Monday, 2 September 2013

Provenance of the Notion Club Papers - both fictional and true


Note: Provenance - noun. The place of origin or earliest known history of something.   


When he presents The Notion Club Papers in Sauron Defeated: Volume Nine of The History of Middle Earth (1992), Christopher Tolkien provides an Introduction (pp 145-53) and continues by presenting the NCPs as a free standing unit commencing on page 154 with a facsimile of the NCP title page before the Foreword, attributed to the fictional Editor of the NCPs, Howard Green. 


These texts provide various accounts of the purported (feigned) history of the NCPs, which lead up to the conclusion that the NCPs are to be regarded by the reader as both fictional and true

1. The facsimile title page describes the full title as Leaves from the Notion Club Papers, emphasizing that these are a selection from an incomplete portion of the original NCPs


2. The bottom of the page reads: Second edition MMXIV.

The Roman date means 2014 (next year!) - and that this is a second edition means that the NCPs, having only been discovered in 2012 (as we later discover) have already run into a second edition - which is surprising, given the apparently limited appeal of the text, but also allows for some pseudo-scholarly playfulness combined with making-a-significant-point, later in the Note to the second edition


3. From the Foreword we are told that the NCPs were discovered by Howard Green on top of a sack of waste paper in Oxford University during the summer of 2012. There was no evidence of their origin. 


4. Howard Green tells us that the NCPs as he found them had been prepared for publication - despite that they seemed merely to be the minute book recording the proceedings of a club for reading and conversation - and that many of the entries have no apparent interest to any outsider. There seem to have been originally reports of some hundred meetings spread over about a decade from 1980-90 (that is, about ten meetings per year).


5. But, although the members of the club are named in the Foreword and in the main body of the text, the fictional editor Howard Green then tells us that no such club as the Notion Club ever existed; that there were no persons with such names, not even pseudonymously. This also applies to the club secretary Nicholas Guildford - which name is derived from a medieval dialogue (not named, but implicitly The Owl and the Nightingale which mentions one Master Nicholas of Guildford).

This discovery is atributed to Mr JR Titmass - whose name had the earlier version of Titmouse (given in Christopher Tolkien's introduction) - which I guess may be a sly joke on the name of the Inkling Charles L Wren (the titmouse or by its earlier name the titmase = small bird - the wren being the smallest British bird). 

(Wren was Tolkien's successor in the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon, and Tolkien sometimes found him irritatingly professional and pedantic.)


In sum - at this point the provenance of the NCPs seem to be that they are a fictional composition of little interest recording the proceedings of a fictional club presented by a fictional secretary! 


5.  Backtracking to Christopher Tolkien's Introduction, there are some quotations from earlier drafts of the Title Page and Foreword. 

The earliest presents the NCPs as 'a fragment of an apocryphal Inklings' Saga, made by some imitator at some time in the 1980s"

Which was replaced by "appears to have been written after 1989, as a apocryphal imitation of the Inklings Saga Book."

So - if 'apocryphal' carries meanings such as being of doubtful authorship, and having an exaggerated and/or unreliable and/or erroneous content; what might be implied by this term Saga Book?

Perhaps Saga Book refers to the journal of the same name published by the Viking Society, and which in its earliest editions carried accounts of the society Proceedings with exactly the same format as the shorter entries in the Notion Club Papers?

(see the earliest editions available on ) 


6. Note to the Second Edition describes that two more fictional scholars WW Wormald and DN Borrow have made an elaborate alternative interpretation of the provenance of the NCPs, challenging the interpretation of Howard Green. Green puts the date of composition in about 1940, more exactly "during or just after the Six Years' War" (in other words, the real time when Tolkien actually wrote the NCPs).

But Messrs Wormald and Borrow apparently claim that this is impossible, because the NCPs contain reference to two later events than the 1940s - that is the Great Explosion of 1975 and the Great Storm of Thursday, June 12th, 1987. If the NCPs had indeed been written in the 1940s this would mean that the author had foreseen these later events - which W. and B. regard as impossible, therefore they make an interpretation of the evidence which has the original manuscript copied after 1987 and the 1975 and 1987 incidents inserted at this later date.  

At one level this passage (on pages 156-8) is a parody of the kind of reasoning engaged in by historical textual critics - for instance Bible scholars who do not believe in the possibility of prevision/ precise prophecy, and must therefore attribute prophetic texts to later dates.

Note also that Tolkien/ Howard Green had changed his dating of the composition of the NCPs from the earliest draft which stated they were written "made by some imitator at some time in the 1980s" to the earlier date of the 1940s. 

Why did he do that? - because Tolkien has now got other and larger fish to fry...


7. Howard Green concludes this section with a very important passage:

I am now convinced that the Papers are a work of fiction; and it may well be that the predictions (notably of the storm), though genuine and not coincidences, were unconscious: giving one more glimpse of the strange process of so-called literary "invention" with which the Papers are largely concerned.

My interpretation is that here is Tolkien speaking about how The Notion Club Papers, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Quenta Silmarillion which they were designed to 'frame' - should be regarded by the reader: how he wanted them to be regarded by the reader.

Remembering that the Notion Club Papers was, at the time of writing, intended to be the entry-point into Tolkien's whole Legendarium - and therefore the 'plan' was that the Foreword to the Notion Club Papers would be the very first thing a Tolkien reader would ever encounter.

Tolkien wanted his works about Middle Earth/ Arda to be regarded as fictional and also containing genuine knowledge about the 'real world', which combination was made possible by the unconscious processes of literary invention as it is described in The Notion Club Papers.



Unknown said...

Interesting. What I thought was more freaky still was Christopher Tolkien's comment that there was indeed a great storm around 1987, somewhat similar to how his father had described it in this earlier work. Doubtless a coincidence, but still interesting. At times I wonder if it would be fun to rewrite the NCP with the characters AS Inklings. Just drop the pretense and make Ramer into Tolkien, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Unknown - the real life Great Storm of 1987 was a few months later than the one predicted in the NCPs, 15-16 October compared with June 12 in NCPs - so I don't find the coincidence very freaky!

I think the idea of rewriting - or perhaps dramatizing - the NCPs with real life Inklings is a good one; and much more likely to 'sell'.

However, it would require that the adapter provider a lot of plot, including an ending - something on the lines of the 'Treatment' I supplied at the end of my Companion to the NCPs: