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Rómenna Meeting Report - June 22, 1985
June 22, 1985
One of the largest meetings of Rómenna to date gathered at the Rivendell Bookshop to discuss the last two chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. We began by noting that the Fellowship's journey down the Anduin provides an excellent "travelogue" of the river, and that Tolkien's expertise in describing landscapes extends to the transition stages between one kind of terrain and another (forest to plains, plains to hills, and so forth). The blasted "Brown Lands" were compared to Pittsburgh, and the comment was made that it was little wonder that Tolkien was so down on technology, having grown up with some of its ugliest manifestations: the "dark satanic mills" of Birmingham and so forth.
The detail of the flights of black swans seen by the travelers was discussed at some length. In other places in Tolkien's work, swans are associated with "elvishness" or otherworldliness, as in the tale of Tuor in The Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales; also noted were Galadriel's swan-shaped barge earlier in the book, and the swan-ships of Alqualondë, as well as the swan-ship emblem of Dol Amroth. In various folklores, swans have been considered very powerful and magical birds, associated with the spirit world. We wondered if these swans had been turned black by Sauron's machinations, or whether they were a special breed of his. Evil spirits, perhaps? (Though there are species of black swans even in our world.) Yet since swans are such powerful, magical birds, could they be fiddled with by Sauron? We concluded that Tolkien's imagery is very subtle here: a flight of swans would normally be a hopeful, uplifting sight (as it was for Tuor), but their being black negates this and creates a feeling of desolation. Indeed, it is just after the swans have been sighted that Frodo remarks, "How wide and empty and mournful all this country looks!"
We compared the terrain that the Company was passing through to various places in the Primary World. The marshy bits were likened to the Wexford Slops in Ireland (which some people present had seen) or to the New Jersey marshes (which most people present had seen). Once again we tried fitting the map of Middle-earth over a map of modern Europe, with the remark being made that "if we make that [the Anduin] the Danube, they're in Bulgaria." We noted that in The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien closely identifies Middle-earth with Europe (to the extent of making Tol Eressëa eventually become the British Isles), but that later he changed his mind on this point.
After following the Company ever since Moria, Gollum is finally identified. We were amused by the way Sam spots him (as a "log with eyes") and tells Frodo about him, who replies that yes, he knew that Gollum was there; and then later in the chapter Frodo brings Gollum to Aragorn's attention, who replies "Oh, so you know about our little footpad, do you?" The comment was made that Aragorn has taken up Gandalf's mantle of superiority, comparing Aragorn's "Oh yes, I knew that" to Gandalf's remark to Bilbo (who thought that Legolas' news of Gollum's escape at the Council of Elrond had "caught him on the hop") that he had already known about it, having heard of it from Gwaihir.
Speaking of Gwaihir, we identified him as the eagle spotted by Aragorn and Legolas, who seems to be watching the Company (in fact he is a lookout for Galadriel and Gandalf). Alexei pointed out that the name "Gwaihir" means "long scream" in Welsh. In Sindarin it means "wind-lord": either translation is appropriate as a name for an eagle. It's quite likely it's a bilingual pun on Tolkien's part.
Aragorn misjudges the Company's traveling speed and lands them in the rapids of Sarn Gebir; we noted that Boromir is the first to point out to Aragorn that he's blown it. We also noted that when the orc archers attack, the first person they hit is Frodo (who is fortunately protected by his hidden coat of mithril-mail). A Ringwraith also shows up, possibly having been routinely patrolling the area, possibly drawn by the Ring, or maybe a bit of both. We noted that the feeling of fear generated by the Nazgûl, which affects even its orkish followers, comes from the Ringwraith itself and not its steed. The steed, while not positively identified as a pterodactyl, is mentioned by Tolkien in one of his letters as being at least "pterodactylic." Most likely, we decided, Tolkien didn't know that pterodactyls were furry. There was some discussion on how corporeal the Nazgûl were; they're not visible to ordinary mortal eyes, but they are solid enough to ride physical creatures, wear real clothing, helms, crowns, and so forth, and wield tangible weapons. We wondered if the Nazgûl, as servants of Sauron, shared his power of being able to construct a physical body though he didn't normally have one (as a Maia, he was originally a being of pure spirit). We duly noted Legolas' feat of shooting down the Nazgûl's steed, and wondered if his "mighty shot in the dark" succeeded due to his own skill, the stronger Lórien bow which gave him more range, or his invocation of Elbereth before shooting. We decided that it was all three. We hoped that the steed fell on a few orcs.
We guessed that Frodo knew what the Ringwraith was, but was reluctant to name it (and thus, presumably, attract its or Sauron's attention). However, a bit later he puts his foot in his mouth by mentioning Galadriel's ring, and is shushed by Aragorn. It is implied that Aragorn knew about the ring--but that Sauron shouldn't find out about it, and the Dark Lord sees and hears much.
Boromir came in for some more discussion. We noted that after Sarn Gebir he starts trying to take over again, trying to steer the company toward Minas Tirith. We decided that Boromir feels insecure when he's not in control, and the more insecure he feels, the more he complains. He also starts making racist remarks, which touch off a testy reply from Gimli about the hardiness of Dwarves. However, at the end of an exhausting day, Boromir gets the last word.
The Company at last arrives at Parth Galen and must now make the decision about which path they will take. The decision is left to Frodo, though Sam, at least, knows perfectly well what is in the wind and what Frodo is going to have to screw himself up to do. ("Well, the gentry are stewing around, but--") Boromir, however, has other ideas. We discussed the Ring's effect on Boromir, comparing his visions of power with Galadriel's, and with Sam's later on when he briefly bears the Ring. Oddly, you never see Frodo's visions of power, if he has any, and wondered why this is so. We noted that Frodo isn't a leader. Galadriel and Boromir are, and Sam will be (elected Mayor of the Shire seven times). Also, Frodo feels the Ring as a burden, and possibly is trying all along not to fantasize and thus lay himself open to temptation. As Ringbearer he has to fight off the Ring's influence consciously, all the time.
After a glancing consideration of the importance of betrayal in Middle-earth history (Boromir's fall is a good example; in itself it is an evil thing, but it is also instrumental in forcing Frodo to make up his mind to go to Mordor), we launched into a fairly lengthy discussion of the nature of the Rings of Power and what exactly happens when the Ring is worn, as here, when Frodo wears it on Amon Hen.
Gandalf mentioned earlier to Frodo that when he wore the Ring, he was "half in the wraith-world," the "other side"in which the Nazgûl are visible and Glorfindel is seen as a shining figure of white light. Wearing the Ring, we gathered, one sees into the otherworld, where everything is shown in more archetypal form. We noted that the images of lands and peoples that Frodo sees from Amon Hen have a rather "iconic" quality, their nature or situation being symbolized by a single picture (how could Rohan be symbolized more economically than by "horsemen were galloping on the grass"?).
The Rings seem to suspend the laws and limitations of the physical world, separate their wielder from normal space and time. Hence they can give a kind of immortality to a mortal (separation from the normal flow of time). The function of the Rings was compared to ceremonial magic, which also seeks to suspend the limitations of the physical world and open gates to the otherworld. We noted that Sauron has more power on the other plane (possibly because he is himself a being of spirit in origin). We also noted that Tolkien evidently holds that the otherworld is not the proper sphere for human behavior, at least not during one's mortal life. The Great Rings are dangerous for mortals precisely because they do function as "shortcuts" to the otherworld. There was also some speculation as to whether the Rings trap souls (perhaps this is what has happened to the Nazgûl, and Sauron's essence is in a sense trapped in the One Ring), but it was pointed out once more that "soul" is a word Tolkien never uses. We decided that the One Ring is evil for two reasons: because it is a tool of domination of other wills, and because of its function as an otherworld gate. The Three Rings of the Elves, perhaps, have the second function without the first. Nenya is a good example; with it, Galadriel was able to separate Lórien, at least partly, from the normal flow of time.
Sauron was able to link the Three and the other Rings of Power to his One because he and Celebrimbor knew each other's trade secrets. We wondered what would have happened if Sméagol/Gollum had found one of the other Rings rather than the One, but we were uncertain as to whether he would have been able to find any of the others (seeing that the One was more or less lying in wait for him and actively seeking a new bearer--it has a will of its own that is possibly not shared by the other rings). We also trotted out once more the frequent speculation that the One may have been the Ring of Earth, to balance out the Three's triad of Air (Vilya), Water (Nenya), and Fire (Narya). We elaborated on the Great Rings' dangers for mortals by pointing out Tolkien's apparent belief that mortals need to die, or to know that they will die, in order to obtain spiritual maturity--a possible meaning of death as the Gift of Men.
Returning at last to Frodo on Amon Hen, we noted his struggle with the Eye, identified the contending Voice as Gandalf, and made the point that what Gandalf is doing is exactly counterbalancing Sauron's influence and thus providing Frodo with free will. Given the choice, Frodo takes off the Ring and Sauron's radar quits. Having had a sterling example, thanks to Boromir, of the dangers of the Ring, Frodo finally decides to go off to Mordor by himself-- and promptly puts the Ring back on again. (Well, it was for a good cause!) Boromir came in for a little more discussion. The remark was made that he had no sense, and also that he was dominated by macho, warrior thinking ("my mind is made up--don't confuse me with the facts"). On the other hand, when he comes to his senses after having attacked Frodo, he knows he's done wrong, and later he shows the good side of the warrior ethic by defending Merry and Pippin to the end. The Anglo-Saxon virtue of bravery in the face of inevitable defeat, the "Northern spirit" so admired by Tolkien, is exemplified in Boromir's death. We also noted that even Sam, who doesn't like Boromir very much, admits that he's "not lying--that's not his way."
In the meantime, the Company has also been discussing their choices (Aragorn wants to send Merry and Pippin to Gondor--big help!). When Boromir returns, Aragorn realizes that somethings gone wrong and that Boromir had something to do with it, but it takes Sam to reason out what has happened and what Frodo has done. We were rather amused that Sam is so hurt about not being taken along to Mordor (shades of the Middle-earth wargame that was advertised with the line "Now you can go to Mordor!" to which the sensible reaction would seem to be, "Great! Who wants to?"). However, he does succeed in catching Frodo and being taken along on the next stage of the journey. We wound up the discussion at this point, and will resume next time with the first two chapters of The Two Towers.