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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading Group meeting 27/8/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Apologies for the lack of blogs recently owing to my non-attendance, but having rejoined the company I’m now able to write up that discussion, although that will still leave a gap in the flow of debate about the letters. As always, the report is in several parts.

Yesterday we tackled Letter 145-155, and found plenty of material in just these 10.

Pat began our deliberations by pondering the similarity between Tom Bombadil and Sam as they are unaffected by the Ring. Chris pointed out that Sam is actually affected in Mordor. Angela picked up Tolkien’s observation that the hobbits are all changed by their experiences, but when he refers to Sam the implication seems to be that he is less changed than the others, and Pat revised her query, suggesting that Tom and Sam share a closeness to the earth and growing things that in some way ‘protects’ them.

We all went on to discuss the differentiation Tolkien makes in 151 between organised agriculture and a profound interest in things that grow. We covered the matter of the Entwives – apparently horticulturalists – and farmer Maggott, from the perspective of Tolkien’s dislike of ‘agriculture’. He suggests elsewhere that the Entwives whose gardens east of Anduin were destroyed by Sauron (and became the Brown Lands) may have been taken as captives to Mordor and there forced to establish the agriculture that fed Sauron’s slaves and soldiers. Julie suggested these would have been like ‘collective farms’ in the USSR. We the made the distinction between industrial agriculture and Farmer Maggott’s kind of agriculture which Laura proposed would have been more natural and organic.

This brought us on the modern manipulation of genetic material as an abuse of nature. Laura cited Dolly the sheep as an example of this and of the kind of thing that might be expected in Mordor. Chris noted that this replicated the idea that Sauron could not actually create even though he could pervert and manipulate.

We spent a good deal of time and mental energy discussing Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation, and Anne eventually suggested that much of the difficulty caused by the various aspects of sub-creation that are raised in and by Tolkien’s works could be illuminated by closer definition of the various meaning of the verb ‘create’.

Julie remarked that the letter we were concentrating on was written by the proprietor of a Catholic book shop, and although Tolkien in an earlier letter had declared LotR to be fundamentally a Catholic text, in letter 151, as Pat noted, he protests that his correspondent is taking it too seriously and ‘over-reading’ it when he raises the problem of Tom as he is named by Goldberry.

The problem on which Tolkien was challenged was the potentially blasphemous reply to Frodo’s question ‘Who is Tom?’ to which Goldberry replied ‘he is’. We were on Tolkien’s side when he rejected any possibility of mistaking this for an allusion to God, taking it simply as an identification.

I wondered if there was a problem, however, with Goldberry’s assertion that Tom is ‘the master’ when Tolkien also asserts that Tom doesn’t want power over anything, even the Willow, yet he does exert power over the Willow when he forces it to release Merry and Pippin. Angela remarked that in the earlier Tom Bombadil poem, Tom seems to exert some power or authority over everything he encounters, intimidating the badgers. I added the abducting of Goldberry, but Angela thought as she made the first move this ameliorated Tom’s response.

After some fairly strenuous deliberation over these matters, Anne lightened the mood with her observation of the matter of nasturtians. I noted that Tolkien complained elsewhere of over-pedantic typesetters who insisted on changing his spellings of elves, and dwarves. His spelling of nasturtians and his account of the college gardener’s learned response ‘I calls them tropaeolum’ and then colloquial response ‘nasturtians’ when ‘talking to dons’, and nasturtiums when referring to watercress, amused us.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Anne went on to question the meaning and distinction of goeteia from magia as referred to in letter 155. Angela directed our attention to the endnotes which gave ‘goeteia’ as deriving from Greek and signifying the Dark Arts – necromancy etc. while as Tolkien notes magia was ‘held to be’ good. Pat noted the various uses of magia mentioned by Tolkien and his observation that Sauron used goeteia to terrify and subjugate, but used magia to have an effect on the physical world.

Laura expressed an interest in Tolkien’s use of the word ‘embalmers’ in 154 to signify negatively the attitude of Elves and Numenoreans as this was then demonstrated physically in the Gondorian practice of entombment, and the Elves desire to statis.

Chris and Pat discussed C.S. Lewis’s remark that there was too much hobbitry in the opening chapters of LotR. Chris observed that however much hobbitry there was it was justified by the fact that the reason of LotR initially was that the public wanted more about hobbits after the publication of The Hobbit. Tolkien does acknowledge in other letters that he would have included more but was persuaded against it.

Mike remarked that in the case of the critical reviews to which Tolkien responds, these say more about the critics than LotR itself. The observation that some critics seem not to have read the book at all before criticising its style and content prompted Laura to remind us of the infamous case of Germaine Greer’s comments which were similarly biased without reference to the text. Chris added that critics didn’t know what to make of the book at the time anyway.

Laura introduced the topic of Arwen’s need to choose immortality or death as Tolkien responds to this in 153. Angela picked up the fact that she is actually closer to her Elvish ancestry being ¾ Elf via her mother. We all noted that nothing is decided in the book concerning the choices of Arwen’s brothers, who must have had the right, if not the necessity, to choose.

Pat picked up a reference in 154 to the flat world and asked if Middle-earth was flat. Laura ably explained in brief the process of the ‘bending’ of Arda when the West became inaccessible except to the Elves after the drowning of Numenor.

We agreed to read letters 156-170 for our next meeting on 10th Sept.

4:09 AM  

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