Friday, April 11, 2014

Tolkien and Time Travel

            The readings for Wednesday were some of the most challenging yet to parse, incorporating a fair number of abstract concepts that Tolkien describes in enough detail to make interesting, but not enough detail to make explicit. In lecture we discussed the concept of time travel as developed by Dunne, which consisted of an expansion of one’s consciousness until all of time - past, present, and future was visible at once. Dunne viewed time-travel as achievable in dreams when one’s consciousness is more able to relax its holds on the present reality and expand, but also proposed that with enough practice one could effectively project one’s mind into the past while remaining awake.

            Tolkien’s personal method of time travel, whether he believed in Dunne’s work or not, I think, relied almost entirely on his philological background. As a philologist, Tolkien was in the business of reconstructing etymologies for words, which in class we described as seeking to place the development of the word into its historical context and construct a narrative that could lie behind the origins of the word. One cannot truly know exactly where the word’s origins lie, but tracing its roots relies on, in a sense, looking at “fragments” of the greater progression, individual words that may be predecessors of the modern one. Give that many of these fragments, these older words have long since fallen into disuse, it is often difficult if not outright impossible to discover their exact relation to each other or recapitulate exactly what they might have meant in the time they were still used. The best that one can do is to be faithful to the historical context of the word and create a narrative of sorts about the origins of the fragment and trace its development to modernity, all the while trying to see the world through the eyes of those who may have been in the time and place where the ancient word fragment was still used.

            That process of placing oneself into the position of one who would have used the ancient word in context is, in a sense, time travel. It is not quite a literal visit to the past, as it takes place primarily in the imagination, so it is not quite a recapitulation of history exactly as it was. It is, in effect, a narrative or story that one constructs about the past – but not just any story. The proper method of etymological work has the quality of being faithful to historical context, of the historical narrative being internally consistent, the latter of which Tolkien stated in On Fairy-Stories to be essential to properly written fantasy. What then of historical faithfulness or authenticity? Tolkien also states in his writings that he is not just seeking to create any fantasy story – he is seeking to add to the mythology of England itself.

Mythology is in some ways a narrative about the past, one that may seem superstitious or fantastical, but nevertheless at the time of its creation spoke to some degree about the character of the culture that created it. Over time, it is modified and retold in new ways, gradually becoming quite distinct from its origins but nevertheless still hiding within its progressive iterations influence from and information about each successive generation that has contributed to its formation. These myths thus form a mythic history, stories about a nation’s past that, while perhaps not literally true or historically accurate, may speak to a nation’s past culture in ways that recorded history cannot.

This process of myth-creation is in many ways similar to the process of words being modified over time to modernity, and it is no accident that Tolkien relates his work both to adding to England’s mythology and his philological work. As mentioned previously, Tolkien seeks in his etymological work to construct a believable narrative about the word or words he is investigating. This narrative must be internally cohesive, to some degree, much like he describes the genre of fantasy-writing. And the process of being faithful to the historical context of the words, the process of time-travel, if you will, through the projection of one’s mind into the people of the past, is much the same as one would do to analyze and recapitulate mythology. The work of etymology cannot hope to perfectly recreate the past – what it constructs is essentially a mythological past. It has the feeling of history because the process of its creation seeks to be as historically authentic as possible, but ultimately it is still nevertheless the spirit of the past that it captures and not necessarily the exact fact of the past. This then ties perfectly to Tolkien’s process of crafting his tales of Middle Earth.

Alboin from The Lost Road receives visions and impressions of words from what is suggested to be if not the actual past, at least a mythic past that is somehow linked to the present time. It is suggested that somehow these words and phrases from the past are what allow him, ultimately, to enter the mythic past itself and literally stand in the shoes of those who came before, given that the later chapters set in Numenor do not mention Alboin as an outside observer but instead seem to simply be from the perspective of Elendil and Herendil. The words and phrases themselves, then, carry a sort of magic, or enchantment if you will that allows Alboin to effectively travel back in time. The overlap between this process of time travel through words from the past is too similar to the construction of an etymological narrative to be a coincidence, and given the overlap between Alboin’s biographical details and Tolkien’s own it seems reasonable to suggest that Tolkien is here describing his own process of traveling to a mythic past and reconstructing it in his works.

What then of the dreams from which Alboin receives these all-important words? Tolkien, in various accounts of his creative process such as his 1955 letter to Auden, speaks of processes going on in the unconscious that lead to his discovering “what really happened” in the stories before he can put pen to paper. While he does not explicitly reference Dunne’s theories about time travel in such accounts, I think the unconsciousness he references must be related to the expanded consciousness in Dunne’s theory. Like the dreams that Alboin enters, Tolkien’s unconscious is at work both in sleep and sometimes even in the waking world, and somehow is able to tap into fragments of a mythic past to produce a cohesive narrative. In Tolkien’s case, he may be unconsciously performing the etymological task of narrative reconstruction he was so familiar with, only this time using fragments such as “eald enta geweorc” from the Anglo-Saxon poem to piece together his conception of England, or even the modern world’s mythical past. His unconscious is better able to tap into this mythical past in the same way that it is easier for Dunne and Alboin to time travel when dreaming, and it is the authenticity of Tolkien’s unconsciously-produced narrative that can leave us wondering if we may not lie in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth.
-Lawrence Wang

1 comment:

  1. “Enough detail to make interesting, but not enough detail to make explicit.” Yes, this is exactly how I feel about many of our readings—but how dull, otherwise! You give us here a very fine summary of Dunne's work, and of philology-as-time-travel for Tolkien. I particularly liked where you note how the fairy tales and etymologies are similar, in that both require an internally consistent historical narrative.

    I think this is a rather fine phrasing: “Over time, it is modified and retold in new ways, gradually becoming quite distinct from its origins but nevertheless still hiding within its progressive iterations influence from and information about each successive generation that has contributed to its formation.” You are here referring to myth, but this resonated very strongly with me as fundamental to the practice of history as a discipline! We are forced to recognize how unlikely it is that we will ever know exactly “what happened”—all we have is fragments, like “hey diddle diddle”! I am convinced that this is in Tolkien's mind as well as he thinks through the relationships between myth, history, and language—and you describe this very well in your conclusion about Tolkien's dream-state as a way to combine narrative fragments in a way that feels “authentic” because they invoke, in your words, “spirit of the past that it captures.”