Friday, April 8, 2011

Sleeping Awake

Other than being a pretty good song by POD* “Sleeping awake” is a phenomenon that Tolkien explores multiple times in his creative works. Seemingly an oxymoron, the phrase “sleeping awake” seems to denote the ability to be actively perceptive of one’s self and one’s surroundings while under the shadowy veil of passive, that is, non-active sleep. Tolkien’s character Dolbear—the psychoanalyst and philosopher member of the Notion Club—seems to exhibit a type of “sleeping awake” trait: he possesses the “odd faculty of sleeping and listening;” being able to awaken once a subject has “interested” him.   Yet in other areas of Tolkien’s works the phrase “sleeping awake” can be used to define Dreams—the somewhat preternatural visions that are often experienced by the protagonists. In the context of the Dream however, “sleeping awake,” has apocalyptic connotations.

When I say “apocalyptic,” I’m not talking about something necessarily ominous like doomsday or Armageddon (although Tolkien’s Dreams of the “wave” is illustrated in this manner). The term “apocalypse” signifies a “lifting of the veil,” an open vision that is revelatory and thoroughly lucid. To illustrate this, I will use an example from the Lost Road. After calling for Alboin—and subsequently hearing his son’s distant, dream-like voice—Errol states: “Well you must be deaf or dreaming.” Finding his son, “gazing out to the sea with his chin in his hands,” Errol adds, “Dreaming it looks like.” Although Alboin is clearly awake (presumably in active contemplation), his father connects his contemplative activity to the dream—which occurs when one is not awake. In this case Alboin is most likely daydreaming (another form of “sleeping awake”), possibly contemplating his archaic Numenorean past across the sea. The main point here is that “dreaming” is truly seeing. It is at this stage that “strange powers of the mind are unlocked.”

This kind of sight is not occulted by the time-eclipse of the present; instead it (the sight) is absolutely unhindered and able to perceive time and existence in its eternal totality. It is almost a mystic trait—an attribute featuring in the biblical stories of prophets like Enoch and Ezekiel, who were granted open visions. As apocalypses, the Dreams of one who is “sleeping awake” provide the dreamer with not only a link to the past (as in Alboin’s case) but a link to the present and the future.  In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his friends experience these types of apocalyptic dreams. In chapter seven of book one, Frodo is able to see—albeit unknowingly—Gandalf’s imprisonment at and subsequent escape from Isengard. Earlier in book one, Frodo—while sleeping awake—is able to glimpse Minas Morgul, the grave lofty white tower of the Nazgul. Because of their lucidity, these dreams parallel the “violent awakening” dream of Ramer in Tolkien’s The Notion Club. For Ramer, this dream occurs when he falls “wide asleep.” After his harrowing dream, he wakes up—and like Frodo—remembers everything that he experienced. Ramer concludes that the dreamer in the dream—sleeping awake—is not confined to the time and space that occurs in the physical environment of his waking reality (ex. The bedroom).

Bear with me here—I fear I may be approaching the realm of the esoteric.  If I sound too much like a babbling mantis—it is only because I am enthused by the vatic furor. Or maybe I just ate too many strawberries this morning. In any case, I will try to be as explanative as possible. Tolkien may in fact be using the concept of “sleeping awake,” to posit the existence of a deeper, more latent mode of being. This mode of existence is not spatiotemporal. Markedly, every human being that exists, has existed, or will exist is, was, or will not be “all-bones.” Alboin is more than just himself—more than just his own physical self. He is a cognitive and psychic being; ensouled with the collective spirit of his father’s fathers , and galvanized with the antediluvian blood of the Numenoreans. Alboin, like Frodo, like Aragorn, like you and me—is a part of a timeless thread, a continual traversal through eternity. It is as Bilbo says in chapter six of book six: “the Road goes ever on an on.” Dreams (by giving us a perception unbounded by the precepts of the ‘wakened’ mind) allow us to tap into this eternity and view with unveiled eyes the multifaceted experiences of collective existence. Thus when Frodo has precognitive dreams, he is not seeing into the future, rather he is seeing one shred of time and space as it is in the ocean of eternity. Like Alboin and his counterpart Herendil—who gazed upon the seemingly endless Western Sea, the dreamer gazes upon the ocean of eternity through the open eye of the mind. It is almost a sort of recollection—a remote viewing of infinite akashic records.**

In addition, one who is “sleeping awake” can become a sub-creator by drawing from the various historical memories (as profuse as grains of sand in the ocean). This kind of creation (creation from already extant materials), is comparable to a artificer crafting a magnum opus not from scratch, but from the materials already established by an antecedent Demiurge.  On page 180 of Letters, Tolkien writes: “A lot of this kind of work [mythopoeia] goes on at other…levels, when one is saying how-do-you-do or even ‘sleeping.’” He goes on to say that he has “long ceased to invent [myths],” he waits until he knows what “really happened.” This kind of ‘gnostic’ knowledge is typical of apocalyptic/mystic visions.  Arguably, the one who sleeps awake crosses the threshold of “unknowing,” and approaches the ineffable magnificence of the everlasting Divine.

Andrew Manns

*a link to the surprisingly relative song “Sleeping awake.”
**in Theosophical thought, these are aetheric supramundane records that contain complete historical and experiential knowledge of the cosmos


  1. Not babbling at all! I like very much the distinction you make between "spatiotemporal existence" and the view of eternity that Tolkien seems to be suggesting that it is possible to have while dreaming. Does this mean that the dreamer (or prophet or visionary) sees as God (or Iluvatar) does? Or would you make a further distinction here as well?


  2. Perhaps. If we equate Illuvatar with the collective ocean of experience (especially since in the Silmarillion all creation emanates from his "thoughts") then the dreamer would be gazing at different aspects of Illuvatar himself. Illuvatar does not "see" per se, he just 'is'--and in a very panentheistic way he "knows" all because the all is within him.

    Andrew Manns

  3. You give an excellent explanation of ‘sleeping awake,’ especially with regards to how one retains perception during passive sleep. You also make a good observation and show good use of the term ‘apocalyptic;’ your usage here is in keeping both with Tolkien’s purpose for these Dreams, and his love of adhering the fundamental meanings of words. You’ve done well pulling examples to support your point about different types of ‘sleeping awake’ from different works of Tolkien. These examples illustrate very well the different ways ‘sleeping awake’ manifested and functioned in Tolkien’s work.

    I found the ‘esoteric’ section of your post very interesting. I think you are absolutely right that Tolkien used ‘sleeping awake’ to illustrate part of the nature of our deeper, spiritual selves, un-tethered to space or time. Your comment that Frodo does not dream into the future, but rather, through his dream, accesses a piece of the eternal, infinite fabric of Eä is a perfect example of this.

    Your final paragraph makes a nice link back from ‘sleeping awake’ to how this kind of ‘dreaming’ contributes to sub-creation. It made me wonder if all sub-creation comes from this place of the eternal and infinite. Or are there perhaps other roads in the human mind that lead to sub-creation? Or does all sub-creation ultimately come from the same place, but we experience its occurrence in different ways (i.e., from REM-cycle dreams vs. ‘sleeping awake’ vs. subconscious thought while awake, etc.)?


  4. Hello Drew,

    I really like your suggestion that Tolkien is positing that we can tap into our existence that is beyond the spatiotemporal. However, I think that Tolkien is not trying to say that in this sleeping awake state we can really see as God does. I shall try to make a metaphor to illustrate. We can picture God’s/ Eru’s perception of the universe as looking at an infinite plane but with a third axis for time. We can see where every point is going relative to other in space, and we can see what’s happening in time. For us as people, we can only usually perceive the here and now, which would be merely one point, but it seems to me that in the Notion Club Papers that Tolkien is suggesting that we can transcend some of our spatiotemporal limitations and jump along a ray in this 3-D array to a different time and place, even if we remain anchored to our bodies and our experience informs what we see. Tolkien seems to suggest that this is stronger along familial lines. What do you think of this?


    Andrew Wong