Monday, 1 June 2015

The contrasting dream-worlds of Lewis and Tolkien


CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien both used their dreams, and the relationship between dream-life and the awake state, as an important source in their fictional writing.

But the nature of that dream life seems to have been very different - Lewis's mostly negative and Tolkien's including the very positive.


By Lewis's account, he was prone to nightmares throughout his life, and these nightmares are distressingly well remembered.

One of Lewis's strangest works is the posthumously-published fragment from the Space Trilogy sequence, The Dark Tower, which depicts a truly nightmarish world that is so peculiar in its details as to suggest it came directly from a nightmare. To my mind, the particular quality of Lewis's nightmarish writings is a sense of living in an inescapable, eternal world of suffering from which God is excluded - a world which lacks even the concept of God.

In sum, it seems that the usual content of Lewis's dream material was negative, and its contribution to his writing was predominantly in terms of an awareness of horror, misery and sin.


Tolkien, by contrast, reports dream content that is both more varied and includes a lot of positive, euphoric, beautiful experience as well as the eerie, oppressive, nightmarish...

In particular, I would emphasize from the above references, the likelihood that Tolkien's experiences of Faery, of Elfland, were substantially derived from dreams - indeed from 'lucid' dreams in which we retained a degree of awareness of the dreaming state, and was able to exert control over the content and development of the dream while still experiencing it as emotionally-real.

This is also related to a major negative theme in Tolkien's work, which is the profound, inconsolable sense of loss experienced by the traveller to Faery on his return to the 'normal' mortal world - this is the experience of Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the protagonist in the poem The Sea Bell, the protagonist of Smith of Wootton Major and of 'Arry' Lowdham's Father in The Notion Club Papers (to name but a sample).

Since Tolkien (apparently) vividly and memorably experienced Faery in some of his dreams; then I would interpret this these as being a fictional version of Tolkien's own sorrow of waking from magical, mythical dreams, into the disenchanted, materialistic world of (much of) his everyday life.



Unknown said...

I've wondered if "The Dark Tower" at all connects to Tolkien's "Notion Club..." It's whole premise depends on traveling with the mind--I believe the 'window' device the Dark Tower group uses is in fact powered by a brain chemical of some sort.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Afalstein - I did a short post on that subject a while ago:

Nice to hear from you, by the way!

Nathaniel said...

If viewed as a real phenomenon beyond individual experience, it implies that our wakeful lives are a middle ground between heaven and hell. Our positions both in the dream world and waking life known by its relation and its attributes emphasized by where we are coming from.

Certainly, in Tolkien's Universe "Middle Earth" is both spiritual and geographic at once. It appears to me that any given geographic point may be Middle Earth in its spiritual meaning, though certain times and places appear be (or have been) much closer to Heaven or Hell. In this sense it's interesting that when elves appear, it seems as-if the travelers have somehow left Middle Earth - the same also when the enter the dark lands. I wonder if we might imagine a shifting spiritual geography, with some places more permanently closer to one or the other.

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I've just read Dymer for the first time, and listened to Simon Vance's reading of The Pilgrim's Regress and Pete Williams's of MacDonald's Lilith, in the context of brooding over The Great Divorce. It's fascinating how variously down the years Lewis uses dream(-vision) as subject and/or literary device or form.

David Llewellyn Dodds