Saturday 30 October 2010

Evidence to prove Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6


I suppose that it is well known among expert scholars that Tolkien had a psychological breakdown in 1945-6 -

- especially since the publication of The JRR Tolkien Companion Guide Chronology edited by Christina Scull & Wayne G Hammond (2006).

But the fact does not seem generally known among Tolkien fans.

Yet it is a fact of considerable interest - especially in terms of the composition of Lord of the Rings, its prolonged interruption from 1944 to the second half of 1946; and it gives added interest to the unfinished Notion Club Papers novel composed during this hiatus and (I suspect) conveying information concerning Tolkien's strange state of mind.


When I first read Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of Tolkien, it seemed clear to me that some personal facts had been left out - and I read something to confirm this sometime later - I think it was an interview with Carpenter.

Reading the Notion Club Papers, about five years ago, perhaps? - I became intrigued by the experiences of altered consciousness described in that novel - and strongly suspected that they were Tolkien's own experiences. The novel was begun at the Christmas period of 1945 and was worked-on over the next months (probably).

Reading Warnie Lewis's selected dairies (Brothers and Friends) I noticed two entries which confirmed my suspicions:

Saturday 15 December 1945: "Tollers [i.e. Tolkien] and I went out by the 9.35 [train] on Tuesday morning and spent a pleasant day together; he spoke with much more frankness about his domestic life that he has ever used to me before, and did me good in making me realize how trivial after all are the things which I have to complain of at [the] Kilns."

Tuesday 2nd April 1946: "An exquisite sping morning, J[ack] poor devil in Manchester. To the Bird and baby where I was joined by Humphrey [Havard], Tollers and Chris[topher Tolkien]. Tollers looking wonderfully improved by his restcure at Stonyhurst, and in great spirits (having packed his wife off to Brighton for ten days). He has shut up his house and he and Chris are living at the Bear at Woodstock..."

My impression was confirmed on re-reading Tolkien's selected letters - To Michael Tolkien 1 November 1963: "...I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 - that was awful.)


This was amply confirmed by the Chronology (Quotes) :

Page 296 - Christmas vacation 1946-August 1946. Tolkien writes during 'a fortnight of comparative leisure' around Christmas 1945 [the beginnings of The Notion Club Papers].

Page 297 - End of 1945-early 1946 ...But neither [Simonne d'Ardenne] nor Tolkien are in sufficiently good health to do extensive work.

Page 298 - End of February-March 1946. Tolkien is ill, the result of various worries.

Page 299 - 20 March 1946. ... He is unwell, and although his doctor has ordered him to apply for a term's leave, he realizes that this is impossible in the present academic plight, short of a complete collapse. He is, however, going away for a while...

25 March - 1 April 1946. Tolkien stays at New Lodge in Stonyhurst, Lancashire (...). In a letter to Stanley Unwin on 21 July 1946 he will say that he came 'near to a real breakdown' around this time, and went away and 'ate and slept and did nothing else, by orders, but only for three weeks, and not for the six months that my doctor prescribed...

Page 301 - Early June 1946. ... he is unwell and also heavily engaged with an extremely difficult term...

Page 302 - 21 July 1946. Letter to Stanly Unwin... I have been ill, worry and overwork mainly, but am a good deal recovered... I hope after this week actually to - write.

Page 305 - c 23 September 1946... Tolkien returns again to The Lord of the Rings [delayed by the 'tiresome business of the election to the Merton Chair'].

So by September, and probably a few weeks earlier Tolkien was recovered.


This makes the dates of Tolkien's psychological problems building-up to become severe approx December 1945 - and resolving around July of 1946.


1945-6 Tolkien's nervous breakdown - whilst writing the Notion Club Papers


Tolkien seems to have written most of The Notion Club Papers during the darkest time of his life - the period of somewhat more than a year following his appointment to the Merton Chair of English Language and literature in June 1945.

The root of the problem seems to have been over work and stress brought on by the fact that he took on the duties of the new professorship (from October of 1945) while overlapping with duties of his previous professorship (in Anglo Saxon, at Pembroke College). So he was doing a double work load, plus all the extra work of taking on a new job.

Another factor he refers to in later correspondence was that this was the only period of his academic life when he had to teach subjects in which he was not interested, and that he absolutely hated this. I am unsure exactly what aspect of teaching that this comment refers to - but the wound was lasting.

The Chronology of late 1945 into 1946 - published in JRR Tolkien: a companion and guide by C Scull and WG Hammond in 2006 - is studded with references to Tolkien's overwrought mental state at this time - including the need to take a period of absence from work on medical advice.

In a nutshell, Tolkien suffered what would loosely be termed a 'nervous breakdown' at this period - an illness characterized, it seems, by anxiety and depression.

And it was precisely during this period he wrote the Notion Club Papers, with their accounts of strange psychological experiences, especially of dream states and perceived travel to other times and places.

It seems reasonable to imagine that Tolkien was going through something similar at this time - however modified these experiences were in the telling (previous entries in this blog detail the specific documented links between Tolkien's experiences and those of Ramer - I would guess that this is the tip of an iceberg of correspondences).

It is interesting that Tolkien, despite the extreme psychological stresses, did not stop writing; but worked out these experiences in fictional terms.

It may also be significant that when Tolkien resumed work on the Lord of the Rings after the break at this time, the book had firmly become a deeper and more serious book than it was when he embarked upon it as a sequel to the hobbit.

My feeling is that the nervous breakdown experience of late 1945-1946 had a permanent effect on Tolkien - and that the effect was beneficial to his writing; on the one hand increasing its emotional depth, and on the other hand - and this is very speculative - giving him a surer access to altered psychological states, especially dreams, which provided a bedrock of other-worldly sub-creative reality to the Lord of the Rings.

I tend to think that without the nervous breakdown of 1945-6, and without the experience of writing the Notion Club Papers - the Lord of the Rings would have been a different and lesser book.


Who is Wilfrid Jeremy? C.W? C.R.T?


While I realize that the Notion Club members do not have exact correspondences with the real life Inklings, there is clearly a germ of some real life Inklings in them :- Ramer as Tolkien (in views and experiences), Loudham as Dyson (in personality), Dolbear as Havard (pretty exact depiction, I guess!).

The great absences are Lewis - who was the leader of the real life Inklings - and Williams, who died shortly before the NCPs were written.

The absence of Lewis is explained in term of the Notion Club spending so much time talking *about* Lewis.

But what of Williams?

Could Williams contribute to the character of Jeremy perhaps?

My suspicion comes from the frequent bird-like comparisons of Jeremy - perhaps Tolkien found something bird-like in the mannerisms of Williams?

But Williams was older than Tolkien - whereas Jeremy comes across as a younger, more eager, impulsive member of the Notion Club.

So my main identification is with Christopher Tolkien.

I have no idea whether the young Christopher Tolkien was bird-like in some of his mannerisms - but I would not be surprised if he was.

Also this would fit with Jeremy's relative youthfulness among the other club members, and his taking on the role of the eternal 'son' in the reborn 'avatars' of the NCP plot.

Christopher Tolkien does not mention any such relation between himself and Jeremy, but then he does not discuss Jeremy's relation to the real Inklings, whereas he does for all the other major characters - which might be a significant omission!

So those are my guesses for the germ of Jeremy - probably Christopher Tolkien, perhaps a dash of Charles Williams.


Thursday 28 October 2010

Real history becoming more mythical


[Jeremy] ..."Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernably significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like."

"In any case, these ancient accounts, legends, myths, about the far past, about the origins of kings, laws, and the fundamental crafts, are not all made of the same ingredients.

They're not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots."

"Roots in what?" said Frankley.

"In Being, I think I should say," Jeremy answered; "and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and the designs of Geography - I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance.

"A sort of parallel to the fact that from far away the Earth would be seen as a revolving sunlit globe; and that is a remote truth of enormous effect on us and all we do, though not immediately discernable on earth, where practical men are quite right in regarding the surface as flat and immovable for practical purposes.

"Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past.

"And mind you, there are real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: the grains on which the stories crystallize like snowflakes.

There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle."

The Notion Club Papers - page 227.



At the end, I think Tolkien is alluding to the small, and unpredictable, 'facts' around which myth grows.

There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle - the idea is that someone of this name triggered the myth-making.

Somehow, once a myth has grown, it is impossible to discern these specific facts, and their relevance is either limited or non-existent (because it is the myth which matters) - yet it is also a fact that the myth grew here and nowhere else, around these seeds and not others.

This may simply be a case of human knowledge being very limited.


I saw this process at work when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash, under sordid circumstances.

Immediately beforehand she had been unpopular; immediately after she was killed a vast mythic edifice mushroomed and pushed aside everything which had been before.

There was a grain of truth, or a few grains, at the centre of this myth - but mostly it was an archetypal construction of a beautiful princess and devoted young mother, filled with compassion for the suffering world - there seemed to be elements of Mary - Mother of God, Galadriel and Cinderella.

It did not last, The oral process stripped it away because - well who really knows why.

Probably because the Diana myth did not fulfill a need or serve a purpose; but then, who really knows - explicitly - what specific purpose individual myths are serving?


Tuesday 26 October 2010

The daimonic force of great myths and legends


From The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien – in Sauron Defeated, Volume IX of the History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Page 228, Ramer speaking:

“I don’t think you realize, I don’t think any of us realize, the force, the daimonic force that the great myths and legends have.

“From the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them, and from the multiplication of them in many minds – and each mind, mark you, an engine of obscured but unmeasured energy.

“They are like an explosive: it may slowly yield a steady warmth to living minds, but if suddenly detonated, it might go off with a crash: yes, might produce a disturbance in the real primary world.”


This is surely a profound truth.

People do live by myths, or aspire to – and if they lack noble myths (as people mostly do at present), then they live by sordid myths.

And myths have daimonic force.


One current myth with daimonic force are the ‘trickster’ stories ( , which underlie much popular culture – myths concerning a protagonist who is amoral, un-idealistic, selfish, hedonistic. Someone who breaks the rules, not for higher or transcendent goals, but for their own benefit.

Thieves and fences, serial seducers, bon viveurs, escapists, bounty hunters, skivers and sturdy beggars, druggies and drunks, guns for hire, rock stars and rappers, wide boys, liars, blaggers and charm merchants.


This myth (or rather, the many myths and stories featuring this archetypal figure) has such force because these protagonists are (we imagine) living by id not super-ego, by instinct not training; and thereby in touch with ‘life’ –that connection so painfully missing in the world of the bureaucratic state which we inhabit.

Tricksters are also (supposedly, we would like to believe) indestructibly happy – utterly unconcerned by the future, able to evade all attempts to entrap them with duty, escaping again and again into living for the moment hedonism.

The trickster comes to the fore when other myths are not possible or cannot be conceived, when (in a world where pleasure is the only ‘real’ good) the choice seems between deadly dutiful planned conformity and impulsive parasitic selfishness.


Typically this myth is enacted unconsciously - but not always. There are those (especially among intellectuals) who deliberately take-upon themselves this role, and propagandize it.

There embrace of the daimonic then becomes literally demonic; inflated with pride they are sometimes rewarded with extra-ordinary, quasi-hypnotic powers of mind control and fascination.

They defend themselves with mockery, with promises of invulnerable pleasure to those who follow their teachings, and - if pressed - with the burning conviction that all good is pretense and hypocrisy and that they alone are the truth-tellers.

Although unable to construct or create, in our degenerate, weak, faddish society; such tricksters eild great influence; and the myths of tricksters divert any possibility of constructive dissatisfaction into chaotic predation and self-destruction.


Yes, myth does have daimonic force, easily powerful enough to destroy anything; and the only force which can restrain destructive myth is creative myth.


Wednesday 6 October 2010

Evil minds attacking during sleep

From The Notion Club Papers - an unfinished novel by JRR Tolkien. In Sauron Defeated - The History of Middle Earth Volume IX. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 1992. Pages 195-7.

"'[Ramer said:] is largely a rest-time, sleep. As often as not the mind is inactive, not making things up (for instance). It then just inspects what is presented to it, from various sources - with very varying degrees of interest, I may say. It's not really frightfully interested in the digestion and sex items sent in by the body.'

"'What is presented to it, you say?' said Frankley. 'Do you mean that some of the presentments come from outside, are shown to it?'

"'Yes. For instance: in a halting kind of way I had managed to get on to 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 just are in contact and can learn.

"'After all, a wandering mind (if it's at all like mine) will be much more interested in having a look at what the other knows than in trying to explain to the stranger the things that are familiar to itself.'

"'Evidently if the Notion Club could all meet in sleep, they'ld find things pretty topsy-turvy,' said Lowdham.

"'What kind of minds visit you?' asked Jeremy. 'Ghosts?

"'Well, yes of course, ghosts,' said Ramer. 'Not departed human spirits, though; not in my case, as far as I can tell..'.

"'Beyond that what shall I say? Except that some of them seem to know about things a very long way indeed from here. It is not a common experience with me, at least my awareness of any contact is not.'

"'Aren't some of the visitors malicious?' said Jeremy. 'Don't evil minds attack you ever in sleep?'

"'I expect so,' said Ramer. 'They're always on the watch, asleep or awake.

"'But they work more by deceit than attack. I don't think they are specially active in sleep. Less so, probably. I fancy they find it easier to get at us awake, distracted and not so aware. The body's a wonderful lever for an indirect influence on the mind, and deep dreams can be very remote from its disturbance.

"'Anyway, I've very little experience of that kind - thank God!

"'But there does come sometimes a frightening... a sort of knocking at the door: it doesn't describe it, but that'll have to do. I think that is one of the ways in which that horrible sense of fear arises: a fear that doesn't seem to reside in the remembered dream-situation at all, or wildly exceeds it.

"'I'm not much better off than anyone else on this point, for when that fear comes, it usually produces a kind of dream- concussion, and a passage is erased round the true fear-point.

"'But there are some dreams that can't be fully translated into sight and sound. I can only describe them as resembling such a situation as this: working alone, late at night, withdrawn wholly into yourself; a noise, or even a nothing sensible, startles-you; you get prickles all over, become acutely self-conscious, uneasy, aware of isolation: how thin the walls are between you and the night.

"'That situation may have various explanations here. But out (or down) there sometimes the mind is suddenly aware that there is a night outside, and enemies walk in it: one is trying to get in.

"'But there are no walls,' said Ramer sombrely. 'The soul is dreadfully naked when it notices it, when that is pointed out to it by something alien. It has no armour on it, it has only its being. But there is a guardian.

"'He seems to command precipitate retreat. You could, if you were a fool, disobey, I suppose. You could push him away. You could have got into a state in which you were attracted by the fear. But i can't imagine it.

"' I'ld rather talk about something else.' "



At this point in The Notion Club Papers, Ramer seems to be Tolkien's mouthpiece. I assume that the experiences he describes were, more or less, those of Tolkien (specific examples of this are confirmed in several footnotes by Christopher Tolkien).

This was written, according to the Chronology published in JRR Tolkien: a companion and guide by Hammond and Scull, at around the lowest point in Tolkien's life - associated with him doing the work of two Oxford Professorships at the same time (coving his move from the Pembroke chair of Anglo Saxon to the Merton chair of English Language and Literature), and also having to teach subjects in which he had no interest.

At any rate, it seems that Tolkien had direct personal experience of dreams in which he felt himself under attack by malicious minds.

C.S Lewis drew upon similar experiences in his work - most obviously in the Screwtape letters; and the work of Charles Williams is permeated with the phenomenon. These matters were discussed in The Inklings meetings.

So, seventy years ago it was apparently the case that highly prestigious and able individuals (who had and continue to have a major cultural influence) were openly discussing the 'supernatural' workings of evil purpose in the universe.

Seventy years later, to do so is - for mainstream public discourse, at least in the UK - taken to be evidence of craziness or simple-mindedness (the sort of thing that only 'fundamentalists' might engage in).

Is this progress? What discoveries were made over recent decades that rendered this kind of discussion absurd? Are we (as individuals, as a culture), nowadays, smarter, more insightful, wiser, more-learned, more honest than the circle of Tolkien and Lewis?

Or are we, perhaps, inferior in almost every respect - individually and culturally? So it seems.

In which case they are likely to know better than we; and we should be prepared to learn from them - or at the very least to take seriously what they took seriously.