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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Reading Group meeting 8/10/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We began our meeting with lots of ‘any other business’ as Oxonmoot had intervened since last time. Much information was exchanged and it was also confirmed that the Southfarthing would invite the young writers from the Derby area to come and join us for TRD next year. With these matters out of the way, we proceeded to the Letters – 170 to 200.

Laura began with 171, and remarked on Tolkien’s response to being challenged over his choice of linguistic styles to characterise Theoden and others. His precision in defining the difference between a truly archaic style and a kind of false archaism based on ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and reinstating old verb endings led to him citing the kind of ‘genuine’ archaic form such as ‘thou (n) wost’ = you (informal) did not know’ which would have been unintelligible to many of his readers, and in the case of Theoden would have been rather too modern! Angela noted that there appear to have been many criticisms of Tolkien’s ‘inconsistent’ style. Ian remarked that this showed a misunderstanding of the difference between a truly historical perspective and a modern version of it, and that Tolkien was intent on matching a character’s language to his/her mindset. Laura continued to be surprised at the inability of critics to perceive the rightness of the vocabulary Tolkien uses, and his linguistic constructions.

Ian then suggested that in fact Tolkien’s style could be regarded as a kind of ‘lecture’ on best practice in linguistic characterisation. Mike thought the critics’ problems stemmed from their exposure to the effects of ersatz ‘Hollywood-medieval’ language. [Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe springs to mind!]

Mike continued with the observation that Tolkien’s historical [or historicising?] intention requires the use of ‘real’ forms of language. Ian backed this up, saying that Tolkien’s languages make his legends live, and as he points out, Middle-earth is not imaginary, only the historical period.

As we discussed the ‘mythology for England’ I mentioned the concept of the ‘lost’ mythology and Ian suggested that Tolkien felt it was lost to him, that it took the form of words and sounds, and it is this that he seeks to recover. Tolkien’s O’Donnell lecture, about which he expresses reservation, seems to bear this out, at least in its revised form as ‘English and Welsh’.

Chris picked up the politics in Letter 183 and its resonance with Beowulf. Frodo’s duty, Tolkien says, was humane not political. Beowulf’s heroic deeds are more politically motivated. From the same letter Angela remarked upon the strength of Tolkien’s condemnation of Denethor, who he regards as having become a political leader because he put Gondor before any other consideration.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Mike noted that Tolkien is capable of seeing and representing many shades of grey in his writing, but still polarises good and evil into black and white. Kathleen thought that over long years of writing he had had plenty of time to consider all aspects. Mike added that Tolkien always seems to believe in a supreme Arbiter upon whom right and wrong are founded, and he allows no possibility that there might not be any Arbiter at all, so morality becomes a matter of personal conscience. I wondered if it would be possible for a devout Catholic like Tolkien ever to admit the possibility of this.

Anne asked why Tolkien thought he needed to produce a mythology for England – what about the Arthurian myths? Laura noted that Arthur was originally more Celtic and French. We all took turns in explaining Tolkien’s aversion to the imposition of Celtic or Continental mythologies on the English people and wanted a specifically English form, born out of the English language and the mindset it conveys.

Ian explained that early paleontologists created myths of giants and dragons to explain the huge fossil bones they found and similarly Tolkien wanted a myth and language to explain the England he knew. Hence, remarked Anne, Tolkien’s anger over the Dutch translations that had been made of LotR.

We went on to discuss Tolkien’s attitude to the 1950s radio adaptation of LotR as Tolkien responds to it in Letter 194. Ian picked up Tolkien’s preference for a narration with bits of dramatisation. Laura noted that in an earlier letter Tolkien had objected strongly to Norman Shelley playing Tom Bombadil. Chris noticed that while Tolkien disliked the radio adaptation, he seemed more comfortable with the proposed Hollywood cartoon. His use of the neologism ‘sillification’ as a description of the radio adaptation amused us.

Julie noted that the Inklings tended to deplore research students. She was also surprised at Tolkien’s objection to being the subject of a thesis, and the number of draft letters never sent but reproduced in the Collection prompted some comments. It was remarked that drafts are a good way of ‘getting things off your chest’, and was recommended by Churchill as long as they weren’t sent!

Anne commented on the way Tolkien often pleads impoverishment. I took a less than charitable view of the financial situation of eminent Oxford professors in the 1950s, but Angela thought their pay structure was not very generous at the time.

Laura noted Tolkien’s sensitive comparison between Dwarves and Jews in Letter 176, and found many areas for comparison which then shed light on the ambiguous status of the dwarves.

Kathleen noted Tolkien’s response to W.H. Auden’s reading from LotR, and suggested that he cannot easily discriminate between critical remarks, and other ideas about his work. Laura suggested that he felt about LotR as a parent does a child and was endlessly ‘protective’ of his ideas, their origins, and their expression.

Anne wondered why Tolkien regarded nominating someone as the next professor of poetry as a form of punishment. Laura reminded us that he had previously referred to his own professorial Chair as being ‘stuffed with thistles.’ Julie thought Oxford University had been plagued with back-stabbing, and a recent case was cited.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Mike directed our attention to Tolkien comment in 173 on LotR that he did not think he had begun any kind of ‘tide’ although he may have caught a bit of an existing one. Mike took this as a sign of humility, and asked what tide we thought Tolkien referred to. We generally thought he prompted a new tide of fantasy medievalism. Ian Googled ‘new books of 1955’ and came up with a looong list ;-). A number of famous science fiction books were listed, but nothing like LotR. Julie thought people at about that time began wanting books full of hope, optimism and colour.

Mike then asked for opinions on Tolkien’s assertion that ‘Frodo failed’ (181 and 191). Mike suggested that during the Scouring of the Shire Frodo is not happy because he knows he has failed. Angela wondered if his ‘depression’ is a lingering effect of the Ring, or being deprived of it. Chris reminded us that Frodo does not like the use of weapons. Laura thought he realised his wounds were incurable. Ian, however, wondered in what did Frodo fail? He got to Ring to Mordor as he promised.

Laura, turning to Letter 186, noted that Tolkien strongly denies any ‘atomic allegory’ in LotR, and Mike was surprised that Tolkien wrote another lengthy draft – proselytising in draft as Mike described it.

Angela noticed that in Letter 189, Tolkien was quite specific that LotR is not a children’s book, and deplored its being read ‘too soon’. Angela thought Tolkien’s denial should be made clear to all the critics and the bookshops who consign this adult work as fiction to children!

After our own would-be bit of proselytising we eventually decided to read letters 201-215 for our next meeting.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Gildor said...

A very readable book on the origins of the universal Dragon myth is Ernest Ingersoll's "Dragons and Dragon Lore". The chapter "The Men of the Dragon Bones" relating the exploits of American palaeontologists in China in the 1920s bolsters the view that the myth arose as attempts by early human beings to account for the giant fossil remains they came across from time to time. But the book as a whole makes it plain this only partially explains how the Dragon myth came into being (and in due time went global).

10:07 AM  

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