Friday, April 15, 2011

The past and the Past: On history and belief

As far back as elementary school, my two favorite subjects have always been History and English. Though I never bothered to make a connection between the two then, I will attempt one now – my love for both of them stems from my love of a great story.  For in truth, the annals of history are, to me, more of a collection of particularly good stories than they are verifiable data – I am as like to meet Anne Boleyn as I am to meet Aragorn. While historians (and hopefully most other people) consider Anne a ‘real’ figure and Aragorn a fictional one, who is to say that the Anne Boleyn they have reconstructed from letters, books, and portraits bears any resemblance to the woman who inspired her? Modern visitors to the Tower of London have no way of reconstructing the complete story of Anne’s final days, but that doesn’t stop anyone, myself included, from imagining a version of it when they pass through. Put simply, who is more ‘real’ to this generation: Anne Boleyn as she truly was or the Anne Boleyn of legend?

This is, I think, what Tolkien was getting at when he wrote that “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’ – which is our habitation.” (Letters, p. 244). Tolkien saw Middle-earth not as some distant planet, a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, but rather as a long lost version of his own beloved Britain. The slides Professor Fulton showed us in class compared various ruins throughout the Welsh countryside to Tolkien’s own drawings of various places in Middle-earth, and the resemblance between the two was striking. Where some see tombs, Tolkien saw the Halls of the Elvenking; where some see a Norman keep built on the foundations of Roman walls, Tolkien saw the tower of Barad-dûr.  These are “the real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea-shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: grains on which stories crystallize like snowflakes.” (Notion Club Papers, Part Two; Sauron Defeated p. 227).  Middle-earth is not England or even the whole of Europe in the sense that one can match up its coastlines and latitudes to a real map; rather it is the history Tolkien imagined for this hill here and that ruin there, patched together into a cohesive legendarium.

Just as Tolkien creates these “imaginary historical moment[s]” for physical places, he creates them for their names – and various other words – as well. The obvious example from Wednesday’s reading is, of course, Farmer Giles of Ham, in which Tolkien plays with the real English names ‘Thame’ and ‘Worminghall’ to create a comic medieval fable. From the fact that “Thame with an h is a folly without warrant,” (Farmer Giles of Ham, The Tolkien Reader, p. 185) he creates an origin story that could explain such a name. Names, to Tolkien, were in and of themselves histories – note the amount of work he put into naming places within his Middle-earth. Yet it is interesting to note that within Tolkien’s oeuvre names also tend to carry a sort of magical, primal, and even at times transformative power. Think of how in Lord of the Rings, kingsfoil is more potent when it is known as athelas, how Gollum regains some of his lost humanity (hobbitity?) when Frodo calls him Sméagol.  There is at times almost a sense that names are inherent to a thing’s nature, and that people come up with history to fill in the gaps and give such meaning; in the Notion Club Papers, Part Two, Lowdham cries out the name of Numenor during a dream, only to have Ramer reveal that it is his name for Atlantis. Name predates history, instead of the other way around. As Tolkien wrote a history for a name in England, his characters eventually write a history for the name of Numenor. The interest of these imagined histories are not in how plausible they are – Farmer Giles is gleefully fantastic as well as anachronistic – but in how they make sense of things.

Yet while such a history may be imaginary, that doesn’t mean it is not ‘real.’ Much has already been covered in this class on the significance Tolkien accords to myths, legends, and faerie-stories of all kinds. But in the Notion Club Papers, Ramer states that even “true past events” are “all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try and bring them back into the present.” (Notion Club Papers, Part Two; Sauron Defeated p. 228) Later on the same page, he states that future peoples studying the Notion Club’s documents could “let their imagination work on them, ‘til the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the Past.” The similarity of phrasing to On Faerie Stories, with its talk of primary and secondary worlds, instantly struck me.  And in that essay, Tolkien writes that “Belief depended on the way in which stories were presented to me, by older people, or by the authors, or on the inherent tone and quality of the tale. But at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on the belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.”” (Tree and Leaf, the Tolkien Reader, p. 63) This, I think, plays a key role in the ultimate distinction that Tolkien draws between history as a story made from surviving facts and the real Past, with a capital P. For if one can make multiple histories out of the same set of facts, the true Past, to Tolkien, is the one in which we enter the realm of secondary belief. Middle-earth, then, is Tolkien’s Past: not necessarily what happened in “real life,” but a history spanning the whole of creation that through its emotional resonance draws us wholly into believing that it could have been.



  1. I like very much the conclusion that you come to: that the "real" Past is that which resonates with us in a way to make us believe that it could have been--or want that it could have been? There is a poignancy to history that "dissolves into myth" that history itself sometimes lacks, thus, perhaps, our present-day desire to know the "real" Anne Boleyn, who must, after all, have been much more "real" than historians could ever know.


  2. On some level Farmer Giles of Ham can taken as parody of LotR as much as any other legendary history of a place. Both undertake a fundamentally similar exercise, that is finding stories to fit a place. LotR is far more serious, less overtly funny, and less specific than the other (not explaining the names of extant rivers and towns). Both, however are still rooted firmly in England. Tolkien even used local maps as the starting point of the shire.

    Despite the more serious tone, indeed the altogether more serious endeavor of LotR, can we really say that it is any more “real” or meant to be more “real” than Farmer Giles? No, not in the sense that Tolkien was real person. LotR is more real only insofar as it creates a coherent secondary reality that is more “internally” believable, whereas the secondary reality of Farmer Giles is deliberately ridiculous in the way it was formulated. We need not believe that dragons did exist, or even could have existed in England one, two, or ten thousand years ago. The trick is that we can credibly imagine that they existed in Middle Earth without laughing out loud.

    I admit, I’m not sure where Tolkien is on what he thinks the past/Past really was. Perhaps he finds imaginary pasts more satisfying because he dislikes incomplete and fragmentary stories, which is inevitable when limited to documents and archaeology from far beyond living memory. In that sense, well done imaginary histories can be more real, as in more fully realized, than the real past for which we may only have a basic outline.

    -Jason A Banks

  3. Interesting, I think that this distinction between imaginary and real historical moments is very useful to keep in mind. It seems to me that Tolkien’s project is to make a faerie story into a viable history. As you point out, Tolkien does not seemed concerned with the information of what happened so much as he is concerned with the plausibility of the frame. Hence, and implausible story in a plausible frame is fine for Tolkien (and seemingly for anyone who enjoys faerie as long as the story is well-written.

    For Tolkien’s legendarium, Tolkien seems to have been trying to express a certain depiction of the creative process that would tie together Middle-Earth with a secondary reality that would be set in roughly contemporary times, which would be very realistic aside from the visions of the Eagles of the Lords of the West. It is clear that Tolkien sees what is perceived in dreams/faerie as real in some sense whether it is phenomenologically real or whether it is a real link back that connects one with past events through a connection through space time as Drew suggested in an earlier post. Unfortunately, it seems like this will remain an open question, unless critics release enough criticism on this topic and come to a consensus.

    -Andrew Wong