Friday, April 11, 2014

On Devices, Dreams, and Dumbledore, or, "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry!"

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?"

-Daniel Kassler


  1. In reading the portion of this post concerning time machines I began to wonder whether the problem, as stated by Guilford, lies more in the use of these machines as a literary device rather than their existence. What would Tolkien say, then concerning machines of this sort that have a role in the plot, whose functions or existence are of central importance and not simply a means of moving the story along? Were the inner workings of time travel and the natural (as opposed to human or invented) laws that govern its use considered or investigated in the course of the story, would that rectify the problem?

    Another thing that has bothered me throughout the discussion of machines is the inclusion of spaceships with time machines in the realm of impossibility. It is true that the majority of the contraptions in science fiction are predicated on certain minor assumptions or unexplained "advanced technology" and are considered "impossible" for one reason or another. Yet there are many other machines that do not break with the 'laws' of our primary reality, and I would consider spaceships to be one of them. Will they be able to travel at ridiculous speeds approaching or exceeding that of light or through other dimensions? Most likely not, but a spaceship is not beyond the realm of plausible thought. For this reason, I fail to understand why it is lumped together with something like the time machine, which has very little, if any, basis in the 'fact' of our primary reality.

    Lastly, I am interested to know what Tolkien may have thought concerning travel into the future through dream or machine, concerns on its plausibility aside. While it is, as you say, not difficult to imagine a dream about the distant past, that is not true for the future. Knowledge of the past may not be consciously remembered and it is, therefore, possible for it to come to the surface in dreams, but the future is unknowable to the present. Would Tolkien disregard such time travel in much the same way as he has the time machine or does the mode of travel matter in this case as well? There is an element of time travel in the Mirror of Galadriel, but will only show "things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be". Thus, a sense of uncertainty is thrown into the sight of the future that is not for the past or present. Is, then, prediction like that of Galadriel's Mirror, Asimov's psychohistory, or Paul Atriedies' dreams in Dune somehow different from time travel?

  2. "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."

    I'm not sure that I totally agree. For one, that strikes me as inconsistent with my understanding of Tolkien's regard for the "inner consistency of reality" - of valuing belief over the suspension of disbelief, if you will. Even if I grant that my experience of reality is just a set of narratives I've constructed, it is real to me. That is to say, until I engage in some good old intellectual ponderings on what is or is not 'real,' I am not going to wonder about the qualities of the threads of my reality. (I am not a natural-born philosopher.) Putting aside for the moment any discussion of things like dissociative experiences (not to diminish them - just in the interest of keeping on track), I'll just say that there is a 'real,' which informs my reception of things that are 'not real,' or at least of things that I have not myself experienced or known anyone to experience.

    So, dreams as time travel may or may not be actually real. But as hashed out by Tolkien, I believe it in the moment. I believe that dreams might be so used. But apart from and outside of actually reading the story--say, while thinking too hard about the mechanics of such time travel while perusing my fridge for dinner ingredients after completing the reading--it may be thrown suddenly back into doubt. "I've never done this. No one I know has done this. This is not 'real.'" But again, when I was reading, it was real. Within the story and its moment, it is real. That secondary reality is, at least temporarily, made consistent with my own primary reality, to use Tolkien's vocab. At the fridge, I am failing to suspend my disbelief, but when I'm reading the story, I just believe.

    While I have your attention, though, I'd like to go back to the fridge for just a moment. Just to digress at little. For it is at the fridge that I remembered the "interesting note" of Tolkien's, mentioned on p. 63 of The Lost Road, that "when the first 'adventure' (i.e. Numenor) is over 'Alboin is still precisely in his chair and Audoin just shutting the door.'" Now, hang on a minute. Because Alboin had been told that, "if [he] choose to go back, take with [him] Herendil, that is in other tongue Audoin, [his] son," and so I had presumed that both were to be dreaming, in order to both go together. But while I can get behind (i.e. believe in) the time travel dream that takes only an instant--that is, returns the dreamer/traveler to the very same moment-in-time of departure--what about Audoin, not asleep, and still stepping over the threshold of the door? What was the mechanics of his travel? Did he dream, though not asleep, because his father dreamed? Very confused. Now that I've gone to the fridge and had a think, I'm not sure I can go back to the story and believe entirely again. It may be the answer is, as someone I think said in the class, that Tolkien just 'hadn't quite worked out all the mechanics yet." But, well, it's the mechanics that make it real.

  3. With any work of fiction, particularly a work that is classed as fantasy, the question of reality always features heavily in the reader’s analysis. Works by Tolkien are especially problematic because he commented on reality explicitly. I think a lot of the confusion over what he meant by reality, why dream time travel but not time machines are “real”, can be cleared up by separating the two usages of the word real in “On Fairy Stories”, he mentions children asking “Is it real?” in response to stories. Here he uses real in the typical way, to refer to the tangible world around them, children ask because they are gathering information about this world and do not know how to classify the new events or creatures from the story. In his terminology this form of real refers to the “primary reality”. In the notion club papers however he has the characters believe that one part of the time travel story is “not real “ while the other is. I do not think that by this Tolkien was implying that people could travel through time in the “primary reality”. He is here using real in relation to a “secondary reality”, a separate but related usage. When using real in terms of this secondary reality, I believe he means true, or authentic, not tangible. The stories occurring through time travel can be “real”, meaning authentic, but time machines cannot, because there are no plot devices in tangible life for them to be authentic to.

  4. Daniel, thanks for your post!
    I was initially skeptical that anyone could cover all the topics from your initial title ('Tolkien and the Narrative Paradigm: Subjective Reality, the Nature of Identity, and the Rejection of Platonic Forms') but I was surprised to see you do just that and I enjoyed your analytical doubling-back to ask how the question 'what is real?' might mean for Tolkien.
    My initial question was similar to Mackenzie's: What is the relation between 'Reality' and 'Truth' for Tolkien? In the last stanza of 'Mythopoiea' Tolkien seems very interested in the reflected beams of Truth itself. Or is that a different matter than Reality?
    Secondly, do you think there is a genre distinction to be made? Is it possible that Tolkien wants realistic machines (unlike in Lewis' novels) for 'scientifiction' (horrible word) or science fiction, because they essentially take place within or are rooted in the primary world? Or could one get to the lost road to Elessea with a Saturn 5 rocket?

    1. Also, sorry for the late comment. We're didn't know who posted this for a bit.

  5. I think that the answer to the first question in the April 19 comment's first question is hinted at very strongly in the last Dumbledore quote; AND, I think this answer is absolutely applicable to Tolkien. We get from Dumbledore that something happening in Harry's head can be "real," even though as a thing inside his head it is obviously not physically happening. We get from the context--everything spoken in Harry's head makes sense in the context of the story, even though he really doesn't have all the information needed to construct the conversation on his own normally--that it contains truth. Yet, that truth doesn't mean that Harry, or Dumbledore, really knows everything that's going on. It's more a general sense that they've got it figured out, rather than knowing they've nailed down every detail. So, to get back to Tolkien, I think that that which is “real” and that which is “true” in the Tolkien sense, is independent of what is objectively true or real. This is because often the facts don’t matter. It’s the general essence that does—beliefs, perceptions, and imaginations form up that much more important subjective reality.

    -H. A. K. Stone