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Rómenna Meeting Report - July 21, 1985
July 21, 1985
The July meeting of Rómenna had a record turnout, with fourteen members attending (perhaps the word had gotten around that the Rivendell Bookshop is air-conditioned). We began our discussion of the first two chapters of The Two Towers with a rendition by Mike Rubin of his setting of Boromir's funeral song. We then played a short bout of "Casting Call," prompted by a remark by someone that the chase of the Three Hunters always reminded him of a scene in Drums Along the Mohawk with Henry Fonda running along the ridges. John Wayne was cast as Boromir.
We noted that when Aragorn looks out from Amon Hen, he doesn't see nearly as much as Frodo did, not having a Ring (which confirms the opinion expressed last time that Frodo's detailed visions were mostly due to the Ring and not just being on the high seat). Aragorn notices that Frodo has also been up on the seat and says to himself "I wonder what he saw there." We considered this a classic piece of (unconscious) understatement--if he only knew!
We then proceeded to discuss Boromir's offstage battle with the orcs. He dies nobly, taking many of the enemy with him. The orcs evidently began by fighting him hand-to-hand, but eventually backed off and finished him with arrows. Fred noted that killing an enemy at a distance like this was considered ignoble and compared the affray to the battle of Thermopylae. Nevertheless it was better tactics for the orcs to shoot their opponent than fight a seasoned warrior (who also had a reach advantage on them) hand-to-hand, and we wondered why they didn't think of it earlier, since orcs aren't noted for their nobility. We decided that for them it was a macho thing, and also that orcs are used to just piling on an enemy and beating him down by sheer weight of numbers; they're not much on fancy tactics. The Uruk-Hai were a bit more intelligent, though, and also had a certain esprit de corps and loyalty to their master (which we expressed as "He may be a mean nasty rotten son of a bitch, but he's our mean nasty rotten son of a bitch!"). We also discussed Boromir's fighting technique; those of the group who have some knowledge of medieval fighting said that a skillful two-handed swordsman can hold off hordes of foes in fine style. Somebody asked how Boromir managed to fight and blow horn at the same time--response was that he swung the sword with one hand and blew the horn with the other (shades of Roland at Roncesvalles). Conclusion was that Boromir had a bastard sword (which can be used either one- or two-handed) and no shield.
Aragorn arrives too late to save Boromir (in response to a question we noted that "Elendil! Elendil!" is his battle cry), but in time to hear his last words. Boromir in effect confesses to Aragorn before he dies, tells him that the Halflings were captured by the orcs, and lays the responsibility for the safety of Minas Tirith on him. Aragorn is so grief-stricken by Boromir's death that when Legolas and Gimli arrive, they think Aragorn has been wounded too.
Feelings were mixed about Boromir's death; it is sad that he was killed, but he did make a good end according to the warrior ethic (fighting in a noble cause), and more importantly, he died in a spiritual "state of grace," having at last fought off the spell of the Ring. His death is in part an atonement for trying to take the Ring from Frodo (he tells Aragorn "I have paid") and the opinion was ventured that one reason he was able to fight so heroically was that he felt guilty and his adrenalin was up. But in any case it seems clear that in the end he realized where he had gone wrong and had shaken off the evil influence--a sign of spiritual achievement and growth. This is why his companions (and Tolkien himself) give him so much honor in his death. Alexei noted that when he first read The Lord of the Rings he was puzzled as to why so much time was spent on Boromir's obsequies, until he realized this important point. This spiritual achievement is also probably what Aragorn means when he tells the dying Boromir, "You have conquered." It is his own evil tendencies that Boromir has conquered, as well as the evil influence of the Ring--a tougher foe than orcs for Boromir, who by nature and nurture (think of his home life!) was peculiarly susceptible to the Ring's temptation of power used to dominate. A hobbit, for instance, would be much harder to tempt with that particular lure, since hobbit society did not emphasize domination. (Lotho Sackville-Baggins' desire for power was considered queer and unnatural by his fellow hobbits.)
We noted that Boromir's funeral is similar to a Viking funeral except that they don't set the boat on fire. The dirge is composed ex tempore by Aragorn and Legolas, and uses both rhyme and alliteration. The elegy stresses how much Boromir was loved by his people and how much they will feel his loss. One of Boromir's problems was his parochialism, his almost exclusive concern for his own people, but on the other hand he has been helping to hold the line against Sauron. Final comments on Boromir included the observations that he was more of a soldier than a diplomat, and that he made a terrific captain but would be a lousy general because he couldn't see the big picture.
Having finally finished with Boromir, we turned with Aragorn and his remaining companions to the problem of what they should do next. Once Aragorn has deduced what has happened (that Frodo and Sam have gone off on their own to Mordor and that Merry and Pippin are captives of the orcs), he has to decide whether to follow Frodo or the orcs. After much agonizing he finally pulls himself together and realizes that the Ring Quest is out of his hands, and that his immediate moral responsibility is to save the young hobbits, hopeless though this task may seem. The comment was made that another type of thinker might conclude that the Ring Quest was all-important and that the lives of two hobbits don't count for much in comparison; also, there are those that might give up both the Ring Quest and the pursuit of the orcs as hopeless, and follow Boromir's injunction to go to Minas Tirith to aid its people. But it is plain that Aragorn (and by implication Tolkien) do not see things that way.
Once his mind is finally made up, Aragorn proves himself adept at pulling the Three Hunters together and keeping up their morale. We also noted that the hunt is cathartic for all of them--if nothing else, it gives them something to do that will counteract their grief and despair.
The next chapter begins with a travelogue of the Emyn Muil and the adjoining parts of Rohan. The opinion was expressed that the Emyn Muil were formed by a fault block, and a comparison was made with the geography of parts of Eastern Europe: western Hungary has that sharp drop from hills to plain, and at least at one time had the horsemen to boot.
As the hunt unfolded we noted the contrasting speaking styles of the Hunters. As Gimli gets tired and discouraged his language gets less lofty. It was noted that Gimli is being a "substitute hobbit" here, none of the real ones being available. Legolas tends to speak to the point, and we also noticed him pulling a "Mr. Spock": when Aragorn, after listening with his ear to the ground, announces that there are many horsemen coming, Legolas responds with their exact number, plus a description.
The Hunters make good time, but so do the orcs, who seem to have great endurance; we speculated that this may have something to do with what they're drinking. Orc draughts are notorious ("Give 'em a shot o' Red-Eye!"). The three are further hampered by the oppressive will of Saruman, which is similar to, though lesser than, the will of Sauron which will burden Frodo later.
The Riders of Rohan are at length encountered. We noted that the Hunters could have avoided them--the Riders do not notice them till Aragorn stands up and hails them--but they need news and are willing to take the risk. The description of the Rohirrim suggests several elements, among them Nordic, Scythian (the barrows) and Gothic cultures, as well as the Bayeux Tapestry, which Tolkien himself mentioned as an adequate model for their dress and fighting gear. Rohan can be characterized as having a Germanic background coupled with Eastern European geography with its horseman culture.
Rohirrim who speak Westron tend to use the Gondorean form of the language, possibly because it's closer to their own language (being more archaic), and possibly also because they learn it from Gondoreans. A comparison was made with a French/English dictionary that gives British pronunciations for the English words.
The Riders think the strangers are orcs at first--probably because that's what they're looking for--and don't seem to take much more kindly to the idea of their being "elvish wights." As in the case of Boromir's distrust of Galadriel, we noted that the Rohirrim's suspicion of elves, and the Golden Wood, is not unfounded; it is dangerous for mortals to have contact with the elves, though not for the reasons most mortals think. These Riders have probably never seen an elf before, yet interestingly they know enough about Galadriel to know that she is a weaver. Gimli does not take kindly to the aspersions cast on the Lady of the Golden Wood. There are certain comic overtones to his challenge of Éomer, twice his size, but it is easy to see that the situation could rapidly get ugly. We contrasted Gimli's bluster with Legolas' quiet, matter-of-fact threat, backed up by direct action, and also noted that here for the first time Legolas commits himself to supporting Gimli. Fortunately Aragorn intervenes before a fight can break out.
The first thing Aragorn must find out is what side the Rohirrim are on. Éomer's response to his question indicates an important factor in the Rohirrim's concept of themselves: whom you serve defines who you are. Éomer declares that he serves the King of the Mark and demands to know in return whom Aragorn serves. Aragorn's reply that he serves no man is significant, and his subsequent transfiguration only points up the fact that in this way he is effectively declaring himself a king. Éomer is suitably impressed (the comment was made that Éomer knows quality when he sees it). "
Once everyone has sorted out where they stand, the exchange of news can begin. As well as finding out that the ores have been destroyed (though the Riders know nothing of the hobbits or their fate), the three companions (and the reader) get some idea of the situation in Rohan at the moment. They learn that Gandalf is currently persona non grata in Edoras after taking Shadowfax and "ruining" him, but that his warning of Saruman's treachery did not go unheeded. Open war now exists between Saruman and Rohan. In return, Aragorn fills Éomer in on the fates of Boromir and Gandalf. Éomer is dismayed by the news of Boromir's death (the Rohirrim admired Boromir--he was their kind of guy), but is wise enough to know that Gandalf's fall is evil news too. Aragorn mentions a few things about his and his companions' own mission, and Éomer warms to him immediately when he hears about their physical feat of traveling forty leagues (about 120 miles) in the space of three days or so. Once he realizes Aragorn's quality, he wants him to come to Edoras and help him rouse King Théoden--he really pitches the woo, trying hard to persuade him. When he finds persuasion, legal argument, and threat ineffective, he proves his high regard by going out on a limb for Aragorn and his companions, going so far as to lend them horses as well as letting them go free in Rohan. As he points out, he may be putting his life on the line by doing this.
We also get some of Tolkien's views on mythology and legend. Aragorn's description of hobbits reveals that the Rohirrim have legends of such creatures, but they are viewed nowadays as children's tales and are believed by few. The Rohirrim (notably smart-mouthed Éothain) try to draw a line between "legend" and "fact" (or to put it another way, between fantasy and reality), but Aragorn points out that even the "green earth" that they walk on is "a mighty matter of legend." Legend, or fantasy, is not something separate from reality, but draws on it. Éomer is confused; if legend and reality cannot be distinguished, if we must actually confront our legends, how are we to judge what to do? Aragorn responds with a moral principle that is a crux of the entire story: "Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." Moral truth underlies both legend and reality.
A touch of comic relief is supplied by the spectacle of Gimli trying to ride a horse. We also noted that after the first confrontation, Éomer never takes the quarrel between himself and Gimli over Galadriel quite seriously-- though it is never a laughing matter to Gimli.
The hunters ride to the eaves of Fangorn and try in vain to figure out what has become of their friends. They decide to sleep on it and set up camp for the night. We noted Legolas' and Gimli's contrasting reactions to the forest: Legolas knows something about it (he has heard tales about how the Ents used to live here) and is attracted to it, whereas Gimli would rather not hear about it and doesn't like the place at all. Legolas will later have similar reservations about the caves of Aglarond; neither is naturally comfortable in the other's environment. It was pointed out that Gimli's apprehensions are not baseless; as an axe-bearer he is the one of the three most in danger of arousing the malice of the wood. The companions here have their first encounter with the limb-lithe trees of Fangorn, in the tree that seems to be glad of the warmth of their fire.
The brief appearance of Saruman and the flight of the horses ends the chapter on a suitably mysterious note, whetting the reader's appetite for more. Next time we will be following Merry and Pippin in the next two chapters.