Friday, April 11, 2014

Spaceships: On Travel Between Primary and Secondary Realities

Part One of “The Notion Club Papers” opens with a discussion of science fiction.  As someone who has very strong feelings about science fiction, both as a reader and a writer, I was immediately intrigued and incredibly excited.  The discussion itself is largely about spaceships, or rather, how feasible a spaceship to Mars actually is, and the responsibility of science fiction to uphold scientific probability, particularly in its use of machines.  However, I quickly realized that the discussion is less about science fiction specifically and more about storytelling in general.  The “spaceship” argument that Guildford makes can be extrapolated into a more general literary device.  This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the comparison works surprisingly well, for it becomes evident that the ideas that Tolkien addresses in the c. 1945 “Notion Club Papers” are in many ways some of the same ones that he addressed in the 1939 essay “On Fairy Stories.”
As described in “The Notion Club Papers,” a spaceship must obey, to return to the language of “On Fairy Stories,” an “inner consistency of reality” in both the primary reality and the secondary reality.   Because their existence requires no suspension of disbelief in either reality, they are, as a literary device, able to facilitate “travel” between the two.  The problem that Tolkien iterates through Guildford, is that literal spaceships actually fail to perform this function.  If they perform the function required by the plot of the story, they cease to be consistent with the primary reality.  If they remain true to it, they therefore can no longer travel to Mars.  Thus, both approaches lack the ability to carry the reader into the story. 
This inner consistency is incredibly important to Tolkien.  And this is what, for Tolkien (through Guildford), sets science fiction apart from fantasy.  In science fiction, the secondary reality is still the primary reality, and if science fiction is to be an exploration of the primary reality, the literary devices it employs must be themselves grounded in the primary reality.  Thus, the amount by which an author of science fiction can ask his readers to suspend their disbelief is incredibly limited.  Space, no matter how fantastical its possibilities, is not Faërie; it is the same space that we see when we look up at the sky at night, and as such obeys the same rules.
So, if “there is no need to travel by rocket to find Faërie,” what kind of spaceship does Tolkien use?  Tolkien employs several.  The most obvious (since it performs the function quite literally in “The Notion Club Papers”) is dreams.  Elf-friends, too, are an obvious answer, providing a link across generations from the primary reality to the secondary.  The recurring “Elf-friend” and “Bliss-friend” in “The Lost Road” are a very literal interpretation of this, but the conceit of The Lord of the Rings as “translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien,” and thus transmitted from one Elf-friend to another, is an example as well. We have already discussed how both dreams and Elf-friends bridge the gap between the primary and secondary reality, so I will not go into great detail here. However, these are not Tolkien’s only spaceships.  Language is a spaceship too.
“’An author’s way of getting to Mars…it’s part of the picture, even if it’s only in a marginal position; and it may seriously affect all that’s inside,’” says Guildford (Sauron Defeated 163).  Tolkien’s personal spaceship to Mars (or, rather, Middle-earth) is clearly language.  Tolkien’s own commentary on his creative process aside, we can see evidence of it in the character of Alboin, who shares certain biographical details with his creator.  Although he receives it in the form of dreams, Alboin the philologist’s primary means of interaction with Númenor is through language.  This is in marked contrast to his son, Audoin the artist, who receives only pictures.  Even more telling is the conceit of The Lord of the Rings as a translation of The Red Book of Westmarch by Tolkien.  Here, the emphasis is not on Tolkien and the hobbits as Elf-friends, but on Tolkien as a translator and the hobbits as transcribers.  Language, both oral and written, is the primary means of transmission of the stories of Middle-earth.  This use of language as a bridge between the primary and the secondary reality is a large part of what makes Tolkien’s creation so special.  It is clear that Guildford (and by proxy, Tolkien) consider the quality of a story to be significantly impacted by the quality of its spaceship, and Tolkien’s spaceship is impeccably constructed.
Language has the ability to make or break the inner consistency of a secondary reality.  We have seen that Tolkien views language as being intricately tied to geography, culture, and ancestry.  A lack of credibility in one of these elements would cause the other three to come crumbling down.  “’I don’t ask for any greater degree of probability from my author: just a possibility not wholly at variance with what we know,’” says Guildford, and Tolkien certainly delivers (SD 167).  Although Tolkien’s languages are invented, they draw upon familiar elements of existing languages and possess their own inner consistency.  The languages, and the mythologies that support them, are drawn from a broad variety of existing fragments of the primary reality.  Thus they have an internal consistency not only within the secondary reality, but within the primary one.  Tolkien views language as something innately physical; making languages a perfect vehicle for transportation between realities.  They lend a certain physicality to the story which transcends the spatial and temporal gap between Middle-earth and the present day.  We are no longer confronted with the choice between an impossible spaceship to Mars or a realistic one which can’t reach the story.  Tolkien's languages are perfectly capable of ferrying the reader to Middle-earth and back again.

Estelle O.


  1. I like this notion of language as a path between different realities that you've highlighted here. I wonder if we can see it in effect elsewhere within Tolkien's works, perhaps on an even smaller level. Much as Sauron is Melkor on a lesser level, and [arguably] Saruman is second- rate Sauron, can we see smaller instances of language bridging two realities in the movements of our heroes throuh LotR. I would not be surprised.

  2. Your idea that language serves as a vehicle to connect us with the mythology of the LOTR intrigues me, but I feel the subject is quite complex. One interesting idea we have covered is that Tolkien believed that language required mythology or else it was dead. In a way, mythology is a vehicle for language to be kept alive. Or perhaps language is an excuse to bring fantasy out. In an essay called “Do-It-Yourself Cosmology” that I read for my final paper, Ursula K. Le Guin says that “Fantasy is so introverted by nature that often some objective ‘hook’ is necessary to bring it out into the open an turn it into literature... Nowadays it is science that often give fantasy a hand up from the interior depths, and we have science fiction, a modern, intellectualized, extraverted form of fantasy” (Le Guin 124). This quote agrees with your idea that space ships are used as a vehicle to connect the primary and secondary world as a way to “give fantasy a hand up from the interior depths”. In the Lost Road we actually see Tolkien, as Alboin, find this connection to fantasy first through words that keep coming to him. In LOTR, Tolkien brings to fruition the mythology these words brought to him.

    -Emily Berez

    Citation: K., Le Guin Ursula. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1979. Print.