Friday, April 11, 2014

Dream-Language Interactions across Tolkien's Work


The languages of Tolkien’s world are a crucial part in understanding his creative (or sub-creative) process.  The painstakingly built languages of Middle-Earth are not just built to be consistent but to convey a cultural history.  The readings from The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers provide different perspectives on the notion of language as a holder of cultural memory.  In The Notion Club Papers, Ramer is questioned on how he learned the names of some of the fantastic places he travelled.  He says, “We each have a native language of our own – at least potentially” (Tolkien, The Notion Club Papers, HME 9. p 201).  This theory of having a native tongue that is inherited but not taught is similar to the experience of Alboin in The Lost Road.  Alboin’s work with “Elf-latin” is similar to Ramer’s discovery of Emberü, as both come to them in dreams.  In Ramer’s case, the dream is the result of mental training and focus, while for Alboin, the dreams have an unknown cause (but it may be related to the desire to go back).  In both works, the line between creation and rediscovery is blurred.  These two examples, coupled with Tolkien’s letters can illustrate how his creative process worked.

Alboin of The Lost Road parallels J.R.R Tolkien in several respects.  First, he grows up to study language, eventually becoming a professor.  Second, he is discovering a non-human language, Eressëan or Elf-latin.  However, he doesn’t discover the language as a completed artefact.  Alboin must piece together aspects of the language discovered in his dreams.  By doing this, he pieces together fragments of the history of Middle-Earth.  The ability to get these fragments from his dreams is present when he is young, but as he enters adulthoods and the pressures of school, work, and raising a child, the present and future take most of his attention.  It is only with the return to the summer cabin that his attention can turn to the past and rekindle his desire to go back.  It takes the change in focus of his attention to enter the dream/history.

Attention is also crucial to Ramer’s method of dream travel.  In discussing the transportation of the mind, he says, “as far as the mind goes, you can’t get any nearer to saying where it is than to say where its attention is” (Tolkien, The Notion Club Papers, HME 9, p. 176). This splitting of attention is very similar to the creative process.  It is possible to be imagining a story or recalling a memory and still be conscious that one is in a study, for example.  The whole first part of The Notion Club Papers is a commentary on the creative process, especially as it regards to fantasy.  The book starts with a criticism of a fantasy story that uses a poor framing mechanism (in the opinion of the club members).  The criticism is based on the fact that the thought of a space ship is wholly unrealistic for the time period that the book was written.  It tarnishes the story’s credibility.  Through Guildford, Tolkien writes, “I don’t like heroic warriors, but I can bear stories about them.  I believe they exist, or could.  I don’t think space-ships do, or could” (Tolkien, The Notion Club Papers, HME 9, p. 163).  This speaks to Tolkien’s belief in the importance of the frame of the story as a method of increasing the credibility of it. 

Tolkien’s belief in the importance of framing is spoken to with the inscriptions in Cirth and Tengwar on the title page.  Translated, the script read “The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronlad Reuel Tolkien.  Herein is set for the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits” (Class discussion, April 9)*.  This immediately changes the stories from the imaginations of an English Professor, to legends discovered and translated by said English Professor.  This doesn’t mean J.R.R. Tolkien was attempting to pass off The Lord of the Rings as true tales, but rather, that he was allowing the stories to reside in the same area of cultural memory as myths.  It was Tolkien’s belief that England lacked mythic culture and The Lord of the Rings was his attempt to remedy that.  Language is a large part of his works on Middle-Earth because of his belief in the power language has as a holder of cultural memory.

There were two examples brought up in class discussion about the power of language.  One was the etymology of ‘walnut’ and the other was the naming of the Ents.  The etymology of walnut was enlightening because ‘walnut’ is not a particularly legendary word.  The word ‘walnut’ comes from the Germanic family of languages where it was called ‘welshnut’ with ‘welsh-‘ indicating foreigners.  Therefore, ‘walnut’ is a nut from foreigners, in terms of the Germanic people, the Romans and the Celts.  From this innocuous word, one can discover fragments of history long forgotten.  The class then examined how Tolkien applied this process to his own creative works.  In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, he writes that the name of the Ents is due to a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon poem.  (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 163, pg. 212). The name ‘Ent’ came from trying to make the fragment of the poem connect to other fragments of the myths and legends and histories of the Anglo-Saxon people. This leads back to the earlier discussion of Alboin’s work with Eressëan where the language serves as one of the few concrete links to his Númenorean heritage.

In conclusion, the interactions between language and dreams in creating both a credible frame and believable mythology is crucial to Tolkien’s work.  While The Lord of the Rings might still have been a great work of fantasy without framing it as a translation, it would not have been a contribution to the mythology of England.  Using both mechanisms across his body of work, he successfully created a mythology that one can immerse oneself in even 70 years later.


  • Peter Alexieff

*This was brought up in class at the very end, but I didn’t copy it down so I looked it up online.  This is the source I used: http://greekgeek.hubpages.com/hub/lord-of-the-rings-runes

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, Peter.

    I think you’ve put your finger on the less-explored intersection of well-known sources of Tolkien’s work. Going into this in some depth (as in a paper) could repay. I think the discussion of his use of frame narratives is well mentioned here, and could bear extensive discussion on its own.

    Also, if everyone could please use the proper spelling, Walsh-Nut, I'd really appreciate it…

    Bill (Walsh) the Heliotrope

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