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?