Friday, 30 December 2016

Does The Notion Club's fictional response to Ramer's story in The Notion Club Papers recall the real life reception of Tolkien's Lost Road?

In the feigned Foreword to the supposed First Edition of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs), the 'editor' describes the work as nothing more than a literary curiosity; but when he adds a Note to the 'Second' edition he reveals the real importance of the work in the parting phrase that refers to "the strange processes of so-called literary 'invention', with which the papers are largely concerned".

The phrase 'so-called' and the quotes around 'invention' are (presumably) intended to imply that the editor regards the work as not having been invented - but a true account.

I return to re-read the NCPs every year or so, and on the current encounter it struck me that - given the NCPs history of having been read to The Inklings, as a light entertainment initially (later ripening to an extremely ambitious conception - perhaps the most ambitious work Tolkien ever projected) - the very first significant incident of the book seems likely to refer back to an actual incident in an Inklings meeting.

What happens is that Ramer (who is substantially a Tolkien alter ego, being a philologist and science fiction/ fantasy writer; although not the only Tolkien alter ego in the NCPs) has just read a story to the Notion Club.

The club responds to Ramer's story with various jovial and satirical comments, the substance of which is that they liked the story, which we don't know much about, but which apparently was set on another planet; but found the 'frame' describing getting-to and back-from this planet unconvincing and contrived, while the story itself had the ring of truth.

Indeed, some of the club members intuit that the story was not entirely fictional, in the sense that it seemed as if Ramer had actually 'been there', in the world he described. Later, Ramer reveals that this is true - he has actually visited this other planet, in reality - but in a dream.

If we suppose that Tolkien was writing this episode based-upon an actual occurrence in an Inklings meeting, which seems likely; what story of Tolkien's might it refer to?

The most obvious example is beginning of the unfinished novel The Lost Road (posthumously published in 1987 as Volume Five of The History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien). The Lost Road fragment was originally (probably) written during 1936-7 (in November of 1937 a version was submitted to Unwin publishers, but rejected).

However, Tolkien had clearly been looking again at The Lost Road before embarking upon The Notion Club Papers; because in a letter to Unwin of 21 July 1946, after setting aside the NCPs, he wrote that the NCPs (not named) had involved 'taking up in an entirely different frame and setting what little had any value in the inchoate Lost Road (which I once had the impudence to show you..."

It therefore seeks likely, indeed probable, that the Notion Club's response to Ramer's story contains echoes of the Inklings's response to The Lost Road - which is (in the fragment) set primarily in Numenor, set within a modern 'frame'.

My assumption is that - before embarking upon the major re-write that constitutes the NCPs; Tolkien will have read-out his c eight-year-old Lost Road story to The Inklings to gather feedback and critical comment. If so, it is plausible that the Inklings found the Numenor sections of Lost Road to be very convincing, as real as if Tolkien had 'actually' been there; but found the introductory modern chapters comparatively rather dull and a contrived method of getting-to Numenor and back again.

However, in The Lost Road the link between the frame and the main story - which involves a transition of both time and space from modern England to Numenor (located, like Atlantis, somewhere in what is now the mid-Atlantic) and deep into the past. However, a difference is that this transition is described in terms of a dream, and not by the use of any kind of technological apparatus such as a time-and-space-ship; which we gather is how Ramer described his transition.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to imagine that when Tolkien read the first draft of the beginning of Notion Club Papers to the Inklings (which we know he did, from an entry in Warnie Lewis's diary); he was probably getting chuckles of recognition as Inklings recalled their mixed response to hearing The Lost Road.   

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