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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Reading Group meeting 23/4/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

In spite of declarations to the contrary that said St. George’s Day had been moved so as not to clash with Easter, we asserted our right to self-determination and celebrated St. George, and more particularly his dragon, with a meeting devoted entirely to Dragons.

Laura had brought in her online research into St. George. She had also found St George and the Dragon biscuits in a local Waitrose and we enjoyed munching through knights and their prey while considering the many dragons to be found in Tolkien’s works.

Julie and Mike were unable to be with us, but Julie sent by text a point for consideration. She wondered whether Smaug crashing into the Long Lake derived from the origins of dragons as water demons / divinites. Kathleen had brought along a book entirely on dragons, and confirmed our impression that this was part of the Eastern mythology of dragons, in which they are benign and beneficial. Laura noted that in this tradition they are also found depicted carrying the pearl of wisdom. We didn’t think there was a connection between Tolkien’s Smaug and the eastern tradition, but Julie’s proposition opened up a range of observations and thoughts.

Pat, joining us again after some months, wondered if dragons were always male, or whether there was evidence of female dragons. Angela reminded us of the large pink female in Shrek, and Laura observed that a female dragon called Tiamat was part of Babylonian mythology and was said to live in the sea. Kathleen found a reference to Tiamat in her book.

As we pondered the origins of the worldwide belief in dragons I wondered if the northern European ones owed anything to the biblical reference in which St. Michael battles the great Red Dragon who is Satan. Although OE shows some evidence of this, Laura referred us to the dragon ships of the Vikings known as drakr, which implies a pagan association. It was also noted that there is a Welsh tradition of the red dragon fighting the white dragon. The earliest I have found is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, (c. 1139) and it is part of his story of the childhood of Merlin, which is supposed to come from The Prophecies of Merlin, mentioned in a text of c.1135. But Geoffrey claimed to be working from earlier texts by writers such as Nennius (9th century).

Laura remarked that Glaurung was capable of chilling psychological torture, and Pat wondered if Glaurung was actually magic, or had ‘magic’ power. Laura pointed out that his eyes have a particular power, while his speech is like that of Saruman – able to influence listeners so he may be said to ‘cast spells’.

The widespread presence of dragons in modern stories was discussed. These stories include the ‘Earthsea’ series by Ursula le Guin, in which dragons are ridden; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has its own cast of dragons, the Harry Potter books include the baby Norwegian Ridgeback called Norbert, who sets fire to Hagrid’s beard, as well as the fully grown dragon in The Goblet of Fire. It was also noted that The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader includes a dragon.

2:58 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Returning to Tolkien, Laura observed that Chrysophylax Dives knows the value of treasure, as he bargains with Farmer Giles, while other dragons just seem to hoard it and sleep on it. Pat thought that connected in an interesting way with the idea of the Dragon’s Den TV programme, where the ‘dragons’ hoard their money until they spot a worthwhile money-making opportunity.

Pat and Laura noted that Tolkien develops a taxonomy of dragons; they are not all the same. There are the organic ones, and we discussed the differences between ‘worms’ and dragons. Angela noted that, like Smaug, Ancalagon the Black flies. Laura wondered if there was any relationship, other than an heraldic use, between dragons and wyverns. Angela observed that in the LotR Appendices there is an account of a dwarf being killed by a ‘cold-drake’, during a time when dragons made war on dwarves. Pat wondered if cold-drakes spout freezing breath?

Glaurung, hot as he is, leaves foul smelling slime wherever he goes. As Smaug gets gems stuck to his underside through long resting on his treasure we conjectured that dragon slime is very sticky. As Angela pointed out it also smells disgusting and Turin suffers a kind of sensory overload when attempting to stab Glaurung from below. It is unusual for a hero to be almost overwhelmed in this way.

Chris noted that a foul stench was also associated with Shelob, and again Sam is underneath her with his sword. I mentioned that in medieval texts a foul smell is always associated with the devil.

Apart from the organic dragons bred by Melkor, and ridden in some cases by Balrogs, he also has inorganic, mechanised dragons and worms created for his attack on Goldolin. Some are like siege engines, some like Trojan horses, carrying orcs inside them. Laura thought the mechanised versions were Tolkien’s transposition into Middle-earth of the tanks he had seen in WW1.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Chris and Angela brought us back to the Third Age by reminding us of 2 ‘domesticated’ dragons – the Green Dragon at Bywater, and Gandalf’s dragon firework. We discussed the likely effect of these on the hobbits. I wondered if there was any potential for an ‘after-effect’ since Bilbo had within living memory returned from seeing a real dragon. Angela thought it unlikely because they all thought Bilbo was ‘cracked’ anyway and Chris thought the reality of dragons was not believed. I asked if Gandalf’s reference to Ancalagon the Black showed a general knowledge of dragon-lore in the Shire, but Angela reminded us that Ted Sandyman regarded such things as fairytales. Kathleen considered the hobbits to be trusting rather than anxious, and Chris thought they were too insular to worry about distant dragons. Pat remarked that rural communities can still be very parochial.

We went on to consider why so many cultures share a belief in dragons, whether they are dangerous of benign. I reiterated the idea that in pre-history people developed dragon myths to explain the presence of huge bones. In the absence of any conclusion Laura proposed that it may be a folk that goes back to the time when we were tiny mammals sharing the planet with the dinosaurs.

For our next reading we will be venturing into The Letters and we agreed to take as long as we need to get through them. We have not set any specific amount of reading for our next meeting, and it seems likely that the whole collection will take quite a few sessions to cover completely. As Chris remarked, the Letters are also likely to prompt many side issues and special topics.

Profound apologies for the late post.

3:00 AM  

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