RÓMENNA MEETING REPORT
Rómenna Meeting Report - October 26, 1986
October 26, 1986
Present:||Fred Phillips (host)
|Eileen Campbell Gordon
The October meeting of Rómenna convened on the occasion of the second
Feast of Bree, held at the home of Fred Phillips. There was food in abundance.
Hot soup, cold meats, bread, butter, cheese and
(courtesy of master chef Roger
Oliver) a blackberry tart
, were all to be had, as well as apple cider, stuffed
mushrooms, and enough other goodies to warm the heart (and satisfy the appetite) of the hungriest hobbit.
After partaking generously of this splendid spread, and availing ourselves
of the congenial company also to be found at this gathering (a party for various
friends of our host as well as a Rómenna meeting) we eventually convened in
the living room for a short business meeting before beginning the chapter discussion.
Business? At a Rómenna meeting? Well, yes. . . we had been invited
to become a chartered discussion group of the Mythopoeic Society, so the charter
was read and the pros and cons of becoming an "officially" chartered group
were debated. At the end of the debate a vote was taken and the decision was
made to sign the charter (with one "nay" and one abstention). The charter was
duly signed (in red ink, naturally, though only four signatures 'were required--
this is a charter, not a will), and we proceeded to the chapter discussion.
"The Pyre of Denethor" opens with Pippin figuratively tugging on Gandalf's
sleeve and--again figuratively--informing him that "it's hit the fan": i.e.,
Denethor has gone off the deep end completely and is preparing to immolate himself
along with his son Faramir. Alexei made the observation that Tolkien's
view of suicide as presented in this chapter is different from that of the
source cultures he was drawing from (Anglo-Saxon, for instance), in which suicide
was an honorable way out for a man who, like Denethor, had lost everything
he most cared for. While the trappings of Middle-earth come from pagan
cultures, Christian elements enter in when you come to ethical structures.
Gandalf, certainly the voice of the author here (among other things) tells
Denethor that "authority is not given to you to order the hour of your death."
This observation prompted a comparison between Denethor's death and
Aragorn's (in Appendix A). Doesn't Aragorn choose the time of his death as
well? That's not the same thing at all, we decided. Aragorn, as the last of
the Númenórean kings, when he feels that it is time for him to die, is granted
the'"grace [note this peculiarly Christian word] to go at [his] will, and give
back the gift." Aragorn is giving back the gift of life that was granted him,
whereas Denethor is destroying it. The later observation was made that Denethor's
sin, in Christian terms, is despair, the denial of hope, and that if he
wanted to die well, what he should have done was gone out on the battlefield
to fight to the death. (Now, that would have been Anglo-Saxon.)
We noted the differing effects of the palantíri
on the three people who
used them: Saruman, Denethor, and Aragorn. Saruman, who had no right to the
Stone at all (see the discussion of this right in the chapter on the palantíri
in the Unfinished Tales
) was completely corrupted by Sauron and became evil.
Denethor, who as Steward had the delegated authority to use the Stone, could
not be bent directly to Sauron's will, but could have his will undermined by a
careful "censorship" of what he saw in the Stone (Sauron couldn't make the
lie, but he could control which and how much truth it told). Aragorn,
the rightful king and thus the rightful possessor of the Stone, was able to
wrest control of it from Sauron (who had no more right to it than Saruman),
though it took him an immense effort of will to do so. The ordeal drains him, but he is not corrupted.
Getting back to the effects rather than the causes of Denethor's madness,
we noted that he treats Faramir as if he were already dead, which is a monstrously
presumptuous thing for him to do. Beregond, we noted, in disobeying
orders, breaking the rules in order to save Faramir's life, is obeying a higher
standard. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"--but Faramir's life is not Caesar's.
We spent a bit of time discussing Númenórean death customs, which are
Egyptian in flavor, and their life-after-death beliefs. We noted that the
Numen6reans did not practice cremation: Gandalf calls this a "heathen" custom.
The Gondoreans built elaborate tombs, such as the House of the Stewards described
in this chapter, and embalmed their dead like the Egyptians. We also
noted that the Númenóreans probably picked up their beliefs about life after
death from the Elves, who presumably heard something about the subject from the Valar.
We commented on the actions of Denethor's servants, who are so conditioned
to obey him without question that they will even hand him torches to light the
pyre with. It was also pointed out that Denethor is in a towering rage at this
point (nothing like sheer terror to prompt blind obedience). We contrasted
Denethor's servants with Aragorn's followers, who followed him out of love and
probably would not obey an irrational order. The porter whom Beregond killed was also "following orders" or "going by the book."
Denethor goes out in a blaze of glory, and with a "great cry." We noted
that earlier on in the book, the Lord of the Nazgûl had also expired with a
great cry, and speculated that Denethor was the kind of person who might have
become a Nazgûl in the Second Age. Denethor's personality was compared with
those of his two sons. Denethor was both noble and proud; Boromir was like the
Rohirrim; Faramir has his father's noble nature and a great deal of wisdom
(Gandalf observes at one point that "the blood of Númenor runs nearly true" in
both of them, though not in Boromir) but lacks his father's pride. Boromir is
nonetheless Denethor's favorite of his two sons, despite or perhaps because of his dissimilarity to his father.
Ganda1f and the others step outside of the tombs; Gandalf explains something
of Denethor's background and diagnoses him for the reader's benefit.
They must then decide who's in charge in Minas Tirith now, with Denethor dead
and Faramir, his sole heir and now Steward of Gondor, incapacitated. Prince
Imrahil is the highest-ranking noble after the Steward, but he is currently on
the battlefield (which is where he belongs), so Gandalf assumes authority for
the moment and hands over the key of the Hallows to Beregond for safekeeping;
he also charges him with watching over Faramir. In this way he is tacitly
acknowledging that Beregond did the right thing in placing Faramir's safety
above all else, though the final judgment on this will be left for a time when
there is someone with the authority to pass such judgment.
Going on to the next chapter and taking up a long-standing debate, we
eventually decided that Sauron probably is in possession of the physical Nine
Rings and that therefore the Lord of the Nazgûl's is probably not lying on the
battlefield somewhere. If the Nazgûl carried their rings with them and lost
them when they were unbodied, the rings would all be lying at the bottom of the Bruinen River, right?
We contrasted the deaths of Théoden and Denethor, and also noted their
relative ages, actual and apparent. Théoden was quite a few years younger
than Denethor (75 to Denethor's 89), but looked older, partly because of the
shorter lifespan of the Rohirrim and partly because of his "aging" by Wormtongue
(which Gandalf cured). We also noted that Aragorn is 88 years old and
doesn't look it (he has a full Númenórean lifespan).
The "Houses of Healing" chapter is written largely in high style, which,
we decided, went well with the image of Aragorn as king-healer, with its
biblical parallels. We also noted historical parallels with the English kings
who were supposed to be able to cure scrofula (the "King's Evil") with a touch, a custom dating back to Edward the Confessor.
The chapter opens with Merry dragging in from the battlefield, nearly
falling over from weariness, grief, and the effects of the Black Breath.
Pippin finds him after he wanders down a side street. To Pippin's apologetic
comment that one weary hobbit is easily overlooked, Merry replies that "it is
not always a misfortune to be overlooked"; it was through being overlooked by
the Nazgûl that he was able to help Éowyn slay it. We noted that Merry is the
most intelligent and has the most depth of Frodo's original companions. Merry
is the responsible squire's son. Pippin is the heir of the Took family, of
course, but he is also the youngest of four children with three older sisters.
(If Merry has any siblings, they are not recorded.) He has also not "come of
age" yet by hobbit standards, while Merry has (Pippin is 29, Merry 35).
Pippin, however, has his moments. Here, for instance, he is calling for
Gandalf again ("Good old Gandalf")--and Gandalf comes! commenting on the
utility of hobbits (among other things, he knows what has just happened on the battlefield).
When they arrive at the Houses of Healing, the healers are (figuratively)
wringing their hands over the victims of the Black Breath, for which there
seems to be no effective treatment. At this point Ioreth pipes up "If we only
had a king," and quotes the old saying about "the hands of a king are the hands
of a healer." Gandalf immediately runs to get Aragorn.
Aragorn arrives, to be greeted by Pippin as "Strider!" We noted that
hobbits don't go in for high style. Aragorn has his well-known run-in with
the pedantic herb-master, who gives him a long string of different names for
before telling him they don't have any. We observed that while the
herb-master is evidently the one in charge, it is the women (the "old wives"
like Ioreth) who do the "hands-on" healing--and who preserve the old lore that
is really valuable, though it survives only in old rhymes and such which are no longer understood.
We felt it significant that Aragorn breathes
on the athelas
infusing them. Symbolically he is imparting his life-force, his mana
, to the
victims of the Black Breath, countering the evil Breath with his own. We also
wondered if the Black Breath had a Primary World source in the gas warfare that Tolkien experienced during World War I.
We observed the differing reactions of Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry to their
healing by Aragorn, and Aragorn's reactions to them. Faramir he treats with
gentle kingliness, he jokes with Merry (including a sendup of the pedantic
herb-master), but Éowyn he can't face--he hands her over to her brother and leaves the room before she opens her eyes.
We closed the discussion by drawing a parallel between Prince Imrahil
with his swan banner and the legendary Yon of Brittany, who returned from exile
in England to save Brittany from a dynastic war; he also bore a swan banner. Are we recondite or what?
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