Language and Dreams are enough of a conundrum on their own, without the additional task of relating them to each other. Still, for the sake of this discussion I will phrase these two things as a single question: What is a Dream Language?
I will dissect this question further in hopes of reaching some matter of conclusion. First, is language only a result of embodied experience, and if so can one dream in language? Second, how is language used to describe or explain dream experience? Lastly, how are the languages of dreams, the language Ramer calls one’s native language, different from all others?
The First Question:
In The Notion Club Papers, Ramer indicates that only a hnau (barrowing a term from C.S. Lewis for physically bodied beings) is capable of language. He relates that language has two parts: a “‘token (perceived by sense) plus significance (for the mind)’” (202). Furthermore, disembodied beings, like spirits or the En-keladim, have no interest in language outside of communicating with the embodied. For language “is peculiar to an embodied mind […] the unembodied couldn’t or wouldn’t’” use it (202). When either a ghost or angelic alien does use language, it is almost in imitation. They produce a “‘direct impression on the mind’” (202).
The difference between imitated language and actual language is the significance language has for the embodied. The embodied rely on language to communicate while the disembodied do not. For in an imitated language, “‘the process would be the reverse of the normal […] a translation from meaning into symbol’” (202). Tolkien indicates that language has a natural progression from a symbol that is then correlated with a meaning. The angelic En-keladim use their wills to instill a sense of meaning directly on the embodied and the symbol arises after the fact. The dream also further complicates language as the mind, when in a dream-state, is disembodied. Therefore, any language in dreams should be intimated language. When Ramer describes his dreams, “The dreamer’s attention [is] from slightly above his head” the vantage point of dreams is distinct from waking life (191). The mind is a perceiver, an observer, free from the movement of the body. Ramer elaborates, “‘I mean moving not by memory, or by calculation, or by invention, as the waking mind can be said to move; but as a perceiver of the external, of something new’” (175).
The major conflict between language and dreams is how this “something new”, the strange and otherworldly experiences, follows a system of symbols. If symbols precede meaning, then language should not exist in dreams of unknown worlds, which hold unknown meaning. This contention is also found within Tolkien’s own descriptions of dreams compared to his character Alboin in the Lost Road. When Tolkien speaks of his Atlantis Haunting it is exclusively visual experience. In his letter to W. H. Auden, he describes a “recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave” (213). Yet Alboin, the philologist within the Lost Road, only receives words and fragments of a language from this lost Atlantis. It is Audoin, or Herendil, that receives images in dreams.
Tolkien unifies both the Audoin and Auboin halves i.e. the visual experience and language through memory. It is memories that are associated with language. Auboin receives his language in dreams, but is later embodied as Elendil. Auboin is literally embodied in his dreams and thus his language and world change from imitation to reality. In comparison, Ramer describes not only visuals (lost worlds, faraway suns, and Atlantis) and raw feelings (elemental fire and vast speed), but also uses strange names and words to describe the things he has seen. He is able to assign names to these otherworldly places because he perceives the names as remnants of the past, a memory that “‘is an echo of their voices’” (207). It is possible to dream in language, but it must come from a remembered experience or acquired memory. The visual experience or meaning is still necessary to make language in dreams possible. Thus, the sign is preserved as a memory so the progression from sign to meaning is also preserved.
If language requires a symbol to be assigned to a meaning, a pre-existing symbol system has to be able to describe a new experience. The more unfamiliar this experience is the harder it is for language to describe it effectively. Ramer describes his impression of the symbol and its connection with meaning. If “‘the voice said bread or water, using “common nouns”, I should […] get a glimpse of a shaped loaf, or a running spring, or a glass filled with transparent liquid’” (200). The symbol “bread” brings up the image and form of the loaf of bread. In some way, the physical embodiment of bread is captured in the symbol “Bread”. This is where Ramer runs into problems. He has traveled to places that have not been experienced by his fellow members. He has a choice, “‘Either one must bear the pains of not communicating what one greatly desires to share, or one must remain content with the translation’”, even if that translation does not properly covey the experience (198).
Tolkien does seem to imply a fundamental limitation of language to describe experience. An experience in a dream is only truly captured in a dream. Once awakened, the experience is altered or forgotten. Yet Tolkien also mentions a saving grace. In Notion Club Papers, Frankly says, “‘I once tried to describe the Saturnian landscape myself’” and Ramer replies “‘I wondered if you had been there too, or had heard some reliable news’” (205). This revelation shows that these dream places can be reached by multiple people. Similar to how Auboin and Audoin dream of the same Numenor, and one of Tolkien’s children inherits his dream of the Great Wave (Letter 180). Dreams are not exclusive and these imaginary worlds are on some level, real places.
The Final Question:
And so, this brings us back to the dream language. The names Ramer uses and the language Alboin dreams of. These languages are described as arising, with little or no thought going into them. For example, the phrase, “‘Ellor Eshurizel! I drew it once in words as best I could, and now it is words.’” (198). Ramer describes his language as his native language. A personal language, “‘We each have a native language of our own […] in private only because other people are not naturally very interested’” (201). Certain elements are crafted like grammar and tense, by the proper nouns and names of things come from the unconscious. Tolkien comments that “I have no recollection of Ents” and that often his story “writes itself” (231). One’s native language ties a word with a new experience or an unknown entity. Ramer describes this native language as embodying a meaning in itself, for “‘the other names, that’s another matter. They’re as firmly associated with places and visions in my mind as bread is with Bread in your minds, and mine. But I think they’re my names in a sense in which bread is not’” (200). It is through Ramer’s native language that he brings the unknown dream (secondary) world to primary world. As he puts it, “‘your own native language bubbles up, and makes new names for strange new things.’” (202). This final revelation imparts Middle Earth with even greater significance for it comes from the world of dreams and is only channeled through Tolkien. It still very much exists. A place one can visit or is visited by, just like the Great Wave that haunts many of our dreams. Tolkien’s world is a universal one, meticulously translated into his own native tongue so that we, the readers, should better understand the dream worlds that elude us.
Tolkien, J.R.R, and Christopher Tolkien. The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend before The Lord of the Rings. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (The History of the Lord of the Rings Part IV): The Notion Club Papers, And, the Drowning of AnaduÌneÌ. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.