Thursday 20 July 2017

Trotter's feet, the moon and Tolkien's shamanistic creativity

Two rather shocking aspects of the composition Lord of the Rings, but which may throw light onto Tolkien's creative processes, include the business of the hobbit Trotter (from whom the man Strider was evolved) having wooden feet, and the matter of the moon.

First the feet:

The thing about Trotter's feet, and why he wore clogs or else had wooden feet, is an absurd, tiny matter which nonetheless threatened to subvert the seriousness and credibility of the narrative.

Why was Tolkien so obsessed with retaining the fact that Trotter made a trotting noise when he walked? Who cares?

Also, there is the recurring error of Tolkien describing people observing the New Moon rising in the evening (when in reality this happens at dawn, after the sun has risen - and therefore against a daylight sky, rendering the young-crescent new moon invisible):

What is more relevant than this error, is the obsessive way in which Tolkien 'niggled' at the story of the Lord of the Rings to ensure (almost) total consistency in the moon phases; failure of which was eventually (mainly) responsible for holding-up progress if the book for more than a year.

Why was Tolkien so obsessed with getting the obscure and almost undetectable matter of phases of the moon right, when he apparently was very hazy about major and obvious aspects of lunar astronomy - and did not correct them?

Rather than sputtering and pointing with incredulity; my interest is that here was a fact of Tolkien's creative process: a very important fact. Some things were very important to him - and he tried very hard to retain them; but others were regarded as changeable, flexible. There were things he revised-around; and there were other things he revised.

My understanding is related to how these ideas came to Tolkien - what I have termed his 'shamanistic' creativity; in other words, the idea that the primary story elements came to Tolkien in a dream-like state; and these he would always strive to retain.

The clearest example is described by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle Earth:

Where Tolkien preserves the Black Rider sniffing, which seems relatively unimportant; despite the identity of the Back Rider changing from Gandalf to a Nazgul - which seems a far larger matter.

This is linked by Shippey to Tolkien's philological method of writing; which is why Tolkien always claimed (truly) that the language came first in composing his tales.

This neatly accounts for the Trotter affair, once Tolkien had the name and an idea of its derivation - he was pretty much compelled to try and ensure that Trotter had some reason from making a trotting sound - hence the idea of wooden contact-points with the road.

(And despite the obvious objection that it is ridiculous that a ranger, that is a tracker, would tolerate such noisy footwear/ feet - if, for some reason, he insisted on wood construction; Trotter would surely have had wooden feet or clogs muffled with leather, as used to be done with horses shoes!)

As for the moon phases versus the rising new moon... my guess is that once Tolkien had found an objective inconsistency he simply could not leave it alone, and when unfixed continued to be tormented by it.

While the impossible observation of a rising new moon against a night sky was simply not recognised as a error, nor was it checked after being written; because the picture of such a moon 'came to him' in his 'shamanic', dreamlike (or actual dreaming) state - the vision of a rising crescent moon against a black sky (which is indeed beautiful and evocative) was therefore primary data (much like the sniffing rider in black).

And for Tolkien the primary data of his story should be preserved if at all possible; because this was exactly what made the story real rather than merely something made-up, manufactured, 'invented'.


Anonymous said...

Trotter's feet is an interesting one. I'm going to push back a little bit against this. I think Tolkien was just a guy who had trouble killing his darlings. When he got a scene in his head--possibly through dreaming, but even just in his imagination--that really resonated with him, he wanted to keep it, even if it didn't make sense or fit in the narrative. I would say he had a scene-based writing process, where he had certain scenes--like the Nazgul sniffing scene or the new moon rising--that were very strong in his mind, which he tried hard to retain. These could certainly come from dreams, but they also seem like things that just might have arisen through the natural writing process.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - The question is, *why* were they his darlings? I think you are actually saying pretty much the same as me, but in different words: i.e. there were *some* things Tolkien 'wanted to keep' and these included scenes/ details that were particularly strong in his mind; probably because of the way they came to him.

lgude said...

Yes, I agree. When I have a special dream I respect it authority and I think that is what Tolkien was doing. In a similar vein, Jung in a passage near the beginning of the Red Book is enjoined by the figure of the prophet Elijah: “Your work is fulfilled here. Other things will come. Seek untiringly, and above all write exactly what you see.” Jung at this point is deliberately exposing himself to the material welling up from inside him and finds himself in dialog with with Elijah and many other figures. Jung was attempting to examine he unconscious empirically and scientifically, while Tolkien thought of his work as a form of literature, but both, I think, instinctively knew they had to be faithful to material that is given, not merely invented.

Anonymous said...

I would be fascinated to know more about how the sort of real or apparent 'scientific phenomnena' care sits with the 'mythological' lunar, stellar, planetary aspects repeatedly refined over many years - perhaps most strikingly where EƤrendil is involved, who steers the body which takes his name and is the source of the enphialed light Galadriel gives Frodo.

David Llewellyn Dodds