RÓMENNA MEETING REPORT
Rómenna Meeting Report - January 12, 1986
January 12, 1986
Present:||Randolph Fritz (host)
Our discussion this month ended up including lots of geographical parallels,
beginning with a comment on the opening of our first chapter, in which
Frodo is looking out from the Emyn Muil over the Dead Marshes: "What a lovely
description of the Meadowlands!" We noted that the "Dead" Marshes can't be
completely lifeless, since there has to have been something there for Gollum
to eat, and he's no vegetarian. Those among us who knew a little about climatology
pointed out that the Marshes, Emyn Muil and surrounding area probably
got little rainfall; the marshes are marshes because there's no drainage, and
the rest of the area is rather dry. The comment was made that Tolkien picks
all the worst badlands for his characters to plod through, giving the barren
Emyn Muil as an example. "No self-respecting tree would come within 100 miles
of it!" We then got out the maps and started trying to work out the climate
patterns and the prevailing winds. The area probably gets heavy winter snows
and a yearly meltoff with flash floods (some of us who have been in the American
Southwest and similar places discussed how, for example, if you're in an
arroyo and there's any sign of rain, you get out of the arroyo). The storm
that strikes the hills during the chapter is probably typical--rainfall is
occasional, but hard, with heavy rain and hail. The Emyn Muil, we noted, are
not really mountains; they are rocky hills, very bleak. The description
Tolkien gives of them is phrased in a way that reveals a certain amount of
knowledge of geology on the author's part. South Africa, where Tolkien was
born, was suggested as a possible source for the terrain; Kipling also wrote
about the area and may have influenced Tolkien's description.
Tolkien went mountain-climbing in the Alps as a young man, but we noted
that the mountain-climbing scene in this chapter (in which Frodo and Sam descend
the cliff) shows no great love of mountain-climbing. We also noted that this
scene bears some resemblances to the traditional heroic man-against-nature type
scene common in boys' adventure novels, but severely undercut--as Tolkien no
doubt intended--by the characters of the hobbits, especially Sam.
Sam's sentient elvish rope was discussed, which seems to know what its
owner wants; we decided that no matter how well-intentioned it was, you
wouldn't want to trust our life to its understanding you rightly. Its turning
out to be just the right length for the descent made us suspicious. A growing
rope? One of the RPG gamers among us dubbed it a "Rope of Authorial Purpose."
It was also noted in passing that an "ell" is measured from the chest to the end of the arm.
Sam's action of going straight over the cliff once the hobbits decide to
climb was ascribed to what Randolph called the "Disneyland effect," referencing
people who go to Disneyland and walk around in the blazing sun with no hats and
get heatstroke, simply because they're not used to the climate and unaware of
what it can do to them. Similarly, Sam has probably grown up never seeing a
real cliff and thus cheerfully walks off it. Frodo is more knowledgeable about
climbing; though he's presumably not had much first-hand experience with it either, he is more widely read. Sam is literate too, but probably hasn't done
much actual reading. However. he is good at memorization; we guessed that he
probably remembers conversations verbatim. This comment branched off into a
discussion of how oral skills have atrophied in our culture. and how most people don't have real conversations any more.
Returning from this digression to the text, we proceeded to Frodo's
attempt at climbing and his slide down the cliff. We noted in passing the
description of the storm which is a metaphoric battlefield for Mordor. Blinded
by the lightning flash. the first thing Frodo sees is the rope; we noted that it has elvish "virtue" and possibly a spirit of its own.
This scene also establishes Sam in the role of the klutzy goodhearted
peasant, similar to the schlemiel in Jewish literature, or Sam Weller of The
. Sam's relationship with Frodo often recalls the class
distinction between them. Sam usually lets Frodo make the decisions until
Frodo is not there (as happens at the end of The Two Towers
). We noted that
Sam has never had to make his own decisions; he was the youngest child in his
family and has been a servant ever since childhood. He has always had someone
else to tell him what to do, and he was expected to be a follower. Merry and
Pippin, on the other hand, are both leaders in training by birth, though Pippin is still an adolescent by hobbit standards and consequently irresponsible.
Further comments on the descent of the cliff included the suggestion that
Sam wanted to go first initially in order to get it over with, and the quip
that Sam, being the nephew of a rope-maker, "knows the ropes." We were interested
to note, in the hobbits' discussion of the elf-rope later, that it is
Frodo who is being all rationalistic and insisting that the rope must either
have broken or come untied because of a poorly tied knot, while Sam insists
that the rope came when he called. Usually it is Frodo who is more attuned to
spiritual matters. but we noted that Sam has always been fascinated by elvish
magic, and decided in this case that Sam doesn't have enough logic to overpower his common sense.
More elvish magic is evident in the hobbits' elven-cloaks, which, we
noted, blend into the twilight and are difficult even for friendly eyes to
see. When Gollum appears on the scene he does not detect the hobbits by
sight. We compared Gollum to a high-level assassin (having to do with his
tracking ability and his facility at "sneaking" and stealthy killing). We
noted that Frodo has a much clearer idea of how dangerous Gollum is than Sam
does. Sam jumps on Gollum and soon finds himself the one caught rather than
the catcher. until Frodo steps in and threatens Gollum with his sword. He
refrains from killing him, however, remembering Gandalf's words. Comparing
Frodo's memory of them here with the actual quote in the "Shadow of the Past"
chapter, we found that the quotes don't match up exactly--there is a slight
difference in wording, with the later citation having an extra phrase or two.
This led to the speculation (since Tolkien was normally so meticulous) that
Gandalf is actually speaking to Frodo on some level at this point, though
Frodo still believes him to be dead.
We were quick to point out the loopholes in Gollum's oath to "serve the
master of the precious" without specifying who the "master" is. (Cf. Gandalf's
remark back in Rivendell that the "lord of the Ring" is not Frodo but Sauron.)
We also noted that Gollum is not particularly ambitious; his "dreams of glory"
in the next chapter don't extend much farther than fresh fish three times a
day. We decided that Frodo would have been much more dangerous if he had ended
up wielding the Ring, since his (probably well-intentioned) goals would have
been much loftier and wider in scope. Gollum is tough, however, as is evidenced
by the fact that he still has some of his own self left (however little)
after centuries of being a slave of the Ring. This toughness is a hobbitish
characteristic; others include Gollum's aptitude for hiding, his concern with
food, and even the fact that he makes up little poems (like "The cold hard lands").
More thoughts on Gollum/Sméagol included the observation that Sméagol acts
like a reformed alcoholic, that he is repeatedly described using dog imagery--
in particular, images that suggest a mistreated dog--and that he talks like a
Preserver (à la ElfQuest
) , in a kind of baby-talk similar to pidgin English or
the way people tend to talk to children and pets. He rarely uses any tense
other than the present, as if he has little sense of past or future. We noted
that much of his life had been spent underground, where the passage of time is
difficult to keep track of. He also seems to have exactly two adjectives in
his vocabulary: "nice" and "nasty." What does he look like? We took a survey
of the people present and came up with a general impression of "old, tough and
pale" and the additional comment that he "looks as if he's been dead for
awhile." Tolkien's own physical descriptions of Gollum are fragmentary and
sometimes confusing. The comment was made that many artists who have tried to
depict him seem to have been reading too much Lovecraft. In his oath to "serve
the master of the Precious," we noted that in serving the one with the Ring, he
was paralleling the Nazgûl.
Sam's and Frodo's characters are also amplified in these chapters. We
noted that Sam often soliloquizes and thus lets the reader know what he's
thinking. His recollection of the Gaffer's "large paternal word-hoard" led us
to believe that he was probably put down a lot while he was growing up.
Peasant languages are often rich in abuse and insults; Yiddish and Arabic were
cited as examples. Frodo, we observed, is beginning to read minds. He has
insights both into Gollum's thinking and into Sam's. The Ring probably has
something to do with this awareness, though amplifying a latent ability of
Frodo's own. The comment was made that Tolkien often seems suspicious of
mystical knowledge such as that imparted by the Ring. We also noted that by
this time Frodo is resigned to being a martyr, as he makes clear to Sam--he
has accepted the fact that there is very little chance that they will survive their quest even if they accomplish it.
The trek through the marshes is begun, a good way to avoid pursuit,
although it slows the hobbits down. Sam and Gollum's exchange on the marshes'
absence of birds was noted, and their differing reasons for being disappointed
at the lack. The marshlights over the Mere of Dead Faces were commented on;
in our own world marshlights are caused by burning methane, but in Middle-earth
they do actually seem to have a supernatural aspect. Russian and Celtic folktales
of water-undead who try to call the living to them were cited as parallels.
Another possible source for the Dead Marshes is Flanders Field, which is
also a burial site which became a marshland when its drainage system was
smashed up during World War I. Like the Battle Plain, it has seen centuries of
repeated battles. We noted that the Dagorlad was originally named after the
famous Second Age battle between the Last Alliance and Sauron, though it was the site of many other subsequent battles.
When the Nazgûl flies over, Gollum knows very well what it is and what it
does (learned during his captivity in Mordor?). His wail of "three times is a
threat" was compared to the phrase "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action." Gollum's behavior changes noticeably
after this incident reminds him of the vigilance of Mordor. It was also
pointed out that the marshes are easy to survey from the air: beds of reeds
and watercourses, dead flat, with no real cover.
We proceeded to Tolkien's vivid description of the blasted lands in front
of the Morannon, which reminded us strongly of Newark (though we figured that
Tolkien himself was probably thinking more of Birmingham). The sight makes Sam
ill; he is, after all, a gardener (though the fumes may also have something to
do with it). Some more geological speculation was bandied about, including
the suggestion that Sauron raised Mordor by putting cracks in the earth's crust.
Sméagol/Gollum's debate with himself made evident the "chink" in his
promise that we'd noted before, and also the limited scope of his ambitions.
The fact that Frodo was meanwhile getting a good night's sleep was noted, and
we speculated that his being in a hole) out of direct line-of-sight from the
Eye (which had been weighing on him heavily throughout the two chapters) may
have had something to do with it. We also guessed that it might be a sending
from Lórien--either the Lórien of Galadriel) or the original Land of Dreams ruled by the Vala of that name.
Having come to the very gates of Mordor, we left the hobbits and Gollum
there till next time, when we'll discuss the next two chapters, and adjourned
to our various pursuits, including dinner at a local Chinese restaurant.
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