Friday, April 11, 2014

Atlantis and Atalantie

When reading Tolkien’s letters and stories, I am struck by how frequently Tolkien’s Atlantis dream appears. He invokes a dream of “Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields” (Letters 347). Beyond imbedding it in his stories, Tolkien explicitly describes in letters how it is important in his writing process. I found this dream to be an interesting way to look at the significance of dreams for Tolkien, and how that affects his mythology and the stories he writes.
In The Lost Road, Alboin wishes that he knew the name of the location of his reoccurring wave dream, because that would “turn a nightmare into a story” (HME 5, 57). Tolkien, like Alboin, thinks language is a base for creating stories. In one letter Tolkien describes the coincidence between the word Atlantis, and the Quenya word for downfall, or atalantie (Letters 347). Though Tolkien suggests it is pure chance, Flieger is not fully convinced, and argues that the similarity between atalantie and Atlantis cannot be fully dismissed (Flieger 72). Either way however, Tolkien names his dream and creates a story to further dispel the fear and mystery of his reoccurring dream.
Tolkien’s eventually uses this tale as the centerpiece for his attempt to write an English Mythology. The story of atalantie is the “Downfall of Númenor,” in which Númenor falls, the western lands become unreachable, and the world is made round (Letters 347). This is the story of the destruction and creation of his mythology of England. He describes in letters how he sought to write The Lost Road as a story uniting all his main mythologies, concluding the tale with the explicit description of the fall of Númenor. Tolkien names his dream, then sets it as the foundation in his mythology.
In class, we discussed in depth the importance of dreams for Tolkien, but I want to look at the Atlantis dream and how it affects the stories that he writes. Tolkien didn’t simply write unconnected stories; he wove them together in a way that makes each story more alive. Shippey addresses this pattern, discussing how Tolkien tries to give his stories a depth that goes beyond magnitude or complexity (Shippey 310). I contend that the repeated tales about the fall of Númenor helps to create depth.
For example, in The Lost Road, Audoin describes his dreams about a giant wave, and the original intention of this story was to describe the fall of Númenor explicitly through the eyes of Herendil and Elendil (HME 5, 57). Additionally, in the second part of the Notion Club Papers, Lowdham describes and Atlantis dream. Instead of just giving one account of the story, Tolkien’s characters repeatedly describe this event, each in different ways and different contexts, through dream and experience. Therefore instead of just using this as the creation story, the multiple retellings and different variations give the dream and story behind it the authenticity of a myth that is told and retold over time.
The Atlantis dream appears again in the Lord of the Rings, through Faramir’s dream and his conversation with Eowyn. Faramir describes that he often has a dream of a great wave coming over the planes and enveloping the land (LOTR 259). Faramir’s story here is used differently than in the Notion Club Papers or The Lost Road. While the Atlantis dream itself is one of destruction, in The Lord of the Rings, the tale emphasizes a turning point and a resurgence of hope. As they wait and watch to learn news of the battle, they look to the east and see a mountain “of darkness…towering up like a wave that should engulf the world” (LOTR 259). Out of the sadness and despair, there begins to be hope that the journey will be successful. The Atlantis dream is significant to Tolkien, and I think the use in this context can create another layer of myth. Faramir and Eowyn’s story itself will soon become one of legend.
Similarly, when Frodo looks into Galadriel’s mirror, he realizes that he is “in some way…part of a great history” (LOTR 408). Tolkien uses dreams to emphasize his mythology that is ever changing and developing. The use of dreams gives it a mystical quality, giving depth and complexity to the story that Tolkien weaves. Within stories that will soon become legend, he embeds older tales of mythology. Not only do the characters tell stories of the past, but they also are creating new stories.
Tolkien also uses the relationships to deepen his mythology. When Tolkien describes how different people favor different languages, like there is an inheritable quality of what one likes and dislikes in a language (HME 9, 201). But this idea of inheritability seems to extend beyond words and language, and into the realm of dreams. Tolkien builds familial relationships around the dreams that the family members possess, like it is something that is directly and ancestrally inherited.  In The Lost Road, both generations of father-son relationships seem close together and tied to the dreams that they share with each other. Additionally, Audoin describes how he wishes he could make up a story about the Atlantis dream with his father (HME 5, 57). These familial relationships tie in with Tolkien’s mythology project possibly on two levels. They further emphasize how he believed the myths had to correspond with the culture they surrounded. In the same way, the father-son relationships surrounding their dreams tie together the stories with the culture and languages they developed. However, larger than this, I think the close relationships exhibited, how the father-son pairs talk to each other about their dreams, speak to how mythologies are passed down through oral and family traditions. The shared dreams exhibit an inheritability and shared spirit of the mythology they are tied to, and allow Tolkien to show how mythologies are passed down generation to generation. Ironically, Tolkien, years after writing about Audoin and Alboin, the father son pair who both have influential dreams, Tolkien discovered that his son Christopher also often had the same Atlantis dream as he (Flieger 72). The relationships between father and son that share the dreams emphasize the heritability of Tolkien’s mythology, both through culture, and through the emphasis on sharing and passing down these tales.

Tolkien seems to start his project with the dream that plagued him until he wrote it into the mythology. However, he didn’t stop at writing down his Atlantis dream, but continued to weave it into his stories and tales in many different ways. Tolkien’s use of the Atlantis dream can not only be seen as a basis for his mythology, but also shows the extreme depth and layered structure of his mythology. Additionally, it brings to light different forms of relationships in his tales and how these affect how stories are shared. Lastly the mysterious nature of the dreams corresponds with the ever changing landscape of mythology, and how new tales continue to be created or evolve.


  1. I was also struck by the many references to Atlantis while reading the writings of Tolkien, and I definitely agree that this dream does become a part of Tolkien’s mythology through its many versions and reiterations. Not only does Tolkien use this dream to connect the characters in his mythology together, but it also connects to the mythology in our own primary world. The story of Atlantis for Tolkien evolved over time, and its remaining fragments became imbedded in our own mythology. In this way, Tolkien manages to connect his mythology to the primary reality, and begins to blur the line between these two worlds. This method of storytelling also adds another layer of depth to Tolkien’s writing, because the stories that he is telling could be the stories of our own past and history. We could almost imagine the story being passed down from father to son all the way into our own reality, like in The Lost Road, where stories are passed down from Oswin Errol to Alboin to Audoin. Atlantis is only one example of this extensive mythology being passed into the primary reality. These stories become a part of our world, just like when Sam in The Lord of the Rings asks, “Why, to think of it we’re in the same tale still! ... Don’t the great tales never end?”

    -S. P.

  2. Thanks for the post, Hope.

    I think you’re right about the centrality of this idea to Tolkien’s creative world, if not The Lord of the Rings in particular. This is a good explication of how he uses it as a device, but if the topic interests you, it strikes me that it would very much repay to look into what Tolkien intended to signify with the “downfall” of Númenor in his world.

    It not only is one of the Falls which echo through his history, but it relates in some ways to Plato’s discussion of Atlantis in Timaeus and Critias (c. 360 B.C.). One suspects that given Tolkien’s fondness for Homer he might have been happy to tie in some of the more southeasterly mythic world into his “northwestern.”

    Bill the Heliotrope

    P.S. Also if, as your project, you prove the existence and location of Atlantis, I will strongly lobby Professor Fulton Brown for at least a B+ for you…

  3. In what sort of history do I need to prove it? Because as history is mythology, I think I could definitely come up with a middle earth (or even medieval map) that expounds on peoples beliefs or perceptions about the time that would do a great job of locating Atlantis!

  4. Hope, this is a fascinating post that rehashes a lot of the tensions we've talked about in Tolkien between dreams and the creation of and propagation of myth. I've also been deeply interested in Tolkien's dream of the Great Wave, as he calls it, that is always foretold by the clouds rising up "like eagles" in the western sky. I think there's something important in the content of this dream that was never fully discussed in class, too: most importantly, the theme of submersion and rebirth, as the Fallen Númenoreans sink into the sea while the Faithful escape to a new life and new lands. I can't decide whether this is akin to a theme of original sin or not, though that also plays a central part in much of Tolkien's legendarium and is a constantly present tension in his stories. The way he applies a story of downfall and sin to explain the image and feeling of the wave in his dream, though, indicates to me that this downfall is linked in part to the idea of original sin, and is certainly meant to be a result of that sin. I'm struck by the (somewhat obvious) similarity of the dream and the downfall to the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood. In both stories, the sins of mankind (or some subset of mankind) cause their destruction through cleansing submersion through an act of God bring about a new age and a new goodness in surviving men. Is it then necessary for Númenor to fall in order for the rest of Men to be saved? And why, in opposition to the biblical story, are only the Númenoreans punished for their sins when all the unenlightened peoples of Middle-earth continue to worship Melkor? Are the Númenoreans' sins more worthy of Eru's wrath? The questions that the story of the Great Wave over Númenor bring up are centrally tied to the meaning that wave dream had for Tolkien, and the source of his anxiety about it. I'm just still puzzling through the answers to those questions...