Friday, April 7, 2017

Fragments of the Past

What interested me most about Tolkien’s creating (or recording) process was the idea of visions coming to someone beyond the scope of a regular dream. Based on his writings, Tolkien seems to be getting at a relationship between the mind and body. That is, the mind as the “thinking” part of one’s self and the body as the physical part of one’s self. For Tolkien, there is something happening with the mind in the background where we are not totally conscious of relationships being formed either spatially, temporally, or something beyond our current perception of the world. Although I believe there is something to be said about a writer’s creative experience stemming from a place beyond a purely logical or systematic process, Tolkien’s insistence that his stories were not of his own creation, in my mind, should be taken with a grain of salt just because I find it a little strange that other people are not able to harness the insights into Middle-Earth lore if it really was a true vision. However, I think Tolkien was getting at an interesting point about the mind’s subconscious creation. In class, we broke down our discussion about Tolkien’s material into two sections: language and experiences. I think these are two important areas of Tolkien’s background which help us understand his process as a storyteller.

Tolkien’s love of languages is evident in his narrative work, correspondences, biography, etc. While doing the reading, a line that struck me was “[Eressëan] was too private, even for private jokes” (The Lost Road 44). The character developing Eressëan, Alboin, a heavily autobiographical figure, closely matches Tolkien’s own interests. In the Lost Road, Alboin’s fixation on language revolves around “flavour” and “atmosphere” (Lost Road 43) rather than practical usage. Tolkien references his own preferences for the aesthetics of certain languages in his letter to Deborah Webster: “Derived from language for its own sake, not only free from being useful, but free from being the ‘vehicle of literature’” (Letters 213). The “private” nature of Alboin’s language could relate to Tolkien’s interest in the sensory implications of certain sounds. For words to have appeal devoid from meaning or practical usage, there must be some sort of emotional tie to the word (token or sign as opposed to significance) itself. Tolkien refers to the sounds of certain languages as “intoxicating,” like “bottles of an amazing wine” (Letters 214). Why is this such a personal and intimate experience for Tolkien? What kinds of feelings were these sounds evoking in him and why?

I think these questions can be answered in part by Tolkien’s childhood memories. In his letter to Unwin, Tolkien says that he “knew that the way [to Mordor] was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people, are welcome to the notion… I can only say that I remember nothing about it, and should not know it if I had not been told…” (Letters 217). Even if Tolkien does not truly remember the spider bite, the fact that he was told about the incident forced that event into his understanding of his childhood narrative. Perhaps his mind latched onto that image and manifested it as the spider antagonist Shelob. In another letter, Tolkien talks about his childhood using a lot of sensory language: “a hot parched country,” “blazing sun,” “drooping eucalyptus” (Letters 213), utilizing words which stimulate vivid imagery. In the same way, the sounds of certain languages may evoke Tolkien’s childhood memories. We know he had a half-Spanish guardian, a relationship which probably caused his affection for the Spanish language. Tolkien was also exposed to bits of Welsh written on coal trucks (Letters 213), another language for which he held a great affinity. The sounds of these languages must have evoked some sort of nostalgic feeling for Tolkien even if he did not understand the actual words, maybe explaining his love for the sounds associated with these languages rather than the meanings. Tolkien exhibits many moments of synaesthesia (the sounds of language taste good), indicating a link between language and multiple senses, like a memory.

We talked about fragments from our world peeking through some of Tolkien’s works (Hey-Diddle-Diddle in Frodo’s tavern song, King Sheave in Lost Road). In the same way, this interconnectivity extends beyond references to familiar works to Tolkien’s actual experiences and memories. Fragments of Tolkien’s own life can be found scattered throughout the adventures in Middle-Earth. We may also look at these fragments as anchors for the story instead of fragments peeking through. When Tolkien describes writing the Ents section of the Lord of the Rings, he says he just had “to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through” (Letters 212). The “came through” phrasing is interesting because it reiterates the fact that the Ents, like other parts of the story, are not Tolkien’s conscious, deliberate creation. However, I think the subconscious mind could have pulled a memory and reformed it into the idea of Ents. Assuming the Ents are inspired by some experience from Tolkien’s past, the events grew from the fragment (instead of a fragment floating around in a story), giving them an emotional or sensory base on which the story could grow.

Perhaps the appeal of Tolkien’s stories extends from this bottling of nostalgia. The memories that Tolkien draws from evoke similar feelings of sentimentality, playfulness, and nirvana when we read his stories. In a previous class, we discussed and debated the nature of “fantasy” writing. What makes fantasy appealing? Is it the simplicity of the language or the specificity. Which is more fantastical: “blue sky” or “cerulean sky?” To me, it is not the “blue” or “cerulean” that makes its fantasy, but the fact that we are looking at the sky and experiencing the vividness of its color. It is the purity of the elements (think: iron, earth, sky, stone) which sets the fantasy genre apart. We experience this world in its most basic form, a setting which strips away the story to a naked, vulnerable state, allowing us to grapple with ideas like good vs. evil, mortality, heroism, etc.  I think Tolkien is tapping into the childlike purity in all of us, bringing us back to our own “blazing sun” and “drooping eucalyptus” of our childhoods. Tolkien says he is a “recorder,” and “elf-friend,” but I think there is more creation to his process than he let’s on, bringing parts of himself into the story.

-R. Wen

1 comment:

  1. I agree "there is more creation to his process than he lets on," but what is most curious to me is that he does not talk about the subconscious--which he could have, as he certainly knew Freud's theories. He seems to have avoided attributing his creativity to his subconscious with the same deliberation as he avoided "allegory." The question is why? Why didn't he like explaining Shelob in terms of the tarantula that frightened him? RLFB