Wednesday 4 November 2009

Tolkien as mystic

It is well known that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and attended mass frequently throughout his life. However, the comments of Ramer suggest that (unlike Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis) Tolkien may in addition have had religious or spiritual experiences, and probably some of his personal beliefs were related to these experiences.

However, these experiences (if that is what they are) are only discussed in fictionalized (or semi-fictionalized) form in Tolkien's work as published so far (so far as I know), perhaps because these experiences were private, or of dubious orthodoxy; or since Tolkien seems to have regarded specifically religious discourse as the province only of priests, accredited theologians and the like (one of the reasons that he was apparently uncomfortable with C.S. Lewis's highly successful explicitly religious writings).

On page 195 of the Notion Club Papers volume, Ramer comments that during sleep the mind inspects material that is presented to it from various sources. The club member Frankley picks up on the word 'presented' and asks whether this means that some of the material come from outside.

Ramer replies: "Yes. For instance: in a halting kind of way I had managed to get onto other vehicles; and in dream I did it better and more often. So other minds do that occasionally to me. Their resting on me need not be noticed, I think, or hardly at all; I mean, it need not affect me or interfere with me at all; but when they are doing so, and are in contact, then my mind can use them. The two minds don't tell stories to one another, even if they're aware of the contact. They are just in contact and can learn."

This strikes me as such an unusual idea that, again, I would regard Ramer as here reporting what was essentially Tolkien's own personal mystical or spiritual experience that was perceived as telepathic contact between his mind and other minds, occurring in dreams, and in which some of these other minds were non-human, and from outside the earth.

This interpretation emphasises the conviction behind the frequent assumptions of Tolkien scattered throughout his works that knowledge obtained in dreams may provide true information which would otherwise be unavailable; although he always makes clear that dreams can be confused, memories are often incomplete and distorted, and that human sinfulness and imperfection may warp the reporting and interpretation.

More than this, Tolkien (via Ramer) also states that there dream experiences have informed him that there is purposive evil in the universe, with a specific purpose of harming humans (among other things, presumably), and that this evil may have widespread influence on humanity via dream experiences.

The reality of purposive evil is of course a major element in Tolkien's legendarium including LotR. This is a view of life which is mainstream among humans throughout most of the modern world, and has been universal (so far as we know) throughout most of history and until recently - yet of course it is not now part of the moral system of secular modern societies, where 'evil' is regarded as only the 'privation', or lack, of good (as Ralph Waldo Emerson termed it).

But the modern secular elite ruling class does not believe in evil as either positive or pervasive. To talk of evil in everyday elite life in the way that Tolkien does here is to elicit sniggering condescension at best, or more likely to be regarded as a deranged and dangerous reactionary.

Nonetheless, it is clear that in 'real life' Tolkien believed in the reality of purposive evil, and this is also a major theme in his works where such evil operates spiritually in dreams as well as materially in the waking world.

There are two notes to this above passage which expand on the point - one which is part of the fictional text on pages 195-6 purportedly authored by the fictional Notion Club Secretary Nicholas Guildford, in relation to the telepathic 'reading' of other minds in contact. This concludes with:

"There's a danger there, of course. You might inspect a mind and think you were looking at a record (true in its own terms of things external to you both), when it was really the other mind's composition, fiction. There's lying in the universe, some very clever lying. I mean, some very potent fiction is specially composed to be inspected by others and to deceive, to pass as record; but is made for the malefit of Man. If men already lean to lies, or have thrust aside the guardians, they may read some very maleficial stuff. It seems that they do."

['Malefit' is a word invented by Tolkien meaning the opposite of 'benefit']

This is amplified by note 47 printed on page 217 which is an early version of this passage, containing the following more explicit account of what Tolkien was driving-at:

"To judge by the ideas men propogate now, their curious unanimity, and obsession, I should say that a terrible lot of men have thrust aside the Guardians, and are reading very maleficial stuff.'

The nature of the 'Guardians' will be elucidated later in the main text as printed. But the first draft makes clear that Ramer (and perhaps Tolkien?) is making the suggestion that purposive evil can perhaps work in dreams to mislead misguided human minds, en masse, to believe false and damaging stuff; and that this may be an explanation for the coordinated deluded behaviour that Ramer sees in mainstream public opinion.

Whether this description of the operations of evil reflects Tolkien's real life conviction, his real life suspicions, or is a purely fictional device - it is a remarkable idea: the idea that humankind has been, and presumably is being, corrupted and led to disaster by wrong human choices made during dreams, and by deliberately false knowledge spread by purposive evil during dreams.

I have never come across anything like this idea before - yet it is just one of the many amazing and haunting ideas which Tolkien scatters through the NCPs; and provides yet more evidence of the depth of fecundity and profound originality of Tolkien's creativity.


Bombadil said...

The whole business seems to link in very well with the account of the palantiri as shown in LotR. The palantiri themselves are not bad, and are a means to allow minds to inspect each other from far off. However, they are dangerous, as since the capture of the Ithil stone by Sauron's forces, the user may be subject to his malign influence.

And of course we have the two clear examples of such influence on a mind. Saruman is given as a case where the user recognises the presence of the malign mind and submits to it. Denethor is the more interesting case, as he attempts, and believes that he has submitted the stone to his will. However, Sauron merely permits him to see what he would have him see. Denethor becomes exhausted by his use of the stone, and his mind is twisted by the perversely edited version of reality that is presented to him through it.

Bruce Charlton said...

Good comparison. Thanks.