Thursday 30 June 2016

Transition from French-Norman to Germanic romance in The Notion Club Papers

The Notion Club Papers begins as a modern novel, and its first move out of the everyday and modern comes with the accounts of Ramer's dreams.

The dream fantasy was a standard form at the time of Chaucer when although literature began to be written in English, the forms were taken from France and Italy - French and Latin literature. All of Chaucer's major poems except for the Canterbury Tales takes the form of a dream fantasy. Langland's Pier's Plowman is also an account of dream visions. These are not myths - magic is imaginary.

With such dreams, the primary of mundane reality is retained; but in the Germanic (Anglo Saxon) romance - such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legends included by Wagner in his Ring operas - we are in the realm of myth. in such worlds; magic, the supernatural, monsters and other beings (such as dwarves, elves, giants and trolls) are real.

The atmospheres of these two genres is very different. The dream fantasies are modern, often cynical, ironic - giving supernatural wonders with one hand, and pushing them away as unreal with the other hand.

But the mythic and supernatural worlds are stark, serious; monsters such as Grendel and the Dragon actually kill people; interventions by elves and dwarves can change the course of history.

The Notion Club papers makes a transition from dream imagination in a context of mundane reality to the invasion of myth. As a storm from the fall of Numenor breaks over the British Isles, the modern world begins to become mythic - and (in the projected but unwritten parts) there is promise of the emergence of real elves into the narrative.

Simultaneously there is a loss of the formerly ironic and playful 'banter' of the earlier part of the narrative - and an increasing seriousness. Exactly this movement also happened in The Hobbit - an incremental 'elevation' to a high and heroic style and substance as the story proceeds.

Presumably this was Tolkien's intention in writing the Notion Club Papers which he hoped would serve as a bridge and also a frame for The Lord of the Rings; the NCPs would take the reader from the detached, ironical modern and utterly un-magical here-and-now - up into the world of the serious and supernatural magic myth.


Nathaniel said...

That makes sense! It seems unfortunate he wasn't able to finish then.

Nathaniel said...

I meant especially unfortunate.

Nelson said...

I'm a little sceptical of linking the dichotomy of dream-'real' to French vs. Germanic literary cultures. Chrétien de Troyes is more or less the type-specimen of French Romance, and he presents his tales straightforwardly, magic and all - I just don't see that medieval literature falls into the categories you suggest (or that Tolkien would have thought it did).