LotRFI Pt.48 The Grey Company

The Grey Company was one of the most unexpected occurrences in all LotR to me. They show up in Rohan completely unheralded and change the course of the narrative entirely. As I said before, I did not read any contextual material in my first reading, so my entire experience with the sons of Elrond up to this point was their small roles in Rivendell. Therefore, it was completely unexpected that this troop of brave men that were not really introduced earlier should come into the story and completely alter Aragorn’s plans.

inger-edelfelt
Image copyright Inger Eledfelt

While this may seem like a coincidental intrusion by the writer, it is explained well enough by the characters that it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. It made sense to me that Galadriel would send what aid she could to Aragorn, and that the sons of Elrond would be the ones entrusted with such an important message (RK, V, ii, 775).

I will be honest and admit that I did not understand who ‘the Lady of Rivendell’ was or what she could have made for Aragorn (RK, V, ii, 775). I assumed that this was a reference to Elrond’s previously unmentioned wife and she was sending some gift to Aragorn as a source of comfort like the way that Mrs. Maggot send mushrooms with Farmer Maggot.

I followed Aragorn’s decision to use the Palantir and to ride on through the Paths of the Dead. I loved the description of the Paths and the other-worldly feel of these passages.

‘Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read, and fear flowed from it like a grey vapor…Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dúnedain and their horses followed him’ (RK, V, ii, 786).

The Paths were different from the rest of the places that the company visits, except perhaps the elvish cities. These passages convey a sense of ineffability even as they try to describe most of the mundane actions throughout the sequence. In other words, I enjoyed how the narration mainly focuses on tangible facts, but still hints at something more. This reinforces both the ethereal feel of the pass, but also Aragorn’s strength of character.

The way that the Grey Company delivers the eucatastrophe at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields gives me chills every time I read it. Their unexpected arrival is foreshadowed well by their abrupt entrance to the narrative in Rohan. This kind of surprise meeting is now expected from the Dúnedain. The first time I read it, however, I was flabbergasted. I felt like Sam when he wonders if

‘everything sad [is] going to come untrue’ (RK, VI, iv, 951).

Their arrival just in time to ensure victory for the Gondorians was completely unexpected and drained me emotionally.

On a side note: Jackson gets the Ride of the Grey Company completely wrong. He establishes a king of the dead that Aragorn talks to and negotiates with, which is not accurate. I knew on my first reading that Aragorn was the king of the dead. This is why they follow him, they owe their allegiance to him.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Houses of Healing, then to examine the last stand

What Do You Think?

How did you first interpret the ride of the Grey Company?

Did you see Aragorn as the King of the Dead?

Did I miss something? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.47–Concerning Denethor

Denethor was another character that was very difficult for me to understand when I was a child. He seemed very one-dimensional like his son Boromir, and I had a hard time understanding why anyone would want this person to be the Steward of Gondor. I did not like him at all and I considered him cruel to everyone he interacted with.

My main argument in favor of this interpretation is the way he treats his own son, Faramir. I could not believe that a father could tell his son that he should have died in the pace of his brother:

‘’Do you wish then,’ said Faramir, ‘that our places had been exchanged?’

‘Yes, I wish that indeed,’ said Denethor. ‘For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift’’ (RK, I, iv, 813).

Denethor clearly hungered for the power of the Ring, just as Boromir did. This was a clear sign of his corruption to me. I thought Denethor was selfish and unrealistic in his ambition. A small-minded man who could not cope with adversity in the stalwart manner that so many other characters in the book achieve. The only aspect of Denethor that I could identify with was his desire to restore his life to the way it used to be. He protests to Gandalf that he

‘would have things as they were in all the days of [his] life…and in the days of [his] longfathers before [him]: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave [his] chair to a son’ (RK, V, vii, 854).

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Image copyright Denis Gordeev

Even though I was very young, I still appreciated this tendency to idolize the past and to want to revert back to a time perceived as happier for some reason or another. The remainder of his character, was ominous and mysterious to me. I did not understand his desire to build a pyre for his son and to burn himself upon it until Gandalf explained it to me (and Pippin). My reading has changed a lot over the years and my understanding of Denethor has grown much deeper.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s talk about the Grey Company, then the Houses of Healing.

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of Denethor?
Has your reading of Denethor changed over the years?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.46–​Éomer

I mentioned Éomer’s first encounter with the protagonists in Pt. 22. Like many other characters, I mistrusted him at first, but then came to respect his demeanor and his bravery. The reader is reintroduced to Éomer at Edoras. Here he is reinstated as one of Théoden’s top commanders. From this point on, Éomer plays the part of a stout warrior, and steadfast advisor on military matters. He is impressive in this role, and takes after his uncle with his tenacious spirit.

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Image copyright John Howe

As I read through LotR for the first time, I really liked Éomer. He struck me as a kind of balance between Strider as he appears in the beginning of the book and Aragorn as he is revealed as king in the end. He was unapologetically of high birth in his society, but was unpolished and even plain in his manner. This allowed him to be very likable, but to command respect, similar to what I saw in Théoden.

A large distinction that I made between Éomer and Théoden is that Théoden becomes close to the Fellowship through being an equal in stature to Gandalf and a fatherly figure to the hobbits. Éomer, on the other hand, seemed to establish a brotherly relationship with Aragorn and a playful rivalry with Gimli. While both of these relationships elevated the characters above the hobbits, and therefore above the reader, they were different in that Théoden seemed much more interested in the hobbits than did Éomer.

Shifting focus, this elevated stature of Éomer allowed him to be a heroic figure to me. His cares and worries seemed to be larger than those of the hobbits. Where the halflings are often concerned with a sense of belonging, Éomer knows his place, and is concerned more with how to lead his people correctly.

His position of authority makes his valiant stand on the battlefield even more impactful. While I am presenting my current thoughts on Éomer’s alliterative exclamations at a conference in 2018, I do want to cover my initial reaction to his heroic feats during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Just as Théoden’s call to charge gave rise to some mad fire inside my little eleven-year-old frame, so too did Éomer’s despair at seeing his uncle and sister dead on the battlefield. At the time of my first reading, I was fortunate enough to have never lost someone close to me. Even still, I could find a sense of pain and loss something similar to what Éomer must have felt. His heartrending cry chilled me to the bones:

“‘Éowyn, Éowyn!’ he cried at last. ‘Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all’” (RK, V, vi, 844).

It was through these passages that I learned what it meant to be fey. Éomer’s complete abandonment of strategy in favor of making his death meaningful was utterly beyond my experience. His laughter in the face of battle was terrible and terrific. He was awe-inspiring in two ways: one of the most courageous and stupid things I had ever read. I was so grateful when Aragorn swooped in and saved Éomer, because I had given up hope that this courageous man would ever see another day.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To take a look at Denethor and see what his problem is.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to Eomer’s reckless abandon in battle?
What did you think of his relationship to the fellowship?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.45–Éowyn

A Bit of Background

I must admit that Éowyn was a very difficult character for me to understand the first time I read LotR, and I am still not sure that I understand her entire character arc. I am sure that there are scholars and critics better able, and in a more appropriate place, to comment on her portrayal as a woman and to her motivations and resolution. Let me clarify, then, that what I am trying to convey here is the understanding that I had of Éowyn as an eleven-year-old boy, whose life experiences did not include putting myself in other people’s shoes very often except through literature.

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Image copyright Donato Giancola

Since I was still an immature reader, though I was probably advanced in ability for my age, I would say that I lacked the kind of empathy that comes through life experience. I tried to understand everything I read through my own frame of reference. I literally thought about each character’s actions and tried to understand how I would have to feel in order to act the way they did. As we grow up, this kind of reading, I believe, becomes less necessary, as we can relate characters’ actions to other people’s actions and feelings easier because we have experienced more. Regardless, this means that I was attempting to understand how an eleven-year-old boy from the southern US would have to feel to act the way that Éowyn does…I am sure you can see how this was a flawless interpretation technique.

My Reading

From this vantage point, I was able to understand many of Éowyn’s early actions. She was proud, and she wanted to help her king and people through action. This was not difficult for me to understand. Pride is something I relate to very easily, having had an abundant share of it myself. I understood entirely why Éowyn wants to, and ultimately does, ride into battle with her kin. The difficulty for me came about when I tried to understand Éowyn’s very complex interpersonal relationships.

I should perhaps remind everyone that in my first reading I did not read any introductory material or any of the appendices. This means that I was completely unaware of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen until much later. This influenced my interpretation of Éowyn because it means that I was completely unaware that Aragorn’s comment about Rivendell was a romantic refusal.

‘“Were I to go where my heart dwells, far to the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell”

For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean’ (RK, V, ii, 784).

To me, this was simply a statement that people do not always get what they desire. Aragorn would rather be at peace in a place that he loved than leading men into battle.

The most resonant statement for me was that Éowyn feared ‘a cage’ more than anything else (RK, V, ii, 784). This statement resonated with me on the same level as Merry’s experience during his time in Rohan. They both wanted to be helpful, but were being stereotyped as lesser and ignored.

Finally, I want to talk about Éowyn’s epic stand (I will talk about her relationship with Faramir and the Houses of Healing in a later post). While Éowyn was a complicated character to me, I had no difficulty appreciating her courage and valor in standing up to the leader of the Nazgûl. She becomes enraged after her uncle is mortally wounded and, in her bravery, she challenges and defeats the fearsome foe. She delivers one of the most marvelous lines of prose I have ever read:

‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eómund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him’ (RK, V, vi, 841).

The dramatic tension leading up to this moment was so powerful, and I remember cheering out loud when she stands up to him and reveals herself. This was truly a remarkable passage to me as a first-time reader.

As a side note: perhaps the strong impact of this moment, the strength in Éowyn’s identification as a woman in the midst of the largest battle in the text, is what blinded me for so long to the valid claims that Tolkien does not include enough women in his narrative. I held on to this one climactic instant and made it a pinnacle of the story, which it is, but I allowed it to obfuscate shortcomings which were related to it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s talk about her brother Eomer, then talk about Denethor.

What Do You Think?

How did you approach Eowyn’s character in your first reading?
How did you react to her stand against the Nazgul?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.44–The Horns of the Rohirrim

This pivotal moment in the battle for Minas Tirith was like a lightning bolt in my young reading experience. For a bright and shining moment, the forces of good asserted itself over all of the battle and shouted aloud that it would not be vanquished. I still get chills every time I read the end of “The Ride of the Rohirrim” (RK, V, v). The blaring of the horn, which signals the steadfast defiance of the Rohirrim in the sight of overwhelming odds was (and still is) enrapturing.

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Image copyright Angus McBride

I do not know why or how an eleven-year-old who knows nothing of medieval warfare or modern warfare or even of true difficulty and hardship, should become so enthralled with the kind of bravery put forth by Théoden and the Rohirrim in this moment. Whatever the cause, I was ready to leap from my seat and charge into battle, whatever that might have meant to me at the time.

 

 

Perhaps a relatable metaphor here would be the hobbits’ incredulity on parting from Tom Bombadil:

‘They took a deep draught of the air, and felt that a skip and a few stout strides would bear them wherever they wished. It seemed fainthearted to go jogging aside over the crumpled skirts of the downs towards the road, when they should be leaping, as lusty as Tom, over the stepping stones of the hills straight towards the Mountains’ (FR, I, viii, 136).

The hobbits are so enraptured by their experience with Tom and Goldberry that they feel capable of performing feats on-par with Tom himself. In much the same way, the sounding of the horns of Rohan intoxicated me and made me feel as if I could perform feats of courage akin to those of the riders. An important note, though, is that neither the hobbits, nor I, are truly capable of emulating the actions we were so inspired by. In the case of the hobbits, they are naive and became foolhardy. In my case, however, reality checked my emotions, and I simply kept reading, although perhaps more voraciously than before.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s take a closer look at Eomer and Eowyn!

What Do You Think?

What was your first reaction to the horns of the Rohirrim?
Has your reaction changed over time?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.43–The Battle of The Pelennor Fields

That I can recall, the massive battles that take place at Helm’s Deep and on the fields in front of Gondor were the second and third large scale incursion I ever read in fiction. The first was from H, and was an incomplete telling at best. I believe my next exposure to battlefield narratives would have been Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain. My whole family listened to that story on audiobook in the car while on vacation one summer because it was a required text for school. I would not read Homer, C.S. Lewis, or any other such battle for several years after this experience. Of course, I had read the brief descriptions of amassing forces and battle strategies presented in the history books for school, but those very rarely gave an account of fighting, they were distant overviews.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

This is not to say that I was naive of brutality: once again, The Call of the Wild was one of my favorite books starting around the age of eight or nine. The scale of the violence was a significant change from my prior reading experience. This means that two elements were very different for me to adjust to. The first is how the story told of the battles, especially Pelennor Fields, from multiple perspectives. This is a trick that Tolkien uses to show more of the battle, and it was a new approach to me. Also, the ebb and flow of the battle was also unique. Of course, I was used to plots where the protagonist came up against an obstacle, or experienced a setback, only to overcome the difficulty in the end. This was one of my first experiences with this kind of story arc encapsulated in a single struggle that didn’t extend for the entire length of the narrative.

This type of battle broke the mold of my previous experience with courtly tales. These were mostly centered on popular culture and not literature (I would not read White’s Once and Future King until two or three years later), and so massive battles were not very bloody nor very lengthy, I was only watching things deemed appropriate for a child, after all. It brought a grim kind of realism into these stories, but it preserved the epic moments of climax and eucatastrophe that I will talk about in my following posts.

Where do We Go From Here?

I want to address the horns of the Rohirrim, then take a moment to think about Eomer and Eowyn in some more depth.

What Do You Think?

How did the Pelennor Fields fit into your previous reading experience?
Did it change your view of Minas Tirith?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.42–Merry

While I saw Pippin’s lightheartedness as a very relatable trait, I was also able to identify with Merry during certain points of the epic. Unlike my adulation of Pippin’s jovial nature and individual growth, my identification with Merry was from a negative perspective.

 

Merry’s time alone in Rohan was perhaps the most affective part of his story for me. His time with Théoden begins in happiness. He is honored and sits next to the king and regales him with stories (RK, V, iii, 796). When word comes that the Rohirrim must go aid Gondor, Théoden telld Merry that he cannot go with them.

‘You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Éowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead’ (RK, V, iii, 803).

Merry becomes indignant because he does not wish to be left out:

‘But, but, lord,’ Merry stammered, ‘I offered you my sword. I do not want to be parted from you like this, Théoden King. And as all of my friends have gone to battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind…tie me to the back of [a horse], or let me hang on a stirrup, or something.’

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Image copyright John Howe

This kind of useless bargaining and pleading between someone lower in position and a figure in authority reminded me very much of interactions I had had with my parent not many years before reading LotR (and perhaps some interactions even at the time of reading, if I am honest with myself). In a sense, Merry’s subordinate role in Rohan as a figure of entertainment one moment and as a burden the next mirrors a lot of the childhood experience.

The next chapter set in Rohan (RK, V, v) opens with Merry reflecting on his isolation. To make matters worse, the first interaction Merry has is with Elfhelm the Marshal who trips over him and curses him as a tree root. Merry stands up for himself, saying:

‘I am not a tree-root Sir…nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit’ (RK, V, v, 831).

Although his daring is not rewarded very kindly, as Elfhelm still calls him ‘Master Bag’ at the close of their conversation (RK, V, v, 831). Then Merry is overlooked as he ‘crept’ close enough to the conversation between Théoden and Ghân-buri-Ghân to narrate the scene for the reader (RK, V, v, 832).

The Rohirrim constantly ignore and/or disregard Merry. Perhaps this is a kind of othering. While it can, of course, be interpreted in many ways, this othering always reminded me of those times when adults would tell me to settle down, be quiet, and stop getting in the way. This really resonated with me as a child. Though I had what I would consider a happy childhood, I certainly experienced this kind of reprimand on occasion. The kind of loneliness and isolation that can accompany such an encounter feels on-par with what Merry experiences in Rohan. I could easily relate to the feeling of dejection that Merry feels.

My reflection on Merry’s part at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Scouring of the Shire will come later.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Onward, to battle!

What Do You Think?

How did you read Merry’s experience in these chapters?
Do you think this reading is feasible or insane?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.41–Pippin

Pippin has always been my favorite hobbit. I was first interested in him because of how funny he is in the first book, especially in “Three is company” and “Shortcut to Mushrooms.” He remained my favorite because I appreciated his process of maturation as the story progresses.

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Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

His cheerful spirit serves as a comedic relief during many of the less active passages in the text. From his snarky comment in Rivendell,

‘”Gandalf has been saying many cheerful things like that”’ (FR, II, i, 226)

to his curiosity in Moria, which lands the Fellowship in some trouble, Pippin remains fairly charming and lighthearted. It is not until Gandalf grows angry and berates Pippin

‘”Fool of a Took…This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking party. Throw yourself in next time, and you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!”’ (FR, II, iv, 313)

that he starts to transform into a more serious and responsible character. This interaction in Moria, reminded me of a parent scolding a child. Pippin did something which was outside the normal expectations and it could have, and ultimately has, dire consequences. Gandalf chides him in the way that a concerned mother or father might express exasperation at a child who touches a stove or runs into the street. This confrontation seemed to me to be the starting point for Pippin’s transformation.

The two places where Pippin’s character shows real growth are in his actions to escape the Uruk-Hai in Rohan, and in his time spent in Gondor. When he is with the Uruk-Hai, Pippin is not a passive observer of events. Instead, he keeps his wits and not only manages to escape, but also leaves a clue for the Three Hunters to follow.

Pippin’s largest step toward becoming a responsible adult is his time spent in Gondor. Here he volunteers his service to the steward of Gondor to repay his debt to Boromir:

‘”Little service, no doubt, will so great a lord of Men think to find in a hobbit, a halfling from the northern Shire; yet such as it is, I will offer it, in payment of my debt.”’ (RK, V, I, 754/5).

He feels accountable for Boromir’s death and seeks to make amends. Not only does this act show Pippin becoming more mature, but it puts him in a role of responsibility. A role which he performs very well. His next show of responsibility is that he chaperones Bergil, Beregond’s son, around Minas Tirith. Pippin no longer interacts with Bergil as his equal, though he cannot resist an occasional joke, but he sets restrictions on Bergil and enforces them. Finally, Pippin’s decision to disobey Denethor’s wishes and save Faramir shows the kind of complex reasoning and questioning of authority that is typically associated with maturity. He is not simply rebelling against authority because it is authoritative, nor is he blindly following it. He weighs consequences and decides to act in the way he think is best. Though I could not have expressed ,many of these concepts in this way when I was a kid, I certainly respected Pippin’s growth as an individual, and understood that he had earned responsibility and was using his judgement wisely.

Pippin’s story is a bildungsroman. This greatly impacted me in my first several readings of LotR. I will talk about the Scouring of the Shire in a later post, but I think the arc of Pippin’s character is clear already. He stays jovial throughout the text, I love his interaction with the Three Hunters in “Flotsam and Jetsam,” but he matures over the course of his journey. This is why Pippin was, and still is, my favorite hobbit from LotR.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We will look at Merry next, then explore the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

What Do You Think?

What did you think of Pippin in the early parts of the text?

Did your impression of him change as he developed over the course of the story?

Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.40–Minas Tirith

Minas Tirith was an altogether novel experience in my first read of LotR. It holds an interesting place in my memory because it is so different from the rest of LotR, but is more like other fantasy stories that I read before LotR.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

Here is what I mean: Most of LotR felt original and new to me in the settings and many of the interactions, but Minas Tirith was like an allusion to stories with which I was familiar. Minas Tirith was the first ‘castle’ in the book, which automatically brought up associations with knights, damsels, jousting and quests for adventure. Most notable among these tales, I was aware of Camelot and Arthurian legends (which ones particularly, I cannot recall). For better or worse, I started to think about knights errant and chivalric tales.

This made the setting seem more remote and ancient to me than the rest of the text. I do not mean that it felt like it had a long history, several parts of the text feel like that. I mean that it felt like part of an older story to me. While most of LotR was a novel experience, I thought Minas Tirith was going to revisit fantasy of the medieval court variety. This was probably because, unlike with most of the other characters, events, and settings in the story, my only reference frame for Minas Tirith was other fantasy books. I had not living thing to equate Minas Tirith to. These other fantasy text were always set in distant lands or in earlier times (or ‘long ago’ and ‘far away’ if that were not banished as a cliché at this point).

In a sense, Minas Tirith was more storied for me as a location, but also more remote. I have often wondered how Europeans and Brits might feel about this point, since they grew up in places where they could have visited castles as a kid. To me, a castle was an element of make-believe, I wonder if it was just an element of history to them.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I would like to take a breath and talk about Merry and Pippin before we move on to the larger picture.

What Do You Think?

Did you think of Minas Tirith as a castle?
How did this influence the way you perceive(d) the events in Minas Tirith?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.39–Sam’s “Meta” Moments

One of the inspirational aspects of Tolkien’s work which really stuck with me in my first reading was Sam’s perceptive moments where he talks about how the adventure he is in is like the adventure he learned as a child. A great example of this tendency occurs of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol Chapter. Sam recounts part of the tale of Beren and Luthien and then falls into reflection, saying:

‘But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it…and why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve goy – you ‘ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’ (TT, IV, viii, 712)

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Image copyright Ulla Thynell

Then Frodo and Sam talk about the nature of stories and the part that characters play in them. This was important to me because it gave me a connection to the characters I was reading about. I wanted to believe that these stories were real, that they mattered. This vision of how a story could impact the life of the listener/reader was very inspiring to me. I think that, had it not been for the several moments like this in TT and RK, perhaps LotR would not have been as impactful on me. Not only did these passages make this story more meaningful, they made reading as an activity more important. I really internalized these observations a lot in my first reading.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I believe we will start RK with a visit to Minas Tirith. That seems fitting!

What Do You Think?

What is your impression of these moments with Sam?
Have these episodes ever impacted your reading outside of Tolkien?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!