Friday, 5 November 2010

The Notion Club Papers as Tolkien's self-therapy


Having established that Tolkien was having a 'nervous breakdown' at the time he was writing The Notion Club Papers (from late 1945 to middle 1946) -

- it is fascinating to consider why Tolkien should have commenced writing this new book at such a time.


At this time, Tolkien was feeling ill, anxious, miserable - he was suffering from great pressure, responsibility, and over-work (due to doing two Professorial jobs at the same time - including teaching material he did not know well and disliked).

Yet, during all this Tolkien wrote, and re-wrote - scores of pages of text, and began the invention of a new language. (The story runs to about 150 printed pages in the History of Middle Earth, plus a similar amount of supplementary material on language etc.)

This strongly suggests to me that writing the NCPs was therapeutic to Tolkien - in some way it made him feel better - otherwise he would not have done it.


So, if writing the NCP was indeed therapeutic, then the subject matter and form of NCP is presumably telling us about Tolkien's deepest and most urgent satisfactions.

These include at least the following:

1. The Inklings - the great importance to Tolkien (at this point in his life) of the group of mature male friends who are fictionalized as the Notion Club.

2. History - the deep yearning Tolkien had to experience history.

3. Language - that Tolkien would begin to invent yet another imaginary language at this time shows how powerful was this urge - as Lewis said, he had lived 'inside' language.

4. Inheritance and heredity - Tolkien's conviction that his own tastes and abilities were substantially a product of the Suffield ancestors on his mother's side; and that his feeling for history and language derived from generations of West Midlanders going back at least to Saxon times.

5. Myth. The mythical aspects of history, language and heredity burst through from ancient times to transform the modern - these things are not bare facts but become rich, suggestive-of and replete-with personal significance.

The over-arching purpose of the NCPs is to link Tolkien's whole fantasy world with real history - to link the (much needed) spiritual truths of mythic reality (especially the emerging 'Lord of the Rings') with the mundane, materialist reality of modern life.


When reading the NCPs, therefore, it is fascinating to bear in mind the conditions under which the book was written; and to consider the degree of urgency which impelled Tolkien to write what he wrote, at the time he wrote it.


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