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Rómenna Meeting Report - April 20, 1986
April 20, 1986
At its April meeting. Rómenna celebrated its first "Feast of Bree," long an ambition of our host, Fred Phillips. "Hot soup, cold meats. . . new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese" were set forth in abundance and eagerly fallen upon by the members of our company. Only the blackberry tart was unobtainable. but since its absence was compensated for by no less than three of its kindred (apple, cherry, and blueberry pies), nobody felt the lack. Ale, beer, and apple cider accompanied the Prancing Pony fare, as well as mushrooms and bacon (of course!) and chocolate chip cookies (if hobbits didn't have chocolate chip cookies. they ought to have had).
So intent were we on doing justice to this sumptuous spread like the true hobbits we are, that the actual discussion was whittled down to one chapter; however. the last two chapters of The Two Towers will be picked up at the May meeting.
Our discussion of "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol" began with a consideration of Minas Morgul. We noted the abundance of death symbolism in the description of the city. We also wondered who was responsible for the artistry evident in the carvings on the bridge, the planting of the gardens of flowers, and so forth. The Nazgûl, perhaps? What would Nazgûl art be like? We were reminded of such Primary World parallels as Heironymous Bosch and the nastier Gothic cathedrals. The images are ones of corrupted beauty. Lissanne pointed out that if some of the semantic bludgeons are removed from the word-picture, Minas Morgul comes out looking gorgeous; she thought it was gorgeous anyway! She claims that "Evil dresses better." Mike suggested that if Minas Morgul was ever depicted in a movie or other art form, the way to do it would be so that everything looked all right from a distance, but if you looked at any detail, you'd see the wrongness.
Minas Morgul does have a certain fatal attraction. especially for Frodo, who has to be restrained from running across the bridge by Sam and Gollum. The observation was made that of the three travelers, Gollum is the only one not tired. As has been noted before, he is incredibly tough. Many readers overlook the positive aspects of Gollum, much like Sam, who never really picks up on how competent Gollum is (when he goes off by himself, Sam rarely imagines that he might be doing something useful or constructive such as scouting out the route ahead). He also has the sense to be scared shitless of Minas Morgul and wants to get the hobbits past it as quickly as possible. They are not able to do so, however. before a grand display of special effects announces the marching forth of the Morgul-host.
It was pointed out that you have to give the Witch-king credit--he's right there leading his army into battle, not hanging back in the rear. His effect on Frodo was discussed: Frodo's old wound. inflicted by the Witch-king, begins to ache (we noted that to the very end of the book it is never wholly cured), and he feels the compulsion to put on the Ring. However, it is interesting to observe that his will is no longer affected: Frodo's will has been strengthened since Weathertop and no longer responds to the Nazgûl's command, though it can affect his physical body (i.e., his hand) as long as his will does not countermand it. The phial of Galadriel is reintroduced here in preparation for the following chapter. Later plot developments are also anticipated by Frodo's concern for Faramir, whether he'll be able to get out in time. Seeing the strength of Sauron's army, Frodo is overcome with despair, but manages to resolve to go on in spite of it. We also noted later that Sam does not despair, at least not here; one reason may be that as long as Frodo is functioning, Sam is not in charge. Though he feels responsible for Frodo's well-being, he does not feel responsible for their errand, and thus is not tormented by the possibility of it failing.
At length Gollum manages to get the hobbits moving again--he knows that the danger isn't over once the army has left--and we get a description of their climb. We noted that Tolkien likes high places, or at least finds them interesting and memorable; one source for this attitude may be the Alpine expedition he went on as a young man, as described in the Letters.
Throughout the climb the hobbits have the feeling they are being watched, to which our response was, "No kidding!" Randolph made the observation that Mordor is more tightly guarded than any modern state is capable of being (almost entirely surrounded by mountains, few passes). We also found ourselves identifying with Frodo's feeling that if they can just get over the pass into Mordor, everything else will get done somehow. How often have you said to yourself, "If I can only get through the day, I'll be all right"?
The hobbits pause for another rest and get to talking about stories. We speculated that Sam's comment about the wonderful folk in stories going out and looking for adventures because they were bored was a dig by Tolkien at such writers as E. R. Eddison (in The Worm Ouroboros), Burroughs, and Rider Haggard. Indiana Jones is a more recent instance of the "looking for adventure" type of story. But Tolkien, through Sam, notes that "that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind."
The hobbits' discussion continues with an allusion to The Silmarillion, specifically the story of Beren, and Sam's realization that "we're in the same tale still!" The parallels between this passage and Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" were pointed out, in particular the idea of life being one big story (cf. the image of the "Tree of Tales" in the essay). Randolph commented that nowadays it's no longer possible to see all of life as one story (as many stories, perhaps); it is a view of history compatible with a culture of slow travel and communication, a world before the great load of information came crashing down. Also a culture of oral transmission, though we noted that Sam daydreams about his and Frodo's adventures being made into a tale to be read out of "a great big book with red and black letters." However, Sam is unusual for his culture and social class in being literate; most hobbits could not read or write, and Sam only can because Bilbo took the trouble to teach him. We also noted a parallel between Sam's observation about the type of stories that are best to hear not necessarily being the best type to get landed in, and Tolkien's comments in The Hobbit (alluding to Bilbo's stay at Rivendell) that "things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway."
As their discussion comes to an end, Frodo and Sam realize that Gollum is missing. We noted that the hobbits are quite aware that Gollum may be up to something--which he is, of course. While they have been resting, in fact, he has been off ratting on them to Shelob. However, when he returns and finds them sleeping, he has a last chance to repent--which is completely blown when Sam wakes up and snaps at him.
There are quite a lot of complex emotional currents in this scene. Gollum wants the Ring and is in the process of betraying Frodo to get it, but at the same time he (or at least the Sméagol part of him) yearns toward Frodo and wants to be part of the love that Frodo and Sam share (which is emphatically not a sexual love, we pointed out, noting that our age is one that tends to see sexual implications where none are intended). Sam's motivations are multiple as well. On one level, of course, he's protecting his master--he hears Frodo cry out and immediately goes on the offensive without thinking. He is also, as he admits later, feeling slightly guilty about falling asleep when he was supposed to be watching, and projects his guilt onto Gollum. But there is also the possibility of jealousy between Sam and Gollum. Gollum, of course, envies Sam's relationship with Frodo, but there is also an empathy between Frodo and Gollum that Sam cannot share (at least not yet), produced by the Ring. Sam is not unaware of this; he sensed way back when the hobbits first caught Gollum that Frodo and Gollum were "akin and not alien; they could reach each other's minds" because they had both borne the Ring.
We ended the discussion at this point, with a resolve to postpone the next two chapters till the May meeting.
Digression not included in the above report: Gandalf's position as a possible Maia of Manwë was mentioned. This is implied, though never made explicit, in the Unfinished Tales chapter on the Istari. The implication is supported by the fact that several times Gandalf is "bailed out" by eagles, which are associated with Manwë. (The original great eagles, were, in fact, Maiar of Manwë taking on physical form--which is why they were intelligent and could speak.)
Correspondence Dept: Carol Palmer, commenting on the February and March meetings, writes: "I'm not sure, but I think if Sam hadn't been with Frodo, or if he'd been a bit more like Frodo, Gollum might have recovered more and not backslid. We see him tottering on the edge so many times, then Sam will come out with some caustic comment and immediately Gollum clams up and goes on defense; and out comes the nasty paranoia. [Could be a comment on this month's discussion!]
"Ithilien is a place I would like to live in. It was always, and still is, my favorite place in the books. Rivendell is next.
"Have you noticed how Frodo is changing? He's not the same Hobbit that ran around yelling 'Help! Help!' in a frenzy when Old Man Willow played his tricks. He has matured and gained wisdom. He's almost elf-like. Sam is wise in the earthy sort of way. When you live close to the land you look at things differently.
"Faramir, of course, is my favorite human character. . . ."