Friday, April 14, 2017

Real vs True

Conceptually, I found last class and its readings to be the most difficult that we have yet engaged in. In the letters we had read in previous classes, Tolkien seemed to be arguing that his world was not fictional: “Yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’ (Letters 145). I think many of us were unclear to what degree Tolkien himself believed that what he had written was a “true” history of our world. If he was convinced that he was recording but not “inventing”, surely, he must have thought that what he was writing was real, that it existed. Perhaps, however, we were being presumptuous in assuming that the ‘there’ was a part of our timeline and were ignoring that the ‘there’ was in an undefined “somewhere” that could be existing outside of our world, our “here”. Yet, Tolkien states that “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’- which is our habitation” (Letters 244). Here, it appears that this somewhere is not actually a different world, but what existed in an imaginary moment or time. One might wonder, however, at what point does a world become ‘imaginary’? Does the fact that the moment is imaginary mean that the world that imaginary moment takes place in is also imaginary?  Tolkien says that “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world” and is an “objectively real world . . . The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary” (Letters 239). What does it mean to be a part of our world? At what point does a world become ‘imaginary’ and not real?

Do the passages we read in the Notion Club make matters clearer? I am not entirely sure. The character Jeremy states, “Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the past.
And mind you, there are also real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea-shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: the grains on which the stories crystallize like snowflakes. There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle.’
This portion, at least, seems clear to me. It makes sense to me that something mythical can contain elements or bits of truth, “real details”. These real details are rooted in our objective world and are what tell us that the story we are hearing or reading is taking place in the same objective world we live in now.

Yet, Frankely’s response to Jeremy, “But that doesn’t make such things as the Arthurian romances real in the same way as true past events are real” seems to suggest that real and true are being used differently. This confuses me. “True past” seems to me to suggest the objective past that actually took place. The general understanding of the word “real” is that it means something is actually existing as a thing or fact and that it is not something imagined or supposed. Generally, actually existing is taken to mean it exists in our objective world. Something is either fully real or it is not. When speaking about the whole of something, one does not say “it 70% exists”. If realness is tied to the objective world, what would it mean to be real but in different way? I do not fully understand what it would mean to be real but in different ways and for realness to have secondary planes or degrees. When Tolkien states that Middle earth is “the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell)” (239), does the objectively real world contain multiple planes of realness within itself, or is objectively real simply an example of one type or plane of realness? I guess my main confusion is how exactly Tolkien is using the words “real”, “realistic” and “true” and how exactly these three words are or are not different from one another.

There is a high likelihood that I am overthinking and am pointlessly confusing myself.

Going down a different line of thought, Tolkien’s assertions that he is “historically mined” and, as was quoted earlier, “The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantments of distance in time” (Letters 239) makes me wonder if comparing Tolkien to a historian like Herodotus would be apt. Herodotus was just as much of a storyteller as he was an historian. In the Notion Club papers, Jeremy states, “If you really had a look back at the Past as it was, then everything would be there to see, if you had eyes for it, or time to observe it in. And the most difficult thing to see would be, as it always is “at present”, the pattern, the significance, yes, the moral of it all ,if you like. At least, that would be the case, the nearer you come to our time. As I said before, I’m not so sure about that, as you pass backward to the beginnings.” Herodotus often made up speeches for the people in his works to provide models for people of his day to emulate and looked for or made up motives for his people in order to make sense of the past. In a way, to find a moral. Although I personally am not sure if I believe it, I think it is an interesting idea that history has a moral.



  1. I don't wonder you found these readings hard, Tolkien is wrestling at a deep level with what he thought he was doing with his "histories," and I am not convinced he had a clear answer. He is wrestling with the power that thinking about the Past has on the present but also the effect of stories on their tellers. What we believe about the Past is tied up with what we believe about ourselves and the stories that we tell. There are psychic as well as historical truths in both. RLFB

  2. I share your confusion about what Tolkien means by saying that Middle Earth is "the objectively real world." I suppose in one sense Middle Earth occupies the same place as our world does within various mythologies (i.e. in the middle, between various other planes of existence), but he isn't saying that it's analogous to our world, he's saying it IS our world. There are a number of features of Middle Earth (independent of its occupants) that make it very similar, and given that Tolkien says that the mystical elements of Middle Earth were fading away in the Third Age and that rather than being an imaginary world "the historical period is imaginary,” we could conceive of LoTR being a mythical telling of the history of our world. Where this gets messy is the geography of Middle Earth is entirely different, so where "imaginary history" ends and "imaginary world" begins within Tolkien's mind is a line I'm still pretty unclear on (and I suppose it sounds as if he may not have known where it lay either).