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Rómenna Meeting Report - January 12, 1986
January 12, 1986
Our discussion this month ended up including lots of geographical parallels, beginning with a comment on the opening of our first chapter, in which Frodo is looking out from the Emyn Muil over the Dead Marshes: "What a lovely description of the Meadowlands!" We noted that the "Dead" Marshes can't be completely lifeless, since there has to have been something there for Gollum to eat, and he's no vegetarian. Those among us who knew a little about climatology pointed out that the Marshes, Emyn Muil and surrounding area probably got little rainfall; the marshes are marshes because there's no drainage, and the rest of the area is rather dry. The comment was made that Tolkien picks all the worst badlands for his characters to plod through, giving the barren Emyn Muil as an example. "No self-respecting tree would come within 100 miles of it!" We then got out the maps and started trying to work out the climate patterns and the prevailing winds. The area probably gets heavy winter snows and a yearly meltoff with flash floods (some of us who have been in the American Southwest and similar places discussed how, for example, if you're in an arroyo and there's any sign of rain, you get out of the arroyo). The storm that strikes the hills during the chapter is probably typical--rainfall is occasional, but hard, with heavy rain and hail. The Emyn Muil, we noted, are not really mountains; they are rocky hills, very bleak. The description Tolkien gives of them is phrased in a way that reveals a certain amount of knowledge of geology on the author's part. South Africa, where Tolkien was born, was suggested as a possible source for the terrain; Kipling also wrote about the area and may have influenced Tolkien's description.
Tolkien went mountain-climbing in the Alps as a young man, but we noted that the mountain-climbing scene in this chapter (in which Frodo and Sam descend the cliff) shows no great love of mountain-climbing. We also noted that this scene bears some resemblances to the traditional heroic man-against-nature type scene common in boys' adventure novels, but severely undercut--as Tolkien no doubt intended--by the characters of the hobbits, especially Sam.
Sam's sentient elvish rope was discussed, which seems to know what its owner wants; we decided that no matter how well-intentioned it was, you wouldn't want to trust our life to its understanding you rightly. Its turning out to be just the right length for the descent made us suspicious. A growing rope? One of the RPG gamers among us dubbed it a "Rope of Authorial Purpose." It was also noted in passing that an "ell" is measured from the chest to the end of the arm.
Sam's action of going straight over the cliff once the hobbits decide to climb was ascribed to what Randolph called the "Disneyland effect," referencing people who go to Disneyland and walk around in the blazing sun with no hats and get heatstroke, simply because they're not used to the climate and unaware of what it can do to them. Similarly, Sam has probably grown up never seeing a real cliff and thus cheerfully walks off it. Frodo is more knowledgeable about climbing; though he's presumably not had much first-hand experience with it either, he is more widely read. Sam is literate too, but probably hasn't done much actual reading. However. he is good at memorization; we guessed that he probably remembers conversations verbatim. This comment branched off into a discussion of how oral skills have atrophied in our culture. and how most people don't have real conversations any more.
Returning from this digression to the text, we proceeded to Frodo's attempt at climbing and his slide down the cliff. We noted in passing the description of the storm which is a metaphoric battlefield for Mordor. Blinded by the lightning flash. the first thing Frodo sees is the rope; we noted that it has elvish "virtue" and possibly a spirit of its own.
This scene also establishes Sam in the role of the klutzy goodhearted peasant, similar to the schlemiel in Jewish literature, or Sam Weller of The Pickwick Papers. Sam's relationship with Frodo often recalls the class distinction between them. Sam usually lets Frodo make the decisions until Frodo is not there (as happens at the end of The Two Towers). We noted that Sam has never had to make his own decisions; he was the youngest child in his family and has been a servant ever since childhood. He has always had someone else to tell him what to do, and he was expected to be a follower. Merry and Pippin, on the other hand, are both leaders in training by birth, though Pippin is still an adolescent by hobbit standards and consequently irresponsible.
Further comments on the descent of the cliff included the suggestion that Sam wanted to go first initially in order to get it over with, and the quip that Sam, being the nephew of a rope-maker, "knows the ropes." We were interested to note, in the hobbits' discussion of the elf-rope later, that it is Frodo who is being all rationalistic and insisting that the rope must either have broken or come untied because of a poorly tied knot, while Sam insists that the rope came when he called. Usually it is Frodo who is more attuned to spiritual matters. but we noted that Sam has always been fascinated by elvish magic, and decided in this case that Sam doesn't have enough logic to overpower his common sense.
More elvish magic is evident in the hobbits' elven-cloaks, which, we noted, blend into the twilight and are difficult even for friendly eyes to see. When Gollum appears on the scene he does not detect the hobbits by sight. We compared Gollum to a high-level assassin (having to do with his tracking ability and his facility at "sneaking" and stealthy killing). We noted that Frodo has a much clearer idea of how dangerous Gollum is than Sam does. Sam jumps on Gollum and soon finds himself the one caught rather than the catcher. until Frodo steps in and threatens Gollum with his sword. He refrains from killing him, however, remembering Gandalf's words. Comparing Frodo's memory of them here with the actual quote in the "Shadow of the Past" chapter, we found that the quotes don't match up exactly--there is a slight difference in wording, with the later citation having an extra phrase or two. This led to the speculation (since Tolkien was normally so meticulous) that Gandalf is actually speaking to Frodo on some level at this point, though Frodo still believes him to be dead.
We were quick to point out the loopholes in Gollum's oath to "serve the master of the precious" without specifying who the "master" is. (Cf. Gandalf's remark back in Rivendell that the "lord of the Ring" is not Frodo but Sauron.) We also noted that Gollum is not particularly ambitious; his "dreams of glory" in the next chapter don't extend much farther than fresh fish three times a day. We decided that Frodo would have been much more dangerous if he had ended up wielding the Ring, since his (probably well-intentioned) goals would have been much loftier and wider in scope. Gollum is tough, however, as is evidenced by the fact that he still has some of his own self left (however little) after centuries of being a slave of the Ring. This toughness is a hobbitish characteristic; others include Gollum's aptitude for hiding, his concern with food, and even the fact that he makes up little poems (like "The cold hard lands").
More thoughts on Gollum/Sméagol included the observation that Sméagol acts like a reformed alcoholic, that he is repeatedly described using dog imagery-- in particular, images that suggest a mistreated dog--and that he talks like a Preserver (ŕ la ElfQuest) , in a kind of baby-talk similar to pidgin English or the way people tend to talk to children and pets. He rarely uses any tense other than the present, as if he has little sense of past or future. We noted that much of his life had been spent underground, where the passage of time is difficult to keep track of. He also seems to have exactly two adjectives in his vocabulary: "nice" and "nasty." What does he look like? We took a survey of the people present and came up with a general impression of "old, tough and pale" and the additional comment that he "looks as if he's been dead for awhile." Tolkien's own physical descriptions of Gollum are fragmentary and sometimes confusing. The comment was made that many artists who have tried to depict him seem to have been reading too much Lovecraft. In his oath to "serve the master of the Precious," we noted that in serving the one with the Ring, he was paralleling the Nazgűl.
Sam's and Frodo's characters are also amplified in these chapters. We noted that Sam often soliloquizes and thus lets the reader know what he's thinking. His recollection of the Gaffer's "large paternal word-hoard" led us to believe that he was probably put down a lot while he was growing up. Peasant languages are often rich in abuse and insults; Yiddish and Arabic were cited as examples. Frodo, we observed, is beginning to read minds. He has insights both into Gollum's thinking and into Sam's. The Ring probably has something to do with this awareness, though amplifying a latent ability of Frodo's own. The comment was made that Tolkien often seems suspicious of mystical knowledge such as that imparted by the Ring. We also noted that by this time Frodo is resigned to being a martyr, as he makes clear to Sam--he has accepted the fact that there is very little chance that they will survive their quest even if they accomplish it.
The trek through the marshes is begun, a good way to avoid pursuit, although it slows the hobbits down. Sam and Gollum's exchange on the marshes' absence of birds was noted, and their differing reasons for being disappointed at the lack. The marshlights over the Mere of Dead Faces were commented on; in our own world marshlights are caused by burning methane, but in Middle-earth they do actually seem to have a supernatural aspect. Russian and Celtic folktales of water-undead who try to call the living to them were cited as parallels. Another possible source for the Dead Marshes is Flanders Field, which is also a burial site which became a marshland when its drainage system was smashed up during World War I. Like the Battle Plain, it has seen centuries of repeated battles. We noted that the Dagorlad was originally named after the famous Second Age battle between the Last Alliance and Sauron, though it was the site of many other subsequent battles.
When the Nazgűl flies over, Gollum knows very well what it is and what it does (learned during his captivity in Mordor?). His wail of "three times is a threat" was compared to the phrase "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action." Gollum's behavior changes noticeably after this incident reminds him of the vigilance of Mordor. It was also pointed out that the marshes are easy to survey from the air: beds of reeds and watercourses, dead flat, with no real cover.
We proceeded to Tolkien's vivid description of the blasted lands in front of the Morannon, which reminded us strongly of Newark (though we figured that Tolkien himself was probably thinking more of Birmingham). The sight makes Sam ill; he is, after all, a gardener (though the fumes may also have something to do with it). Some more geological speculation was bandied about, including the suggestion that Sauron raised Mordor by putting cracks in the earth's crust.
Sméagol/Gollum's debate with himself made evident the "chink" in his promise that we'd noted before, and also the limited scope of his ambitions. The fact that Frodo was meanwhile getting a good night's sleep was noted, and we speculated that his being in a hole) out of direct line-of-sight from the Eye (which had been weighing on him heavily throughout the two chapters) may have had something to do with it. We also guessed that it might be a sending from Lórien--either the Lórien of Galadriel) or the original Land of Dreams ruled by the Vala of that name.
Having come to the very gates of Mordor, we left the hobbits and Gollum there till next time, when we'll discuss the next two chapters, and adjourned to our various pursuits, including dinner at a local Chinese restaurant.