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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Reading Group meeting 10/9/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

It certainly seems to be the case that our reading of the Letters involves more debate and less note-taking than our readings of Tolkien’s fiction. On the other hand, although we discuss only a few letters at a time it takes us 2 ½ hours at least! Our reading for this session was from Letter 156 to Letter 170.

We began with notice of other books that represent Tolkien’s own interests in fantasy. Laura had discovered some information about 2 books mentioned by Tolkien in these letters. One was The Worm Orobouros, the other was The Marvellous Land of Snergs which Tolkien thought might be an unconscious source for hobbits.

Anne began the discussion of the Letters right at the end of our selection, by asking why Tolkien says in 170 that if volume III of LotR was delayed much longer he would ‘be murdered’. Ian pointed out that while some preceding letters show the intensity of interest in the backstory and details of LotR, overall there had been an explosion in interest and a vastly increased fan base and he was under pressure to complete the Appendices to vol. III.

Pat directed us to Letter 156, asking why Tolkien should refer to Gandalf’s return as a ‘defect’ or ‘cheating’. Ian thought it was because it read like a deus ex machina device to enable the rest of the story. Mike added that it looked like a defect because the author seemed to be stuck and to need outside intervention, therefore creating a new ‘rule’ for things happening, which surprises readers. Ian referred us to Gandalf’s own account of what happened to him which shows the author’s decision is based on what Tolkien knows of the wider context and the possibilities it provides. The uninitiated reader knows nothing of the Istari and their missions, which will only be known once The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales come to publication. Mike observed that Tolkien’s use of ‘defect’ suggests he felt he could have done better for his readers. We see in other Letters how dissatisfied he was that LotR had to precede the publication of all the earlier mythology.

We considered the nature of Gandalf before and after his return and Ian referred us to role-playing games in which characters have special attributes which may be enhanced. Julie remarked that the returned Gandalf is not the same ‘person’.

Vicky asked what his new whiteness means. Laura explained it as a sign of power and of taking over from Saruman. Mike observed that Gandalf has new enhanced powers - and is now free to use them. Mike also picked up the significance of white as a sign of purity and suggested that before his fall in Moria Gandalf’s Greyness was a ‘filter’ signifying reduced power. Once he became white he was fully empowered. Ian expressed this slightly differently: Gandalf the Grey signified an attenuated version of Power.

Ian also noted that Gandalf could create fireworks before his fall, but does not create anything afterwards.

Anne asked where the white garment originated. I thought it was provided by Galadriel in Lothlorien.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We spent a great deal of time debating the echoes of the Resurrection in Gandalf’s return. Anne opened the debate and I saw echoes of the Harrowing of Hell and the Road to Emmaus. Julie corrected this impression seeing a closer relationship between Gandalf’s reappearance to the 3 Hunters and Christ’s transfiguration. Pat wondered if Tolkien would not have seen it as blasphemy to have reused the Resurrection. I proposed that it would be consistent with what I understood of Tolkien’s was of using sources to have blended various biblical incidents. It was proposed that this may not have been intentional, but inevitable in such a devout man.

Pat was greatly interested in Tolkien remark that we are all allegories. Anne objected that this seems contradictory because Tolkien often maintains that LotR is not an allegory. The two ideas are referring to different things. Tolkien asserts that LotR is not an allegory because allegory is a device used intentionally by an author and he did not create the surface, literal form of LotR with the intention that it should conceal and reveal any other meaning. That is not to preclude readers from creating their own interpretations.

Mike returned to Pat’s original observation of Tolkien’s remark and suggested that maybe we are all allegories because we are all made from the same ingredients, and because it is impossible to write a fictional story that is wholly disconnected from real life, our lives always signify more generic matters.

Mike went on to observe that Tolkien says in a letter that gave rise to 165 that he cannot distinguish duty and ‘private amusement’. The remark is in context a light-hearted insight into the way his delight in philology crossed over between his academic work and his creative writing, but Mike noted Tolkien’s obvious delight in visiting Venice and Assisi and seeing Rigoletto while there.

Laura remarked on the detailed lineage of the races in Letter 156, and sympathised with the Dwarves who were not created as the Children of Iluvatar. She wondered if this accounted for their irritability.

Mike then queried Tolkien’s occasional use of odd abbreviations in his letters such as shd. for should. I mentioned that studying medieval manuscripts acclimatises a writer to the use of abbreviations and frequent note-taking almost requires them for speed and convenience. Mike went on to query Tolkien’s use of the word ‘plagiarism’ when complaining that C.S. Lewis had used the term Numinor in his fiction. Ian suggested that the concept of plagiarism had not the same force as it has today. Tolkien in fact deflects his charge somewhat in the same letter, and elsewhere notes the difference between his Numenor – a Western land, and CSL’s Numinous, which contains the concept of something that is ‘numinous’

Anne remarked on the indications of Tolkien’s early love of linguistics as referred to several times in our selection of letters, and the development of this from his puzzlement over the correction by his mother of the ‘green great dragon’. The effect of this was queried, since it inhibited Tolkien’s early creativity. Anne went on to express an interest in Tolkien’s mention of ‘Men out of the Sea’ (163) and wondered if this was an indication of the inclusion of the collective unconscious.

A brief discussion of Jungian archetypes followed and Anne particularly mentioned the importance of the ‘old guide’ figure – one of the earliest defined – and seen in Gandalf, as opposed to the ‘senex’ the obstructive old man, seen perhaps in Denethor.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Mike remarked that in letter 156 the fate of the races at the reconfiguring of the world reminded him of AD 70, the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora. He also considered the Blessed Realm and its effect – drawing parallels with Plato as he considered whether it was the Realm itself that conferred blessing, or the proximity of those who dwelt there.

In 163, Pat picked up the link between language and legends – a theme Tolkien and Barfield both explored. Laura then picked up the remark that ‘linguistic tastes, with due allowance for school-overlay, are as good or better a test of ancestry as blood groups.’ This led Ian and me into a two-handed debate taking different perspectives as Ian focused on the accumulation of linguistic experience while I focused on the acquisition of language in early childhood. Sadly we did not have time to debate the issues fully, as we ran out of time.

Our next reading, allowing for Oxomoot, will be Letters 171-200 inclusive.

8:56 AM  

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