Friday, April 11, 2014

The Importance of Machine

            After our discussion last class on language and dreams, I came away very confused about Tolkien’s method. We talked much about how Tolkien pieced together a history in both The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers by expanding upon and drawing a lineage from fragments such as the sentence ‘eald enta geweorc’ that informed the ents from letter 163, words that occurred to him from distant, shrouded languages, or common mythological Truths (such as the fall, of which he claims all stories include traces). This method for world-weaving didn’t in itself confuse me. In fact, this seems quite compelling. What really baffled me was the claim to history that we seemed to prescribe Tolkien during our discussion of The Notion Club Papers. Did Tolkien truly believe he caught glimpses of the past in dreams of Middle Earth? Not only did this seem unreasonable to me, but also incongruous with the body of Tolkien’s theoretical work that we read.
            Upon reviewing my notes for this reading in preparation for writing this blog post, however, I came across a section I had underlined in letter 24 that gave me new insight on the matter. “We originally meant to write an excursionary ‘Thriller’: a Space-journey and a Time-journey (mine) each discovering Myth,” Tolkien wrote to Stanley Uwin. The significance I extracted from this phrase was that Tolkien described The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers (both of which seem to be endeavors at creating the Time-journey) not as searching for History, but for Myth. This seems to make sense with Tolkien’s earlier declaration of his intentions in creating Middle-Earth. In letter 180 he explains, ”Having set myself a task…to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own.” While this seems like an elegant solution, it is not so simple. Through Tolkien’s work, it is very clear that history, language, culture, and myth are all very muddled, closely intertwined to the point of almost being indistinguishable. In letter 131, he goes on to explain how The Hobbit, “proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to Earth, and its merging into ‘history’.” He clearly traces the threads of Myth and History to be convergent at this point. Somehow the Hobbit has materialized Myth and assimilated it into the natural, incarnate lineage of the world.
            To make sense of this, I turned to Chapter I of The Lost Road, which appears to have something to contribute to this point. On page 43, Oswin pronounces to Alboin that “races, and cultures, are different from languages.” Alboin, who appears astoundingly precocious in this passage, responds with, “but very mixed up, all three together. And after all, language goes back by a continuous tradition into the past, Just as much as the other two.” While this passage does not clearly address myth, I don’t think it is an insurmountable leap to extrapolate it for such application. After all, as Alboin points out, languages have a history, as do cultures, and they carry these histories with them along with their myths and atmosphere (page 43). So how inseparable is Myth from History? Are they truly bound up together? What is the place of fiction in our conception of the account of the past? I still have many questions about this idea, but for now, at least, I understand Tolkien’s method a little better.
            To move away from the idea of method, there is a section in The Notion Club Papers that we only touched upon that I think deserves more attention. That is the initial discussion of the Machine. In critiquing Ramer’s story, Guildford slams the author’s mechanism that was constructed for traversing space. On page 163, Guilford says, “I’m talking about credibility. I don’t like heroic warriors, but I can bear stories about them. I believe they exist, or could. I don’t think space-ships do, or could.” Later he says, “what I really object to, in any such tale, however tinged, is the pretence that these contraptions could exist or function at all.” Guildford clearly takes issue with the inner-logic of the story. Even though the space-travel only occurs in two chapters of Ramer’s book and almost exclusively as a narrative device, Guildford still takes offence. While Guildford might have a point here, it is important to think of Tolkien’s intention with this character. Some characters can be guessed as mouthpieces for their authors (as I believe Alboin is in The Lost Road), others can provide these mouthpieces with contrast (a sort of ideological foil). But which category does Guildford fall into? There are clues to this. First of all, in the descriptions of the club’s members, Guilford is given as an archaeologist, while Ramer is a Philologist. This is soft evidence that Ramer’s thinking might be more in line with Tolkien’s. On page 165 of Sauron Defeated, Guildford says of space ships, “I have never met one of these vehicles yet that suspended my disbelief an inch off the floor.” From reading On Fairy Stories, we know that Tolkien is not fond of suspension of disbelief, but rather enchantment, in which both reader and author agree to inhabit and believe in a world for their mutual benefits. So what do we make of this? In class discussion we seemed to bundle Guildford’s ideas about Machine up with Tolkien’s, but I think that is unfair. Guildford seems much more like a contrast to Tolkien than anything else. So what is the place of Guildford’s idea of Machine in Tolkien’s conception of story and myth? Does Guildford highlight a weakness in Tolkien’s thinking that Tolkien himself has recognized?

Furthermore, another thing I found very interesting regarding Guildford’s character is his word choice. On page 166 Guildford refers to the garbled guise of science used as a narrative device as “abracadabra.”  On page 167 he reiterates the importance he places on the “machine” of the story. These two terms appear roughly similar. They are at once very precise pieces of vocabulary that Tolkien has set up and also very unclear. This reminded me of Tolkien’s very similar use of “Magic” and “Machine” in letter 131. In the letter, as Tolkien brings up the use of plans or devices to dominate or coerce other wills, he writes, “The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.” Does this invite any application with Guildford’s discussion of the importance of machine? Could it be a coincidence that Tolkien set up these pieces of vocabulary to mean entirely different things in these different pieces?

Steven Vincent


  1. I too was drawn to Tolkien's discussion of machine's as unnecessary frames, specifically his discussion of spaceships in Notion Club. It seems obvious to say that Guildford rejects the unnecessary break from reality that the function of spaceships provide in much of science fiction, but what seemed more curious to me was the question of whether all such machines were by their very nature bad. Notion Club contains for instance a brief reworking of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in which the titular machine is removed for the better. Any familiar with that work will immediately realize that much of the plot would be changed without the reliance on an external machine. The Traveler is in no real danger if the Machine is replaced with the transportation via dreaming that is discussed later in Notion Club. Since his method of transport is internal rather than external it cannot be easily removed without similar handwaving breaks that Tolkien through Guildford is critical of. Certainly this simple replacement of Machines cannot be what Tolkien is pointing to, can it? I purpose instead that Tolkien's distaste for machine's arises from the fact that the machine pretends to be more than magic, when as the quote from Letter 131 above illustrates they are in fact quite closely related. By doing so the machine exposes itself to be undercut with disbelief, one may talk their way out of the enchantment through impossibility. My confusion begins then when i wonder if there is any machine of solid enough construction that it can survive this scrutiny? Is it this mechanism that Tolkien actually dislikes or is it the frame that the mechanism necessitates? I wonder if his hypothetical reworking of the Time Machine would not more closely resemble later soft-scifi influenced far greater by anthropology, like LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. Here the machine is unnecessary, the world presented to you much like Tolkien's own Middle Earth. I realize that I have raised more questions than I have answers but I am unsure at the end of Notion Club Papers whether the point is not simply that the group is wrapped up in the dream-travel in a way they never were with the space-ships of Ramer's work? That the real critique of the machine may not be that it seems so trivial when placed beside this enchanting notion and is quickly forgotten by not only the group but the casual reader.

  2. A fine meditation on History, Myth, language, and the Machine!

    I think you've touched on two very important ideas in Tolkienian thought—“history” (is it myth? Is it language? Is it both? Is one a means to the other?) and the problem of the “machine,” the mechanism for entering into a story. I agree that we cannot perhaps read Guildford as an exact simulacrum of Tolkien—there are two quotes from this passage that I would like to add to yours and see what you think. The first comes as he is thinking about the impossibility of suspension of disbelief as it pertains to space-ships: “I suppose no one has ever solved the difficulty of arriving, of getting to another planet, no more in literature than in life. Because the difficulty is in fact insoluble, I think. The barrier cannot and will not ever be passed in mortal flesh.” Do you think Tolkien would agree that it is utterly impossible to convince a reader that he has passed in the flesh to another world? I'm not sure. I do think, however, that the next quote is a good Tolkienian sentiment: “A picture-frame is not a parallel. An author's way of getting to Mars (say) is part of his story of his Mars; and of his universe, as far as that particular tale' goes.” The framing of the story cannot simply be an awkward, magical, “black box.” The getting there is as important, in any act of creation or exploration, as being there (a sentiment reflected in the need for the final essay along with a final project!).

    I agree that, as you say, for Tolkien “it is very clear that history, language, culture, and myth are all very muddled, closely intertwined to the point of almost being indistinguishable.” I have always wondered how we ought to interpret the phrase “feigned history,” from the preface to LotR (in the section about his preference for “applicability” over “allegory”: “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”) Where in your musings about the relationships between myth, history, and language would you place “feigned history”?