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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reading Group meeting 14/1/12

The thoughts of the South Farthing Smial on an 'Open Forum Discussion' of 'The Hobbit'


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Our first meeting of this most significant new year was busy from the start with plans for the year ahead, but eventually we turned our thoughts to the matters in hand – the last sequence of letters from 301 to the end.

Pat started the discussion at 328 with Tolkien’s appreciation for comments on ‘sanity and sanctity in LotR’ as a ‘power in itself; and another observation that in the story faith seems to be present ‘like light from an invisible lamp.’ Angela observed that not everyone feels this. I remarked that Sam seems to me to plot an important transition from unexpressed belief to open use of the power of the Elvish language of devotion. Laura suggested this related to Frodo doing what he does for others but aided by a great power. Ian commented that Sam’s development of faith (if that’s what it is) is a function of his characterisation. He is the one who notes the character of Frodo’s face and body what at times they seem to have a light shining from within, thus Sam sees ‘the good’. It was proposed that Gollum can also perhaps see this, and maybe perception of this leads Sam to condemn himself for being too hard on Gollum. Mike wondered if Tolkien himself was ‘jealous’ of Sam’s simplicity, because unlike Sam, he could not be ‘half-wise’.

Anne remarked that in his letters Tolkien seems like a divided man: as his body starts to let him down maybe this is a symptom of inner division, so he turned to the simplicity of fantasy. Chris thought the fantasy was by no means uncomplicated, just simpler.

Mike noted Tolkien’s Middle English quotation in 307 ‘Elde is me istolen on …ich am eldre than I was a wintre and eke a lore’ [old age has stolen upon me…I am older than I was in winters and in learning.] I was interested in the circumstances under which Tolkien turns to quotations at times to express himself, most poignantly after Edith’s death, when he quotes bits of his Beren and Luthien myth.

Angela commented on the poignancy of his request to Michael his son (315) to ‘pray for time’ so he can finish his writing of The Silmarillion and cheat the tax man!

Anne thought that in his last letters he seemed particularly restless and unsettled. Laura suggested he longed for a calm and settled life after his unsettled childhood. Ian observed that he wrote himself into a settled world where he was always in control.

Anne observed that grieving for Edith reactivates the unresolved grief for his mother, and Ian remarked that in 332 he explains to Michael how he was unable to grieve at those times. Chris and Angela together remarked on the number of lost mothers in LotR, and that Tolkien seemed obsessed by this.

Laura took us on to happier topics when she noted in 319 Tolkien’s reference to an old story called ‘Puss Cat Mew’. Having looked it up, she found it was a story about a kind of female Puss-in-Boots, a cat heroine who went around having adventures. Ian proposed that Tolkien liked the story for its enchanted faerie setting, not for the cat!

12:21 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Angela wondered why in 323 Tolkien, referring to his and Edith’s illness which he thought was either a ‘virus’ or food-poisoning went on ‘of which the risk is steadily mounting in this polluted country of which a growing proportion of the inhabitants are maniacs’? Laura suggested that Tolkien liked simple English food, so maybe the ‘maniacs’ were those who were spreading the fashion for French cuisine. Julie, however, wondered if it was just a rant against flower-power and nuclear proliferation, because the letter is dated July 1971. Mike thought it might be a complaint against the rash of strikes that blighted the ‘70s

We were all aware of how these later letters reveal Tolkien having a difficult time in many different ways. Angela noted that having been given free accommodation at Merton College after Edith’s death, Tolkien refers to living behind locked doors there, presumably to avoid the intrusion of fans.

On a lighter note Anne picked up Tolkien’s ‘quote’ to Rayner Unwin ‘uneasy lies the bowler’, now Rayner has taken over the publishing house from his father. Angela remarked on Tolkien’s request to Rayner to use his Christian name – after all their years of friendship.

Anne responded to Tolkien’s mention in 321 of Cheddar Caves (his inspiration for Helm’s Deep), expressing her opinion that Tolkien would surely have disapproved of their commercialisation.

Mike noticed in 328 Tolkien relating a comment with which LotR was once challenged ‘Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’ Mike observed that this implies that there is no pure creation, but many unknown sources and that LotR is the sum of all its influences.

Anne then remarked that Tolkien became anxious about controlling a proper biography in 340,where he asks Christopher to take charge of it. Ian noted that he had already expressed his preference for such a biography as long ago as July 1944.

Angela commented that he wanted only reviews by people who had actually read the books, and Mike noted that Tolkien thinks it strange that LotR lacks academic acclaim but has gained popular acclaim. Kathleen wondered if he was now responding to ordinary readers more generously, and had become more tolerant of some questions.

Mike thought letters 335 and 336 showed a spark of elitism. 335 replied politely but dismissively to ‘Michael Salmon’. 336, to Sir Patrick Browne, is no longer but rather more conversational.

Mike remarked on an inescapable melancholy in these letters. Laura picked up the nostalgia implicit in his latent anger at the destruction of trees

12:22 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

As we came to the end of our afternoon we looked back on our reading of Tolkien’s Letters and gave our responses to what we had read. There was some sympathy, and some feeling that we did not get much closer to understanding Tolkien as a person. Ian commented that the whole point of the selection of the letters by Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien was to provide information relating to the authorship of the books. Julie tantalisingly noted that a mass of Tolkien’s unedited and unpublished papers remains in the Bodleian Library. With that unresolved ending we closed our books!

We are now turning to The Notion Club Papers (both versions) which form part of Volume 4 of The Histories of Middle-earth. This volume is available as a paperback.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Correction to the details of the next book we are reading: it should be The Notion Club Papers, in Sauron Defeated, volume 9 of The Histories of Middle-earth, NOT volume 4.

Apologies too for the proliferation of typos in the text but I can't see how to correct them without reposting, and I don't have time for that just now. Note to self - Must try harder (and not type so fast)!

8:48 AM  

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