Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Route to the Lost Road: Tolkien's Application of Dreams, Language, and History and Mythology

In many of his works, Tolkien explores the idea of traveling through space and time using a variety of different mechanisms--ranging from dreams within his own primary reality and those of the characters who inhabit his secondary realm to language to the blurred distinction between mythology and own our histories--each of which provides the aforementioned architect of this lore as well as his spectators with the ability to bridge the divide between seemingly distant worlds, timelines, and lifetimes. It is a fascinating concept, the notion that there are omnipresent fragments of a variety of histories that seem to nestle in the subconscious of characters like Tolkien and the many members of his subcreation and give these persons almost omniscient knowledge of countless years of stories. Moreover, this seemingly subconscious, pansophical knowledge allows those who access it to look back on years and space to come and those past. This begs two questions: how does Tolkien demonstrate the act of crossing space and time through these different mechanisms in his works and  what overall function do these different mechanisms play in getting us, Tolkien, and the characters alike to this final result?
First, on the role of dreams and imagery in performing the feat of travel through time and space: Tolkien demonstrates that this is a powerful means of accessing the past and future histories of his stories. It is through dreams as well as images that come to the characters of his tales that the mythologies of the past and tales of the future meld together. In The Lost Road, Albion dreams of language, but his dreams “[leave] no tale or picture behind, only the feeling that...Albion connected with long strange names.” (HME, 5, 42) In his dreams, the names of a long-past history come to him and by coming to unconsciously and allow him to riddle-out the meaning of different words like lōmelindë and others. (HME, 5, 45) As he grows, the dreams become more “absorbing” and are ever-embedded in a linguistic tradition, coming to him in the form of the language fragments with which he awakens. (HME 5: 49) Meanwhile, his son, Audoin, experiences similar fragments, but, rather than language, they come to him in the form of images of the same histories his father’s words riddle-out. (HME 5: 50) It is through these dreams that the two characters are able to access a variety of different histories and soon travel through time and space to experience the stories. Moreover, Tolkien’s works give us a variety of different examples of using dreams and imagery and the fragments that come through through them to access these histories and travel across time in space: whether they be through Frodo’s dreams along his adventure showing events past and present or Sam’s image of the Shire in Galadriel’s mirror showing a dangerous future for his home. Dreams and images, for Tolkien, provide a function that will be further illustrated in the later two mechanisms as well: providing a more concrete, physical depiction of these stories across time and space.
Further, numerous occasions in Tolkien’s works indicate the particular importance of being able to demonstrate the fusion of the apparent secondary reality of mythology and lore with the primary reality of our own timelines. In The Lost Road, Albion’s father tells him the story of the origin of his name, bridging the gap between the boy’s own history and showing how it is still tied to a separate place and time, despite the number of years that have passed. (HME 5: 40-41) Additionally, this same notion of tying components of the past to the present is depicted in Tolkien’s other texts as well. Samwise is able to connect the story that he and his companions are in to the old tales of the First Age, signifying that the old myths and legends do not end, as they are still apart of them. In his own letters, Tolkien displays a similar notion, in that his mythologies unconsciously layer themselves one on top of the other, as the Necromancer of The Hobbit develops into the Dark Lord of The Lord of the Rings. (Letters 163) The stories are all tied together; the mythologies and histories that we often endeavor to draw distinctions between are intricately related. This notion heavily relates to the idea of traveling across time and space, in that, just as Tolkien gives us these different mechanisms for doing so, so too does he also emphasize that we are able to accomplish such a feat because the myths and histories are one and the same, ultimately. By coming to this realization, we are able to more fully understand the intricate links between the different stories and, as a result, discover more about them.
Finally, language, arguably the largest influence on Tolkien’s own travels through time and space in his works, plays a particularly interesting role in this discussion. As previously mentioned, the languages and words that come to Albion in his dreams allow him to discover the stories to which they are linked. Each word is embedded with a long, intricate history that is revealed only when the word’s meaning is understood. Moreover, the more words Albion learns, the more he is able to understand the others which he already comprehends. This idea--the continual development and discovery of words’ histories which reveal larger histories about this realm that let the reader travel to different realms at different times--is also shown in Tolkien’s writings on his own love of language. In his letter to Auben, Tolkien discusses how language is his preeminent influence in his work and it is through the words which unconsciously have come to him over the course of his life that he has been able to discover the lore of this realm his, seemingly, envisioned on his own. (Letters 153)  It is through language that Tolkien and his own characters have been able to transcend the boundaries of time and space in order to gradually access more and more parts of these worlds.
In conclusion, Tolkien’s use of different mechanisms for travel through time and space highlights that each plays a distinct role in accessing the same route in different ways to the the inherent stories present in all those these mechanisms affect. For Tolkien, each mechanism may very well be its own way to The Lost Road. In our time, the world is round and a concrete link to these stories and histories is seemingly lost to us, but it is through language, dreams, and melding the two realities that we are able to puzzle-out the path to these tales.

- Megan Porter


  1. Good post, I enjoyed how you drew out this theme in Tolkien, but I do have a quibble with one thing you said, and I hope pointing towards it leads to a deeper grasp of how Tolkien understands the process of sub-creation. Right at the start, you characterize the "fragments" (a term which I like) of history that Tolkien, and his characters like Albion, have access to as "almost omniscient", and it's on this point that I want to push back. To my eyes, one of the most fascinating things that we can see in the development of the Legendarium is the extent to which Tolkien was NOT omniscient about the world he was creating. He speaks of not knowing where characters come from, being surprised by the terrifying appearance of the Nazgul, and so on (many authors likewise speak of being surprised by the things their characters do, Tolkien was on to something beyond his own creative process).

    It's precisely that Tolkien, et al., have access only to fragments that I believe leads to the almost overwhelming richness of the legendarium. It's because Albion does not know where he travels that allows him to explore another reality and realize that it is his own (perhaps). There is something else about the knowledge that these fragments provide, and I think you point to it when you discuss the dreamlike quality of this all. In dreams we don't possess omniscient knowledge, often it's quite fragmented and partial, but we don't exactly have the limited knowledge of our senses either. It may be ultimately undefinable, as so much about dreams is, but I wonder if that's what Tolkien is getting at in the end.

  2. I agree with Dan’s comment, and I think that the reason Tolkien not being omniscient about the fragments makes the legendarium richer is, ironically, that the lack of omniscience makes the fragments feel more real. When we write about history, the same thing happens. We don’t always immediately know or remember everything when we sit down to write. As we work, research, work more, take breaks, etc, we can remember facts or come up with interpretations that simply hadn’t occurred to us before. And there’s always the possibility in history of coming across a new piece of information that directly contradicts something that you thought you knew for sure before. To me, what makes the idea of fragments so compelling is that I view learning history in the same way Tolkien thought about the discovery of these little pieces of story.

    --Micah Sperling