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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading Group meeting 27/11/10


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

After the activity of the previous 2 chapters, our material for this afternoon was a matter of endurance, some of the grimmest reading in the whole story as we tackled ‘The Land of Shadow’ and ‘Mount Doom’.

But before we got started we spent a merry time looking at this year’s Tolkien calendar, thanks to Laura for sharing it with us. It provoked reactions of disbelief, dismay, and not a little hilarity. We did try to work out why Gollum looked like a duck, and some images could be rationalised but others didn’t work for us. I thought the style looked vaguely like Chagall, Laura pointed out a pertinent use of light and dark images, but it was a challenge for some of us after all the years of John Howe, Ted Naismith, and Roger Garland.

We also began the debate about what comes next once we have finished LotR for the second time. Various options arose, including reading some of the criticism that accompanied the original publication of the books, getting to grips with Beowulf, and tackling the Kalevala. No decision has been made yet, but we now have some options to consider.

And so we began our discussion of the chapters. I opened proceedings by wondering if wemight see the opening sentence of ‘The Land of Shadow’ in symbolic terms, as Sam ‘thrust the phial back into his breast’. We know he must be returning it to some pocket or fold in his shirt but that is not how it reads. The words suggest he thrusts the phial with its potential light actually into his body ‘back into his beast’. I wondered therefore if we could see this as a symbol of the light of Sam’s spirit.

Angela remarked on the treatment of Sam’s inner strength throughout the chapters. Carol noted that ‘Sam here starts to use what is his destiny, being a father. He fathers Frodo through Mordor, always trying to come up with something positive or homespun to say’. Laura noted Frodo’s surprise at Sam falling asleep and Chris observed that it revealed how little he yet understood of all Sam’s labours to find him.

Ian and Laura picked this up and led the comments on Sam being chivvied by Pippin back in the woods of the Shire to wake up, but Ian went on to observe that Sam’s enthusiasm also energises others. Carol noted ‘another bit of hope when Sam sees the star,’ and he seems able to gain strength from his perception of and contact with or belief in the power that the stars variously represent.

After some debate we moved on as Laura noted that in the reference to the Black Rider on his fell beast on the Tower battlements the two are conflated as it is the Nazgul that is ‘perching’ on the wall, rather than specifically its steed.

Chris noted another instance of Tolkien providing a hint of future action when Sam says he would be willing to carry Frodo, which is what later happens.

Laura remarked on a piece of characteristic understatement when Frodo thinks he may have got a chill after being struck down by Shelob and then being tortured by the orcs! Ian commented that this seems reminiscent of the kind of soldiers’ reports of hardship and wounding, often played down so as not to upset families.

4:00 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Chris commented on the fact that even the flies in Mordor carry the red eye. Ian picked this up and remarked that Edwardian society – Tolkien’s cultural background – were manipulating nature in various ways.

Carol noted the wind change again, from Mordor this time, leading us to a check-in of the date. And Chris also commented on the parallel timing that comes to the fore now. We considered the structure of the opening chapters of Book 6 in comparison to the final ones of Book 5 as we get different accounts that shed additional light on events on either side of the Mountains, comparisons of events, and the switching of viewpoints that create tension.
Angela remarked that Sauron now seems to be struggling, and Laura observed that he is now literally neutered as he is named using neuter ‘it’ pronouns. Chris noted that Sauron is not an active participant in events, and Angela commented that the management of Mordor seems to have gone awry. I wondered if Tolkien was creating a commentary on the problems of centralised power. Chris commented on the unsettling details of the use of slave labour, and areas specific to this.

Chris went on to note that after Sam’s story of his search and Gollum’s teachery Frodo gives up his weapons. Carol identified this as the first hint of Frodo’s pacifism.

We briefly ended up back with Laura’s calendar as a reference point when Laura noted that Gollum is again referred to as being black in this chapter, but most images of him – still or moving – depict him as being white. Laura also remarked that one image of Gollum long ago by Pauline Baynes had shown him like a Michelin Man. Vicki remarked that it must have looked like a puffer jacket. We all accepted the idea that anything living so long underground would become pallid, and then Ian proposed that the description ‘black’ should perhaps be taken as a designation of Gollum’s attitude rather than his appearance.

Moving on, Chris thought Sam’s anxiety about food might have been the least of his worries, and it was then noted that their journey is now based on an out-of-date map. Angela commented that Frodo remembers the complicated north-west corner, and Laura wondered if the detail was due to Tolkien remembering something he had seen that was as complex, perhaps something from one of his alpine journeys. Carol observed ‘dale’ seems an incongruous word to set with Udun as ‘dale’ conjures up green valleys and fertility but Udun is an desert and used earlier in the connotation of hell: Balrog - flame of Udun.

Carol also noted that Gollum in an inadvertent way helps put the orcs off the scent, and that just little bits of help plus the resolve of the mortals get the quest completed. Angela also remarked on the usefulness of distractions. Laura remarked that there is a lot of ‘flitting’ in Mordor. I wondered at the ease with which Frodo and Sam fall alseep, and Ian suggested that this implies that they may not be really terrified. Laura, on the other hand, thought it might be a sign that they had given up hope, but Ian countered this with the observation that they press on with their journey and do not give up. Angela, speaking from experience, added that walking over very rocky ground is wearying.

4:01 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

I commented that the little orcs are driven by Uruk slave-drivers who make them run and slave soldiers don’t suggest a very loyal army, although they may be just the Mordor equivalent of ‘cannon-fodder’. Ian remarked that this whip-driven run is the antithesis of Aragorn’s command to his men who could not fight that they should turn aside to other duties but NOT run. Ian also noted the further antithesis of the Uruk’s where there’s a whip there’s a will, and Sam’s more usual ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’

Angela concluded there is no deodorant for orcs, but Ian suggested the Uruk’s ‘freshener’ might imply a new Lynx deodorant ‘Lash’.

Like Carol, we all noticed the colloquial exchange of information between orcs: ‘They've done in Number One’. Carol also noted that the “meeting” of troops at Udun is embellished in the radio serial with some orc swearing: ‘you maggot-ridden bag of bile; you filthy flea-bitten dung heap.’

Ian noted the subtle difference between synchronicity and decisions made not from knowledge but from necessity and independently on either side of the Mountains.
Chris thought Sam’s assessment of Gandalf sending Frodo on the quest serves as a hint of things to come, and Laura commented on Sam’s strength. Chris then noted Sam’s practicality, while Laura noted his sadness. Carol observed that Sam doesn't despair for long but when he does, new courage come of it. She went on ‘this is the timid gardener who was frightened of being turned into a toad less than a year before. Now the fate of Middle-earth rests on his fortitude. Chris remarked that Frodo is too tired to argue with Sam.

It was noted that Frodo and Sam experience conditions similar to hallucinations, and it was reasoned that they are drinking water that is clearly polluted and so may be suffering from some kind of poisoning.

Ian wondered if Sam realised the significance of Frodo saying he cannot give up the Ring, even before they reach Mount Doom. Carol noted that Sam turn a simple pig-a-back into a life-saver.

Chris and Ian remarked that Gollum achieves what Sam doesn’t, by freeing Frodo of the requirement to give up the Ring. Ian thought Sam earlier intended to complete the quest, but would not have. Chris also thought he would not have managed because he didn’t know where they were going. Carol observed ‘Gollum's back, the instrument of grace’ and Sam finds pity for Gollum and is rewarded as Frodo's prediction about Gollum going into the fire takes effect.

Carol remarked on ‘Frodo’s ‘moral’ failure as some have called it, noting that they don't account for Frodo’s toil and torment. He’s resisted all this time.’ Chris remarked, however, that no one actively destroys the Ring. It’s own corrupting influence destroys it. Angela qualified this by commenting that the good assist the process.

After an afternoon of quite intense discussion and debate we agreed to read the next 2 chapter ‘The Field of Cormallen’ and ‘The Steward and the King’.

4:02 AM  

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