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Rómenna Meeting Report - November 17, 1985
November 17, 1985
We began this month's discussion by noting that the first thing Gimli says when he sees Legolas is "Forty-two!"--he's still keeping up the game. Legolas, on the other hand, blows his cool enough that he admits he's glad to see the dwarf.
The biggest question on everybody's mind is just (what Birnam Wood is doing here in Dunsinane: Gandalf typically "explains" it by expounding a riddle. The Rohirrim assume that the trees are due to some mighty wizardry of his, but Gandalf disclaims any use of wizardry. It was also noted that Gandalf's appearance here is described in quasi-New Testament terms, and some speculation was made on the matter of Gandalf as a Christ-figure. It was observed that you can make almost any literary character into a Christ-figure if you try hard enough (though Gandalf is easier than some). Théoden decides to accompany Gandalf to Isengard (after a rest), and Gimli insists upon coming too, despite his head wound (someone pointed out that after all, it wasn't a vital spot).
The Rohirrim surprise the Dunlendings by showing mercy to their prisoners; in return, the hillmen promise not to attack Rohan again. Fred pointed out how important a promise this is in view of the fact that the Rohirrim will soon be riding to war in Gondor. It is very helpful to know that they will not have to worry about the Dunlendings descending on Rohan while most of the warriors are away.
Setting out from Helm's Deep, Théoden's party must pass through the strange wood, which obligingly parts before them, though they can hear it grumbling on either side. Legolas is fascinated by the wood, but Gimli wants no part of it. He is still yearning after the caverns of Helm's Deep, which Legolas in turn says he wants no part of. He speculated that perhaps Legolas is afraid of underground places, but it was noted that the wood-elves have underground halls of their own, though they are not nearly as deep or as extensive as these (they're more like the "hollow hills" of legend). In response, Gimli waxes surprisingly poetic about the beauties of the caverns, and Gandalf tops off the recital for him by giving their name (the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, a bilingual--and redundant--name, since Aglarond simply means "glittering or glorious cave" in Sindarin). Legolas and Gimli eventually agree to a sort of cultural exchange program once the war is over--Gimli will come to Fangorn and Legolas to Aglarond.
Once the party emerges on the other side of the wood, they begin to discover the answer to Gandalf's riddle. Legolas is the first to "find the Ent in this picture" when he sees eyes looking at them out of the wood. He is so drawn by them that he begins to ride back (at which Gimli protests violently) but Gandalf stops him. The Ents then come out of the wood where everyone can see them, and Gandalf explains (what they are. Théoden begins to see the reality that lies behind old tales, and responds with an apology for his people's parochialism. It is intimated that there are two sides to a wider view of the world: on the one hand, as Gandalf points out, it is good to know that Men have allies they were not aware of in the struggle against evil, but on the other hand, it is foreshadowed that many of these legendary inhabitants of the older world will soon pass away forever.
There are various signs of Strange Things Going On as the Riders proceed on their way to Isengard. When they reach the river they find that it has been turned off; they pass the battleground at the Fords and see the gravemound made by some of Erkenbrand's men; they see smokes and steams rising over Isengard. During the night the Ents pass them by, herding their trees back to Fangorn (it was noted that they carry a mist around with them so nobody can see how their roots move). The comment was made that Gandalf probably has a fairly good idea of what all these signs portend, but he keeps his mouth shut and lets his companions imagine whatever they like.
As the Riders near it, Tolkien gives us a description of Isengard before and after Saruman. The original building was Númenórean (which came as a surprise to some), but Saruman has made it into a poor man's Barad-dûr. It was pointed out that Saruman has always been an engineer by nature, being a Maia of Aulë. We noted that at a mile in diameter, Isengard is about the size of Hoboken--"and smells like it, too!" someone commented. To give us some idea of what Orthanc looked like, Eileen passed around the picture of it in David Day's Tolkien Bestiary. The observation was made that the passage about Orthanc was written around the time when some of the first really big skyscrapers (such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building) were built.
At the very gates of Isengard Théoden's party, and the reader, find Merry and Pippin parked at their ease in the middle of the wreckage, surrounded by the remains of a meal, relaxing with a pipe and pretending not to see the army. Merry eventually jumps up and gives his speech of welcome (we figured he'd probably worked for hours on the wording). Gimli blows up at the hobbits, which is his way of showing concern, we decided, whereas Legolas is typically more cool. Théoden observes the four of them sniping at each other and concludes that he is witnessing the reunion of dear friends. ("This couple fights so much that they must be married.")
Merry and Pippin are astonished to find that the Rohirrim have actually heard of hobbits. From what Théoden says, his people and the hobbits probably originated in the same part of the world before their respective migrations. It is interesting to compare what the Rohirrim's legends say about the "Holbytlan" and the reality. It was noted that the legends sound very much like the sort of thing that was said about leprechauns and other fairy folk in the British Isles, who may in turn have been based on the Picts or a similar people. Recent discoveries about the Picts would seem to indicate that they were not really much like the "little people" of legend (they were not in fact unusually small); and Eileen said that there are descendants of the Picts all over Scotland today, including herself. They were the inhabitants of the British Isles before the Celts arrived there.
Merry remains urbane and unflappable through his friends' raillery and Gandalf's questioning. In typical hobbit fashion, as Gandalf observes, he is all ready to begin a history of smoking in response to Théoden's question about it, but the wizard cuts him off and finally manages to find out from him where the Ents are. We noted that Legolas is the one who can see Quickbeam clearly. Théoden, Gandalf and the Riders go off to meet with Treebeard, Théoden promising the hobbits that he will discuss the history of smoking with them some other time. We noted that Merry's "Tobold Hornblower" or "Old Toby" becomes "Tobold the Old" in Théoden's idiom. Pippin thinks that the King of Rohan is "a fine old fellow. Very polite."
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli stay behind to learn what has been happening with their friends. Merry and Pippin begin by offering them lunch, Pippin bustling around like a miniature Barliman Butterbur. We noted that hobbits have strong elements of the archetypal English squire in their nature, the kind that remains a gentleman in any situation. Their attitude is "Let's see to the creature comforts first--conversation comes after the meal and the pipe." Legolas doesn't care for smoking, we observed, and tries to excuse himself when he sees the pipes come out; we speculated that he probably sat upwind of the rest of the party once they moved outside. Aragorn with a pipe in his mouth becomes Strider the Ranger again.
Merry and Pippin's recital of their experiences with the orcs led to some discussion on what orcs look like. Tolkien in the Letters states that they are based on the (to Westerners) "least lovely Mongol-types," but it wasn't clear to us exactly what he meant by that. In any case, we agreed that they are not the pig-faced types the Hildebrandts depicted (and that the TSR people picked up on). Tim Kirk was mentioned as drawing excellent orcs. It was further noted that orcs are ill-proportioned by our standards; the smaller ones with their arms hanging down to the ground, we guessed, owed something to chimpanzees and other apes.
The description of the Ents' storming of Isengard points up how formidable these beings really are. They are enormously strong, practically indestructible except by fire, and can tear stone apart with their bare hands. It takes a lot to get them angry, but if you do, watch out! Saruman's fatal mistake was to leave them out of his calculations. Pippin doesn't think much of Saruman as a result, but Aragorn points out that the wizard is still dangerous and warns of his great powers of persuasion. We noted that Saruman seems to have copied Sauron's habit of overlooking things (and peoples) as well as his tower. Saruman is further handicapped by the fact, noted last time, that he has no captains or lieutenants he can trust, whereas Sauron has the Nazgûl.
The Ents' eventual strategy of flooding Isengard was neatly encapsulated by Mike with the observation that "If your enemies are civil engineers, you don't build your fortress in a bowl." We were doubtful that the cleaning out of Isengard could actually be done as quickly as Tolkien depicts it. It would take much more than a day or so to wash away all the pollutants that Saruman has built up. Tolkien may have realized this in a way, for later, when describing the desolation before the Morannon, he hints that only the Sea itself could ever cleanse that land.
Pippin recounts Gandalf's arrival at Isengard, his own astonishment, and Gandalf's characteristic opening line ("Get up, you tom-fool of a Took..."). The wizard, we noted, doesn't stand on ceremony. However, he has many other concerns, which the hobbits often don't seem to realize. Like children who can't understand why Daddy has to do his bills when they want him to play with them, they lack his perspective. The hobbits also describe Wormtongue's arrival; we decided that Peter Lorre would be a good choice for Wormtongue in the hypothetical film of the Lord of the Rings. We ended the chapter by noting the presence of Longbottom Leaf in Isengard as a foreshadowing of the Shire's troubles with Saruman.