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Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading Group meeting 14/5/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

This week we began our reading of the Letters of JRRT, and it was my feeling that, fascinating as they are, we found them, as far as we had read, rather a challenge from the perspective of discussion. Most of us had read some, if not all of them before, and we had not set ourselves a specific number of pages to read, but most of us had had time to get up to or beyond Letter 43.

Angela began the discussion by commenting on the amount of family illness Tolkien records in the first 43 letters. I added that there also seemed to be a good few Christmases spoilt by illness.

Julie wondered if the tone of Letter 43 to Tolkien’s second son Michael reflected the hard life Tolkien had had – hardly knowing his father, then, as Angela noted, losing his mother before he was in his teens.

Laura remarked on the sadness of anyone having fought in one war and then seeing another one coming to endanger their sons. And also Tolkien’s passing mention that he had needed to sell his remaining South African shares (he described them as his ‘patrimony’) to pay for the birth of his eldest son John.

Laura went on to comment on Tolkien’s emphasis in Letter 43 on the fallen world of sin as opposed to the consolation of the Sacrament, and we considered the effect of the Roman Catholic emphasis on Original Sin on Tolkien’s attitudes towards relationships as expressed in the letter.

We also remarked on the very open relationship between father and son that seems to have enabled Tolkien to write so openly about sex. Mike objected that this might indicate a very distant relationship, and that Tolkien may have had one eye on the possibility of his own memoirs being written up one day, knowing how this happened with other famous writers and professors.

Anne, joining us again after a long break, wondered if this was also reflected in Tolkien’s anxiety to have his maps returned – was he, she proposed, thinking about his own archive.

Laura said she had not been reading his requests like that. Neither had I, but I was struck by his ambiguous attitude to his own work, especially his illustrations. Angela remarked that his paradoxical attitude suggests he felt emotionally exposed, and was trying to offset the distress of rejection and criticism by criticising his work first.

Kathleen asked about the editing of the Letters, why some had been selected and some cut. Angela noted that those from years 1925-1937 were missing from the selection, and Chris pointed out that those chosen, and the selected extracts of others, generally contained information about the major works.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Anne noted Tolkien’s own comment about cutting down his letters before sending them, making letter-writing a much longer process than just sending what he actually wrote first time.

I thought in Letter 28 there was (for me) unexpected evidence of Tolkien’s engagement in politics as he supported the election of a ‘non-establishment’ poet to the chair of Poetry. Ian suggested it was only a matter of University politics. I thought it showed an attitude having a wider significance. Julie commented on Tolkien’s profoundly anti-Nazi stance, and Chris and Angela observed that in Italy Tolkien has been constructed as very right-wing. Mike commented that he is indeed very ‘royalist’ in his creative writing, and we got into a discussion about absolute monarchy. Angela defended Aragorn’s legitimate kingship and pointed out the fate of bad Numenorean and Gondorian kings. Mike added that kingship depends on the good will of the people – hence the representation of nobility and virtue. I took Mike’s reference to the ‘good will of the people’ to be evidence of a post English Civil War interpretation of kingship.

Laura and Ian then picked up Tolkien’s dislike of the apparent irrationality of Celtic (especially Welsh) literature. I thought this was strange for a writer concerned with myth-making, because the oldest Welsh stories contain mythic elements. Ian remarked that language always came first for Tolkien, and Laura likened Celtic storytelling to broken stained glass, citing the tale of Cromwell’s troops who destroyed the West Window of Winchester cathedral. The local people collected all the fragments but couldn’t put them back in the right forms, so the window remains a jumble of ancient elements, much like the ancient and inaccessible (to modern readers) elements in Welsh stories.

Chris observed that Tolkien was more of a scientist as regards language, than a narrator.

Anne was impressed by Tolkien’s letter of application for the Anglo-Saxon professorship.

I was glad to have an explanation as regards the wearing of boots by hobbits after worrying about their feet on the Redhorn Pass. But Chris pointed out that in LotR by the time they reach the Pool in front of the Door, Frodo at least isn’t wearing boots as he shudders at the touch of the water on his feet.

Laura was pleased to discover the evidence for hobbits having slightly pointed ears. And on more serious matters, in Letter 5 – Tolkien’s reaction to news of the loss of a friend in WW1 - she thought there was a hint of the Company in the TCBS. It was remarked that some of his comments on the one remaining seem to be reflected later when the remaining members of the Fellowship mourn Boromir. This reminded me of a strange episode in Spenser’s Faerie Queene where 3 brothers are given the divine ability of transmigration of their souls, so as one dies his soul passes to the next, and then when he dies the compounded soul passes to the third brother.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Anne picked up Tolkien’s use of the term ‘winnowing’ in the same letter as unusual and significant. Mike and I associated it with biblical references to filtering good and bad. Anne was interested in the sense of destiny implied in Tolkien’s comments.

Kathleen noted the implication that survival was not expected. Laura added that the effect of Tolkien’s trench fever, thought not fatal, may perhaps have been the factor that ruined his long-term health.

We went back to Letter 43 at this point, discussing Tolkien’s remarks to Michael about not making a girl wait for marriage. We all noted how Tolkien and Edith had to wait to marry, that she got engaged in the meantime, and Tolkien wrote to her as soon as he reached majority at 21. We noted Tolkien’s assertion that women are naturally monogamous and men are not, attributing this perhaps to the prevailing attitudes of the times in which Tolkien grew up and formulated his ideas of women. The most difficult part of our discussion turned on the word ‘mortification’. Its significance in terms of Catholic ‘mortification of the flesh’ did not seem sufficient, but we could not reach a more developed understanding of possible interpretations at that time.

We went on to easier matters as Julie noted that in Letter 33 Tolkien refers to the ‘Lord of the Ring’ in the singular. And I noted Tolkien’s remark that in The Hobbit he had used up all his motifs and themes, and this seemed to explain why he extended some of the familiar episodes from that book. Chris pointed out that in the sequel he needed to use hobbits, and added more of them. Angela pointed out the reference to ‘too much hobbit talk’ in the original early chapters of LotR, and Tolkien’s and Christopher’s personal delight in this. The rustic nature of even as much as remains in the published version may suggests a delight in dialect, if it doesn’t suggest anything else, but Angela also drew our attention to Letter 39 and the use of the term ‘simple’. When we read LotR on both occasions we discussed Aragorn’s remarks about defending the Shire and Bree. Playing devil’s advocate, I had asked if Aragorn’s attitude was patronising and demeaning. It was generally thought not, and Letter 39 shows how Tolkien himself related to people who were less educated in all respects, and less familiar with the wider world than those people among whom he lived and worked.

Apart from our discussions of the letters and their varied topics, I asked if everyone would give some more thought to how best to disseminate the blog compilations Mike has created.

We also agreed to go on reading the Letters as far as we each have time.

1:14 PM  

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