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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reading Group meeting 12/11/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Our discussions today were wide-ranging, and not always confined to our major topic! We missed those friends who were absent, and as always, any comments on the following report will be welcome. Our ‘virtual members’ Carol, Rosemary, and Omer, still keep in touch with what Southfarthing doing, and this week we were doing letters 216-240.

Pat was back with us this week and started the afternoon with her observation that in letter 225 Tolkien expresses his idea that a paperback version of The Hobbit would ‘cheapen’ it. We discussed attitudes towards paperbacks in the mid-20th century as compared to the universal acceptance of them today. Kathleen and Angela remarked that Puffins used to be aimed at children while Penguins were for adults. There was some agreement that hardbacks are nice, but expensive, and as Chris pointed out hardbacks are associated with libraries, being longer lasting than paperbacks.

Angela then picked up Tolkien’s comment in 228 deploring the easy access to books in libraries that deflected readers from buying books, and Ian remarked that the 1950s saw a boom in book sales, [but authorial discontent at the royalties received from libraries has rumbled on for years]. Ian also perceived a degree of authorial snobbery in Tolkien’s remarks about paperbacks and libraries.

Pat returned us to 225, and Tolkien’s anxiety about money, which she saw as a constant theme in many of his letters. Angela noted that in 228, however, he was insisting that his aunt Jane should spend the money he had sent her from his LotR royalties. We considered again the state of Tolkien’s finances throughout his academic career and Laura suggested that part of the depletion of funds might be due to his entertaining in college. His purchase of several bottles of French wine led Kathleen to propose that expenditure was all about priorities. Ian noted, on the other hand, that the expensive wine was actually drunk on Tolkien’s 70th birthday, and that he was coy about mentioning this significant reason for celebration.

Kathleen went on to comment on Tolkien’s rejection of a University pension in favour of a lump sum which he invested (letter 220). Ian remarked that throughout his teaching career Tolkien had needed to supplement his income by marking and examining, and Kathleen questioned his expenditure on tobacco, suggesting it wasn’t very expensive in the mid 20th century. Kathleen then remarked on his apparently blasé attitude to ‘the odd £100’ as if it had once been a sum he could have ignored.

Pat raised the tricky problem of Tolkien and allegory with regard to his comments that the landscape outside the Morannon owed something to the Somme. We have seen in other letters how earnestly Tolkien denies and dislikes the application of allegory to LotR, and tried to define the difference between allegory – something intentionally created by an author – and influence or applicability – which is short-lived and may or may not be intended by an author. Tolkien admits that the Somme influenced his description at that point in the story. Readers may also find their own ‘resonances’ between a description and something they know about and create a connection not intended at all.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

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1:22 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Second part of the blog:
Pat then picked up Tolkien’s assertion that he did not approve of ‘writing down’ for children (234) and Angela and Ian wondered if this came from his experience of teaching young adults and having time to read in a university setting. Chris thought the remark about ‘Bible-in-basic English’ smacked of elitism, but Ian proposed that Tolkien had from an early age learned about the expansion of vocabulary as his mother had introduced him to Greek and Latin.

Angela continued the topic of language in a different way when she took us to 229 and Tolkien’s problems with the Swedish translator who took all sorts of liberties not just with the LotR text but with Tolkien’s own biography. Pat noted how angry Tolkien was, and Chris suggested that judging from his condemnation of the translator in this letter he would have been an essay/exam marker capable of really cutting remarks. Laura commented on the extent to which the Swedish translator Dr. Ohlmarks got carried away with his fictionalising of Tolkien’s life, including slights against Leeds University. Tolkien objected to being made a fiction while still alive and this made us wonder what his reaction would have been to the recent work of [atrocious] fiction ‘Mirkwood’, which appropriates his name and has been much condemned.

Introducing a more equivocal topic, Chris noted that Tolkien expresses diametrically opposed views of C.S. Lewis in 2 different letters. In 227, to a lady correspondent, he credits his friend’s valuable support. In 224, to his son Michael, he refers to CSL’s ‘ponderous silliness’ as far as his latest critical work is concerned. We distinguished between 2 attitudes to 2 very different correspondents, decorum to one, fatherly honesty to the other.

From 227 Pat picked out Tolkien’s comment on the critics who disliked LotR because ‘all the good boys come home safe and everyone was happy ever after.’ As Chris pointed out this is absolutely not true. Laura noted that such comments suggest and related to those critics who were know to never have read to the end of the book. Pat and I got into a lengthy discussion on the rather opposed theories of the Death of the Author – which would justify oppositional opinions, and Reader Response theory which requires attention to the culturally determined pre-dispositions of readers themselves. This sheds light on the critics who come up with unenlightened comments such as the lack of women in LotR. Chris observed that there is still not enough good criticism of Tolkien’s work because it is still not taken seriously.

On a more light-hearted note, Pat asked what Puck’s quote was, mentioned in 219? Ian and Laura knew it was ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be.’ Those of us who are alurophiles once again thought describing Siamese cats as belonging to the fauna of Mordor was characteristic of Tolkien, but a bit harsh! It led us to trying to recall the names of cats and dogs in the legendarium. Farmer Maggot’s working dogs were mentioned and Ian thought (humorously) that calling them ‘Grip’, ‘Fang’, and ‘Wolf’ didn’t suggest Tolkien’s affection for dogs either. Angela remarked that he was fond of horses.

Laura was the only one of us who had looked up PHUSIS in 224 – and told us it means ‘nature’, but even those among us who have read CSL couldn’t explain to Vicki the ‘Lewisian intrusion of “beards and cucumbers”’. Maybe we shall discover more in due time.

Pat, having missed our last meeting, took us back to 215, and noted that Tolkien was writing for himself. Ian observed that early in his life Tolkien had wanted a different kind of story, and that was what he wrote. No wonder he was surprised when it turned out to be such a commercial success!

Our next reading will be Letter 241 – 260.

2:54 AM  

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