When I first sat down to write this post, I briefly considered titling it "Tolkien and the Narrative Paradigm: Subjective Reality, the Nature of Identity, and the Rejection of Platonic Forms" before realizing that this was quite possibly the most pretentious, congested, and florid title I could have come up with for a blog post. That's not to say that it isn't accurate; in fact, it will serve as something of a thesis for what follows, but I'll explain its relevance in due time. For now, I'd like to start by talking about time-machines.
The notion of a time-machine is a by now a familiar one to readers - ever since H. G. Wells popularized the term "time machine" to refer to a device which transports someone back and forth through time in the same way that one might drive a car to travel across the countryside, time-machines have wormed their way into the popular consciousness. We've had magical hourglasses, phone booths, sports cars, and even hot tubs - all there to send their occupants whizzing through the years toward some fantastic adventure in the past or future. And it's not hard to see why Tolkien so disliked the use of time machines, because these miraculous devices are just that: devices. Of course, I mean devices in the literary sense: they are present in the story for one reason only, and that is to facilitate the translocation of the characters from the familiar present to the setting in which the real story takes place. And in order for these machines to exist in the story, a collaborative effort must take place: we the readers must suspend the exercise of our reason and agree to take the existence of such technology at face value. How precisely does the TARDIS work? What are its rules? The stories in Doctor Who rely on us not asking those questions. We have to smile and nod and play along like the audience of a Noh theater, agreeing not to notice the black-clad stagehands running around the stage. So it's hardly a surprise that Tolkien complains about time machines; they are no different from the cheap fantasy he decried (and which we spent much of the second lecture differentiating from Tolkien's exercises in reason and consistency). And in fact, they are no different than rocket ships for traveling through space, or simply waving one's hands and saying "a wizard did it" (a cardinal narrative sin equal in magnitude to declaring "and it was all a dream" at the end of a compelling tale - but more on that later).
This is, essentially, the argument laid out in the Notion Club Papers: that, as Guilford claims in reference to the iconic novella by Wells, "the machine was a blemish; and I'm quite unconvinced that it was a necessary one." Its presence serves as a literary device to facilitate the story, but it is not a proper part of the tale itself - it jars the reader from their immersion with its impossibility. Nor is further justification the solution to Guildford (and through him Tolkien); he believes "you cannot make a piece of mechanism even sufficiently credible in a tale, if it seems outrageously incredible as a machine to your contemporaries." No amount of justification can make the implausible plausible for readers. We can build, via logic and science and reason, explanations for these machines; we can reduce them down to the slightest assumptions at their core (cough cough Heisenberg Compensator), but we're still making these hand-wavy magical assumptions which Tolkien holds no truck with. And the devices are still fundamentally implausible - "they are infinitely less probable... than the wilder things in fairy stories; but they pretend to be probable on a more material mechanical level" - and all the worse for being discarded the moment they have served their purpose.
So, when challenged to write a time travel story, Tolkien turned to dreams as his mechanism. Alboin's dream forms the mechanism for his "time-travel", but it requires no suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader to imagine a man sitting down in a comfortable chair and dozing off to dream of the past. Hardly a contrivance akin to a rocket ship or a time machine.
Dreams, then, are an acceptable mechanism for Tolkien - but in what sense is Alboin's dream a trip through time? After all, the second chapter ends with Alboin asleep in his chair, his son walking out the door - and the third begins with Elendil and his son in Numenor. Are we to assume (as the plot suggests to us) that this is Alboin's dream? And if so, in what sense has Alboin traveled back to the time of Numenor (setting aside, for the moment, the question of whether we treat Tolkien's stories as a "real" history of England)? Is he remembering events long past through the eyes of Elendil? Or his his consciousness been cast back in time to join Elendil's? Is this a dream at all, or has the narrator simply decided to switch settings and follow Elendil himself?
The answer to these questions lies in something that's been bothering me for the last few classes worth of lectures and readings. There's a common thread that seems to run through many of the comments made in class: the question of whether or not a story is "real". "Is it real time-travel?" "Is Alboin really there?" "Is this set in the real world?" Tolkien's critics seemed fixated on this as well: many of their objections to fantasy were based on a distinction between the world of fairy stories and the "real" world, that stories with artistic merit could actually occur in our world, and that the lowbrow fiction Tolkien wrote was impossible or unrealistic. I couldn't say for certain, but my suspicion is that our collective fixation on whether or not something is real is inherited from Plato and his concept of ideal forms. That is, we have a cultural notion that there's an underlying reality to things, and hence we evaluate stories based on how close we believe they are to this absolute truth. That in itself is a whole philosophical barrel of monkeys, but the important thing here is that I don't believe Tolkien subscribes to this paradigm.
What is Tolkien's paradigm then? As I see it, Tolkien takes a very scientific approach to things. Not in the sense that he uses the scholarly tools of linguistics to reconstruct his stories, but in the sense that his treatment of reality is akin to the concept of a scientific theory. When you strip away the trappings of experimental rigor, accuracy and precision, tools and processes and peer review, science is a process of fitting theories to observations. A scientific theory is an explanation or model that best explains all of the available observations. While it is often claimed in defense of the theory of evolution that theories and facts are the same in science, this is not really accurate. Even a well accepted theory like gravity is only valid so long as we don't have any observations that contradict it; in the end, to quote Monty Python, "it's only a model". Tolkien's narratives are much the same: he has access to fragments of stories, poems, words, and languages, and his stories are attempts to connect the dots - to construct a narrative that explains these fragments. Tolkien's stories are not fiction, they are theories. Why prefer dreams to time machines? The importance Tolkien places on the internal consistency of a narrative - which is just the familiar principle of Occam's Razor.
So, is Alboin's dream a "real" trip to the past? Does he "really" go back to Numenor and experience Elendil's life? Does he "become" Elendil in some sense? Or is it all "just a dream", just some ancestral memory? My answer (and what I believe Tolkien's answer would be) is that these questions don't make sense because there is no "real". Our experience of reality is just a set of narratives we construct to make sense of our observations, and each of these particular narratives fit just as well as the next. Or, as Dumbledore so elegantly put it: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"