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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Reading Group meeting 11/6/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Our afternoon began with some discussions about Tolkien-related matters, including updates about Mike who was in hospital, and appreciation of the latest Mallorn which included some noteworthy pictures as well as Diane’s short story. So we started the actual consideration of the Letters rather later than usual, nevertheless, we got through all those we had set ourselves to read: letters 46-72.

Pat had been researching C.S.Lewis’s attitude to Tolkien following our reading of many letters in which Tolkien mentioned meeting CSL. Pat found Lewis quotes as referring to ‘golden sessions’ when they were relaxing in slippers, with a drink at hand. Very hobbit-like, as was Vicky’s observation that Tolkien really enjoyed marmalade!

Kathleen wondered about the number of short extracts from letters, and Chris pointed out that each extract has something to say about some work that Tolkien was preparing or had published.

Pat remarked that Tolkien complained about newspapers, late trains, divorce, situations regarding Protestants and Roman Catholics, and what he seemed to regard as the detrimental influence of the USA. Angela and Pat both commented that ‘nothing has changed’.

Pat also observed the extent of Tolkien’s affection for his youngest son, and the general feeling was that this is difficult for a modern readership to understand – at least in the very open mode of expression.

Laura noted that between letters 69 and 70 a week passes, and Tolkien seems very anxious at delays in writing, showing just how important letters were to Tolkien. Laura also noted Tolkien’s expression of affection for Priscilla and humour in letter 77 when he commiserates with her being alone at home with the ‘old grousers’ – meaning himself and Edith.

Pat was interested in the reference to Sam treating Gollum as Ariel treats Caliban in The Tempest. As we discussed this, seeing little connection in the published version, Kathleen wondered if Tolkien was picking up the theme of contempt in both relationships.

Laura commented on Tolkien’s assertion that the burnt hand teaches most about fire (64), but thought this was not the case in practice.

I then picked up what I perceived as the deep-rooted depression from which Tolkien seems to suffer, along with a good deal of sleep deprivation (e.g.53) when he is on Civil Defence night duty. Kathleen suggested that his Catholicism perhaps did not help and Laura noted the emphasis on guilt stemming from the doctrine of Original Sin. Following on from this, Vicky questioned he found no solace in his religion, but Laura remarked that he used his faith in times of difficulty and recommends to Christopher the ‘praises’ and the Canon of the Mass as a spiritual support (54).

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

Pat and Vicky then wondered if Tolkien questioned his faith. Chris observed that Letter 52 expresses Tolkien’s aversion to anti-Catholic state control, and that he defends his faith, and the situation that required a priest and a registrar in order to solemnise a Catholic marriage. Laura pointed out that it was long the case that Catholic priests were not empowered as registrars in the way that Anglican were so.

Laura then noted the prejudice and rudeness expressed in Tolkien’s account of a dinner at which a rectorship was being discussed and a colleague remarked within earshot that at least the job hadn’t gone to a Roman Catholic.

Pat noted the humour in Letter 53 such as ‘our cherub WSC’, meaning Churchill. Laura picked up the ‘baa baa’ reference which is part of a complaint about the spread of English. As we expressed some surprise at this, Chris pointed out that Tolkien liked languages and was complaining at the loss of variation as he perceived English, and American English at that, depleting that variety. This is the Letter in which he declared ‘I think I shall have to refuse to speak anything but Old Mercian.’

Still on the topic of humour, Vicky picked up Tolkien’s observation that he had ‘nibbled at the Hobbit’, actually meaning doing some work on LotR. Kathleen was entertained by his injunction ‘Have at the orcs!’.

Vicky and Kathleen remarked on Tolkien’s aversion to kingship of certain kinds in Letter 52, and Pat picked up his sharp response to the American soldier’s poor grasp of feudalism.

Laura noted the use of the OE word ‘hildenaeddran’ – war adders, and I wondered if this concept might have given rise to Tolkien’s creation of the serpent/dragon shaped war machines at the siege of Gondolin. I have now checked in the Clark hall OE dictionary, and ‘war adder’ is a kenning for an arrow! It seems to be unusual. It’s not in Beowulf, or The Battle of Maldon, but is in the OE translation of Judith. I don’t know this story properly, but Judith beheads the drunken Holofernes, and it seems to have been adopted into OE as propaganda against the Vikings.

Laura also noticed what she termed the ‘Beach Boys’ reference: ‘God ana wat’ which is indeed ‘God only knows’ in OE!

Pat commented approvingly of Tolkien’s various descriptions of nature as in the misty morning (61) and the autumn (50), and she saw in these the reflection of his beautiful renderings of natural scenery in LotR. This Letter also introduced more food, at least we ‘interpreted’ Tolkien’s mention of ‘going to hobnob’ in terms of biscuits, although it isn’t!

2:08 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

I had noticed a number of more obvious echoes of the text of LotR, such as ‘I have not tasted beer since Thursday’, echoing Gandalf’s musing in Moria ‘I have not tasted tobacco since …’ (63) and ‘inside a story’ (66), echoing Sam’s remark on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. Laura noticed Tolkien writing ‘we are trying to conquer Mordor with the Ring’, which is exactly what Gandalf and Elrond say cannot be attempted. The reference to there being ‘orcs on both sides’ in WW2 showed how clearly the opposing sides were differentiated in LotR against the confusion of reality.

I also wondered about the amount of gardening Tolkien had to do, and whether this might have influenced his creation of Sam the gardener, someone who would mow the lawns and weed the flower beds. Vicky and Chris observed that in the 1940s there were no electric mowers so the process took longer. Pat wondered if Tolkien might not have used the time as ‘thinking time’. Laura also remarked that Tolkien didn’t seem to be ‘digging for victory’ and turning his lawn into a vegetable patch.

As we ran out of time Laura summed up our discussion as covering War, Religion, and Biscuits.

We agreed to read on from Letter 73 to Letter 122.

2:11 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

On behalf of Julie who has been having problems posting here, I'm adding her comments:

About Tolkien's depression, that isn't uncommon in religious people. Modern Evangelicals give the impression it should be all "sunny side up" and if you can't grin and shout "YO!" at all times you are a failure, but that is bogus. I think people who are the most particularly spiritually aware are often those same folk who are most afflicted with mild mental illness, frequently in the form of depression and bipolar disorder. If you look at the lives of the great saints, you can often see patterns which modern psychologists would recognise come into these categories. e.g. St John of the Cross and his famous "dark night of the soul". Sometimes this comes from early experiences such as bereavement at a young age, like Tolkien. The bad "down times" are when it's particularly important to have rigid rituals and doctrines to cling to, which is why monastic discipline has so often been a lifeline to unhappy souls who might otherwise have gone on to commit suicide out of Denethor-like despair. GM Hopkins springs to mind. Also the Lady Julian of Norwich.

On the Protestant side, Cowper was a notorious depressive, also Anne Bronte (they were both victims of a Calvinist outlook - Anne was the youngest of the Brontes who were brought up by their Calvinist-influenced Primitive Methodist aunt from Cornwall after the death of their mother). Anne B struggled through her particular Calvinist Dark Night and rediscovered a loving C of E God shortly before her premature death from TB, but I don't know about Cowper.

1:15 PM  

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