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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reading Group meeting 28/5/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Our reading of Tolkien’s Letters is proving challenging and we spent a while at this meeting trying to work out a ‘methodology’ for proceeding. We had become aware that reading at our own pace was starting to cause problems so it was felt that we should set ourselves a number of pages to read and read up to a certain Letter each time. In the absence of Chris and Angela, and Carol, we tried to work out how to make sure that next time we can all start off together. This means that some of us will hardly have any reading to do for next time, while others have the chance to catch up.
It was also proposed that we should have a series of topics to keep in mind as we read so that they could be compared between Letters. The topics proposed included autobiographical material, remarks on publishing, responses to published books, historical insights, humour, comments on nature of all kinds.
As an option, it was suggested that we might also nominate a particularly long or dense letter for discussion.
These suggestions are not the limits of what we might do, but will hopefully enable us to work more coherently, but we will see how it works out.

***In order to level things up we agreed to read from Letter 47 to letter 72, which is about 50 pages. You’ll notice that we have already covered many of the Letters included here, but some of us haven’t actually read them yet! Hence the need to let those people catch up.

On to the report proper: references to Letters are by number in brackets throughout. Angela and Chris sent their comments, and Carol, in spite of her ongoing difficulty, sent a short comment. She wrote “Near the beginning it mentions Tolkien going up to Exeter as an undergrad. In the reign of Edward II, Walter Stapledon was bishop in Exeter, and it was he who founded Exeter College and Tolkien’s Stapledon exhibition. While Walter did a lot for education, he was also very avaricious and persuaded Edward to take away all his wife Isabella’s incomes and to have her children removed from her. Stapledon was also friends with Hugh le Despenser, Edward’s favourite, who was thought cruel and rapacious even in cruel times. So in 1326 when things went against Edward in England, Stapledon was beheaded by the London mob on 16th Oct.”
Chris and Angela’s comments are added in as we came to them.

Laura opened proceedings with her observation of Tolkien’s humour, particularly in his reference to the furor Teutonicus (45) which she noted was a pun on Fuhrer. Kathleen added that in the same letter Tolkien referred humorously to Mummy (Edith) ‘carrying off’ Christopher’s letter.

Pat noted that ‘Mummy and Priscilla’ are usually reduced to M & P, but are rarely mentioned. Angela and Laura observed Tolkien’s mention of having to cut short a session with friends in order to meet Edith and Priscilla for lunch (60), and Angela noted his comment that he had “No-one to speak his thoughts to now Christopher is away.” Angela asked ‘What about his intelligent wife?’ Then, (66): being able to get some peace because ‘Mummy and P’ had gone out,” and (73): he “lived for Christopher’s letters - life at home was boring”.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Chris commented that “Tolkien appears to be against feminism (53) but could be seen as a bit of a snob when he disparages a building by comparing it with a ‘girls’ council school (58) - as well as showing his attitude towards women - why not compare it with a boys’ council school. Angela also remarked on Tolkien’s disapproval of feminism “which he seems to regard as bound up with Americanisation”. Like Chris, she noted the specific mention of the ‘girls’ school’.

In response to our concerns about Tolkien’s attitudes as suggested here, Ian pointed out that most of the letters are to male academic or professional correspondents and that Edith and Priscilla were there at home. With regard to the school building, Ian took this as pure Edwardian male elitism. Laura wondered if it was done with humour but Ian thought it was not but simply characteristic of someone of Tolkien’s age and background.

Laura went on to note Tolkien’s use of the word ‘cad’ as part of class-based vocabulary

Vicki wondered what Edith’s illness actually had been. We didn’t know at that point, and I haven’t been able to track down the information yet.

Anne remarked on how poetic some of Tolkien’s comments are such as ‘putting foot in much desired sheets.’ Ian observed that this suggested Tolkien’s philological bias and understanding of language as sound. Anne added her thoughts on Tolkien’s use of assonance. Chris noted that “The letters also show Tolkien’s brilliant use of language e.g. (61) when he talks about ‘head-harvest reaped’ for a haircut.”

Pat, staying with language’ noted Tolkien’s observations in (93) of the connection between flower names and animals. Angela noted the description of the birch trees - reflecting detailed descriptions of nature in LotR (50). And in 61: Description of the dawn: sun, trees, narcissuses. Pat was generally impressed by the ‘nature narrative’ in the Letters, while Laura remarked on the perpetual problem of lawns!

Anne asked about the use of the 2 forms ‘Uruk’ and ‘Urukhai’. Ian explained that the first was a generic name, while the second was a distinct ‘cast’ of these warriors.

On the topic of Orcs, Angela noted (66): “Bewailing war, organisation, camp conditions, stupidity: "For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs." (However Letter 71 notes that Orcs actually appear on both sides in real life.)

Kathleen asked what it was that Tolkien’s mother passed on to him, and Ian remarked that it was education in an informal environment. Kathleen then noted that these were not all of Tolkien’s letters.

Pat wondered about C.S.Lewis’s opinion of Tolkien, as we hear Tolkien’s about Lewis. There is a footnote to (92) [jumping ahead a bit] in which Lewis’s less than flattering observations are recorded.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Julie, Chris and Angela picked up Tolkien’s remarks concerning apartheid and the Jewish problem. Laura wondered if his focus was on the Boers. Chris commented that Tolkien is outspoken in defence of his Jewish friends as well as attacking racism as seen in South Africa (61).

Chris commented that “Apart from detailing Tolkien's day-to-day life in war time Oxford - e.g. descriptions of food shortages, Civil Defence activities, the unwelcome sound of air raid sirens and, unknown to him, the build up of military traffic for D-Day etc. - they also show Tolkien's views on politics, war, social issues and the family.

To me Tolkien comes over as fairly reactionary in his outlook on world politics. Letter 65 shows his dislike of Churchill and attacks globalisation of business (I can't imagine what he would think now!). Tolkien even doubts whether an allied victory would be of benefit to the population (letter 65). This may be partly because he does not like America's influence over events and he is certainly disparaging about the way English has been ruined by the Americans "English wiped over a dirty sponge" (letter 58).

Laura took this to be another example of Tolkien’s humour.

Ian observed that Tolkien hated globalisation (53), the homogeneous nature of the world, and the way wireless was destroying thought and the power to listen – this destroying convertsation.

Chris also observed that Tolkien clearly dislikes war and feels sorry for all the displaced people, however he says that there is a need to combat evil (letter 64). His views on freewill/predestination come over in letter 61 "We are in God's hands. Our lot has fallen on evil days: but that cannot be by mere chance".

I think the most striking theme which appears throughout many of his letters is his love for his son. This seems to go beyond a "normal" relationship as shown in (64) “And you were so special a gift to me, in time of sorrow and mental suffering, and your love, opening at once almost as soon as you were born, foretold to me, as it were in spoken words, that I am consoled ever by the certainty that there is no end to this. ... and certain we have some special bond to last beyond this life”. Tolkien is very dependent on Christopher for his views on his works but the bond seems to be much greater than this. As these are only excerpts from Tolkien's letters it is difficult to match his feelings for Christopher against those of his other children and his wife, but it does appear that the timetable he leads would leave very little room for spending non- working time at home with his wife.

Angela too commented: Tolkien obviously had a special bond with Christopher whom he addressed as: "My dearest", "Dearest", or "Dearest Chris".I wonder what John and Michael felt about his extreme (obsessive?) closeness to their younger brother.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Chris naturally remarked “I like Tolkien's mention of Gollum turning into an intriguing character in letter 70.” While Angela picked up the “appearance” of Faramir, apparently not by any design of Tolkien’s!

Angela observed “I find some of JRRT's views and attitudes difficult to stomach, citing among other things Letter 49: On Christian and civil marriages, and divorce.

She also picked out as relevant to LotR:

Letter 52: "Nolo episcopari..." Someone who doesn't want to be a bishop, or to give orders to others etc., is the best person for the job. Compare Frodo saying (in LotR 1.2) that he was not made for perilous quests.

Letter 69: Re predominance of wickedness over good, which is always more hidden.

Letter 73: Memories from childhood and beyond - chose to express his thoughts via his secondary world rather than trying to write own memoirs.

Letter 74: Michael was clearly very mentally damaged by war experiences. Implications for condition of Frodo after the destruction of the Ring, and perhaps partly explains why Aragorn was prepared to be lenient to the faint-hearted at the Morannon - he knew the damage which might result from forcing them to continue.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Angela commented: “At the moment I'm finding it difficult to reconcile some of Tolkien's apparent views with his actual writing. Two contradictions which stand out are that he does not appear to condone apartheid in South Africa (at least that's my interpretation of Letter 61), but then in LotR we get the descriptions of Sauron's black Uruks, and the black men "like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues" who turn up on Sauron's side at Pelennor Fields.
Laura noted that as in Herman Melville’s work, so in Tolkien’s, white can be a symbol of evil – citing Moby Dick the white whale, and Saruman the White and the sign of the White Hand.

I added that as a medievalist working within the framework of medieval romance (71), and of myth and legend, it would be part of the ‘decorum of the genre’ to use black more often the white as the symbolic colour for the powers opposed to goodness. It is not a sign of personal or political prejudice as this would be to confuse the author with his source materials.

Angela picked up a quote relevant to this discussion: Letter 64: Re misery and waste of war - soon forgotten by those who come after. "If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dark dense vapour..." Reminiscent of Sauron's darkness. Also the unexpected good sprouting amid the power and success of evil.”

Ian suggested that colours in LotR mark out good and evil but (61) the British in 1944 did not regard the mix of races in South Africa as an issue to be solved. The issue in SA was not the same issue in UK, at least for Tolkien, and it would be inaccurate to apply the same rationale in LotR that was found in SA. The Godorians do not apply apartheid.

I suggested however that we do see Eomer’s prejudice against the Dunlendings, and their hatred as marginalised by the colonising Rohirrim, and also the Dunlendings’ domination and manipulation by Saruman.

Angela was also concerned because “You have [Tolkien’s] apparent attitude to women in real life, then his writings have characters like Galadriel, Lúthien, Idril and Arwen too (if we delve past the superficial impression of her) with their courage, strength, wisdom and power - not to mention the important roles they play. Mustn’t forget young Éowyn either!”

This will no doubt be a topic that will be discussed again. In the meantime, we will be allowing everyone to catch up so that we can then read on together. For some of us that will mean having nothing but a bit of revision to do as
our reading for the weekend is
Letters 47-72.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Ian Spittlehouse said...

SA Apartheid 1948 - 1994
Separate institutions for white and black espoused by Smuts in the late 1920's

5:17 AM  

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