Friday, April 11, 2014

Reincarnation in Tolkien

“Reincarnation (n.): 1829, ‘fact of repeated incarnation,’ from re- ‘back, again’ + incarnation, Meaning ‘a new embodiment’ is from 1854.”

“Incarnation (n.): c.1300, ‘embodiment of God in the person of Christ,’ from Old French incarnacion (12c.), from Late Latin incarnationem (nominative incarnatio), ‘act of being made flesh’ (used by Church writers especially of God in Christ), noun of action from past participle stem of Latin incarnare ‘to make flesh,’ from in- ‘in’ + caro (genitive carnis) ‘flesh’ (see carnage).” 

--from the Online Etymological Dictionary

I left the classroom on Wednesday musing on immortality.  I couldn’t wrap my head around Professor Fulton’s remark that Tolkien kept immortality exclusively for the elves. In “The Lost Road,” I saw Oswin Errol living forever through his son and grandson, even though his physical body dies at the end of the first chapter. I saw Elendil living on through Alboin and his dreams. At first, it seemed like immortality was a motif closely linked to Tolkien’s notion of time travel.

 Eventually, I realized that immortality was not the most fitting term for what I was seeing, but rather perhaps reincarnation. By using reincarnation, I do not mean to invoke a religious concept of the rebirth of a soul into a new body after death. Instead, taking into consideration my above-noted etymological investigation, I take reincarnation to mean simply, “another instance of embodiment/to be embodied again.” In Tolkien’s work, it seems that reincarnation is, in some cases, the seemingly actual re-embodiment of people, as how Alboin and Audoin appear to travel back in time to Númenor and, while there, are Elendil and Herendil. In other cases, it is less literal. In all cases, it appears that reincarnation involves repeated cycles of people, themes, and events, closely linked with time and dreams.  

One of the first examples of reincarnation that struck me comes from the two distinctly parallel father-son relationships we see in “The Lost Road.” The first and third chapters of the story begin eerily similarly. At the start of the first chapter, Oswin calls for Alboin and finds him lying on a wall on a cliff overlooking the sea (HME 5, 39). Likewise, at the start of the third chapter, Elendil (Alboin) finds Herendil (Audoin) lying on a stone on a cliff overlooking the sea (HME 5, 65). Here, it appears as if the now adult Alboin has assumed the father role in his own father’s stead. Moreover, the striking similarity between the two scenes and the following conversations highlights that vestiges of Oswin have lived on in Alboin. Oswin actually mentions in the second chapter, when Alboin translates an Anglo Saxon poem that ends, “…whom old age cutteth off from return” (HME 5, 48). Oswin explains that “…age does not cut us off from going away, from—from forthsith. There is no eftsith: we can’t go back” (HME 5, 48).  Although it isn’t noted what “forthsith” means, I infer from the text that it means moving forward. Thus, Oswin seems to think it is possible to “move forward” in life after death, but not to travel backwards. Perhaps Oswin means he expects his memory and legacy to live on in his son.

Flieger also addresses this same father-son example in her chapter, “Strange Powers of the Mind,” and highlights that in both instances, the father (Oswin or Elendil) asks their son (Alboin or Herendil) whether they are dreaming (Flieger, p.81). She sees this as an example of how dreams become a narrative technique that connects these two events, for “…the echoes of dialogue between the two convey the impression of parallel or overlapping time, of two events occurring simultaneously in two apparently separate worlds” (Flieger, p.81). Furthermore, she considers that, “Each boy [Alboin/Herendil] may be dreaming the other.”

I see Flieger’s interpretation, that these two related scenes with Oswin and Alboin, and Erendil and Herendil may be overlapping in time and conveyed across separate worlds through dreams, as related to the reincarnation “cycles” motif I’m highlighting. First, it introduces another possible example of reincarnation within the text—the parallel relationships of Alboin and his son Audoin (or perhaps Oswin and his son Alboin) and Elendil and his son Herendil. It is through Alboin’s dream that it appears Alboin and Audoin “travel back” and become Erendil and Herendil in Númenor. “Travel back” could mean simply travel back in time, as we have been discussing it, or it could even mean to “travel back” to a past life (or, as Flieger may claim, a life that’s happening simultaneously in another instance of time). Further, as Flieger emphasizes, the mode of transport “back” in time is dreams.

Additionally, in her chapter, “Where the Dream-fish go,” Flieger talks specifically about Tolkien’s discussions of reincarnation and incarnation, particularly in “The Notion Club Papers” (Flieger, p.133). She focuses on a section of “The Notion Club Papers” where the members of the club are describing methods of time travel. The following dialogue occurs, beginning with the character Guilford:

“Guilford: ‘…if Frankley wants fairy-tales with mechanized dragons, and quack formulas for producing power-swords, or anti-dragon gas, or scientifictitious explanations of invisibility, well, he can have 'em and keep 'em. No! For landing on a new planet, you've got your choice: miracle; magic; or sticking to normal probability, the only known or likely way in which any one has ever landed on a world.'
'Oh! So you've got a private recipe all the time, have you?' said Ramer sharply.
'No, it's not private, though I've used it once.'
'Well? Come on! What is it?'
 'Incarnation. By being born,’ said Guildford” (HME 9, p.170).

Flieger points out Guildford’s specific use of the word incarnation, and claims that in doing so, Tolkien is invoking the “mystical, mythical, psychological” in order to establish credibility for his time-travel narrative. Moreover, Flieger claims, “It becomes clearer as The Notion Club Papers progresses that for Tolkien—at least in terms of his story—incarnation/reincarnation is dream. As in The Lost Road, the incarnated mind dreams itself and its reality” (Flieger, p. 134). Here, Flieger posits that a person is reincarnated in their dreams, or perhaps able to visit past incarnations of oneself through their dreams. To further emphasize her point, Flieger claims, “Whether he [Tolkien] acknowledged the possibility theologically or simply chose to accept it imaginitively, nevertheless, in the limited freedom that comes with being an imaginative world-maker, reincarnation offered him a viable means of entry into his ‘Mars’” (Flieger, 135).

Reincarnation, linked with dreams, clearly features as a central component of Tolkien’s time travel narratives. Indeed, as if to hit the reader over the head with the idea of reincarnation/incarnation being linked with dreams, the character Dolbear in “The Notion Club Papers”s wakes up from a nap immediately after Guilford utters, “By being born” (HME 9, p.170). However, I would like to slightly modify Flieger’s analysis and claim that perhaps incarnation/reincarnation doesn’t equal dreams to Tolkien exactly, but rather dreams are the mode of transportation across time (the “machine” or “viable means of entry into ‘Mars’), and man is able to employ dreams to travel through time (or through past memories) because of reincarnation. Furthermore, reincarnation can mean both literally being re-embodied from life to life, as seems to be the case with Elendil/Herendil and Alboin/Audoin, or reincarnation can mean something less literal, such as living on through ones offspring as Oswin does.

Thus, it appears that while only elves are immortal, man may be reincarnated. I’m excited to continue looking for cycles of reincarnation in the texts we read.



“Reincarnation (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2001. Web. 10
            April 2014.
“Incarnation (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2001. Web. 10 April


1 comment:

  1. Dear ERGG

    I congratulate you for taking on a difficult theme and courageously rising to defend a reading that you seem to anticipate will receive stiff resistance. (Or maybe others agree?)

    Now on reincarnation, you make several very (subtle) distinctions, but it seems you see:
    A) Strong Reincarnation: actual re-embodiment of people.
    B) Weak Reincarnation: “less literal” re-embodiment involved in ‘repeated cycles of people, themes, and events, closely linked.’

    As for B) Weak Reinc, I think this is a useful way of reading. I appreciate some of the parallels in the narratives of Oswin-Alboin & Erendil-Herendil. In this, you see that “Oswin means he expects his memory and legacy to live on in his son.”

    But for A) actual re-embodiment of people, some problems arise and I would be curious how you would deal with them.

    Building off Flieger, you offer an explanation for the time-travel mechanism:
    “I would like to slightly modify Flieger’s analysis and claim that perhaps incarnation/reincarnation doesn’t equal dreams to Tolkien exactly, but rather dreams are the mode of transportation across time (the “machine” or “viable means of entry into ‘Mars’), and man is able to employ dreams to travel through time (or through past memories) because of reincarnation.” Here then, the mechanism of travel is not so much the embodiment, but persistence of a spirit or mind that remains in touch with its past embodiment. (A better word may be ‘metempsychosis.’)

    You are not the only one to read Tolkien this way. But as I see it, a couple objections could be raised.

    1) If Alboin is just remembering past lives, does travel properly speaking really happen? Is it not more like extended memory (tapping into lost memories), rather than travel to places never before visited?

    2) If past lives are being remembered in dreams, as above, then no actual travel happens. But Ramer seems to see it differently: Dolbear unmasks him saying:
    “'Come!' he said. 'Come clean! Where's this place? And how did you get there?'
    'I don't know where it is,' said Ramer quietly, still staring at the fire. 'But you're quite right. I went there. At least... well, I don't think our language fits the case. But there is such a world, and I saw it - once.' He sighed.” Ramer is not sure how to phrase it but he “went there” and saw it “once.” (Not twice, as in recovered memories.)

    3) Tolkien’s comments seem to raise problems for this reading. Regarding the father-son re-occurances, he wrote:

    “The thread was to be the occurrence time and again in human families (like Durin among the Dwarves) of a father and son called by names that could be interpreted as Bliss-friend and Elf-friend,…” (Letter 257)

    Note, he speaks of repeated ‘occurance.’ Elsewhere he specifically denied the possibility of reincarnation to humans (though not elves, &c):

    “'Reincarnation' may be bad theology (that surely, rather than metaphysics) as applied to Humanity; and my legendarium, especially the 'Downfall of Númenor' which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, is based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become 'immortal' in the flesh. (Ep 153)”

    Here the whole Numenore narrative is based on inescapable human mortality (death and then unknown).

    Can we hold onto the reincarnation theme despite these obstacles? Or can someone dissolve these apparent problems for me?
    Regardless, thanks, ERGG, for taking on and defending an alternate reading!

    ~R the Green