Sunday 1 November 2009

Notion Club theology

From about page 193 of Tolkien's Notion Club Papers, the conversation takes on an implicitly theological turn.

The main difference between the Notion Club and the real life Inklings, is that the Inklings probably spent much of their time discussing Christian matters - with the exception of Owen Barfield (an Anthroposophist but who only rarely attended due to living in London), the core shared features of the Inklings were two-fold: they were friends of Lewis, and they were Christians. The nature of the Christianity varied across a fairly wide spectrum from Roman Catholic (Tolkien and Harvard), through Anglo Catholic (Charles Williams) to more protestant wing Church of England (the Lewis brothers - although CSL certainly moved towards Catholicism as he got older).

The Inklings was, like the Notion Club, primarily a society for reading aloud new writings - it was a writers group (as Diana Pavac Glyer makes clear in her superb book on the Inklings - The Company They Keep). Conversation was typically stimulated by whatever was read; however, aside from the issues related to writing (the club's primary purpose) it seems that Inkling conversation was typically of a moral nature, underpinned by shared Christianity.

However, the NCPs do not contain any explicitly Christian discussion. There is nothing to contradict an assumption of shared Christianity among its members, but certainly this aspect is not obvious. The discussions of time and space travel, telepathy, dream knowledge - are all Inklings themes, but in NCP presented apart from the Christian underpinnings they would have had in 'real life'.

The NCP does, however, contain a few pages where 'theology' comes nearer the surface.

Ramer comments on p. 193 that his dreams are sometimes like fragments of a larger whole, with separate dreams actually being somewhat like pages taken from a book. So that, over time, and bringing together memories of several dreams, Ramer gradually realizes that he has been glimpsing parts of a greater whole.

This is certainly a major theme of Tolkien's work. Throughout his whole adult life his fascination with, and presentation of, his own work was as if they were fragments and glimpses of a greater whole - a whole now either lost or at least inaccessible. (TA Shippey's Road to Middle Earth has a brilliant exposition of this aspect of Tolkien.)

Consistent with my understanding of Ramer as Tolkien's lightly-fictionalized mouthpiece, Ramer describes how he feels a larger significance in dreams than is explicable from their actual content, and he explains this on the basis of their fragmentary nature. The most famous and earliest example of this in Tolkien is when as an undergraduate before WWI he was fascinated by a reference to 'Earendil' in an otherwise rather uninteresting Anglo Saxon poem Crist. In a sense the whole Legendarium is an elaboration of this 'fragment' - the Legendarium being the recreated 'lost' whole from which this fragment was presumed to have come.

The Green Wave dream makes an appearance on page 194, as another example of a significant fragment. This was a dream of a vast wave coming over the green land, sometimes with ships riding its crest. The dream was recurrent with Tolkien in real life, also his son Michael (apparently spontaneously so) and is given to Faramir in the Lord of the Rings, and here to Ramer. (Tolkien once said that Faramir was the character in LotR which most resembled him - except for being much braver!) In LotR (as here, in the earlier NCPs) this fragment of the wave came from the larger tale of the destruction of Numemor, and the wave brought the ships of the faithful Numemoreans to Middle Earth where they founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor.

Other apparently significant dream fragments reported by Ramer are an empty throne on top of a mountain (I am not sure what this is - perhaps the sacred mountain Meneltarma in Numenor - with the throne empty due to the action of Sauron in introducing the worship of Morgoth?); a wide plain before the feet of a steep ridge with above it an immense sky blazing with equally placed stars rising as a vertical wall not bending to a vault (presumably the edge of the flat, disc world just prior to the destruction of Numenor and the creation of the round globe earth); a dark shape passing across the sky blotting out the stars as it goes (reminiscent of the Nazgul in LotR, but here maybe the eagles of the Lords of the West at the destruction of Numemor?); a tall grey, round tower on the sheer end of the land (perhaps the tower hills on Middle Earth, awaiting the arrival of the great wave?).

Then, on page 194, the report takes an explicitly religious turn when Ramer says: " does sometimes see and use symbols directly religious, and more than symbols. One can pray in dreams, or adore. I think I do sometimes, but there is no memory of such states or acts, one does not revisit such things. They're not really dreams. They're a third thing. They belong somewhere else, to the other anchorage, which is not to the body, and differ from dreams more than Dream from Waking.

"Dreaming is not Death. The mind is still, as I say, anchored to the body. It is all the time inhabiting the body, so far as it is in anywhere. And it is therefore in Time and Space: attending to them. It is meant to be so. But most of you will agree that there has probably been a change of plan; and it looks as if the cure is to give us a dose of something higher and more difficult. Mind you, I'm only talking of the seeing and learning side, not for instance of morality. But it would feel terribly loose without the anchor. Maybe with the support of the stronger and wiser it could be celestial; but without them it could be be bitter, and lonely. A spiritual meteorite in the dark looking for a world to land on. I daresay many of us are in for some lonely Cold before we get back."

I believe this is not only theoretical, nor is it fictional; but it is I think an account of Tolkien's own personal experiences and understanding.

This passage is, however, very obscure; indeed I suspect it is wilfully obscure for the reason that Tolkien is speaking directly of his profoundest intuitions.

Such deliberate obfuscation reminds me of a phrase from Robert Frost's poem Directive: "I have kept hidden in the instep arch/ Of an old cedar at the waterside/ A broken drinking goblet like the Grail/ Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it...". Tolkien does not want 'the wrong ones' to understand him. Or of what Robert Graves meant when he said that ancient poetry was often 'pied' or deliberately obscure in a way that only those other bards who were initiated into the same tradition (and inspired by the muse) could understand. Tolkien wants his full meaning to be understandable only to devout Christians.

So, rather than trying to explicate Tolkien's theological meaning, and I am not sure that I can; I will just say that this passage deserves study by anyone who wants to understand Tolkien's deepest convictions, hopes and fears.

And I think the same applies to what follows; a passage that seems to me as beautiful and as deep as anything Tolkien ever wrote.

Ramer continues: "But out of some place beyond the region of dreams, now and again there comes a blessedness, and it soaks through all the levels, and illumines all the scenes through which the mind passes out back into waking, and so it flows out into this life. There it lasts long, but not forever in this world, and memories cannot reach its source. Often we ascribe it to the pictures seen on the margin radiant in its light, as we pass by and out. But a mountain far in the North caught in a slow sunset is not the sun."

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