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Rómenna Meeting Report - September 22, 1984
September 22, 1984
Our discussion of the prologue and first chapter of The Lord of the Rings began with the comment from Per that the Prologue is practically unreadable until you've already read the rest of the book. You have to have some idea of what is going on and who these people are before you can understand it. It was suggested that Tolkien knew that no one in his right mind reads prologues-- at least not before reading the main text. The prologue is one of the things that gives the book its "scholarly" trappings.
Per has also seen the Tolkien manuscripts at Marquette University, and he mentioned that the hobbit genealogies in Appendix C have been cut down considerably from what they were originally. Tolkien mentions in the Prologue that the family trees at the end of the "original" Red Book are "a small book in themselves," and it seems that this comment may have reflected something of the real situation. Tolkien goes on to note that "all but hobbits would find them exceedingly dull," which may be the reason he abridged them for the Appendices. Per noted that one of the parts omitted was the descent of Estella Bolger, Merry's wife. Margaret brought up a college friend's speculation that Merry and Estella got together because Estella was unusually tall for a hobbit. Merry used to dance with her at parties out of the goodness of his heart; then after he got back from his journey, he was suddenly looking down on her. . . so they got married.
Someone asked why Sméagol talked about receiving the Ring as a "birthday present" when hobbits gave presents on their birthdays, which was the perfect opportunity to bring up the suggested supplementary reading, Letter #214 of Tolkien's Letters. In response to just such a question from a reader, Tolkien explains that hobbits both gave and received presents on their birthdays. The receiving of presents was kinship-related. The term "a twelve-mile cousin" was explained (in the Shire itself there was a residence-limit on the obligation to give gifts, and the "twelve-mile cousin" was a person who stickled for the law, and recognized no obligations beyond his own interpretation thereof). It was agreed that Sandyman the miller was probably a "twelve-mile cousin," judging from the Gaffer's pointed remarks about pints of beer.
We moved on to a discussion of the economics of the Shire. The majority of hobbits seem to have been farmers. Some of the poorer hobbits may have been tenant-farmers, and there were also artisans like Sam's uncle the roper--and, of course, the miller. There seems to have been plenty of land to feed everybody under normal conditions. A rich family owned more land. The mention of rich families led to a discussion of the "headship" of families, how the headship of the Sackville family passed to Otho Sackville-Baggins from his mother, and Otho's absurd ambition to become "head" of two families at once. We then passed on to the origin of the Thainship. At first the Thain was a military leader, who served as vicegerent for the absent King in the dangerous times after the fall of the North-kingdom. By the time of The Lord of the Rings however, times of emergency no longer occurred, and the Thainship was no more than a nominal dignity.
The burning question then arose of "How big is a shire?" The Shire was about 120 miles east to west and 150 miles north to south, but what we wanted to find out was how big an English shire was normally (to see if they matched). The reference books consulted yielded little useful information on this point, and the subject soon faded away into a digression on the Book of Lost Tales.
Dragging ourselves back from this to the economy of the Shire again, we concluded that it had a late medieval agrarian economy, minus the armies that periodically rampaged through most European countries in the late Middle Ages. It also had Edwardian touches, taken from the countryside in which Tolkien grew up. There are even a few New-World touches, such as tobacco. Sources of the Shire in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and in Tennessee were mentioned.
Turning to a discussion of hobbits themselves, it was noted that they were proportioned like human children. Tolkien's few pictures of hobbits are not a reliable source--he himself admitted that he wasn't very good at drawing figures--but there is also textual support. People who didn't know what hobbits were often mistook them for boys at first sight. In Gondor, Pippin is mistaken for one by Bergil, who is about twelve years old himself.
It was noted that the title of "A Long-expected Party" is an allusion to Chapter One of The Hobbit, "An Unexpected Party." Hobbits, it appears, liked puns; To1kien notes in the Appendices that the play on words suggested by the names of the connected families "Gamgee" and "Cotton" ("Gamgee-tissue" is a name in England for the kind of cotton used in medical supplies) "would have been hobbit-like enough, had there been any warrant in their language."
The role of the Dúnedain in protecting the Shire was brought up. It didn't seem to us that there were really enough Dúnedain to make up a full-fledged border patrol. The party sent to the aid of Aragorn under Halbarad, presumably the Dúnedain's Finest, consisted of only thirty men. We decided that the Dúnedain went in for quality rather than quantity. There were also the Elves to the west of the Shire, in Lindon.
Hobbits are said to be fond of yellow and green. It was noted that green dyes and paints are a relatively late development (19th century), since they don't occur naturally in a lasting form, at least not in our world. Hobbits normally went barefoot except for the Stoors of the Marish, but boots may have been needed for riding. It's a possibility, though, that hobbits wore, say, leather breeches for riding, and controlled the horse with their knees like English-style equestrians. Hobbits probably didn't ride very often anyway; they probably hitched their ponies to carts more often than they rode on their backs.
Margaret commented that the Prologue is full of oblique allusions to The Silmarillion, which you don't pick up until you've read that work; all the comments about "older matter" and Bilbo's "Translations from the Elvish." Could it be that Tolkien was subtly preparing his readers for the legends of the Elder Days that he really wanted to publish?
The discussion turned back to hobbits. In origin they are a subspecies of the human race. They are divided into three different breeds (like so many other races in Middle-earth), each of which Tolkien describes. The Fallohides are the adventurous types, who usually end up as leaders. Hobbits live about twice as long as humans (using a late-medieval standard, anyway), and their generations are about twice as long, too; they come of age at thirty-three. Things move slowly as a rule in hobbit-society. They are conservative, and not greedy as a rule, so their properties, farms, trades, and so on tend to remain unchanged for centuries. Tolkien notes that hobbits did not fight among themselves. Dave commented, "He hadn't met Lobelia yet!" Hobbits did not like heights, and even when they couldn't live in holes in the ground, their buildings were described by Randolph as something like motels--long and low and rambling. He also noted that Tolkien was not fond of cities (where most tall buildings arise). Tolkien was an environmentalist before the word had even been coined. He also loved trees. Randolph recently came back from a trip to California, and he noted, "It's a good thing Tolkien never saw a giant redwood, or the Ents might have stepped on Orthanc!"
Commenting on the section "On Pipe-weed," we wondered where the plant originated. The Dúnedain are said to have brought it out of the west, but where did they get it? Númenor? Valinor? How about North Carolina? The origin of athelas raises similar questions.
Hobbits had a very efficient Messenger Service, like the post office of Victorian London which had six deliveries a day (!! lucky stiffs!). The Watch, or Shirriffs, were usually more concerned with animals going astray than people, but they did have a border guard, which at the time of The Lord of the Rings had been stepped up considerably.
Tolkien recaps the relevant parts of The Hobbit in "Of the Finding of the Ring," and in the process neatly accounts for the variant versions of the tale which we discussed last time. The Prologue concludes with some bibliographic notes, the style of which is strongly reminiscent of medieval scholarship.
Moving at last from the Prologue to Chapter One, we noted that Bilbo is feeling peculiar and can't quite figure out why. The Gaffer's conversation at the Ivy Bush was commended as an excellent and entertaining way to reveal information about Bilbo and Frodo, and at the same time depict the normal hobbit's point of view. The party preparations were looked on with envy; we all decided we would have loved to be there. What did hobbits eat? Probably from necessity they were largely vegetarian, like most agricultural societies, but there was some meat available, especially for more prosperous hobbits.
Gandalf's firework display was truly miraculous in that it even smelled nice. We wondered how long it took Bilbo to come up with the bit in his speech about "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like. . ." After Bilbo's vanishment, Gandalf catches him before he leaves and performs another miracle by persuading him to leave the Ring behind. We noted that he uses the tried and true "bad cop/good cop" routine, first frightening Bilbo and then appealing to his sympathies and friendship. Policemen usually use two different people for this, but Gandalf pulls it off all by himself. Bilbo departs, and Frodo is left holding the bag, as it were. We ended the discussion with observations on the Edwardian technology of Bilbo's parting gifts, and Gandalf's foreboding-laden final warning.
It should be noted here that our Bilbo and Frodo's Birthday was livened by excellent refreshments (including a cake and delicious stuffed mushrooms) , a Mathom Exchange, and the astonishing fact that David Morgan Greystar had actually turned thirty-three that very day! And I thought the coincidence of the day and the discussion topic was amazing enough!