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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Reading Group meeting 8/5/10

Bo Hansson (1943-2010), 1972 Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings.

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Today we started our journey with Sam and Frodo as we launched into ‘The Taming of Smeagol’ and ‘The Passage of the Marshes’. We dodged about a bit as usual between the chapters.

Laura opened the discussion with her ‘interrogation’ of the title of the first chapter. She questioned the attitudes implicit in ‘taming’ and this led to many different opinions among us all, including comments on the constructing of in Smeagol in terms of an animal. When we moved on to Smeagol’s ‘biography, it was remarked that he always seemed to have been an outcast, and that he had been brought up by his grandmother who eventually drove him away.

Carol by email remarked on the great switch of time and tone in this book, which is ‘quieter thanthe previous one with less dramatic action and more sheer dogged persistence of a slow journey on foot.

Ian went on to point out as we discussed the Smeagol/Gollum transition, that it was Smeagol who committed murder and it is Gollum who is now without the Ring. Mike observed that the Ring acts as a catalyst for good and/or evil and that this depends on what wins out. We have naturally discussed the association between personality traits and the effect of the Ring on other occasions.

Chris attempted to redress the balance of our condemnatory remarks by pointing out that Smeagol/Gollum can well be defined as talented and enquiring. Ian confirmed that Smeagol as inquisitive from the start. He seems to have had an enquiring mind before the finding of the Ring – depending on how one interprets his backstory. He is certainly resourceful, and shows the characteristics of a tracker. He climbs, swims, and had survived many centuries in isolation – no mean feat. Differing interpretations, and ‘narratorial’ prejudice may come into play when we read Smeagol’s origins. There is no one to provide an impartial account of his previous existence.

Carol picked up Gandalf’s comment to Frodo about the tediousness of ‘Gollum-speak’, suggesting he wouldn’t want to hear any more, but he gets a great deal of it now. She also noted, however, that Gollum’s language is very original.

Ian also noted that it is Smeagol’s desire for the Ring that is being tamed in this chapter. He went on to elaborate on this remarking that Smeagol is no longer a ‘chasing thing’ but now becomes a character. Mike added that Smeagol had been 2-dimensional, and Ian noted that the rest of the book is actually about taming Gollum.

Julie provided an interesting insight to add to our established understanding of the way Tolkien seems to have used a combination of the Old English word ‘smugan’ – to creep, and ‘smygel’ – to retreat, burrow, as the very apt bases is Smeagol’s name. Julie had found a dialect word ‘smoug’ – which meant ‘to take by stealth’.

Chris went on to remark that the characters who don’t touch the Ring are those who know its history – those who don’t know are those who handle it. Boromir is perhaps the odd man out here, but he has not been immersed in Ring Lore as Gandalf, Faramir, and Aragorn have. Saruman is perhaps the exception that proves the point because his knowledge has corrupted him – he has spent too much time pondering the Ring.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Ian went on to point out that there is a difference between wanting to possess the Ring and wanting to use it. Mike elaborated on this with his observation that when Sam has the Ring his moral decisions are based on what is best for Frodo and what his gaffer would say – love and respect act as ‘filters’.

Mike also picked up the image of Sam ‘going over the top’ literally as he takes the lead on the fist climb down. Ian observed that Tolkien would have seen a lot of this happening – hence Frodo calls Sam back.

Laura remarked that Frodo might have realised that Smeagol’s promise to ‘the master of the precious’ in his oath might have referred to anyone, and she also thought that the oath, like the Riddle-game was founded on unbreakable rules in a childlike way. Mike picked up the power of the oath in all societies and noted that it is Smeagol who makes the promise, not Gollum.

Laura went on to comment on the way people can separate themselves from horror, specifically citing this in the context of Gollum and his torture in Mordor.

Kathleen commented that Sam seems easy-going so it is a shock to discover his pragmatic solution to being tracked by Gollum. Carol remarked on Gollum biting Sam’s shoulder – not an endearing action – and wondered about the anti-tetanus implications (!) Angela noted that Frodo wants Smeagol to be healed, and Carol rermarked that the quest hangs on a thin string of pity. Angela noted that Tolkien himself compared Smeagol with Caliban.

Ian, Angela and I all picked up Frodo’s remark about ‘All my choices have gone amiss’ and compared this to Aragorn’s similarly self-doubting ‘All I have done this day …’. This led us to question whether there was any synchronicity between the two speeches. Ian and Angela concluded that Frodo’s comment comes 2 days after Aragorn’s.

Chris then drew attention to Tolkien’s frequent use of the passive voice in narrative passages and other places. It would be interesting to know if he intended a mimetic purpose for this, and it poses the question of whether the more scathing critics are being put off by the passive mode – since it is so deeply disliked in the academic community. (i.e. if you try to write a passive construction in some versions of MS Word the programme will try to ‘correct’ what you write.)

Julie went on to suggest that one modern interpretation of Smeagol’s behaviour is that he is mentally ill, although in biblical terms he would be constructed as possessed by devils. Julie went on to draw a parallel between Gollum’s behaviour with Frodo by reminding us of the way the demons possessing a young man in one biblical story calm down when they recognise Christ. She then went on to change direction completely and remind us that at our first reading we had seen a parallel between Gollum and Ben Gunn in R.L.Stevenson’s Treasure Island. She defined both characters as going crackers from loneliness.

Mike pointed out that the discussion over the treatment of Gollum encapsulates both sides of the capital punishment debate.

The rope caused a long and detailed digression. Carol remarked on the light-hearted exchange between Frodo and Sam about its unhitching. She also pointed out that the rope has the same painful effect on Gollum that the Silmarils have on evil beings in The Silmarillion – some things are too pure for sullied hands to cope with. We all tried to work out how long the rope really was. I had calculated from the numbers in the book. Kathleen, Ian and Laura pointed out that we were dealing with hobbit ells, not English ones. Ian had done some very precise calculations based on hobbit proportions as far as known, and came up with a measurement for a hobbit ell. He argued that such precision would be in keeping with the care Tolkien took over his secondary creations.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Chris took us to the brink of the cliff, and wondered why Frodo suffered a strange blindness when he slipped. Ian suggested it may have been a hysterical reaction, or a result of a blow to the head.

Angela was interested in the fact that Smeagol has a wash after eating, and wondered if it signalled an understanding of basic hygiene even in someone as remote from civilised behaviour as he is. She also noted a ‘schoolboy’ moment in Sam’s reference to the fact that everyone smells.

Carol pointed out that even Gollum has his songs, and we noted the connection with the Riddles in The Hobbit.

Chris commented on the way Frodo seems to be ‘growing’ as if he taps into the power of the Ring. Mike added that the Ring enables Frodo to be psychologically dominant. Chris saw the Ring as creating a link between Smeagol and Frodo, and Laura noted that they are ‘akin’ by sharing some measure of hobbit DNA. Chris went on to observe that the moment at which Frodo ‘grows’ when confronting Smeagol happens at almost the same time as Aragorn confronting Eomer for the first time. Angela compared Aragorn and Gollum as trackers.
Julie then drew our attention to Frodo’s fascination with the dead faces in the marsh and wondered if this was because he had witnessed his drowned parents as they were still weedy and wet. She noted his almost poetic description of the faces in the marsh ‘ with weeds in their hair.’ Carol, on the other hand remarked on the ‘gungey’ description of the marshes. She was surprised that Gollum knew so much history; and wondered if the Nazgul was the some one that passed over Dol Baran.

Carol noted the lovely description of the desolation before Mordor, where ‘even the sun was defiled’ and she thought ‘defiled’ was just the right word. She also suggested that in the dream visions Frodo has, Gandalf is sending him light to encourage him.

Chris remarked that Sam is always used to hint at the worst kinds of things/attitudes such as his blaming of Smeagol for things without proof. Mike took this to show how possessive Sam is about Frodo, and that he doesn’t trust anyone else around his master. Carol too noted that Sam has been castigated for disturbing Gollum when he is bending over Frodo on Cirith Ungol but she comments that only Sam witnesses Gollum’s debate and she concludes that no blame should be attached to him. Laura suggested that Sam has all the human faults, and that having been entrusted with Frodo’s safety by Gandalf he takes a narrow view.

Still on the subject of Sam, Chris noted his references to his Gaffer’s word horde. I wondered if Sam was under the Gaffer’s thumb and Laura wondered if it was because the Gaffer was often right!

Like the Gaffer with Sam, Time got the better of us and we agreed to read the next 2 chapters – ‘The Black gate is Closed’, and ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’ one of my own favourites :-)

11:52 AM  

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