Friday, April 8, 2011

Morpheus, Lord Shaper, King of Stories, Oneiros...

In our ongoing efforts to understand how and why Tolkien developed the middle-earth mythos we have this week touched upon two of the author’s major influences: languages and dreams. It is with the second that I now concern myself. Dreams play an extremely important role within both the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s larger legendarium. Through dreams and visions elf-friends find information and guidance, while authors and philologists receive snippets of the legends and languages they seek to elucidate.

If Tolkien views dreams as a potential gateway into the world of faery, then we ought to ask how one walks through the gate. How does one achieve such visionary dreaming? Is it innate or acquired? Is the pursuit solitary, or can one be assisted? What practices might focus the dreamer’s thoughts or enhance their reach? Perhaps most importantly, how does Tolkien feel that he himself used dreams in realizing his world?

Early in book 1of the LOTR, Frodo visualizes Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc on the back of Gwaihir, a week prior and leagues away. A similar, though greatly enhanced effect, is experienced when he and Sam utilize Galadriel’s mirror, viewing the future of their quest and the conflicts across middle earth with which it coincides. While Galadriel’s mirror is viewed with awe and suspicion as “elf-magic,” Frodo takes no great surprise at his vision of Gandalf’s rescue, remarking “it was only a dream” on learning of its realism. “Only a dream.” If Frodo can dismiss his experience thusly, does it imply that such dreams are indeed typical in middle-earth? Such a conclusion suggests that Tolkien views dreams, even ones of a prophetic nature, as natural phenomena, emerging unassisted. Yet Bombadil’s house is hardly the most mundane setting in which such a dream could occur.

More answers to our questions might be found in Tolkien’s other writings. The figures of The Lost Road, Alboin and Audoin, are both characters in their own right and reflections of Tolkien’s experience as a philologist. For Alboin, dreams are intimately associated with language, the medium in which things “come through”, words of Eressean, or Belerandic, and the stories associated with them. But such dreams are not enough; he desires to truly “go back” and relive the past he knows to exist, not merely hear snippets. For this he needs the assistance of Elendil, who comes to him in an experience “something different from the common order of dreams” to show him the way to faery. Alboin’s son, Audoin also experiences “dreams… but not the usual sort” relating to the fall of Numenor. These writings establish a dichotomy between ‘typical’ dreams, which may nevertheless carry uncanny import, and truly revelatory experiences, similar to that observed by Frodo and Sam in Lothlorien.

This concept of the existence of dreams and more than dreams is born out one more time in the Notion Club Papers. Ramer has a strong belief in the power of dreaming as an observational technique with which to look upon far worlds, and attempts to train himself to increase this ability. But his initial attempts get him no further than perceiving snatches of an actual story, “like random pages torn out of a book”, until he has his “catastrophe.” When Ramer falls wide asleep he is in a world quite unlike any of his previous mere dreams.

Now perhaps we can make draw some conclusions about Tolkien’s opinion of dreams. Most of us dream, and when we do we are granted insight into worlds outside our own, though always incomplete and difficult to remember. But there are other experiences, like dreams, but distinct (we may call them visions) which enable much greater comprehension, indeed full immersion within the faery world.

But the question remains, how does one bridge the gap? Though normal dreaming is innate, it does not seem as if we can voluntarily have visions. Even when one sees images or hears languages the dreamer holds no power to direct his investigation. Much of what is revealed in the dream will not be remembered. While Ramer’s attempts at practicing dreaming prove useful, he does not credit them with enabling his visions. The outside force which does so is unspecified, but clearly tremendous. For Tolkien’s other characters, entrance into true dreaming, into vision, is achieved with the help of a guide, a representative of faery. Elendil, an elf-friend, serves for Alboin the same role that Galadriel, an actual Elf, serves for Frodo and Sam, letting them look further and longer than they ever have. The guide does not imbue the capacity for dreaming per se, the dreams were there before hand, but they facilitate it such that it does not resemble what one can achieve naturally. Just like in storytelling, one cannot reach faery alone, faery has to come to you.

Then did faery ever come to Tolkien? It seems so, though perhaps less often than he would have liked. Certainly his “Atalantis complex,” the dream of a great wave cresting over fields and trees, seems incredibly articulated and consistent, to say nothing of its apparent inheritance by Christopher. J.R.R. often describes his creative process as remembering or “reporting” events emerging from something unconscious, but only in the downfall of Numenor do we have a clear description of seeing events. Usually Tolkien can only get, or remember, fractions of what he wants, and has to continuously rediscover how things fit together. Tolkien’s description of his dreams, of his inventive process, always correspond much more to the first level of dreaming, the frustrating exposure of hints and snippets preceding true visions. Like Alboin, he is getting glimpses of a language, and a history, but has to work out much of the context for himself. Had Elendil appeared to elucidate, he may have published much faster.

Tolkien would certainly be aggrieved at the suggestion that his literary speculation on an explicit visionary level of dreaming reflects a personal desire for more of such experiences. But I leave that quarrel for the comments.

David Gittin

P.S. The tittle makes very little sense in context. I'm just excited for Niel Gaiman coming this week.


  1. Excellent point about the necessity of guides, Elves for the Elf-friends! I had not thought about this, but I think you are onto something important here. Did Tolkien understand himself to have an Elf-guide? I can't think at the moment of any place where he suggests as much, but he did think of himself as having a responsibility to the T.C.B.S. to carry on the work that they imagined before going off to war.


  2. True about the T.C.B.S., but they hardly count as guides, being themselves a group of aspiring elf-friends. If Tolkien had a guide it came to him in his dreams, and evidently not in a well=defined enough form to be clearly recorded.

  3. Dreams and visions, so what is the difference? Is it merely how vivid it seems while dreaming or how much you can remember afterwards? Or is there an implied temporal directionality (dream=past, vision=future)? I’m not sure what distinctions you are using throughout. As for Frodo’s dream/vision of Gandalf, prophetic of the future were not necessarily commonplace, at least not for hobbits. Frodo recalls it as just a dream not because he sees the future all the time, but either because he chalked it up to odd coincidence that what was just a dream to him had some basis in reality or because he really thought it was just a dream and does know what to do with the idea that it was prophetic. Besides as you mentioned, Bombadil’s house was hardly any ordinary place. I think the enchantment of the location had more to with it than anything else.

    LotR and the legendarium can be seen as a “dream” aid to the land of faerie if you expand the idea of dreaming beyond REM sleep. If you accept that dreaming is essentially being carried away by your imagination to some other place of wonder and possibility, then we can certain day-dream or sleep-dream to similar effect. Tolkien through the Lord of the Rings (as all great story tellers or elf friends) provided a vehicle and a setting through which and into which we can dream. Look back at the Bombadil episode and I think that you will find this mesh of dream and storytelling.