Friday, April 8, 2011

Dreams as Bridges

Dreams play a prominent role for Tolkien – within Lord of the Rings, The Notion Club Papers, The Lost Road, and his personal life – but I think it is fairly safe to say that Frodo was not dreaming throughout the whole story, as we were asked to think about at the end of class on Wednesday. Dreams have their function within Tolkien’s work, which I will discuss shortly, but to posit that they are the larger mechanism through which the Lord of the Rings takes place seems to contradict what Tolkien wrote in On Fairy Stories. That is, Tolkien “would also exclude, or rule out of order, any story that uses the machinery of Dream, the dreaming of actual human sleep, to explain the apparent occurrence of its marvels.” If Lord of the Rings took place within a dream of Frodo’s, it would taint the credibility of all that took place.

Instead, what is striking me most about the dreams that appear scattered throughout Tolkien’s works, is something along the lines of “bridges.” I think these dreams, for Tolkien, serve as bridges between the primary reality and the secondary reality, of which he is the Sub-creator. Also, they serve as bridges between two separate points in time – remember, he was setting out to write a story about Time-Travel. And, as it seems to me, the point in time that is in the past is also on the plane of the secondary reality, or *reality; they are one and the same for Tolkien.

Part of what leads me to this conception of these dreams is their content; his writing about them is largely caught up with the nature of the Elf-friend. And, Tolkien goes to lengths to connect the Elf-friends with “real” history (as “real” as such long-ago history can be, I suppose), in terms of the history of Sheaf, and Alboin, king of the Lombards, as discussed by characters who are academics and historians, Alboin and Lowdham. So, these Elf-friends themselves serve as connections between the primary reality and the secondary reality, and with their dreams provide the reader with access to the secondary reality or alternative Past.

I think Tolkien largely fancies himself to be an Elf-friend (possibly lamenting the fact that he was not named Alboin). At a certain point in his creative process, he “long ceased to invent (Letters, 231)” and instead waits until the next bit of the stories/legends come to him, or reveal themselves to him. This is the same process, of course, of the dreams that Alboin and Lowdham (in The Lost Road and Notion Club Papers, respectively) discussed in terms of their dreams about language. Lowdham calls them “visitations of linguistic ghosts…words, even occasional phrases, ringing in my ears; both in dream and waking abstraction. (Notion Club Papers)” These three philologists – Tolkien, Alboin, and Lowdham; surely not mere coincidence – have the notion that these old languages are inextricably tied up with the legends of the world. Fortunately, all three have a taste for the “mood” or “feel” of the languages they hear, and thus jot them down for the reader’s benefit. Interestingly, Alboin and Lowdham both transcribe many of the same phrases and linguistic tidbits, even though they appear in different stories (perhaps they are the same character in different stories).

So, the dreams that these characters have are not “mere” dreams, but rather voices from the past, or connections to the secondary reality. Within Lord of the Rings, the dreams are not concerned with linguistics, but they still serve as bridges to another time and/or place. Frodo’s dreams are largely prophetic – or rather, they do not see the future, but what is happening at roughly the same time, but in a different place, such as when he dreams about Gandalf and his imprisonment atop the White Tower at Isengard. While in the house of Tom Bombadil, Pippin dreams of old Grey Willow, and he does hear voices within the dream – those of Tom and Goldberry.

As Jeremy pondered, in the Notion Club Papers, “It might be a record and a legend…If you went back would you find myth dissolving into history or history into myth? Somebody once said, I forget who, that the distinction between history and myth might be meaningless outside the Earth. (Notion Club Papers)” These dreams are rooted in both history and myth. The entire legendarium that Tolkien wrote, in fact, is both history and myth (or perhaps *history is slightly more accurate?).

As one last point – throughout many of the class discussions, and in several other blog posts, people seem to be struggling with defining (or trying to avoid defining) what is “real.” Rather than venture too far down that path, I think that we can say that dreams – and fairy-stories as well – are phenomenologically real. What I mean is, even though they do not necessarily consist of verifiable and tangible “facts” that can be “proven,” they are real in the sense that they have an effect upon people and the world. Dreams are real in that they occur to an individual, and that person can talk about them, write about them, and his/her future actions may be influenced by them. Fairy-stories are real in the same way – I’m sure most of us can talk about the effects that Lord of the Rings has had in our “real” lives. Lowdham hints at this point that I’m trying to make in Notion Club Papers. He talks about construction “of the major kind that has acquired a secondary life of its own and passes from mind to mind.” It’s as if these linguistic dreams were a meme that got started and bounced from person to person, from father to son. These stories/characters/dreams are all real in the sense that we’re all here talking about them and discussing them and being influenced by them, in one way or another.

- JeTh


  1. Good, I am glad that you make clear that Frodo was not dreaming the journey--this is not what I meant either! What he seems to be suggesting is that going home to the Shire is like falling asleep; that it is the quotidian, not Faery, that is the dream. Or, perhaps more accurately, as you suggest, that it is Faery that is phenomenologically most real.


  2. I think Tolkien is being, in ‘On Fairy Stories’, too hard on the dream conceit. I’m not sure that it affects much the credibility of the story, and I tend to dismiss it when it is used. He lays his major objection, it seems to me, against the mechanical explanation that it might supply a narrative. The content of the dream/story has its own integrity, and the framing device is (I think) often a concession to the kind of reality that many modern people expect a story to describe, helping the audience to suspend disbelief. But we’ve all experienced the betrayal when a story pretends to be true, but reveals at the end that ‘it was all a dream.’ At the same this isn’t the story’s problem. It’s a problem about our own linguistic assumptions. (There are also different uses of dreams in stories. The medieval dream vision works a little differently, I think.) Tolkien opposes easy explanation (e.g., in Macbeth). Magic has no explanation. If it does, it becomes trick. Explanation, including allegory and moral-drawing, reduces the narrative, means that the narrative does not have meaning in itself. But this is absurd. Myths, I suspect, often unfold like Tolkien’s world unfolded to him. The significance of its contents was not understood simultaneously, but was only realized over time. Objects move around, accrete, develop affinities for other objects. An example from the Christian tradition might be the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus. At least, this matter of dogma always strikes me as rather an aesthetic-mythological than a theological development (though exegesis does play a part). All this to say that myths are always being integrated into larger and larger visions. These visions give expression to things that discursive words cannot capture. If discursive words were up to the task, there wouldn’t be any point to story-telling. The order of words in a story moves in the opposite direction, toward dream, with which it seems to have a common source.


  3. I quite like how you describe the reality of dreams and fairy stories--you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head, at least for me, in terms of what I was trying to get at in searching for the “realness” of things that are clearly not flesh-and-blood facts, but that have effects distinct enough to merit, I think, some kind of existence. It does tie in well with the idea that history and myth become, at a certain point, indistinguishable, which makes me, at least, wonder why we even bother.

    I also hadn’t fully realized the dilemma of reconciling the importance of dreams as devices with Tolkien’s hesitance to use them as the means of escape to the world of faery. I agree that “bridges” is a good way to think of them, but I’m not sure where you draw the distinction between the dream-as-bridge and the elf-friend as far as devices to enter the secondary world. I would say that while dreams are certainly revelatory, they may not operate exactly as a tool of the elf-friend to introduce faery. That said, I’m not really sure myself what dreams DO do, so perhaps a bridge is a good way to think of them after all!


  4. There is certainly a tension between the idea that an author can dream in the Notion Club Paper sense and that an author can dream in the sense of what if Bilbo states that his adventures in The Hobbit were just a dream. As pointed out, it is certainly not ok to do the latter according to Tolkien in his discussion of Faerie because it feels like a trick.
    However, Notion Club Papers tells us that it’s ok to dream in the primary reality and generate the story of a fantasy. While not a fantasy, Notion Club Papers is a secondary reality of the inklings, where Tolkien is explaining the fantasy of his Middle-Earth which is either another secondary reality connected to the secondary reality of Middle-Earth or Middle-Earth is a compelling tertiary reality. It seems more likely that it is the same secondary reality but in Tolkien’s future and not in his past. It should have been ok for Bilbo and Frodo, to connect to another secondary reality of their own (quaternary reality?), but if Lord of the Rings had been a dream of Frodo’s it would have delegitimized the story. Nevertheless, it seems ok that Tolkien describes Middle-Earth as coming to (at the time) future people in a dream. There is still tension, which can be resolved by reasoning that it’s ok to dream something as long as it is a real dream rather and an invented one. I think that this is the distinction that is made very well in this blog post. Despite being an invented work of fiction, Middle-Earth is an asterisk history for the world. Tolkien’s characters in The Notion Club Papers are probing this history and synthesizing it.

    -Andrew Wong