’t travelled very far. I was surprised at the number of borders, boundaries and liminal places in these chapters. Tim saw all the borders as the result of the fragmentation that took place once there were no more kings.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

8.8.09 cont:
Chris picked up the significance of Tom’s ‘healing’ of the hobbits, and saw it as one more of the many pre-echoes of later important episodes. Chris also drew attention to Carol’s previous proposition that Tom’s song might be an echo of The Song, and Chris cited the idea that it is for this reason that Tom’s music is stronger than other songs. Although Aragorn chants over the hilts of the Morgul knife, Tom’s song at the barrow is clearly on a different scale. Diane remarked that it is the intent behind the words that makes then powerful.

Carol commented on Merry’s ‘memory’ of the history behind the treasure in the barrow, writing that history is related in many ways in LotR, but I think this is one of the briefest and most allusive. Pat wondered who the owner of the brooch had been, and as Carol remarks ‘tantalisingly, we never learn who she was’, but our general view was that she was a princess of Cardolan, maybe the wife of the last prince.

Laura then led us into a consideration of the names of the ponies, especially Fatty Lumpkin, who reminded Diane of Thelwell ponies. Tim irreverently thought he was a Mearas ‘wannabe’, and Chris seriously engaged our attention when he wondered if Fatty was the model for the Pony on the inn sign. Diane also wondered just how old and magical Fatty is, while Pat observed Tom’s advice about following the animals out of harm’s way. Chris noted that Merry’s ponies clearly have ‘real’ names, that are different to those imposed upon them, and it’s these that Tom knows and uses.

Diane and Angela both remarked that as walkers themselves the journey to the Road took on a special significance for them as they understood from their own experience how it felt to walk up and down slopes and hills and on towards distant places.

Angela then noted the intentional confusion for a first-time reader between Strider and a Black Rider from the description given of the figure climbing the gate at Bree. Carol commented that Tolkien wasn’t sure for a while who Strider was going to be, but that he keeps the suspense going throughout these chapters.

Chris expressed an interest in the weather on the Downs. It was suggested that the fog was just fog, but Tim noticed the effect of the east wind, and Chris observed that the wind is in the south when Tom appears.

Julie wondered what had happened to the hobbits’ clothes and thought the wight must have taken them. Diane agreed with Julie’s idea that the wight was misunderstood and was simply recycling stuff.

Laura picked up Tom’s reference to forgotten kings, and the last with a star on his brow. As Carol notes, Tom seems to possess the elvish ability to create visions with words which the hobbits can share. She also noted that ‘if the hobbits don’t understand then neither does the first-time reader. Pat wondered why they were clothed in white and Tim suggested it was the colour associated with sacrifice. Chris questioned whether Tom knew they would end up in the barrow and this was why he taught the helping song. Diane wondered if the incident was predetermined in The Song.

Chris then observed that Tom knew the Black Riders were not on the Road and so the hobbits could go on without him.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

8.8.09 cont:
Diane thought the name of the gatekeeper at Bree (Old Harry) gave away his demonic associations, and with Laura and Tim, she noted the way Strider’s voice changes. Carol remarked that everything seems conspiratorial, and reminds us ‘there’d be no street lighting’. She also comments that the health and safety executive would have field day with the common room at the inn – what with the lamps hanging from the beams, and all that smoke!

We all considered the attitude of the Breelanders, who Carol suggested are parochial and nimbys. Having considered the effect of 1950s racism, but ruled it out as probably too late, Pat and I remembered the long-running controversy about the resettlement of Displaced Persons in the decade after WW2.

Pat asked if we thought the Ring incident at the inn was an accident. Tim remarked that with the Ring there are no accidents! Angela observed that there was no one in the room who had the power to make Frodo or the Ring do anything. But she also noted that under the influence of the Ring, Frodo lies.

Diane wondered at the wisdom of trusting a stranger, and Tim repeated the need to ‘keep it safe’. Pat thought the way Pippin behaved was just silly, and Julie wondered why Pippin thought it was worth telling a story about Bilbo. Diane suggested it was because it had achieved the status of a legend by that time.

Angela then posed a difficult and troubling question: What would have happened if Sauron had got hold of Aragorn? I noted his fear of the Black Riders, and Laura observed that Boromir would have behaved very differently. She also remarked that when Strider asks ‘Do you wish them to find you?’ It is actually the Ring that wants this. Diane picked up Strider’s own lesson in caution, and Angela declared that Saruman is the real danger at this time.

Chris noted that Sam is very cautious, and Diane added that Frodo does not seem very ‘streetwise’. Chris however thought Frodo intelligent enough to be able to read between the lines while Sam was unsubtle in his judgements. Laura, on the other hand, attributed Sam’s caution to Gandalf’s instructions to him to look after Frodo. Angela noted that of all the hobbits, only Sam is unnerved by the sight of Men in Bree, bearing out the idea that all the others have had experience of them in the past.

I was struck by the use of the word ‘spooks’ by Barliman to describe the Black Riders. Angela thought it was because they were faceless in their hoods, but Pat reminded us of the yammering dogs, a type of behaviour associated with unnatural events.

Laura noticed a number of ‘reuses’ of familiar sayings, as if Tolkien was giving them some ‘historic’ meaning and background, as well as the use of ‘p.s.’ a rare instance of Tolkien using Latin. Diane said it merely reminds us that this is a story, while Tim said it is evidence of the ‘translation’ motif we tend to forget.

1:33 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

8.8.09 cont:
Diane went on to note that Strider’s sense of humour emerges once he has been accepted by the hobbits, and Angela commented on his smile. She observed that for their own good he has to scare them a bit at times, and she drew attention to the number of times Strider’s presence goes temporarily unnoticed. Diane thought this showed that he is very good at what he does. Angela then remarked on his reluctance to speak the name of Mordor. Tim picked up Strider’s insult to Barliman but attributed it simply to exasperation.

Julie noted Merry’s feeling of being in deep water as he succumbs to the Black Breath, and that this reverses Tom’s imagery on the barrow when he says they have escaped from deep water.

Like the hobbits, we covered a lot of ground this week.
Next time: we agreed to read to the end of Book 1.

1:34 AM  

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