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Rómenna Meeting Report - July 22, 1984
July 22, 1984
The July meeting of Rómenna took place at Ramapo Reservation, amid tall trees by the bank of a river. After we had located the inevitable poison ivy plant and neutralized it by means of a paper plate held down with a rock, we filled our picnic plates and began our discussion of The Hobbit.
It was noted that the hobbits (judging from Bilbo, at least) were very hospitable people. How many of us, if an uninvited dwarf showed up at the front door, would ask him in for tea, no matter how much he seemed to expect it? The hobbits were compared to the "southern" or 'western" hospitality that some of us have experienced. Hobbits do not perceive strangers as a threat.
Joanne asked about the order of composition of The Hobbit in relation to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion (in early form) was written first, and then The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings started out as a sequel to The Hobbit (requested by Tolkien's publishers), and ended up as more of a sequel to the as-yet unpublished Silmarillion.
Returning to the subject of hobbits, we characterized them as childlike, and noted that The Hobbit was constructed much more like a traditional fairy-story than The Lord of the Rings. Margaret also noted that Tolkien based his conception of the hobbits on English country people he'd met.
Tolkien's writing mannerisms in The Hobbit were mentioned. Much has been made of the "nursery-tale" narrative style, Tolkien himself having mentioned it as a flaw in this book, but the group was asked whether anybody had been really bothered by it. Opinions were given that it wasn't bothersome at the first reading, but afterwards, in subsequent readings, it might get tiresome. The episodic, stop-and-go timeflow was also mentioned as a feature that had bothered some people. The tale was characterized as a boy-growing-up story.
There are more talking animals and birds in The Hobbit than there are in The Lord of the Rings, (the wolves, the eagles, the giant spiders, the ravens and the thrush). The Silmarillion also has talking animals. We tried to remember whether any of the wolves in The Silmarillion actually talked. Carcharoth is not recorded as saying anything, but Draugluin does (he warns Sauron of Huan's presence). It was noted that in general in fairy-stories, anybody the animals talk to is a good guy.
The different versions of The Hobbit (before and after The Lord of the Rings was published) were mentioned. The most noticeable difference is in Chapter 5, "Riddles in the Dark," which was completely rewritten in order to bring it into line with the more important and sinister role of the Ring.
A discussion of Tolkien's pedantry somehow led into talk about that favorite hobbit subject, genealogy. specifically the origin of the Sackville-Bagginses. The theory was proposed that Camellia Sackville, who married into the Baggins family, was the last of her line, and that was why her son Otho took her name as well as his father's. In any case, the line did not last long, the only Sackville-Bagginses being Otho, his wife Lobelia, and their son Lotho (also known as Pimple). Also on the subject of genealogy, it was noted that while Bilbo's mother Belladonna is called "the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took," it is never mentioned why she or her sisters are fabulous or remarkable. (The three daughters were Belladonna, Donnamira, and Mirabella.)
From our discussion of hobbits we passed on to a discussion of Dwarves. Tolkien took most of his ideas about Dwarves, as well as their names, from the Norse Eddas. (Gandalf's name also comes from there. The idea cropped up that Gandalf was Tolkien's Muse, which is not inconsistent with some of the things we said about him last month.) Bilbo thinks the Dwarves cloddish ("all this Dwarvish racket"), but they are only cloddish in comparison to a hobbit. Dwarves are a very secretive folk; for instance, they have secret, "true" names in the Dwarvish language, which they tell to no one and do not even inscribe on their tombs. This was contrasted to Bilbo, presumably characteristic of hobbits, who blithely blurts out his name to Gollum on the slightest provocation. At least by the time he gets around to confronting Smaug, he has learned a bit more caution.
We wondered if the idea of the tricksy, sly dragon was a widespread one or whether Tolkien made it up. Many of us had the impression that it was widespread, but nobody could come up with specific examples. How many dragons even talk? well, Fafnir does in Wagner--not only that, he sings. The dragon is often used to symbolize the Devil, and everyone knows what a tricky fellow he is. It was mentioned that dragons seem to shrink in English literature. In Beowulf you have this huge monster, but in some later pictures of St. George and the Dragon, the Dragon is depicted as considerably smaller than St. George's horse. This, however, may be attributed to the fact that medieval artists were not number-conscious (for instance, in the matter of relative sizes). Perspective in art had not yet been invented, And artists tended to make the most important figures in a painting the largest. St. George being more important than the dragon, he was drawn bigger.
Getting back to hobbits and dwarves, it was noted that hobbits are unobtrusive as a group as well as individually, living very quietly and minding their own business in their own corner of the world. We noticed that Dwarves practiced magic: they created magical toys and their secret doors had magical runes and conditions necessary for their opening. Hobbits have round doors, and we tried to imagine what the mechanics of a.hobbit-hole door would be. Tolkien depicts Bilbo's door with a knob in the middle and one very long hinge (it would have to be long to support the entire weight of the door by itself).
One of the features of Tolkien's style in The Hobbit is the capsule characterizations he gives of new peoples whenever they are encountered, telling the reader some of their more salient characteristics and whether they are good or evil. We wondered why the wood-elves. who are "Good People," incarcerate the dwarves. We decided that although basically good, the wood-elves were "snooty and suspicious," especially of dwarves who will not give a good account of themselves. It was pointed out that the Elvenking of The Hobbit is actually Thranduil, originally from Doriath and thus with little reason to love Dwarves.
Going back to the beginning of the tale to take it in some kind of order, we passed a comment or two on the "lower-class British" trolls, noted that Bree is not mentioned (though there is no reason why the dwarves and Bilbo might not have stopped there before they got to the lands where inns became few or nonexistent). The elves of the Last Homely House seem rather dippy in The Hobbit. It was pointed out that the "rank-and-file" elves of Rivendell would not necessarily be Noldor, and that their songs might not sound quite so silly when set to music. How about a nice four or five-part madrigal arrangement? Rivendell itself acts as a clearing-house of information: Elrond gives good advice and reads the moon-letters on the map.
Getting up into the mountains we meet the stone-giants, who had vanished by the time of The Lord of the Rings. They seem to be an intrusion from Norse myth and classic fairy-tale. The capture by goblins was reviewed, and the comment made (after searching of sources) that Gollum had been hiding under the Misty Mountains for some 500 years.
At this point, since some people had to leave, we brought the discussion to a close with the resolve to pick it up again next time.