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Rómenna Meeting Report - July 27, 1986

July 27, 1986

Present:Lori Denker
Nancy Denker (hosts)
Fred Phillips
Margaret Purdy
Michael Rubin
Carol Smith

With numbers diminished from last month's meeting but enthusiasm dampened not a whit, Rómenna embarked on its discussion of "The Passing of the Grey Company" and "The Muster of Rohan": part of the long buildup to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. We began with a comment on Merry's gathering up "a few useful things" preparatory to leaving, to the effect that "a few useful things" for a hobbit might amount to a fairly heavy pack (look at Sam). We also wondered what sort of useful items he could have found in the wreckage of Isengard: pipeweed for one, of course, as well as food and possibly cooking utensils. In speaking with Aragorn, Merry is already concerned about being left behind. Aragorn foreshadows obscurely that he will have something important to do in the coming conflict. We noted the buildup of tension as the king's party hears someone riding up behind them. Merry feels his own inadequacy as the Rohirrim prepare to fight. The challenge "Who rides in Rohan?" we found significant--who else could be expected to have horses? The tension is released when the mysterious riders turn out to be Aragorn's Ranger kin, along with Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond. The mystery remains for awhile, however, of who sent the message that summoned the Rangers, since Aragorn denies having done any such thing. Later on in the chapter it is deduced that the message was sent by Galadriel, who evidently intuited when and where the Grey Company would be needed (and who previously sent a message to Aragorn through Gandalf to that effect). Here we also have the first mention by name of the Paths of the Dead (though Galadriel had also alluded to them obliquely), which provokes an immediate negative reaction similar to that evoked when evil things are spoken of aloud ("Not on the open road"). Halbarad bears with him a gift for Aragorn from Arwen, one of those few scattered allusions to the romance between them. Later we will discover that the gift is a war-banner. As Fred noted, Aragorn bears the standard of a king rather than the banner or pennon of a knight. In effect, by her gift Arwen is saying, "Go to war with my blessing." This is the all-or-nothing chance for her and Aragorn, for only by winning the war with Sauron and taking his rightful place as king of Gondor and Arnor can Aragorn win Elrond's consent to their marriage. The company arrives at Helm's Deep and Legolas and Gimli show Merry around. Meanwhile Aragorn goes and shuts himself up in a room in the tower with only his kinsman Halbarad for company. We speculated that Aragorn had Halbarad with him as a safety measure when he searched the Orthanc-stone: "If I start acting strange, snap me out of it!" or even, possibly, "If Sauron takes control of my mind, kill me" (though the latter possibility was strongly rejected by several of our company). Merry's taking service with Théoden and the differences between this scene and the corresponding one between Pippin and Denethor were discussed. The motivations of the two hobbits are quite different (Pippin is moved by both pride and a sense of duty and obligation, Merry by love), as is the mood and form of the ceremony. The ritual here is much simpler and more direct, as befits the Rohirric culture. Aragorn appears, looking old and tired, and after learning of Théoden's plans, announces his decision to take the Paths of the Dead. There is an immediate negative reaction from the Rohirrim (as there will be any time the Paths are mentioned, thus heightening the suspense for the reader). Éomer despairs of ever seeing Aragorn again, but Aragorn foresees their next meeting ("though all the hosts of Mordor should stand between"--as indeed they will). The Rohirrim leave (with Merry in tow), and Aragorn decides to eat something; we speculated that being with hobbits so much has affected him. During the meal he relates his experiences with the Stone to Legolas and Gimli. We noted that the danger coming up from the South which he alludes to is the Corsairs of Umbar, who were mentioned in the previous chapter. Aragorn also gives his friends (and the reader) some background information about the Paths of the Dead, the history of how Isildur bound the Dead Men of Dunharrow, and the prophecy associated with it, specifically the words of Malbeth the Seer. We noted that "Malbeth" signifies "golden words" in the Sindarin tongue, and also that the seer used alliterative verse. Legolas states that he does not fear the Dead. We considered this statement and the later auctorial note that "the ghosts of Men hold no terror" for Elves. Our guess was that since their fates are sundered after death, the spirits of Men and Elves simply do not impinge upon or affect one another (though it may be noted that Legolas, later, can see the dead where evidently the humans cannot). We also speculated a bit about what might have happened if the Dead, while following Aragorn, had been faced with a Ringwraith. Dead vs. undead? Could they affect one another? The consensus was that they could, but we could not decide how, or what either party would have done in such a situation. We passed on to the Grey Company's arrival in Dunharrow, where we find Éowyn casting eyes at Aragorn. We noted that she has good taste, but isn't he a little old for her? She has the same reaction as the other Rohirrim did to the mention of the Paths of the Dead. She does not know as much about them as Legolas and Gimli do; presumably for her they are a legend of vague horror. Nevertheless she asks to accompany Aragorn. He refuses, hinting delicately that "there's someone else." In the ensuing discussion we have Éowyn using the now-familiar feminist argument ("Don't feed me that bullsh** that 'your place is in the home'! I can fight as well as a man!"--and indeed, Rohan does have the concept of shieldmaidens) and Aragorn countering that she accepted a duty and is honor-bound to fulfill it. Éowyn ends up by hinting that she is in love with him. Aragorn is deeply troubled, both here and the next morning when she comes to see them off (Fred noted the use of the ancient custom of the stirrup-cup). We noted at this point what Aragorn probably senses, that Éowyn is not really in love with him but with the ideal of knighthood and heroism he represents. When he heals her later, after the Battle of the Pelennor, he will call on her brother Éomer to call her back to life, since that bond is a real one. We proceeded with the Grey Company to the Paths of the Dead, noting how Tolkien builds up the Gothic suspense every step of the way. An example of this is the horses refusing to pass the standing stone (animals being more sensitive to supernatural influences) until their fear is outweighed by Aragorn's charisma and their own love of their masters (and, in Arod's case, Legolas's calming influence). We noted that Gimli is particularly terrified, which led to some speculation about Dwarvish beliefs about the afterlife. This is one of those matters that Tolkien left somewhat open. We concluded by saying that Gimli is acting as a "substitute hobbit" and touchstone for the reader in this scene, all the real hobbits being occupied elsewhere. The Gothic atmosphere is heightened by the Company's discovery of the skeleton lying by the locked door, and the wind that blows out the torches. Another traditionally ghostly touch is the stipulation that they must reach the Stone of Erech before midnight. There was some discussion of the Stone itself. Isildur is said to have brought it from Númenor, but we found this highly unlikely considering its size ("How did he carry it? He put that thing in a ship? Come on!"). This led to the speculation that the Stone of Erech was "a fossilized Númenórean weather balloon." It was also noted that "Erech" is probably not a Sindarin or Westron word, being possibly a word in the language originally spoken by the Dead (related to Dunlendish). We turned back to Rohan for the next chapter, noting that Tolkien is still tracking several sets of characters and tying one to the other; Pippin is mentioned here and his timeline matched up with Merry's. Merry, hobbitlike, is wishing for "a quiet room by the fire." We compared his listening to the Rohirrim speaking their native tongue with a speaker of modern English trying to puzzle out Anglo-Saxon--certain words sound familiar, but you can't piece them together. He also thinks of Frodo and Sam, thereby reminding the reader of them too. The king's party arrives at Dunharrow and finds the muster already begun, on Gandalf's orders. We noted that blackout conditions are in effect at Dunharrow-- only sensible, as the British found in World War II, when the enemy has air power (Nazgûl in this case) and you don't. Éowyn comes to meet them and tells them of Aragorn's passing. Her plight was discussed: here she sees all the people she loves going off to war and leaving her behind, while she feels her life has been wasted and wants to do something worthwhile with it. The Paths of the Dead are once more alluded to with dread, and Théoden gives some more background on them. Éomer's reaction to the supernatural--he doesn't mess with such things, give him a good broadsword any day--is probably typical of the Rohirrim in general. A modern parallel was cited, to wit, the average American's reaction to radioactivity. He doesn't know much about it, cares less, and wants to avoid it as much as possible: all he knows is that it's bad, and doesn't consider that there might be "safe levels." The messenger from Gondor arrives with the Red Arrow, giving Merry a turn for a moment because of his resemblance to Boromir. Théoden notes Denethor's perfect timing and suspects that the Steward of Gondor knows more than he lets on about the events in Rohan. We speculated that he probably used the palantír of Minas Tirith to find out what was going on. However, we noted that in wanting the Rohirrim inside the walls of Minas Tirith before Sauron's armies hit, Denethor isn't thinking like a cavalryman. The Rohirrim fight most effectively in the open. Our guess was that Denethor doesn't know that much about cavalry since there are few horses in Gondor. He probably is used to thinking "Horses are for sorties." Nevertheless, Théoden promises the messenger that he'll come as fast as he can. Tolkien continues to build up the suspense with the dire prediction by the messenger that they may not be in time. The Darkness, which arrives the next morning, also contributes to the feeling of gloom and doom. Additionally, it is a time check, since it has already been shown in Frodo and Sam's part and later in Pippin's. Thus it serves as a way to keep the reader abreast of who is where at what time ("Where were you when the lights went out?"). Merry is still fretting about being left behind. His pleas to the king are fruitless, but he finds an unexpected ally in Éowyn. In her usual guise she gives him arms (as Aragorn had requested, showing his usual foresight), and as Dernhelm she offers to let him ride with her (though the reader is not supposed to know at this point who Dernhelm is. We noted in passing that "Dernhelm" means "secret protector"). The comment was made that Merry's desire to go along with the army is possibly more praiseworthy than Éowyn's, since unlike her he has been given no positive task or duty by Théoden; he really has nothing to do in Rohan. The chapter ends with the usual cliffhanger as the army rides off to war in the gathering darkness. We rode off somewhat more cheerfully to hit the local Chinese restaurant, after enjoying a brief poetry reading by Fred.

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