Tuesday 22 October 2013

The wind siezes them and drives them away... Failing to get to Faery: Tolkien's strangely lame recurrent plot idea


For a period of about thirty years - stretching from his earliest sketched and planned stories published in Lost Tales all the way down to The Notion Club Papers - Tolkien recurrently noted what seems like a very bad idea for a plot, which is that someone has a long and hazardous voyage to the land of the elves - and then just as it comes into sight, sound or smell they get driven back to mortal shores.

I present three excepts, with bold emphasis added to the relevant passage:


From 1920 - The History of Eriol or AElfwine, Book of Lost Tales Volume 2 - page 327:

The night-flowers are opening in Faery,' said AElfwine; 'and behold,' said Bior," 'the Elves are kindling candles in their silver dusk,' and all looked whither his long hand pointed over their dark stern.

Then none spoke for wonder and amaze, seeing deep in the gloaming of the West a blue shadow, and in the blue shadow many glittering lights, and ever more and more of them came twinkling out, until ten thousand points of flickering radiance were splintered far away as if a dust of the jewels self-luminous that Feanor made were scattered on the lap of the Ocean.

'Then is that the Harbour of the Lights of Many Hues,' said AElfheah, 'that many a little-heeded tale has told of in our homes.' Then saying no more they shot out their oars and swung about their ship in haste, and pulled towards the never- dying shore. Near had they come to abandoning it when hardly won. Little did they make of that long pull, as they thrust the water strongly by them, and the long night of Faerie held on, and the horned moon of Elfinesse rode over them.

Then came there music very gently over the waters and it was laden with unimagined longing, that AElfwine and his comrades leant upon their oars and wept softly each for his heart's half- remembered hurts, and memory of fair things long lost, and each for the thirst that is in every child of Men for the flawless loveliness they seek and do not find.

And one said: 'It is the harps that are thrumming, and the songs they are singing of fair things; and the windows that look upon the sea are full of light.' And another said: 'Their stringed violins complain the ancient woes of the immortal folk of Earth, but there is a joy therein.' 'Ah me,' said AElfwine, 'I hear the horns of the Fairies shimmer- ing in magic woods -- such music as I once dimly guessed long years ago beneath the elms of Mindon Gwar.'

And lo! as they spoke thus musing the moon hid himself, and the stars were clouded, and the mists of time veiled the shore, and nothing could they see and nought more hear, save the sound of the surf of the seas in the far-off pebbles of the Lonely Isle; and soon the wind blew even that faint rustle far away.

But AElfwine stood forward with wide-open eyes unspeaking, and suddenly with a great cry he sprang forward into the dark sea, and the waters that filled him were warm, and a kindly death it seemed enveloped him.

Then it seemed to the others that they awakened at his voice as from a dream; but the wind now suddenly grown fierce filled all their sails, and they saw him never again, but were driven back with hearts all broken with regret and longing.


From 1936 - The Lost Road (HOME Volume 5) - page 80

The  Straight  Road.....  water (island  of   Azores?)..... off.

AElfwine [?restores?restrains] Eadwine. Thinks it a vision of delirium.

The vision of Eressea and the sound of voices.

Resigns himself to die but prays for Eadwine.

Sensation  of  falling.

They come down in [?real] sea and west wind blows them back.

Land in Ireland


From 1946 - The Notion Club Papers (From HOME Volume 9) - page 278

Treowine sees the round world [?curve] below, and straight ahead a shining land before the wind siezes them and drives them away.


So - what is going on?

I noticed this passage because it seems so clearly inadequate as a plot climax: to endure long voyages and great hardship, to get within sight of Faery - but to fail to land there!

(Unless AElfwine did not actually drown but reached the shore alive - but this then leaves the needless complication of explaining how he returned to the British Isles without a boat.)

Furthermore, the rationale behind these stories was (apparently) Tolkien's need to explain how it was that the knowledge of the elves had come down to modern men. The whole reason (it seems to me) for these Western voyages in search of Elfland was so that men could meet the elves and discover from them their legends.

So the West-voyaging character - initially called Eriol (one who dreams alone), then AElfwine (Elf-Friend), and later seemingly Arundel (Elf-Friend) Lowdham and his friend Jeremy from the Notion Club - was supposed to be the link between modern England and the ancient myths of Faery.

Why then do these drafts have this character apparently failing to land?


I suspect the reason would, if known, be enlightening of Tolkien's motivations in writing his legendarium - perhaps of his ambivalence about the project, or an anxiety - so that he had a tendency to shy-away from the necessary plot at the last moment. That, at least, is what it looks or feels like, to me.

I have a theory. My theory is that Tolkien had himself visited Faery - presumably in vivid and memorable and true-seeming dreams, of the kind which are all over his works - but he was ambivalent about revealing either this fact or the information he derived in any direct way.

Of course, we eventually got to hear about the history of Erresea and Valinor withot menition of any intermediary Man such as Eriol. AElfwine or Lowdham - all mention of which was deleted from the Lord of the Rings as it appeared, without this kind of framing device.


The actually-used fictive framing device is that Bilbo and Frodo (plus Sam and Merry) supposedly wrote the information used in the Hobbit and LotR in The Red Book of Westmarch, having consulted with Elrond and other experts; and the Red Book had reached Tolkien by unexplained routes, and he was merely an editor who made stories from this source.

But before Tolkien reached this partial-solution, his last attempt at the Eriol/ AElfwine explanation was in The Notion Club Papers - and it may be that the Saint Brendan poem 'Iram' included in the NCPs contains the answer, encoded:

‘O! stay now father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on the arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’

‘But men say, father that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would here you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’
‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’

It may be that, like St Brendan, Tolkien knew from 'direct' personal experience (I mean, by vivid visionary dreams) what was in the Lands of the Gods and Elves - but that he felt he could not, or should not, speak of it - and his message was that if we would seek to know, then in a dream-boat far afloat we must labour in the sea of myth, and find for ourselves these things out of mind; because we will 'learn no more of' Tolkien.



Wm Jas said...

Is this perhaps partly inspired by Dante's story of Ulysses sailing almost to Mount Purgatory and then sinking within sight of its shores?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - It is not that the failure story is an intrinsically bad story - it could be very interesting; but that it is not a part of the story being written.

(It seems very unlike what I know of Dante - and Dante was out of step with the Northerness of Tolkien's legendarium - but I suppose it could be.)

It feels like there are two distinct stories, and sometimes they get mixed up.

1. There is the story about how a Man fights his way through to Faery and establishes a re-connection between elves and men, including getting the elvish legends and bringing them back to England.

The tragedy here would be that England does not receive the book: England ignores the legends, of they are distorted, mocked, forgotten or something like that.

2. There is another story about how - after hardship and travail - a Man gets a tantalizing and momentary glimpse of Faery before being blown back by winds and swept to the British Isles.

And here the tragedy is that he is perhaps unsure whether it was real (or a wishful dream or delusion brought on by starvation and cold) and the yearning for more, being driven crazy by the partiality and briefness of the knowledge of higher things.

Another good story - and one which Tolkien used in various forms; but not compatible with the first story.