Friday, April 8, 2011

The Dreams of Elf-friends: An Expansion on Mythological Construction

Wednesday’s class ended with poignancy. Professor Fulton directly challenged those of us writing on this topic with one final question: given the ending of Lord of the Rings, was Frodo perhaps dreaming throughout the story? While I may not have a certain answer to this question presently, I was compelled to examine the dreams within Tolkien’s stories in another light. More than just fantastical, atmospheric pictures or complex symbols, dreams ultimately serve as a powerful framing structure for Tolkien’s primary and secondary realities while also providing the perfect story-building device for his mythology.

            Framing is of the utmost importance in Tolkien’s story-building. As Guilford puts it in The Notion Club Papers, “A picture-frame is not a parallel. An author’s way of getting to Mars (say) is part of his story of his Mars; and of his universe….It’s part of the picture, even if it’s only a marginal position; and it may seriously affect all that’s inside” (HME IX 163). Tolkien here undersells the significance of the frame device; in fact, it is the significance of this frame that is the basis for his criticism of conventional science fiction throughout the first segment of The Notion Club Papers. And so, Tolkien’s framing device ultimately serves as the foundation for his story-building. Through multiple frames, Tolkien presents a vehicle into his mythology.

            In “Where the Dream-fish Go”, Flieger describes Tolkien’s most blatant use of these multiple frames: The Notion Club Papers. The first frame is the very setting of the over-arching story: a group of academics and writers discussing their works, thoughts and philosophies. The second is within the discussion itself, i.e. the description of Ramer’s dreams. The dream itself is ultimately the substance of the story. But this also presents dreaming as a powerful aesthetic device; the frame of a mythology. The timing of the writing of this story is significant to potentially deciphering the role of dreams within The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien had reached an impasse in the middle of The Two Towers, prompting him to write (or at least continue work on) The Notion Club Papers. The timing of Tolkien’s writing of The Notion Club Papers suggests dreams may play a similar role as vehicles into the secondary reality in The Lord of the Rings. Dreams can clearly link characters between a primary and a secondary reality, but these realities are within the story; the primary reality is our secondary, it is the reality of the characters in the story, while the dreams carry them into their own form of Faery. We’ve already discussed at least one element of Tolkien’s writing that plays a similar role: Elf-friends.

Thus, we come to The Lost Road, an early story of Tolkien’s which unites dreams and Elf-friends in one storytelling frame. The interaction between primary and secondary reality through dreams here is much more complex than that of The Notion Club Papers (albeit less polished), and thus provides an investigation into the simultaneous role of dreams as a vehicle and a setting. The Lost Road more blatantly adheres to Tolkien’s traditional themes. He blatantly points out Elf-friends in this story (whereas in The Notion Club Papers, we get a more journalistic impression of storytelling, as if Tolkien’s voice was speaking Ramer’s words). The story starts in a modern England, introducing us to Alboin. Alboin largely parallels Tolkien; his dreams promote a love of language and a curiosity into collective racial memory and mythology. Elendil, a character from Numenor, ultimately comes to Alboin in a dream, inviting him into the tale of Numenor. The first two chapters end with Alboin dreaming and his son, Audoin, closing a door and receding into darkness, marking the shift into the age of Numenor and Elendil as the lead character in the second two chapters. While the ages of Elendil and Alboin are completely different, Elendil makes clear that Alboin is in fact part of the same mythology. Entering Alboin’s dream, he claims “I am with you. I was of Numenor” (The Lost Road 52). Clearly, Alboin shares Elendil’s blood, and they share the title of Elf-friend in this story. But Alboin’s interaction with his realities as an Elf-friend is somewhat different than what we have previously seen. Whereas conventionally we have discussed an Elf-friend as a character than can simultaneously exist in our primary reality and the mythological secondary, here Alboin seems to interact simultaneously with his own primary reality and the secondary reality of his dreams. Tolkien opens the door for dreams to be much more than just vehicles into mythology; rather, his characters’ dreams serve as yet another secondary reality within the story. The fact that visionary dreams are almost always seen by Elf-friends forces us to further consider exactly how the Elf-friend operates in the building of a mythology. Rather than just a character who can simultaneously play an actor in Tolkien’s mythology and transmit it to us, Alboin serves as an Elf-friend who can seemingly contribute within the story to building Tolkien’s myth. As his dreams take us into his secondary reality, we actually learn of yet another point in the mythology. Ultimately, we see that through dreams, the Elf-friend can simultaneously act within Tolkien’s secondary reality as part of the mythology, and as a living entity of racial memory contribute to the construction of the myth.

Thus we finally come to Frodo, perhaps the most prominent Elf-friend in all of Tolkien’s literature. Like Alboin, Frodo seems to have visionary dreams which tell of a different time within the mythology. In the house of Tom Bombadil, Frodo actually travels back in time slightly, seeing Gandalf’s rescue by the eagle. But this is problematic. Whereas in The Lost Road the suggestion is that Alboin and his son Audoin silently observe the tales of Numenor in the dream, Frodo does not exclusively learn of Gandalf’s escape from his vision. Gandalf later tells Frodo this story. The same is true in Lorien, where Frodo first sees visions in the Mirror of Galadriel and then has them explained by Galadriel herself. Here, it seems as if we’ve taken a step back; the dream no longer seems to create a secondary reality in and of itself, but rather to characterize Frodo as an Elf-friend. Frodo’s dreams seem to initially play the role of Alboin’s as helping construct the mythology, but ultimately seem irrelevant as other characters construct those stories in Frodo’s primary reality for him. However, the end of The Lord of the Rings characterizes Frodo in a totally unique light as an Elf-friend. When Merry describes the end of their journey as “a dream that has slowly faded”, Frodo counters saying that to him “it feels more like falling asleep again” (LotR 997). This passage is at once both the inspiration for our initial question regarding Frodo’s dreams and insight into a potential solution.  The passage suggests that Frodo seems to vacillate between two realities, existing simultaneously in Tolkien’s secondary reality and his own secondary reality (I think this draws interesting parallels to the way in which Frodo can at will enter the realm of Sauron through the Ring). Perhaps a better way to put it is that this constant swaying between realms means that Frodo doesn’t fully exist in either reality. So finally, do we have an answer to the question of a dreaming Frodo? Not really. Instead, we have ambiguity: an Elf-friend in Frodo who is both dreaming and awake, never fully in anyone’s reality except Tolkien’s mythology.

Max L.


  1. It was a real question, to which I myself do not have an answer! If Frodo says that he feels, at the end of the journey when the hobbits are returning to the Shire, that he is falling asleep again, does this mean that their journey has been a dream or does it mean that his life in the Shire was the dream and the journey was the "waking" reality? Merry gives us the more usual explanation when we have been away from home and are returning to what we think of as ordinary, but what if the ordinary now seems like a dream? When is one ever truly awake? I like very much how carefully you work through the puzzle!


  2. I really appreciate your final point explaining how Frodo’s dreams allow him to become an Elf-friend rather than simply creating another secondary reality within the story. I think this is a very important aspect, and one that seems to separate Frodo from other Elf-friends we’ve read about. Rather than explicitly framing the story through Frodo’s narratives, Tolkien uses Frodo’s dreams and subconscious to bring readers more deeply into the mythology. This tactic almost seems more natural, as Frodo’s dreams fit naturally within the story line and are extremely subtle, almost unnoticeable, as framing devices. Additionally, as you pointed out, Tolkien allows other characters, like Gandalf and Galadriel, to complete the frame by explaining Frodo’s dreams and visions. This further serves to make the frame a genuine and inextricable piece of the narrative. I believe Frodo as an Elf-friend and framer truly exemplifies Tolkien’s idea that a frame is not simply a way of telling the story; rather it is at once a part of the story and that which gives life to the story.


  3. I appreciate that you looked at how the timing of what Tolkien was writing may have affected the writing itself, with regards to “The Two Towers” and The Notion Club Papers. I believe the events in an author’s life while writing a particular work can be significant to our understanding of that work, and so should not be overlooked.

    Good observation that dreams and Elf-friends can function in similar ways by bringing the story to the reader, in a sense, and, in so doing, open up to us readers the broader mythology. You also note that Alboin, unlike other Elf-friends, interacts with his own primary and secondary realities, rather than with our (the readers’) primary and secondary realities. This seems to indicate he is a different kind of Elf-friend, one who is an Elf-friend within the story, rather than outside of it.

    I like your comparison of Alboin and Audoin’s dreams to Frodo’s and your observation that, while the former’s dreams seem to be self-contained and self-explanatory, the latter’s aren’t clear until they are explained. However, I disagree that this makes the dreams irrelevant. I think in the case of Alboin and Audoin, the explanation lies within the dream itself, whereas with Frodo it lies outside and Frodo must be taught to recognize such dreams as significant. I also get the impression (although this would be difficult to prove) that Alboin and Audoin’s dreams are more directed, while Frodo’s are more coincidental. It seems as if Frodo’s (and the other Hobbits’) dreams tap into an infinite, eternal, universal subconscious almost by accident, and that what is thus revealed to them is information randomly pulled from various parts of their own stories (past, present, and future). Alboin and Audoin’s dreams, on the other hand, are delivered to them with a specific purpose in mind.

    Your conclusion suggests an interesting possibility, that Frodo is yet another type of Elf-friend who does not directly exist in our primary and secondary realities, but who occupies multiple secondary realities. An intriguing solution-that-is-also-a-question!