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Tolkien Group Discussion Report - October 23, 1982
Meeting of October 23, 1982
The discussion started out with a comment, carried over from something Randolph, Lissanne and Margaret had been talking about at dinner, that it is difficult to curse in Elvish; about the worst thing you can call somebody is "black" (e.g. Morgoth = "Black Enemy"). There are some opprobrious epithets applied to the villains, however. Morgoth is called "Bauglir" ("The Constrainer"), and "Sauron" means "The Abhorred."
We then picked up the discussion where we had left off last time, with Fëanor's reappearance in Tirion and his oration. He is obviously a very charismatic speaker. Alexei pointed out that he blames the Valar for his own actions ("See what you made me do!"), and calls them "Kin of my father's slayer." This is a wrongheaded idea, but Fëanor's later image of the elves as a fading people haunted by regret is intuitively correct; he still has an artist's insight. Alexei also said that Fëanor's boast that the Elves would "go farther than Oromë, endure longer than Tulkas," was "typical Fëanor." The Oath of Fëanor was touched on briefly here, but we went further into that later.
Galadriel here appears in The Silmarillion for the first time. It was noted that she was not in the earliest versions of the tale, but after she played such a prominent role in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began to work her in. (The Ents were another such element, which is why they appear in The Silmarillion only fleetingly. Tom Bombadil was supposed to be worked in as well, but Tolkien did not get around to this before his death.) Discussion of Galadriel led to mention of other prominent female characters, notably Haleth. There was some argument as to whether the Haladin were matriarchal or not. Haleth became leader of her people when her father and brothers were killed. After her death the leadership passed to her nephew. The question was left unresolved. Galadriel's desire to rule her own realm was mentioned. An argument ensued as to whether she did eventually become a ruler because she was of the house of Finwë (she was the most senior of that lineage left in Middle-earth by the Third Age), or because of the "star quality" of the Noldor in general. Or could it be because of her own star quality? In any case, in the end she renounced rule and returned over Sea.
Returning from this digression to the main topic of discussion, we came to the passage in which Eonwë appears to the marching Noldor with Manwë's warning that it will be impossible for the Noldor to defeat Morgoth, who is a Vala; Fëanor replies that even if the Noldor do fail, at least they will not have just sat around doing nothing (with the implied addition "--like you!"). Eonwë is impressed.
We now came to the Kinslaying of Alqualondë, which, it may be argued, was the real turning point in the Noldor's revolt. Anything they had done before might have been canceled out merely by reconsideration and a decision to return to Valinor, but this was an irrevocable action that might be repented of, but could not be made as if it had never been. What about the Oath? Wasn't that irrevocable? Alexei said no, Margaret disagreed. We came back to this matter a little later. At this time it was pointed out that there are varying accounts of this battle in The Silmarillion and in the Unfinished Tales. Both agree that Fëanor and those with him attacked the Teleri, but those who arrived later, notably Finarfin's followers who were kin of Olwë's people as well, may have taken either side. How much would it matter, since they would be fighting their own kin in any case? Well, fighting in defense is more defensible than fighting in offense. Perhaps.
The Teleri themselves were discussed, and their reasons for denying their ships to Fëanor in the first place. They were unmoved by his arguments and sought to persuade the Noldor to remain in Valinor. It was pointed out that they were the last group to make it to Valinor, and thus were in no hurry to leave. Also, unlike the Noldor, they felt no urge to do anything about the catastrophe; they were content to accept what fate brought them. The differing natures of the three kindreds of the Eldar were discussed: the Vanyar are the philosophers and have almost an angelic quality; the Noldor are the "doers," creative and ambitious; the Teleri are children of nature. They were the "Polynesian elves," with no sense of history, living for the present.
It was at this point that we came back to discussing the Oath of Fëanor. How binding was it really, and what was the nature of the bond? Alexei argued that in a Christian universe, Fëanor and his sons could and should have renounced the Oath. Margaret disagreed; Tolkien drew from his Christian background, of course, but he was also using Norse sources, in which oathbreaking was just as bad as murder, possibly worse. Randolph pointed out that in a society largely without writing (and hence written contracts), it is vital that one's word be good. But how closely can the Elvish society be compared to the Norse? What was the status of oaths, if they had any at all? Alexei suggested that the Oath of Fëanor might have been the first ever sworn in Arda (and characterized it as "I swear that I will do what I want even when I no longer want it"). It was suggested that there might previously have been oaths of allegiance to kings and so forth. No, that custom stems from a feudal society, and Elvish society wasn't feudal; they didn't need to be because they had no wars. But those who swore it certainly seemed to feel that the Oath bound them irrevocably. Look at Maedhros and Maglor, who by the end of the tale are sickened by the whole business but carry on anyway. Wouldn't they have taken a way out if they had seen it? Nevertheless, Alexei argued, Ilúvatar would have released them. He compared the Oath to one "dedicated to Tash though sworn in Aslan's name."
This brought us to Mandos' doomsaying (rendered by Alexei in suitably James- Earl-Jones tones), and Fëanor's reply that at least the deeds of the Noldor would become a mighty matter of song. This pronouncement, which when he heard it lightened Manwe's grief, was seen as Fëanor's glimpse of a way to turn evil at last to good, or at least to bring some good out of evil. It showed that Fëanor's desire for beauty and good was not wholly corrupted.
We then came to the burning of the ships at Losgar and the crossing of the Helcaraxë. There had been some discussion earlier of timespans, which were said to be longer before the appearance of the Sun and Moon, and how long the actions spoken of in the tale really took. It was suggested that the crossing of the Helcaraxë might have taken years. No, let's not exaggerate; after all, Fingolfin could see the light of the burning ships. Granted that he had very keen elvish vision, and also that the world at that time was flat--still, there are limits to the distance it could have been from Araman to Losgar. Eileen settled the question by finding the map in the Tolkien Bestiary which shows the whole of Middle-earth and Aman. The crossing of the Helcaraxë was something of a "long way round" (besides being much more difficult and dangerous), but was not an endless trek.
Margaret pointed out that Maedhros stood aside from the burning of the ships, and that this action was in a way rewarded later when he was rescued from Thangorodrim by Fingon.
We now turned to the chapter on the Sindar, in which the Dwarves reappear. The parallels between the Dwarves and the Jews (cf. one of Tolkien's letters to Rhona Beare) were enumerated: a "race apart," with their own secret language which they did not use for everyday speech but which accented their use of other languages, very much involved in commerce (though for different reasons)-- there is even the trait of always wearing beards (look at the Hassidim).
The building of Menegroth (a joint Elf-Dwarf venture) points up the fact that the Noldor are not the only masters of art and illusion--the Sindar (and probably all Elves) can do it, too. This is a trait that the elves of folklore have always had.
Alexei pointed out that Tolkien used the love of water as a symbol for perfect communication and wholeness. Elves are drawn to the Sea (especially the Teleri), as are Men when they arrive, but the Dwarves, being in a sense "fake people," fear it. They do love pearls, however; this is how Water (Ulmo?) gets through to them.
Dwarves were interested in commerce from the beginning; one feels that the reason they were happy to meet the Sindar was that this finally gave them someone to trade with. They were also the first to see the practical value of writing, whereas the Elves seem to have developed it for artistic purposes, as a way to preserve words exactly so that their artistic quality could be appreciated. Daeron presumably invented the Angerthas for the purpose of making inscriptions. The dwarves seized on his invention delightedly and made more of it than Daeron's own people did.
A brief mention of Ores led into a discussion of the first battle of Beleriand. Thingol had fortunately had the Dwarves make weapons for his people, which they seem to have known how to do already. Where did they get the idea? "Well," someone pointed out, "being threatened by the hammer of Aulë at a very early point in their existence must have made a deep impression on them." Thus the well-armed Elves of Thingol's people do fairly well in the first battle. Círdan is pushed into the Sea, however, and the Laiquendi are so demoralized by the loss of their leader, Denethor, that they never engage in war again.
We then proceeded to the next chapter, on the creation of the Sun and Moon. Alexei said that the Middle-earth legends of the creation of the Sun and Moon had many parallels in other mythologies. He also pointed out the vivid imagery Tolkien uses to evoke the picture of a flat earth; the Sun shining through the sea as she plunges underneath it to pass to the East, Tilion wandering in the deeps under the earth on his own journey. Tilion is seen to contain elements of both Artemis (he is a hunter, a follower of Oromë, and bears a silver bow) and Endymion (of old he loved to rest in the gardens of Lorien in the light of Telperion). Arien was jokingly called a "failed Balrog" --more properly, Balrogs were fallen versions of what she was, a spirit of flame who was not corrupted by Melkor. Morgoth assailed Tilion and was defeated, but didn't dare come near Arien; after spending so much of his spirit in evil works, he did not have the power.
The hiding of Valinor was discussed. It is said that those ensnared in the Enchanted Isles would sleep "until the Change of the World." It is usually assumed that this means the end of the world, but what if it meant the change that took place at the time of the Fall of Numenor? You could see these lost travellers suddenly waking up and saying "Where are we'?" . . . . The Peléri were heightened and strengthened, and their outer faces were likened to glass. Alexei pointed out that the mountain of glass is a common image in mythology.
The last chapter under discussion was "Of Men," which is a short chapter and largely consists of a series of names given by the Elves to men, along with the differences between the two races. The Elves were never particularly flattering in their naming of men: viz., "The Sickly," "The Mortals," "The Inscrutable," "The Self-cursed," "The Followers/Aftercomers," "The Strangers." Not insulting, mind you, but not complimentary, either. Oh well, the Dwarves got saddled with "The Stunted People."
Our discussion ended with an image contributed by Lissanne of surfing Elves. Well, why not? Why should they care how cold the water is, since they never get sick?
--reported by Margaret R. Purdy