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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Reading Group meeting 11/9/10


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Our chapters this time were some grim but heroic reading as we tackled ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ and ‘The Pyre of Denethor’.

Mike began the discussion with his observation that the first sentence of the ‘Siege of Gondor’ chapter is closely echoed in ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’. Mike wondered if this was intentional, or a lapse of concentration on Tolkien’s part. I got my battles mixed up, conflating Gondor with Gondolin, and suggested that Tolkien was replaying the mythic events of the First Age in the ‘reality’ of the Third, thus revealing the continuing link between the forms of evil power that afflicted both cities – Gondolin of the Elves and Minas Tirith of Men.

This mistake of mine proved more fruitful than might have been expected when Laura picked up the connections between the mythic age and the ‘historic’ age through the names Gothmog and Grond. Gothmog being Lord of Balrogs in the First Age and the Lord of the Nazgul’s lieutenant in Minas Morgul and before Minas Tirith in the Third. (I notice that Robert Foster suggests this one might be a Nazgul!) Grond is the name of the great battering ram before the gates of Minas Tirith, and the name of Morgoth’s mace. Ian then suggested that echoes and reminders of all sorts that are included in the text encourage a wider overview of events. Carol by email noted that “Glorfindel's prophecy in the First Age is coming true”.

Julie and Mike wondered about the usefulness of the fire-pits and trenches. Mike thought they could have been for kindling the flaming arrows etc. being used by the besiegers. I thought they were to prevent direct cavalry charges by e.g. the knights of Dol Amroth, while Ian thought they were convenient means of disposing of fallen foes.

Mike noted that the ‘fell beast’ is powerfully delineated for readers by the brilliant use of adjectives that create just enough of a description for the reader’s own imagination to fill in. He remarked that it is a ‘three-dimensional’ description that even includes reference to its smell. Carol commented by email ‘“and it stank” this stark phrase always stays with me. It's so bald and short, yet so expressive.” Laura noted the well-known impression that it is some kind of pterodactyl – something left over from a distant past. We were all expressing degrees of disgust and dislike, but Ian commented that it might have been pretty until the Dark Lord got hold of it and fed it foul meats. We avoided discussion these.

Laura went on to remind us of the old saw that mammals retain an ancient hatred of reptiles. Ian thought it would be a remarkable race memory: a pygmy shrew being frightened by the last of the dinosaurs! Laura later picked up the theme when she remarked on the ancient fear being symbolically reversed when the White horse ‘overcomes’ the Black Serpent.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We then turned our attention to Tolkien’s use of the word ‘knight’ which, while appropriate perhaps for the knights of Dol Amroth in their shining plate armour, seems inappropriate for the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Rohirrim. There is no comparable word in Old English. As we observed, ‘Cniht’ does not have the same range of meanings, and has nothing to do with the feudal structure implicit in the medieval term ‘knight’. Ian offered an explanation of the specific use of the term during the battle. The events are being narrated, he suggested, from a Gondorian perspective and ‘knight’ represents that society’s name for someone who fights on horseback. Mike likened this to representations of Northmen according to the understanding of those they invaded or fought, not according to their own terminology.

This brought us to a discussion of the description ‘long spears and bitter’. Laura thought the idea of ‘bitter’ spears was a form known as a transferred epithet. Ian recalled similar constructions in Greek texts such as the Iliad, and I was reminded of Anglo-Saxon constructions but couldn’t remember if they were a form of rhetoric. In Anglo-Saxon grammar it turns out that they come under the heading of **‘the splitting of heavy groups’**, of which there are several kinds, but all show the same division of terms, including adjectives, that we would group together.

Ian then raised a query over the use of the word ‘blench’, wondering if it was a variant form of ‘blanch’. Julie and Laura wondered if there was a relationship was between turning pale and flinching, Laura thought blench was a term in its own right describing a kind of shuddering, flinching reaction. According to my dictionary, Laura is correct.

Laura also checked some queries for us in the White Book (as opposed to the Red Book) for Dwimmerlaik and the Variags.

“Dwimmerlaik: In the 1966 Index, Tolkien says that dwimmer-laik in the language of Rohan means "work of necromancy, spectre". It is derived from Middle English dweomer, Old English (ge)dwimor, - er "illusion, phantom" + Middle English -layk, -laik "play". Compare obsolete demerlayk "magic, practice of occult art" OED. See also the War of the Ring. OED also notes under -laik that "occasionally the suffix representing Old English -lac was in northern or north Midland texts written -laik, so that it becaame co-incident in form with the Scandinavian suffix (Old Norse -leikr) eg in "dwimmerlaik". I recall that, when we were reading The Silmarillion when Luthien is dancing in front of Morgoth and she puts out the lights, Tim saying "dwimmer switch"!

Variags of Khand: According to Index, Khand is a land south-east of Mordor "inhabitated by Variags". The OED notes that "in the old Russian chronicle of Nestor" Variags is used of the people usually named Varangians, "the Scandinavian rovers who in the 9th and 10th centuries overran part of Russian and reached Constantinople", a group of whom formed the Variangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor. This confirms what Ian had found at the time on his palantir.

Carol observed “the Nazgul lord paints a dire picture of Eowyn's captivity and I sometimes wonder about Tolkien's streak of gruesomeness.”

4:29 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

I asked if the ‘killing’ of the Nazgul is due to Eowyn herself because she is a woman rather than to the weapon she uses – could it be any weapon? Ian commented that Merry’s dagger has the power to ‘undo’ the spell on the unseen body, and Mike joined in the observation that it requires the combined efforts of Merry’s dagger and Eowyn to finish off the last part of the Undead ego.

Mike noted that the Nazgul is killed like a bull, and we spent some time configuring the exact position and relating this to the head-up posture depicted by P. Jackson.

Julie noted that in the book there is time for the ‘Hollywood gloat’ as the ‘bad guy’ announces his defiance, power, etc. and Julie went on to compare the heroism of Theoden whose body is broken with the folly of Denethor whose life is broken. Carol suggested that “Theoden will get many songs because it isn't the dying; it's the way you die.” Laura added the observation that while Theoden prepares to go to his ancestors with pride, Denethor lives and dies surrounded by his. We expressed some regret that he had succumbed to Sauron’s deceit, and Laura pointed out that although the last straw for him may have been the Corsair ships, Sauron’s deception turns back on him because he can’t know that Aragorn has taken them over. Carol commented that for us Aragorn’s arrival at the Harlond is a double relief: now we know he made it through the paths of the dead and he's also come at the 11th hour to help win the battle. So Aragorn and Eomer meet again ‘though all the hosts of Mordor lay between.’

Carol remarks on the wind from the west again, and that ‘Denethor reverts to the old modes of speech. He's very much on his dignity, and in his despair, like Saruman before him, sees conspiracy in Gandalf.’ Mike observed that Denethor repeats ‘vanity’ frequently in ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ and recalled that this is the theme of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, from which comes ‘vanity of vanities … all is vanity’. But Mike also remarked that the main thrust of the argument in that book is the willing relinquishing of all the accumulated trappings of life. This would be entirely apt as a background to Denethor’s desperate declaration of what he will not willingly give up.

Mike also pointed out that Gandalf challenges Denethor’s right to chose the hour of his death, while Laura remarked that as Denethor is only the steward he does not have the right given to the Kings to choose the hour their death. Laura also noted that Denethor prefers the line of Anarion in spite of his status as younger son. It was suggested that this was because Anarion didn’t make the grave mistake Isildur made in taking the Ring, and that Anarion founded Gondor when Isildur went north. I thought it was the potential unifying of the kingdoms that Denethor deplored, Carol thought Denethor was behaving like a petulant child.

Having run out of time again, we decided to read the next two chapters. ‘The Houses of Healing’ and ‘The Last Debate’. There’s plenty of time for this because almost everyone will be off to Oxonmoot on the 25th, so we will not meet again until the second Saturday of November. :-o

4:31 AM  

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