1936 was the crucial year for Tolkien and Lewis: not exactly the annus mirabilis (year of miracles) but at least the annus divertium (watershed year).
In 1936 (probably), Lewis and Tolkien agreed each to write a book that exemplified a particular rare mythical quality they both prized.
About this time Lewis finished his first major critical book The Allegory of Love and Tolkien published The Hobbit - so maybe they both felt able to indulge themselves, spread their wings.
Also, The Inklings had been going for a few years, so they had a sympathetic audience among whom to try out their ideas.
But (to indulge in alternative history!) if Lewis and Tolkien had not made this turn towards 'mythology' in 1936, then we would never have heard of the Inklings:
Lewis would probably be known only as a Christian apologist and Tolkien as a writer of children's adventure books (because The Hobbit sequel would have been simply a Hobbit-sequel - and not the Lord of the Rings).
Lewis's book turned-out to be a space travel novel published as Out of the Silent Planet (OSP), leading onto Perelandra and That Hideous Strength and then the Narnia chronicles;
while Tolkien's time travel story never got further than draft fragments published after his death as The Lost Road (LR - written c. 1936-7) and its reworking as The Notion Club Papers (NCPs - written 1945-6)...
but which (very significantly) fed-into LotR.
So, without the Lost Road and NCPs there would be no LotR.
And this fact is not sufficiently - or not at all - recognized!
It is likely that without their friendship and collaboration, Lewis and Tolkien would not have made this step into mythology - they needed each other.
The relationship was no symmetrical: probably Tolkien needed Lewis even more than the reverse: needed Lewis in order to get his longer works finished.
After the Inklings waned, Tolkien found it impossible to complete any but the shortest of books.
The importance of OSP has been overshadowed by the Narnia chronicles, while the importance of the unpublished LR/ NCPs was (obviously and rightly!) obliterated by The Lord of the Rings.
However, to view these works through the retrospectoscope is misleading.
At the time they were written these mythical fictions represented a new departure for the authors, and a new attempt at engagement with a wider adult audience.
If the core Inklings are to be considered as functioning as a Christian, counter-revolutionary, reactionary 'conspiracy' to re-mythologize England' (to reconnect England's increasingly secular and disenchanted life with the mythical thinking; as I argue passim in this blog) - then 1936 is the year when this project began.
This may seem hard to justify in the case of Tolkien, since it was only about a year later that he began LotR. And of course that was the book which eventually successfully combined the mythic seriousness of the earlier 'Silmarillion' legends with the narrative appeal of the Hobbit.
But for a long time The Lord of the Rings was 'merely' a sequel to The Hobbit - it was not conceived as the ambitious synthesis it eventually became.
My personal impression from reading the early drafts of LotR published in the History of Middle Earth is that it was actually many years down the line that LotR became recognizably the kind of book it eventually was.
Indeed, it could be argued (and I am arguing it here!) that The Hobbit-sequel/ Lord of the Rings probably did not become fully and finally a long, serious, mythic adult novel until after The Notion Club Papers were drafted in 1945-6.
Until about Septenber of 1946, I think that LotR was - on the whole - 'merely' a Hobbit sequel - i.e. primarily an adventure book with just glimpses of mythic depth.
And, as such, LotR had stalled - for explicit reasons (to do with discrepancies in the timings of phases of the moon!) which seem wholly inadequate to explain such severe 'writers block'.
My guess is that LotR stalled because Tolkien was bored with writing an adventure story - and this is why he embarked on the highly ambitious Notion Club Papers - taking-up again the main Inklings project to influence the direction of English culture by 're-mythologizing' it.
The intention of the NCPs seems to have been to produce a 'modern' style novel which introduced the (still growing) 'Silmarillion' annals to a general literary audience: framing them as feigned history, and proving a mythic rationale.
So it is important to recognize that, although unfinished and unpublished, LR and NCP were in fact for many years Tolkien's most ambitious works.
The Lost Road and Notion Club Papers were where Tolkien explicitly planned at, aimed-at, achieving his long-term aspiration and project to re-connect modern men with the world of mythology -
...whereas, by contrast, the Lord of the Rings was conceived as - more-or-less - an 'entertainment'; and this was (I suspect) still not rejected with any certainty until after the NCPs were abandoned and work on LotR re-commenced in the autumn of 1946.
At which point it seems (to me) that Tolkien decided to infuse The Hobbit-sequel/ Lord of the Rings with a new seriousness and mythic depth - drawn from Tolkien's immediate experience in drafting the NCPs.
The Lord of the Rings is usually considered to be a fusion of the Hobbit and Silmarillion, along the lines of :
LotR = Hobbit + Silmarillion
But I am suggesting that this is wrong.
In my opinion, the proximate cause of the nature of The Lord of the Rings was actually a fusion of the Middle Earth world of The Hobbit with the mythic-spirit of Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers - and the relationship of LotR with the Silmarillion was less direct and more optional.
So the correct formulation is more along the lines of:
LotR = Hobbit + LR/ NCPs (+/- Silmarillion)
Note added: The main incompleteness of the argument above, concerns the timing of writing the NCPs (late 1945 to summer of 1946) and my assumption of a significant discontinuity in the manuscript of LotR. What would clinch the argument above would be the demonstration that the LotR MS written after NCP is significantly different from what came before. Or at least there would need to be an increased clarity and firmness of purpose after NCP - of the type and in the direction suggested (such that linkages between the mythic era and modern man were stronger and plainer). I do not have a clear enough grasp of the progress of the LotR MS over this time period to be sure whether or not this is the case - it seems to me that there may be such a discontinuity, but I may be wrong.
Tolkien did comment in a letter to Stanley Unwin already in October 1938 that The Lord of the Rings ‘was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more 'adult' - but my own children who criticize it as it appears are now older.’ (Letters no. 34) Tolkien regularly ascribed the more adult tone of the sequel to the original audience having grown up, but of course that need not be the whole story.
However intriguing I find your idea, I think it may prove very difficult to find sufficient evidence, in particular as shift in tone had become detectable by the author as early as 1938/9.
On the other hand, it may be possible to work out something based on the change from Trotter to Strider, from Hobbit to scion of Númenor. While the Silmarillion legendarium provided the setting and the antagonist, the main protagonists were provided by The Hobbit and The Lost Road (the Elves are remarkably passive in The Lord of the Rings — acting mainly as givers of gifts both as artefacts and knowledge).
I would say that Verlyn Flieger provides exactly this evidence in A Question of Time and Interrupted Music - she shows how many thematic and specific elements from tLR and tNCPs are incorporated into LotR - including hints of the 'framing' of LotR by the NCPs.
All that I have added to this is to point out the *ambition* of the early works, and that it may be precisely this ambition which was transferred to LotR that made such a big difference - rather than the numerous thematic and detailed points which Verlyn Flieger highlights.
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