Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Reality of the Imagined

            Not many people are under the impression that Tolkien’s Legendarium is a factual account of the past. On some level, it’s safe to say that some part of Tolkien’s psyche would be at least a little bummed out about this. The preponderance of evidence makes it clear that the sub-creator’s intent was to fashion a world where the line between primary and secondary reality was almost invisible. From the very first page of The Lord of the Rings, with runic inscriptions that read, “The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien,” we see that we are meant to at the very least believe that the following tale is historic in nature. As was discussed previously, Tolkien furthered the historical viability of the Legendarium by inserting so-called “fragments” and “fossils,” snippets of cultural material that exist in the modern world that he then expanded upon so as to establish a historical basis for their existence within his creation. Being a philologist, Tolkien was also obsessed with how he could utilize language to further realize the reality of his sub-creation. In fact, it was the languages he created that gave rise to the world of Middle Earth and its mythology.
            Tolkien once wrote, “I daresay such linguistic tastes are…as good or better a test of ancestry as blood-groups.” Clearly, he believed that languages have a highly historical tint to their nature. Through analysis of words from modern form to their original, Tolkien aimed to determine the historical context of that words initial meaning and usage. Similarly, in The Lost Road, he creates a study of Elf Friend’s through history; all of the main characters in this tale inhabit different moments in history but share a common name (albeit versions of that name modified to be historically appropriate for their time). The linguistic characteristics of the names given to the characters of The Lost Road shows a historical commonality and linkage between the disparate epochs contained within that work. How does this play into the reality of Middle Earth? Beginning in a time contemporary to Tolkien, The Lost Road is in many ways grounded in modern times. However, by ending up in Numenor of old by way of ancient Europe, it must be admitted that Numenor inhabited the same world as our own, making it a piece of historical reality. The Elf Friends of The Lost Road are somehow of a genealogy (linked overtly through linguistics) that connects the supposedly mythical Numenor to our own primary reality. It seems that this linguistic linkage, while interesting, doesn’t serve a practical purpose beyond showing the history of a common language. In fact, the material connection between the various epochs of The Lost Road is exceedingly immaterial by the very nature that it is the minds of the Elf Friends that links them all.
            Tolkien and his friends had read the work of J.W. Dunne, a thinker who proposed the ability to use ones mind to escape the traditional linear experience of time and enter into a state of conscience in which one could view moments at any moment on the traditional time line (or something like that). Through this mechanic, the Elf Friends of The Lost Road are, in their dreams when their mind is freed, able to experience past times and future times. This “time travel” also appears in The Lord of the Rings in the form of dreams Frodo has. In the house of Tom Bombadil, Frodo dreams of Gandalf’s escape, an example of the time-space travel exhibited in The Lost Road. Perhaps more importantly, around this point in the story Frodo has another dream that almost exactly mirrors the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that he sees as he enters into the West at the end of the trilogy. That Frodo has such a premonition at this point of the story is most notable indeed as on the homeward portion of their journey, right around this geographical location, Frodo says that he “feels more like [he’s] falling asleep again.” This begs the question of the reality of the Shire versus the wider world from Frodo’s perspective. What’s the dream and what’s Frodo’s waking experience? It has been said that Tom Bombadil is in many ways the gate-keeper to Faerie and that upon leaving his house, the Hobbits enter a wider world of enchantment; Frodo’s feeling questions whether this enchanted world is somehow more real than the old world that the hobbits came from. That within Tolkien’s creation there can be questions as to what is real and what is somehow unreal leads to the questioning of whether or not the Legandarium as a whole can truly be considered unreality.
            Accepting the Dunneian position that dreams allow for the mind to experience different times and places, the lines between what is and what is not becomes very hazy. As dreams are essentially the creation of mental images accompanied by emotional responses, imagination of all sorts is in some way a form of time travel within this context. In fact, under the Dunne’s framework, which is to say the one that Tolkien is operating under, imagination is tantamount to time travel itself. Therefore, it can be said that Middle Earth is as real as a dream, which is in itself a manifestation of true reality. By littering this world with fragments of our own times, Tolkien furthers the claim that Middle Earth really once was. Furthermore, the usage of a fully realized linguistic tradition serves not only to flesh out the secondary creation of Middle Earth, it also creates a lineage connecting the supposed mythological past to the present. The culmination of all of this is a sub-creation that is not distinctly separate from our primary reality. In his usage of cultural fragments, linguistic genealogy, and the blurring of the real and the unreal within his stories, Tolkien obscures the line between our reality and the Faerie to the point of near-invisibility. By doing this all in an historical context, Tolkien achieves his goal of creating a uniquely English mythology. And by laying out his tales as part of an ongoing chronology, the reader becomes a part of the created annals. As Sam says, “we’re in the same tale still!” - Brendan McGuire

1 comment:

  1. I think you offer a nice distillation of the material we covered in class here, and you point towards a lot of different and interesting avenues, but I worry that in pointing out so many different ares of interest, you don't give any of them the depth of consideration they deserve. For instance, the idea of unreality within the Tolkien legendarium, a fictional creation which strives towards the reflection of deeper truths about the nature of reality itself, is absolutely fascinating. And as you note, Tom Bombadil seems to be a key to this whole question, but how? You say that this leads to questions about how we consider the legendarium as a whole, but what are these questions? Once we figure this out we can get to the truly interesting bit, answering them.