Friday, April 11, 2014

Paths to a Tangible Legend

We have already discussed in previous classes and posts that Tolkien desired to do more than simply write a story when he set about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the numerous other works in the "Tolkien-verse" as we often call it.  He filled his world with languages, races, and histories which drew on counterparts from our world in an effort to create a new mythology for England.  This was an ambitious and highly unusual undertaking in and of itself since the creation of mythologies associated with lands or nations is not common in this day and age, nor even during Tolkien's heyday (as opposed to ones associated with religions or peoples, which persist to this day). 
                But how was Tolkien to go about creating this mythology?  We already discussed some of his sources in a previous class, but this Wednesday we focused on the aforementioned languages and also the more nebulous but no less important concept of dreams as a route to historical understanding and experience.  First, the languages.  Tolkien created at least parts of over a dozen languages and dialects, with particular attention to the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin, which are extremely well realized.  These languages owe their construction in large part to human languages which Tolkien was fond of, such as Finnish. 
                For Tolkien, language was more than merely communicating thoughts, but more so about becoming a tangible item of communication.  In the mythos, the Ainur could communicate amongst themselves through thought alone, but they chose to develop a language and speak it, even though spoken language is a filter of sorts on pure expression of an idea.  Language is a tangible thing though.  Whether sonic (hearing and speaking) or visual (reading and writing) it is perceived through human senses directly and therefore gives the impression of something real.  Or, more accurately, language represents a combination of that which we can experience with our senses and that which our minds can interact with as an idea.  As it is noted in The Notion Club Papers on page 202, language can be thought of as "token (perceived by sense) plus significance (for the mind)". 
                The aim to make the mythos more tangible is also the rationale behind Tolkien's frequent use of and reference to dreams in his works.  From this class's readings, the obvious example is that of Alboin from The Lost Road.  There are first some ties back to Tolkien's roots in language to consider.  Alboin, like Tolkien, possessed an affinity for and love language, and as he delves further into the Numenorian memories and learns more of the associated languages, it helps to bring him closer to that history.  Tolkien himself had a great love for old languages, and had even written poetry in long dead languages during his life time.  Such things are described in Flieger's Question of Time.  But in the case of the Numenorian dreams, Tolkien's picture of the mythos is made up of far more than just language.  Language is a part of the experience, but Alboin also gains the knowledge of those long dead men by vicariously living fragments of their lives. 
                The Lost Road was originally conceived as a time travel story by Tolkien in a pairing effort with C.S. Lewis.  Yet dreaming the memories of events long since past does not strictly speaking fit what we might define as time travel.  Alboin himself does not enter the times he is able to experience, not with his own body.  And he cannot change or affect anything that occurs in the dreams, only experience the events which occurred for the Numenorian characters.  But this is still a tangible and tactile sensation for Alboin.  It is something between living one's own life and learning of historical events second hand as through reading of them.  The experience is static, like any already occurring piece of history, but still tangible.  This is not an alien concept in fantasy work; similar methods are employed, for example, in more contemporary fantasy works (apologies for stepping outside the Tolkien-verse for a moment) like The Wheel of Time, during which the protagonist at one point experiences the collective history of a people through a series of dreams wherein he relives the memories of various members of that people and gains a knowledge of their history thought long lost.
                This is in keeping with how Tolkien thought of his own creation process for the universe of The Lord of the Rings  and his associated work.  He viewed the work as less literally a thing of his own creation as opposed to a world he discovered through his own mind.  He cites the example of the Ents specifically in his letter to Auden, noting that it and other elements of the story had been "going on in the 'unconscious' for some time..."  This seems to be a fairly close parallel to what Tolkien writes about in his story of Alboin and his dreams.  While Tolkien may not have literally gone to sleep and experienced the tangible memories of Ents in Middle Earth (there is indeed some speculation that the Ents might have been born out of a subconscious reference to the ending of Shakespeare's Macbeth) they nevertheless came from his own mind without him actively crafting them.
                Finally, bringing the topic back around to language, Tolkien creates a sort of link to the past through his works.  His purpose in writing The Lost Road was ostensibly to solidify this link from his mythology to the world of the present day.  His main conceit was that languages provided the link, which he spells out in the chain of names for characters which he traces back to the days of Numenor.  As Shippey notes in The Road to Middle Earth, the plot of The Lost Road was less important than Tolkien's theory of linguistic comprehension of history.  In that manner, the nature of much of Tolkien's work can be seen in this light.  Not creating just a story per se, but creating the sensation of realness in his worlds, a thing that could conceivably be real to the reader


J. M.

1 comment:

  1. I think your argument for the sensory Secondary Reality is compelling, especially when considering Tolkien’s habit of describing languages or histories as having a certain “flavor.” For reasons unknown to me, Tolkien favors taste as the sense of choice when describing a character’s preference such as in The Lost Road with Alboin. As you say the flavor of tangible, thus giving the impression of a consistent Secondary Reality, and therefore “realness.” And what is more, this aesthetic taste is an inheritable trait, a heightened sense passed among subsequent generations. Tolkien, as we discussed in class on Wednesday, is claiming that language carries with it aspects of the physical, i.e. the tangible reality.

    What remains, I believe, is the opportunity to push the sensory experience of Tolkien’s legendarium further, for he himself has described the works as having an atmosphere, a feeling of surrounding, a taste of a certain natural setting. These physicality’s allow the reader to experience the Secondary Reality through imagined sensory perception, and this, I believe, is one of the ways to insulate the internally consistent sub-creation. Words and language can only perceive so much until they inspire feeling, sight, taste, hearing, or touch. Yes, these things are all imagined, but sensory imaginations are, as you say, more tangible than simple images. Tolkien did not just use language as the backbone to a narrative, he created its physical, sensual form to fully convey the Secondary Reality.

    - Katie B.

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