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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reading Group meeting 26/11/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Our reading had been from Letter 241 to 260. But before we began, the usual array of ‘any other business’, included this week, thoughts about next year’s dates, matters concerning Reading Day, and consideration of the significance of 2012 for all sorts of Tolkien-related anniversaries, on which matter Ian (and later Julie) contributed much useful information. My own feeling is that the matter of The Notion Club Papers ‘found’ in 2012 deserves further attention – watch this space!

Ian began our discussions with the observation that in Letter 250 Tolkien says he prefers writing ‘ad familiares’ – to the family, as evidenced by the following letter to Priscilla. Anne expressed concern from a psychological point of view that Tolkien’s familiarly paternal ending ‘Daddy’ was indicative of arrested personal development. There was a general feeling that the retention of the ‘childish’ form could be traditional in some families.

Pat picked up Tolkien’s recollection in 250 of his mentor Joseph Wright referring to universities as ‘factories’ making fees.

Mike took us back to 241, and remarked that the fears Tolkien had about his lecture ‘English and Welsh’ are not justified. The letter itself is of interest for further insights into Tolkien’s linguistic scholarship.

Ian noted that in this letter Tolkien refers to the loss of a much-loved tree, and to his story Leaf By Niggle, while in 251 to Priscilla replying to her condolences on the death of C.S. Lewis, he speaks of feeling like an old tree that is losing all its leaves. He sees his friends as leaves that are being lost.

Pat led us into the difficult question of Frodo’s ‘failure’ addressed in 246, and she observed that Tolkien argues for the journey being important. Mike commented that Tolkien’s observations pose the ‘internal’ view held by the hero against the mercy accorded him by the observer. Anne saw this as showing that the attribution of success is subjective. Ian suggested that Tolkien wanted to set up a particular environment and does not intend to judge. Mike remarked that Tolkein’s way of creating characters therefore leaves readers free to decide. Ian added, however, that Tolkien is still emotionally involved as he admits in his comments on ‘wetting the page with tears’ while writing the Field of Cormallen, so, Ian asserted – he was living the theme.

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Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

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2:55 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Pat again challenged us to debate the point raised in the letter ‘did Gollum jump to help Frodo?’ Ian thought we were looking in the story at the aspirations of characters in conflict, but thought ‘Yes’, if Gollum had indeed repented. Pat pondered whether Gollum might have jumped with Frodo. Ian thought Sam would have sacrificed himself. We considered what it was that ‘pushed’ Gollum, whether it was really just lost footing or some external influence. Ian argued that the Ring was part of the world and returns to the world – literally. He commended Tolkien for being willing to revisit other versions and possibilities in this letter.

This finally woke me up to something I’d felt for a very long time but not been able to formulate: Tolkien resists the role of the omniscient author in LotR, although not in ‘The Silmarillion’, which seems to me full of the kinds of ‘morality’ and omniscience associated with myth. It was pointed out that the lack of an omniscient author in LotR contrasts even more strongly with the barrage of authorial intervention in ‘The Hobbit’, but we allowed that this was because TH was written for children, and at a time when ‘patronising’ children in literature was usual.

Julie took the point further, and observed that Tolkien vehemently declared in the 1960s that LotR is not an allegory and she attributed his refusal to exert authorial domination to his experience of the effects of extreme authoritarianism in the form of Hitler and Stalin. Tolkien was effectively rejecting any kind of thought or mind control in rejecting allegory.

Kathleen then questioned why, in letter 246, Tolkien described the potential for Gandalf becoming evil. Mike suggested this alluded to the ‘tyranny of virtue’, when extreme virtue itself becomes oppressive in its demands for universal perfection or acceptance. Ian cited the example of the film ‘Demolition Man’ in which Sylvester Stallone’s character returns from penal stasis to a world that is uniformly good, charming, pleasant, and conceals the machinery of oppression that is in place to keep it looking benign.

On the strength of this topic Mike concluded that LotR is a gigantic homily as all the characters in one way and another serve as a mirror for us. The possibility of a ‘mirrour l’homme’ would fit perfectly with Tolkien the medievalist.

Changing tack to practical matters, Kathleen noted Tolkien’s reference to Income Tax in 250, and the term ‘mulcted’ was questioned as Tolkien wrote of his tax ‘I am being mulcted.’ It means to defraud or fine! Ian remarked that in the 1920s the Tolkiens had employed a daily help, and that this would have been normal at the time. We noted JRR’s observation that he would have liked his new-found wealth, now being taxed, earlier in life.

Anne noticed that Tolkien had as a student been distracted from his studies by the distinctive language and differences in Finnish myth as he found these in the Kalevala.

2:56 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Pat wondered why Bilbo was described as ‘going to Purgatory. I only recalled Thomas More’s version of Purgatory being very nasty, and Mike remarked that in the story it marks a change from the primary world being more like a retreat (rehab was also mentioned). Ian cited Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ with its many levels which have to be ascended, and Mike wondered how much Dante invented in contrast to medieval Catholic doctrine.

With this immense topic unresolved, we moved on to follow Pat’s observation that in 258 – Tolkien expresses both his objection to a hydrofoil being named Shadowfax without his permission, and his resignation that he sees many houses being named after places in LotR.

Anne wondered why Tolkien felt CSL’s marriage was ‘strange’. Pat thought the comment ultimately derived from feelings of jealousy, while Julie thought the marriage, or the choice of wife, didn’t suit Tolkien’s expectations.

Pat queried the expression in 250 - ‘Petrine claims’ - and Mike and Julie explained that they were based on Jesus’s comment that Peter was the rock on which the Christian church was built. From this arose subsidiary claims for the pre-eminence of Rome as the seat of Peter’s bishopric. Retaining the biblical theme, Kathleen wondered what the problem was with the mother of St James to which Tolkien refers. Mike enlightened us – James’s mother tried to persuade Jesus to favour them above other disciples. Ian took a wider view of this letter and proposed that in it Tolkien is actually bolstering his own faith.

Pat wondered about the reference to the kingfisher and Tom Bombadil’s blue feather in LotR as a choice preferred to the white (swan wing) feathers in his hat in the poem ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’. Ian thought Tolkien may have omitted the white feathers on grounds of sensitivity after WW1 when white feathers were given as imputations of cowardice.

Finally, Mike remarked humorously on Tolkien development from a ‘Luddite’ to an ‘Amish’ in his dislike of ballpoint pens.

On that observation we had to end the meeting and while trying to work out our next reading I confused the dates, thinking we could get the rest of the letters finished before Christmas. This is NOT the case, but we may try to get through half of what is left which is
from 261 –300.

2:57 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Footnote: the reason for the occasional deleted post is not a sign of unwelcome visitors, but a sign of me impatiently hitting the Publish button twice! I am trying to restrain/retrain myself!

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