Sunday 23 January 2011

Free-will, purpose, prophecy and providence in Tolkien


From The Quest of Erebor in Unfinished Tales by JRR Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien, published 1980)


"Listen to me, Thorin Oakenshield! [said Gandalf]. "If this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not, you will fail. A foresight is on me, and I am warning you."


Looking hard at Gandalf, [Gimli] went on:

"But who wove the web? I do not think I have ever considered that before. Did you plan all this then, Gandalf? (...)

Gandalf did not answer at one.

He stood up and looked out of the window, west, seawards; and the sun was then setting, and a glow was in his face.

He stood so a long while silent.

But at last he turned to Gimli and said:

"I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle Earth as I was then.

"In those days I should have answered you with words like I used to Frodo, only last year in the spring.

"Only last year! But such measures are meaningless.

"In that far distant time I said to a small and frightened Hobbit: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it.

"And I might have added: and I was meant to guide you both to those points.

"To do that I used in my waking mind only such means as were allowed to me, doing what lay to my hand according to such reasons as I had." (...)

[Then Frodo said]: "I understand you a little better now, Gandalf, than I did before. Though I suppose that, whether meant or not, Bilbo might have refused to leave home, and so might I.

"You could not compel us. You were not even allowed to try." (...)

Gandalf said:

"It might all have gone very differently indeed.

The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his farstretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while he defended Gondor, if King Brand and King Dáin had not stood in his path.

When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash.

"But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree.

"A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth."


The Lord of the Rings is permeated by a deep understanding of the Christian concept of how free-will is compatible with with purpose, prophecy and providence.

When such matters seem seem paradoxical, or merely muddled, this is well worth pondering.


Friday 21 January 2011

The Notion Club Papers - why England, why Oxford?


In the Notion Club Papers as it might have become (i.e. 'Annals of the Notion Club' - ANC - as I term this imaginary production of Tolkien's) the main theme is (I infer) the re-establishment of  a link between Faery and contemporary Middle Earth (i.e. the modern world).

But why England, among all of Middle Earth?


In a nutshell, Tolkien saw himself (in some way, at some level) as the inheritor of an English racial memory of Faery - in his earliest legends (now published as Lost Tales) England had indeed been a part of Faery, and was especially favoured for this reason.

Tolkien regarded this memory as coming down his mother's side of the family, and therefore centred in Warwickshire (Mercia).


But why Oxford?

Tolkien had less strong but similarly mystical feelings about Oxford as he did about the nearby West Midlands of England, and of course he spent most of his working life at the University.

From the earliest writings now published in Lost Tales and in Tolkien and the Great War (by John Garth) we find Oxford given a special role in scholarship and related to Faery.

And from a practical point of view, Oxford in the early and mid-twentieth century was the perfect place from which knowledge of Faery might have been disseminated throughout the rest of England.


So, my guess is that the ANCs would have described the Inkling's-like Notion Club in Oxford as having first established a psychic link with Faery - with visionary material glimpsed during dreams, then having recovered extensive documentary evidence from Faery, and brought it back to Oxford for secret safe-keeping.

The benefits of this mythic knowledge would then enhance first the Notion Club members, then the rest of the University, with elven craft, depth, wisdom and mystery.

This special quality in the work of the Notion Club, and Oxford, would have been recognized by the English (who were genetically predisposed to appreciate it) and the effects and benefits would have been disseminated throughout England by means of Oxford's role in educating the administrators and teachers of the rest of England.


So, in order to re-establish contact between Middle Earth and Faery there would need to be efforts form both sides: both a push and a pull.

On the one hand a push from the members of the Notion Club who sense the shallowness and literalness of their world and their work, the damage of materialism and the ugliness of industrialization (e.g. Ramer's rather horrible dream of Oxford through the ages) - and seek to enrich it by contact with Faery.

And on the other hand a pull from the inhabitants of Faery. The elves were assumed (see Tolkien's back-story essay for Smith of Wooton Major) to have benign intentions towards humans and seek to help them.

Especially the inhabitants of Faery wish to help Men to adopt an attitude of love towards nature; to become 'elvishly' capable of disinterested craft, art, science and scholarship as things to be loved for their own sakes, rather than as a means to another end.

(So that these arts and crafts are not merely practised - as so often in the modern world - for the power, prestige or money they might yield.)


In sum - the Annals of the Notion Club would (I imagine) describe how the post-medieval process of 'myth turning into history' would be reversed; and first the Notion Club, then Oxford, then England, then maybe eventually the World, would be re-enchanted by elvish wisdom and suffused with an elvish perspective.


[And - as things have turned-out - Tolkien actually succeeded in his desire to fulfill this aspiration, to an extent which he would hardly have dared to hope-for; but via the Lord of the Rings as its focus, rather than by means of the Notion Club Papers.]


Who is Dolbear? A wizard/ angel/ messenger from Faery


The character of Dolbear jumps-out of the Notion Club Papers as somebody about whom there is more than meets the eye.

Almost everything he says is wise and cuts-deep.

He seems to understand more of what is going-on than anyone else.

He seems to be a kind of grey eminence at the least, greatly respected by the other members (underneath their chummy chaffing) and probably somebody who is - in fact - actually stage-managing the whole process by which the Notion Club re-establishes contact with Faery.

(We know Dolbear has certainly been working, independently, with Ramer even before the meetings were reported and also later with Lowdham - on their dreams and interpretations.)


In this sense Dolbear resembles Gandalf - who is a wizard or an 'angel' in disguise; in the sense of being a higher being from the undying lands who is a messenger and catalyst.

A catalyst in chemistry is an agent which facilitates a chemical reaction yet itself remains chemically unchanged by the reaction.

This would apply pretty exactly to Dolbear. I would guess that his character is solid, and would not change throughout the story.

And we would not have access to Dolbear's inner life - he would (like Gandalf) be observed rather than experienced.

He would make things happen, by hints and directions and providing key pieces of information.

And at the end of the story Dolbear would return (like Gandalf) whence he came - to Faery.


This is (I speculate) the meaning of Dolbear seeming to sleep though the meetings, yet remain apparently aware of everything which is happening in them - indeed more aware of the implications of the meetings than are the active participants.

I suspect that during sleep Dolbear is in contact with Faery and with the Notion Club at the same time.

He is therefore a conduit or passageway linking Oxford and the undying lands - he transmits the proceedings of the Notion Club to Faery, and receives instructions of what to do.

Dolbear's trance-like states of sleep are therefore (I believe) the specific means by which the inhabitants of Faery are encouraging the renewed contact between England and Faery which the Notion Club themselves seek.


An imaginary completed Notion Club Papers - form and character


The Notion Club Papers were probably written over a period of about 9 months between late 1945 and the middle of 1946.

As they stand there are a fascinating fragment, full of evidence about Tolkien and his deepest concerns; but of extremely limited appeal and either unpublishable or else destined only for a small cult audience.


If the NCPs had been completed they would, I believe, have ended-up very differently from the way they exist at present.

As argued by Verlyn Flieger in Interrupted music, I believe the purpose of the NCPs would have been to provide a frame for Tolkien's legendarium - in other words, a pseudo-historical 'explanation' for how the legends of the elves, Numenor and ancient Middle Earth were transmitted to our times (transmitted specifically to England, and even more specifically to Oxford).

How a link between Middle Earth (this modern world) and Faery was re-established.

The name I will give to this imaginary completed book is Annals of the Notion Club (or ANC for short; drawing upon the work of Flieger and of TA Shippey in describing Tolkien's fascination for 'Annals' - and their hinted depths beyond)


The shape of the Annals of the Notion Club would have been the same as Tolkien's other works - some kind of heroic quest in which the hero or heroes come into contact with 'Faery' and an ennobled by contact with 'higher things' and made wiser by their experience.

This implies that the ANC must have had a hero or heroes, and that (for dramatic interest) the reader would need to know the thoughts and feelings of this hero or heroes.

In other words, there would need to be characters - something which is lacking or indirect and inexplicit in the current NCPs.

In other words, character, feelings, thoughts would need to be more explicit - more novelistic.


The form of the NCPs, i.e. the literary conceit of their being the formal minutes of club meetings, would therefore need to be dropped or relaxed; to bring in much more direct forms of narrative or reportage.

This was already beginning to happen in the later parts of the NCPs, with the introduction of letters from Lowdham (plus some footnotes), and an extended 'dream sequence' which reports Lowdham's inner state during an Anglo Saxon episode.

So, in the ANC there would be a great expansion of such letters, and also probably diaries and journal entries - so as to bring the reader into more direct contact with the action.


In terms of character, the ANC would therefore need to get inside at least one of Guildford, Ramer, Lowdham and Jeremy.

My guess is that it would have been Guildford - the recorder, who would become the narrator, and speaking directly to the reader (to posterity) about the collection of minutes, letters, poems, fragments and journal entries which he has gathered and collated with the aim of preservation and propagation.

Probably, Guildford would have remained a rather subordinate character in terms of the action and excitement, and the extrovert Lowdham in particular would have emerged as the most obvious hero - supported by Jeremy who would - I guess, end-up being the main person responsible for achieving the quest to re-connect with Faery.

I suspect the Ramer character might therefore have receded in importance. His role might be in learning the languages necessary to interpret the documentary material eventually recovered from Faery. He might have done this in collaboration with Lowdham, or mostly on his own - but Ramer's role at the end of the ANC would perhaps be as scholarly interpreter of the texts brough back to Oxford by Jeremy (who seems not to be skilled as a philologist or historical linguist)

I would imagine that Lowdham would make the breakthrough, be responsible for navigating the boat and actually arriving in Faery; but then would stay-behind in faery (with his father) and Jeremy would be the one who returned to England bringing the legendarium.


In sum, the ANC would be presented as a collection of minutes, letters, journal entries etc. by Gulidford concerning the Notion Club in general and Lowdham and Jeremy in particular - telling the story of how a link between faery and England was re-established by the efforts of the Club - firstly in dreams then ultimately by a voyage to Faery.

The link between Faery would therefore be firstly psychic, and then secondly physical - such that at first there were glimpses, then a break-through of visionary material from the past having physical effect in England (the storm replicating the downfall of Numenor), then an actual voyage to Faery and the return of extensive documentary material - including recovered knowledge of how to understand it.


Saturday 8 January 2011

Curing the 'vulgarization' of England - from Smith of Wootton Major


As I infer and guess, the basic situation in The Notion Club Papers is that of Smith of Wooton Major; as explained by Tolkien in the essay which describes the back-story and is published in the (marvellous!) extended edition of 2005 by Verlyn Flieger.

The basic situation is, therefore, a 'vulgarized' Oxford, England, Western Civilization - a society out-of-contact with Faery: in more general terms, a society out-of-contact with myth.

Hence vulgar, coarsened, materialistic; without depth, meaning or purpose

The action of the Notion Club throughout the novel, I speculate, would have been aimed at restoring this contact between Faery and England; and indeed I speculate that the climax of the novel would have been precisely this re-establishment of contact.


From Tolkien's essay about SoWM:

"The crafts of Wootton, on which their present prosperity was based, actually owed their fame and commercial success in the beginning to the special skill and 'artistic' quality which contact with Faery had given to them.

"But the commercial success had for some time begun to have effect. The village had become comfortable and self-satisfied. The artistic quality of its products was declining, and to some extent also their traditional manual skill, though this had not yet affected their market

"But the village was in a danger which it did not see: a dwindling of its prosperity, which would not be maintained for ever by 'good name' and established connexions with eastern customers, nor by mere industry and business acumen. If the thread between the villagers and Faery was broken it would go back to its squalid beginnings.

"The vulgarization of Wootton is indicated by Nokes. He is obviously a somewhat extreme case, but clearly represents an attitude fast spreading in the village and growing in weight.

"The festivals are becoming, or have already become, mere occasions for eating and drinking. Songs, tales music dancing no longer play a part - at least they are not provided for (as is the cooking and catering) out of public funds, and if they take place at all it is in family parties, and especially in the entertainment of children. (...)

"History and legend and above all any tales touching on 'faery', have become regarded as children's stuff, patronizingly tolerated for the amusement of the very young.

"This situation is evidently one that has aroused the concern of Faery. Why? It is plainly shown that Faery is a vast world in its own right, that does not depend for its existence upon Men, and which is not primarily nor indeed principally concerned with Men.

"The relationship must therefore be one of love: the Elven Folk, the chief and ruling inhabitants of Faery, have an ultimate kinship with Men and have a permanent love for them in general.

"Though they are not bound by any moral obligation to assist Men, and do not need their help (except in human affairs), they do from time to time try to assist them, avert evil from them and have relations with them, especially through certain men and women whom they find suitable.

"They, the Elvenfolk are thus 'beneficent' with regard to Men, and are not wholly alien, though many things and creatures in Faery itself are alien to Men and even actively hostile. Their good will is seen mainly in attempting to keep or restore relationships between the two worlds, since the Elves (and still some Men) realize that this love of Faery is essential to the full and proper human development.

"The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship towards all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect, and removes or modifies the spirit of possession and domination. Without it even plain 'Utility' will in fact become less useful; or will turn to ruthlessness and lead only to mere power, ultimately destructive.

"It is probable that the world of Faery could not exist without our world, and is affected by the events in it — the reverse being also true. The 'health' of both is affected by state of the other.

"Men have not the power to assist the Elvenfolk in the ordering and defence of their realm; but the Elves have the power (subject to finding co-operation from within) to assist in the protection of our world, especially in the attempt to re-direct Men when their development tends to the defacing or destruction of their world.

"The Elves may thus have also an enlightened self-interest in human affairs." (...)



As scholars and writers, the Notion Club would have been aware of the necessity for human contact with Faery (i.e. with myth) in order that their work (as well as their lives) may be profound, imaginative and ennobled - and rise above mere 'utility'.

The means by which the club would restore contact with myth would, I assume, be the usual ones employed by Tolkien and of which hints exist in the incomplete and surviving NCP text: by a quest, by a hero who is an 'elf friend', and by a 'messenger' between Faery and the mundane world (certainly a human messenger, and probably an elven messenger as well).


Friday 7 January 2011

The essential meaning and purpose of the Notion Club Papers


Having brooded (some would say obsessively - and they would be right!) over Tolkien's Notion Club Papers for a couple of years, I am now going to move on to speculations about where the NCPs were tending; what the NCPs would have been about and what they would have been like - if ever Tolkien had finished the novel.


In a nutshell, I believe that although the Notion Club papers went through several stages in their development, and had several purposes, in the end they were intended to serve an extremely important purpose: to rescue modern England.

More exactly, since Tolkien's ouvre (his Legendarium) was intended to make a mythology for England; the Notion Club Papers were intended to link his mythical Legendarium to modern England.

Of this much I was persuaded by the work of Verlyn Flieger - especially her book Interrupted Music.

But I would go somewhat further and suggest that the NCPs would ultimately (if finished) have provided the actual operative myth which brought Tolkien's historical myth/s into action in the modern world.

In other words, the purpose of the NCPs was nothing less than to 'save' England (and perhaps other places too).


What was Tolkien 'saving' us from?

This is made explicit in the NCPs:

[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, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.(...)

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

"[The roots are] 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. (...)

 "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."


I believe that with the NCPs Tolkien was intending to tell us something true about the past, something that we need to know because at present England's past is merely history, when it should be myth.

The Notion Club Papers were intended to make England's history into myth - i.e. to reverse the process of myth dissolving into history described by Jeremy in the quote above.

Tolkien wanted, that is, contemporary history to dissolve into myth; and the NCPs were (as they evolved) aimed at achieving this.


Arguably, Tolkien has in fact already achieved his goal, although by other and less direct means - in the sense that many people (like myself) nowadays 'use' Tolkien's Legendarium as a myth by-which (and through-which) they understand and interpret the current world.

We do this despite the lack of an explicit and comprehensive mythical link between the Legendarium (saturated, as it is, with purpose and meaning) and the nihilistic modern world of objective irrelevant 'facts' and purely-individual subjectivities.

However, in order for this to have happened via the NCPs, they would need to have needed to end-up very differently from how they set out: in literary terms, the NCPs would have required very substantial re-writing, in ways which we can only extrapolate from hints and glimmerings.

But I believe that this extrapolation to an 'ideal' and finished Notion Club Papers can indeed be made - albeit only in outline - and this I hope to explain and demonstrate over the next several blog entries.


Wednesday 5 January 2011

A superhero Fellowship of the Ring


In an idle moment I found myself speculating about who would have made up The Fellowship of the Ring, if the members had been chosen on the basis of their 'power' (instead of being representative of the different races and types in Middle Earth, and by Elrond and Galndalf's intuitions.).

This is the list I came up with:

1. Gandalf (Leader of resistance to Sauron. Elvish ringbearer, Maia.)
2. Elrond (Leader of the free peoples of Middle Earth, very old yet with undiminished powers, prophet, greatest healer, Elvish ringbearer, great warrior)
3. Galadriel (Main elvish leader, elvish ringbearer, tremendous powers of foresight and mind-reading, great warrior).
4. Arwen (as a sort-of reincarnation of Luthien, who recovered a Silamril, would be expected to have great powers of enchantment).
5. Glorfindel (clearly an elf of tremendous strength with power to intimidate the Nazgul)
6. Aragorn (the greatest of men - and most of the greatest Middle Earth heroes have been men; hunter, tracker, warrior. A Man is needed in the Fellowship; since men, and hobbits, have an existential freedom of will denied to elves and Gods who are a part of the earth).
7. Sam Gamgee (as bearer of the One ring; since Sam is the person in middle earth with - apparently - the greatest resistance to the power of the Ring (possibly excepting Bilbo - who is too old to participate.)


Monday 3 January 2011

Tolkien and the sea-yearning - the meaning of Earendil


I was always puzzled by Tolkien's emphasis on the sea as an ultimate yearning.

In the Notion Club Papers there are the examples of Lowtham (and, especially, his father), and of the Numenoreans (the greatest mariners among all Men, perhaps even greater than the greatest elves), and of the Imram poem.

In Lord of the Rings all elves (even those whose ancestors have always dwelt inland, among the woods) are said to harbour a sea-yearning; indeed most of the most admirable and heroic characters (Aragorn being an exception) have this longing.

And Tolkien's original legendarium hero- Earendil - was of course a mariner. Also the very early Aelfwine character, who visited fairyland and linked it to England.


This has always struck me as strange - since Tolkien did not write very much detail about the sea in the way that he wrote about trees and mountains.

It seems to me that Tolkien's own sea longing was deeply buried, and that - unlike his heroes - in his actual behaviour Tolkien seems not to have had a need to get into boats and launch out onto the waves.


But Earendil may be the clue.

In essence, this complex and changing character was an 'angel'; a messenger, and specifically a messenger from earth to heaven.

Earendil also became an actual angel, apparently; being transformed from a human (elf or man) to a spiritual and semi-divine form. 

And (perhaps) Aelfwine was 'merely' a diluted and more materialistically-plausible version of Earendil the messenger; bringing back knowledge of the elves to Middle earth.


I think Tolkien regarded the sea longing as an aspect or representation of saintliness, where sainthood is conceptualized as being a link between the earthly and heavenly realms, the saint as intercessor for humankind with God.

And that Tolkien saw this - on the one had - as the highest conceivable human calling; yet on the other hand - not his personal calling.

So Tolkien wrote-about the sea-longing as representing sainthood - the highest aspiration; but did not himself share this longing to a significant extent, and did not regard himself as a saint nor called to strive for sainthood.

He was, pretty much, happy enough with trees. 


More specifically still, I would say that the sea-longing stands for ascetic sainthood - the launch into the unknown and placing oneself (ultimately, whatever strivings are needed for navigation) at God's mercy.

The single-minded pursuit of holiness.

The obvious link here is Tolkien's Imram versions of the St Brendan legend, which appears in the NCPs.


Spiritual striving towards sanctity is, at some level, what Tolkien's mariner heroes are doing - when their sea-desire is not corrupted into power-seeking and conquest (as happened to the Numenoreans).


In real life, Tolkien achieved the lower (although still highly admirable) aim of communion with nature in the forms of a well-tilled landscape, of woodland and forest especially, and with yearning glances in the direction of distant mountain peaks.

But although the even-higher yearning towards the sea fascinated Tolkien, it was probably somewhat alien to his nature.

He repeatedly, compulsively, with fascination and admiration, wrote about those individuals (and races) who were subject to this sea-yearning, and seemed to accord them the highest esteem - yet I would guess Tolkien himself did not directly share this yearning, which is why he wrote comparatively little about the sea itself, and even less about the experience of sea-going.