Friday, April 8, 2011

Tolkien's Belfry

“Wait till next week! You can then have a look at my belfry and count all the bats.”
Mr. Michael George Ramer of the Notion Club unleashes this feisty bit of wordplay with his sanity on the line. Having just bared his soul to a roomful of blank stares, Ramer must now debunk his seeming “battiness” by convincing his literary associates that he has, in fact, been there and back again—that his dreams have literally transported him “far off in Time and Space beyond the compass of a terrestrial animal.”

Easier said than done. After all, suspension of disbelief is one thing; pulling the rug out from under default notions of possibility is something else entirely. But Ramer is, by all appearances, sincere in his belief and determined to persuade his friends that, absurd as it may sound, his account is more than just a flight of fantasy.

The same goes for Mr. J.R.R Tolkien of the Inklings. His dreams are no less vivid; his vision, no less expansive. He is, perhaps, the foremost 20th century Elf-Friend, with keys to a reality above and beyond—and yet not wholly apart from—our own. And his Notion Club Papers shed light on his all but unfathomable source of inspiration.

That’s one interpretation, anyhow. Already we’ve considered several other standpoints in class, ranging from unmoved skepticism to Tom Shippey’s “asterix reality,” as a means of accepting, getting around, or otherwise coming to terms with Tolkien’s process, product, and general vision.  Still, a bevy of questions persist, at least in my mind.

Literal? Ethereal? Metaphorical? Mythical? How are we supposed to categorize Middle-Earth? Just how many bats is Tolkien hiding in his belfry? If dreams can be the gateway to reality, where does the former end and the latter begin?

That’s an awful lot of question marks for one blog post—and one thoroughly unqualified blogger—to tackle, so I’ve decided to settle for some general impressions. A skin-deep analysis of a few gut feelings, if it please the court.

Wednesday’s discussions of dreams brought to mind a similar debate held in my Winter Quarter HUM class. The text in question—Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy—was considerably more mundane (and entirely orc-less, though not without its demons), but one of the questions it raised was almost identical: what really separates dream from waking life? And are we justified in assigning one the role of “primary” reality?

To paraphrase, Descartes’ argument goes something like this: in dream and waking life alike, the senses are employed in similar fashion and to similar effect.  When we dream, our senses are triggered so as to convince us that we are walking in, interacting with, and generally inhabiting the world of our dream. Regardless of what we think when we wake up, in the moment of the dream we are completely “convinced” by the dream scenario, “tricked” into responding with the same level of sensory and emotional poignancy utilized in the primary reality of our waking existence. As such, Descartes claims that the two states of being cannot be readily differentiated, saying that “there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.”

I wasn’t all that pleased with Descartes’ argument. In a paper, I ceded that dreams can often be eerily convincing. (As my roommate will attest, I am no stranger to sleep-talking.) Still, I claimed that what dreams do lack is continuity. We fall asleep in our bed, fully expecting to find ourselves in that same bed when we wake. Dreams, on the other hand, almost never link up so nicely. In short, the states of being we label “reality” and “dream” can at the very least be distinguished from one another.

In reading The Notion Club Papers, I once again found that my own opinions on the matter of dreams were at odds with those of the speaker. Ramer’s Cartesian outlook is unmistakable. “Of course there isn't any distance between dreams and waking, or one kind of dream and another; only an increase or decrease of abstraction and concentration,” he says.

I’m not sure if any of that makes sense to me. I still maintain that dreams and waking life are separated by more than the level of attention paid to each. I want to categorize Tolkien’s “Time-journey” (and Middle-Earth, for that matter) as fiction; to draw the line at telepathic meteor-memory rides, thereby maintaining the bounds of possibility within which my life to date has played out. I’m fine with Middle-Earth as asterix reality; with Tolkien’s appetite for language, his love of history and of England, and his desire to combine those passions into an epic unlike any other. His “reporting, not inventing” shtick, on the other hand, doesn’t go down so well. Part of me wants to ignore any attempts to characterize The Notion Club Papers et al. as confessionals detailing Tolkien’s exact writing process. And I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m not. Ramer’s friends have a similar initial reaction to his similarly batty-sounding escapades.

And then it hits them: in spite of all the talk about time travel and crystal coffins and the like, the crux of Ramer’s story inspires no “underlying emotion of incredulity.” Somehow, the propensity to believe—however subconscious that belief may be—is maintained. Ramer is encouraged to expand upon his experiences, and soon he isn’t the only one detailing personal encounters with parallel realities.

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from class thus far, it’s this: some of us are similarly invested/engaged/absorbed in The Lord of the Rings, a work which seems to transcend literature and hint at a deeper level of reality. The beauty of Tolkien's world is its internal, self-sustaining credibility. His frame is considerably more refined than the "awkward necessity" of time machines and such. Middle-Earth is as much a part of Tolkien’s fabric of being as a lot of what most consider “real.” He wants to transport us there—to give us that means of escape.

One thousand words down, and I still haven’t made any progress towards counting Tolkien’s bats. I’m not sure that I ever will. On the one hand, settling for an asterisk theory feels like a cop-out, especially when you consider the man’s deep spirituality and the propensity for blind faith that went along with it. Still, I’m afraid it’d take quite a bit more than a “tweak” of the imagination to convince me that dreams and reality mesh, and that Middle-Earth is to be found somewhere in our primary reality.

Where does that leave me? Perhaps I’d do well to take Notion Club member Frankley’s advice, borrow a power-crane and keep on suspending my disbelief. Who knows: I might show up to class one day with a story to tell about time travel and Faerie, at which point it’ll be time for me to get my bats checked.



  1. I agree that dreams are distinguishable from reality. While at times I've specifically checked the reality of a dream and found it to be a good simulation which is blurred on waking, I can never properly site myself in a dream. Usually, of course, I don't wonder if I'm dreaming (whether I am or not)--but when I do, I can just think about "What happened yesterday? What's coming up next week?" and I will instantly know whether I'm in a dream.

    This strikes me as a very interesting contrast to Tolkien's legendarium. Tolkien both relates it to dreams, as in what you call the "reporting, not inventing, shtick", but also links it firmly--obscurely, but firmly--to our own world.

    What's up with this? Is Tolkien perhaps trying to tell us that there are two different types of dreams? If so, the difference is apparently between what we might call "dreams" and "visions". A "dream" would be this type of "Oh, I dreamed that Santa was chasing me last night, and Bruce Willis was there, but then it was my aunt's house and we were playing baccarat" thing, whereas a "vision" would be something relating to the real world, as experienced by Ramer or Dunne.

    Alternatively, might Tolkien be saying that the format of the context-less dream is *more* suited to a historical link? Perhaps the context which is missing is only a specific local context (e.g. what day of the week it is right now), and if that is disengaged, it is easier to perceive realities from other times.

    --Luke Bretscher

    P.S. Pet peeve: it's not "asterix reality", it's "asterisk reality". "Asterisk" is the little star, whereas "Asterix" exclusively refers to a comic-book character.

  2. You make a very good point about the problem of continuity: our consciousness convinces us that "waking" is our primary reality because it prefers things to fit together rationally (is this too Cartesian?). But what if we were able, like Ramer, to train ourselves to return to specific dreams, catch more than just glimpses of that other "reality" (not sure where to put the scare quotes here)? Perhaps sustaining our perception of waking reality is just a habit. What if we could learn other ones? (Mind you, I'm still out myself on Tolkien's bat count--but I do think he was seriously trying to test his, and our, sense of "normal" here.)


  3. As an individual presently content with my own lack of metaphysical system, the determining factors for what I will allow into the category 'reality' tends toward general inclusivity. That said, your argument regarding continuity is problematical for that extended activity we call "dreaming". But is this so for 'dream' separate from temporal consideration? When we take time out of the picture, focusing instead upon one specific instant - one event - in a dream without considering its relation to other events either somnolent or wakeful, the situation changes. The logical relations one might use (while awake, of course) to distinguish dreaming from wakeful experience are just that: they position the one relative to the other.

    The sum total experience of a dream should not be reduced to a set of easily conveyed events that can be dissected by waking reason. The incongruity of Ramer's corresponding emotions and the delineation between dream and vision made above speak to this. If my own dreaming is of the same general nature as each of yours (can we prove this?), we cannot deny those heady, somewhat alien dream-impressions whose presence, logic aside, is one of electric reality, even into the daylight hours. A dream is most definitely not of the same stuff as waking life, but does this bar it from reality, defined in terms of our conscious experience? I would hazard not.

    The closest analogue to the memory of a dream half-buried, I think, lies within what we would deem primary reality. I must reintroduce the temporal element. My own experience, at least, cannot fully distinguish a species of childhood memory, affected as is had most undoubtedly been by the intervening years, from snippets of dream long past. While I may classify the two groups with relative ease, the essential quality of the moment in each is indistinguishable.

    Does this imply an inclination on my own part to admit Middle Earth and time travel by dream into conscious reality? I don’t think so. But we should keep in mind that ‘conscious reality’ is not so logical a thing as purely modern understanding maintains.


  4. Your comparison between Descartes’ theory on dreams and our interpretation of Tolkien’s creative (or rather, testimonial) process has reminded me of a question I wished to raise in class. Does Tolkien not assert—in some earlier reading I can’t remember the name of— that stories framed as dreams did not count as true Fairy stories? He posits that people usually perceive dreams as unrealistic, which makes them unsuitable as frames for stories that are meant to contain and portray inherent strains of truth—as fairy stories are. If I am remembering his assertion correctly, then this sets his view of dreams in direct contrast with Descartes’ argument, for Tolkien then recognizes that dreams are different from reality in that they are less convincing.

    Your cynicism of “time-travel” (which possesses undeniable dream-like qualities) would then seem to be a response that Tolkien would expect of his readers, given the nature of dreams. Which is why I doubt that Tolkien ever intended for his entire epic to be perceived as Frodo’s or anyone else’s dream. I think Tolkien would agree that dreams and reality are distinguishable. His work—though it does use dreams as a literary tool to traverse time—does not seem to circulate around dreams as heavily as was implied in discussion. Though stories derived from dreams may be enough to engage the more batty among us, the foundation of Tolkien’s story is likely to be found elsewhere.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  5. Cosmic planar-shifting aside, dreams and waking can be a metaphor for perceptions of past and present. The comparison between waking and the present is fairly straight forward. In terms of normal human perception they are almost one and the same. When we are awake, we perceive the present world—what is immediately around us. Dreaming can be seen as a kind sub-conscious reflection of what came before (our past), though rarely as clear or complete as the present. When we awake we are left with memories of the dream. If the memory is fresh, we might remember it very clearly. But sometimes we only have fragments—much like studying history and very much like popular history.

    Journalism, letter collections, modern histories—these are like fresh dreams. Pottery shards, building foundations, rubbish pits, and odd carvings in Egyptology or ancient Toltec history are more like dream fragments. We need to find a way to piece them together in order to make sense of them. Many times we must use our imagination, our judgment, invent proto-forms, or use Ramer’s concentration to tell a complete story when we just don’t have enough fragments to fill in gaps or links the dreams together.

    Particularly with remote history, the boundary between fiction and our best guess reconstruction can be blurry at times. Do we want to believe that Jewish slaves built the pyramids? Herodotus said they did, it’s in the Bible, and Charlton Heston even starred in a movie about it. Actually, the first two aren’t true. We can’t find any archaeological evidence that slaves built them. On the other hand we really can’t prove that slaves did not play a role in the supply chain for any ancient Egyptian monuments. But, if you squish Herodotus and the Bible together, then Jewish slaves building pyramids can make coherent story even if it can’t be supported by archaeology.

    -Jason A Banks

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  7. First, to answer Jessica, I would say that I do perceive the same tension. However, I think there is a solution. We see in the Notion Club Papers that the dreams of the characters allude to Middle-Earth, which is a secondary reality. I think that this linkage between secondary realities through a dream is basically a method of true explanation of a postulated metaphysical phenomenon of writing rather than a statement that the story was authored in a dream, which Tolkien dislikes. I believe that in this case, Tolkien does not undermine his stories by saying that there was some linkage between secondary realities in this way. In these more visionary dreams, the event of the dream actually did happen (at least in the Notion Club Papers). This story is about time travel. In the limit as time approaches the present, Tolkien’s legendarium and “real” history should approach each other, even if they do not meet. Only dreams can tie them together.

    Second, it is my observation that we can make these stories about time travel very plausible if it is someone else doing the traveling forwards in time. By this, I mean that if say, we have an elf or elf- friend still walking on Middle-Earth direction these dreams, it could clear a lot up. This asterisk notion of how Tolkien’s story might have looked if he had completed the Notion Club Papers is actually what my idea for a final project has morphed into.

    -Andrew Wong