Wednesday 1 May 2013

Tolkien travelling on a dream-meteor

This remarkable and strange passage from The Notion Club Papers is an instance where I infer that Tolkien is being - in essence - autobiographical.

Of course I cannot be sure, but Note 32 indicates one of several instances in the NCPs in which a very strange dream reported by Ramer is confirmed as autobiographical by Christopher Tolkien - and it seems reasonable to suppose there are others which Christopher either did not reference or which were not known to him (see references at the end).

For me, the extreme strangeness of these dreams (given that several are confirmed) is evidence towards their autobiographical nature - given the context of how and why the Notion Club Papers was written, and the intended audience of Inklings.


'But all the time, of course, I wanted to get off the Earth. That's how I got the notion of studying a meteorite, instead of mooning about with houses, ruins, trees, boulders, and all sorts of other things.

'There is a very large meteorite in a park, Gunthorpe Park in Matfield, where I lived as a boy, after we came back from abroad; even then it had a strange fascination for me. I wondered if it could have come from Malacandra. I took to hobnobbing with it again, in the vacs.

'Indeed, I made myself ridiculous and an object of suspicion. I wanted to visit the stone alone at night - to lessen the distractions; but I was not allowed to: closing hours were closing hours. So I gave that up. It seemed to be quite without results.'

'So the poor old stone was left all alone?' said Lowdham.

'Yes,' said Ramer. 'It was. It is a very long way indeed from home, and it is very lonely. That is, there is a great loneliness in it, for a perceiver to perceive.

'And I got a very heavy dose of it. In fact I can't bear to look at such things now. For I found, about the end of the long vac. two years ago, after my final visit, that there had been results. It had evidently taken some time to digest them, and even partially translate them. But that is how I first got away, out beyond the sphere of the Moon, and very much further.'

'Travelling on a dream-meteor!' said Frankley. 'Hm! So that's your method, is it?'

'No,' said Ramer. 'Not if you mean how I got the news of Emberu that I put into my tale. But I did work back into the meteorite's history, I think; though that sort of vehicle does not readily give any place or time references that can be related to our waking point.

'I did get, all the rest of that term, and I still do get occasionally, some very odd dreams or sleep-experiences: painful often, and alarming. Some were quite unpictorial, and those were the worst.

'Weight, for instance. Just Weight with a capital W: very horrible. But it was not a weight that was pressing on me, you understand; it was a perception of, or sympathy in, an experience of almost illimitable weight.(Note 34)

'And Speed too. Heavens! waking up from that one was like hitting a wall, though only a wall of light and air in my bedroom, at a hundred miles a second - or rather, like knowing about it.

'And Fire! I can't describe that. Elemental Fire: fire that is, and does not consume, but is a mode or condition of physical being. But I caught sight of blazing fire, too: some real pictures. One, I think, must have been a glimpse of the meteorite hitting our air. A mountain corroded into a boulder in a few seconds of agonizing flame.

'But above, or between, or perhaps through all the rest, I knew endlessness. That's perhaps emotional and inaccurate. I mean Length with a capital L, applied to Time; unendurable length to mortal flesh. In that kind of dream you can know about the feeling of aeons of constricted waiting.

'Being part of the foundations of a continent, and upholding immeasurable tons of rock for countless ages, waiting for an explosion or a world-shattering shock, is quite a common situation in parts of this universe. In many regions there is little or no "free will" as we conceive it. Also, though they are large and terrific, events may be relatively simple in plan, so that catastrophes (as we might call them), sudden changes as the end of long repeated series of small motions, are "inevitable": the present holds the future more completely. A perceiving but passive mind could see a collapse coming from an immense distance of time.

'I found it all very disturbing. Not what I wanted, or at least not what I had hoped for. I saw, anyway, that it would take far too much of a mortal human life to get so accustomed to this kind of vehicle that one could use it properly, or selectively, at will. I gave it up.

'No doubt, when any degree of control was achieved, my mind would no longer have been limited to that particular vehicle or chunk of matter. The waking mind is not confined to the memories, heredity, or senses, of its own normal vehicle, its body: it can use that as a platform to survey the surroundings from. 

'So, probably, it could, if it ever mastered another vehicle: it could survey, in some fashion, other things where the meteorite (say) came from, or things it had passed in its historical journey. But that second transference of observation would certainly be much more difficult than the first, and much more uncertain and inefficient.

Note 34 (by Christopher Tolkien): My father once described to me his dream of 'pure Weight', but I do not remember when that was: probably before this time.


See also



Wm Jas said...

I've had very unusual abstract dreams triggered by spending a lot of time with fossils -- once a Pterodactylus, and once a Glyptodon. Seems vaguely similar to this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Did these dreams *feel* real?

Bruce Charlton said...

My current *guess* is that the meteorite which stimulated this dream may have been the Nantan meterorite in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

This is currently on touchable display - and I have touched it myself! - but I don't know whether it was touchable at the relevant period of Tolkien's life.

Troels said...

I should have been more precise about my scepticism (sorry!).

I am quite aware that Tolkien would, at least occasionally, remember his dreams and that he might attribute them to his characters: the dream of ‘the Wave’ which he gave to Faramir is probably the best known example, though the examples from The Notion Club Papers are of course also known.

However, there is a very large leap from saying that Tolkien had a dream that he remembered and later assigned that dream to a character in a story, to saying that Tolkien himself attributed in Primary Reality to these dreams the significance and abilities that are attributed to dreams in the NCP. This leap I would wish to have substantiated by something more than fiction (i.e. the NCP), but I have not yet found anything on this in either the published letters, in the authorized biography, or in Scull and Hammond's J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

And even should there be something to suggest this, there is from there still some way to the claim that Tolkien deliberately experimented with such dream voyages and believed his experiments successful.

Wm Jas said...

No, they didn't feel especially real.