Wednesday 22 August 2018

JRR Tolkien's nervous breakdown

(This post is adapted from several previous posts on this blog, supplemented by subsequent information. For what I mean by a nervous breakdown, see below*.) 

I believe that JRR Tolkien suffered what could be termed a 'nervous breakdown' in 1945-6; after taking-up the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in June of 1945, and at exactly the time when he was writing the Notion Club Papers (NCPs). The Notion Club Papers is therefore itself an indirect source of evidence about Tolklien's state of mind.

This period of 1945-6 was also associated with an apparent marital crisis, during which Tolkien (with his son Christopher) and his wife separated for some weeks.

My impression is that this breakdown was mostly a matter of alienation brought-on by overwork and stress.

Evidence to prove Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6

Tolkien's nervous breakdown is a fact of considerable interest - especially in terms of the composition of Lord of the Rings, with its prolonged interruption from 1944 to the second half of 1946; and it gives added interest to the unfinished Notion Club Papers novel. This was composed during this hiatus and (I suspect) indirectly conveys information concerning Tolkien's strange state of mind.

Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of Tolkien (1977), describes that there were significant problems during his marriage; but these were not made explicit by Carpenter; nor were the problems referenced to any particular time or situation.

I have drawn on several sources of information below, which are identied as they occur. My first inference is that the main nervous problems began in late 1945.

From Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers:

December 11-14 1945: Tuesday-Friday. An Inklings victory holiday takes place at The Bull Hotel, Fairford, with Jack, Tolkien, Warren, and, part of the time, Dr. Havard.

December 11 Tuesday. Warren and Tolkien go to Fairford on the 9:35 a.m. train and spend the day together. In the afternoon Warren and Tolkien take a two-hour walk around by Sunhill and Meysey Hampton with Tolkien talking frankly about his domestic life.

From Warnie Lewis's selected dairies (Brothers and Friends):

Saturday 15 December 1945: "Tollers [i.e. Tolkien] and I went out by the 9.35 [train] on Tuesday morning and spent a pleasant day together; he spoke with much more frankness about his domestic life that he has ever used to me before, and did me good in making me realize how trivial after all are the things which I have to complain of at [the] Kilns."

From the Tolkien Chronology in the JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by WG Hammond and C Scull:

Christmas vacation 1945-August 1946. Tolkien writes during 'a fortnight of comparative leisure' around Christmas 1945 [the beginnings of The Notion Club Papers].

End of 1945-early 1946 ...But neither [Simonne d'Ardenne] nor Tolkien are in sufficiently good health to do extensive work.

End of February-March 1946. Tolkien is ill, the result of various worries.

20 March 1946. ... He is unwell, and although his doctor has ordered him to apply for a term's leave, he realizes that this is impossible in the present academic plight, short of a complete collapse. He is, however, going away for a while...

25 March - 1 April 1946. Tolkien stays at New Lodge in Stonyhurst, Lancashire (...). In a letter to Stanley Unwin on 21 July 1946 he will say that he came 'near to a real breakdown' around this time, and went away and 'ate and slept and did nothing else, by orders, but only for three weeks, and not for the six months that my doctor prescribed...

From Joel Heck's Lewis chronology:

Tuesday 2nd April 1946: "An exquisite spring morning, J[ack] poor devil in Manchester. To the Bird and baby where I was joined by Humphrey [Havard], Tollers and Chris[topher Tolkien]. Tollers looking wonderfully improved by his restcure at Stonyhurst, and in great spirits (having packed his wife off to Brighton for ten days). He has shut up his house and he and Chris are living at the Bear [Hotel] at Woodstock [a small town just north of Oxford]..."

April 11 Thursday. Jack and Warren go out to Blenheim by the 6:25 p.m. train for an Inklings dinner to celebrate the Tolkien’s last night at the Bear. Present are both Tolkiens (Christopher and Tollers), Humphrey Havard, Jack, and Warren. They have a good dinner, good beer, and good talk.

From the Tolkien chronology: 

Early June 1946. ... [Tolkien] is unwell and also heavily engaged with an extremely difficult term...

21 July 1946. Letter to Stanley Unwin... I have been ill, worry and overwork mainly, but am a good deal recovered... I hope after this week actually to - write.

And from Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers, we have the following: 

August 22 Thursday. Warren dines with Tollers (Tolkien) at Merton College this evening during a thin rain. They dine in Common Room by candlelight, a party of seven, and Warren is seated on the right of Garrod. They have a glass of port and then coffee after dinner, where Warren talks with the Chaplain. They (Warren and Tolkien) attend a meeting of the Inklings with Christopher Tolkien, B (a gate crasher [almost certainly JAW Bennet - invited, without consultation, by Tolkien the previous week]), and Jack. [From Warnie's diary we learn that Tolkien read from 'a magnificent myth which is to knit up and concludes his Papers of the Notions Club' - referring to the downfall of Numenor, in one of its versions. So Tolkien was still working on the NCPs in late August.]

Back to references in the Tolkien chronology:

c 23 September 1946... Tolkien returns again to The Lord of the Rings [delayed by the 'tiresome business of the election to the Merton Chair'].

On September 30th Tolkien writes a letter (published in the JRRT Selected Letters of 1981) to Stanley Unwin to say he has again started working on The Lord of the Rings.

In conclusion; by the end of September 1946, which was the time we know that he began work again on The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Tolkien had recovered from his breakdown.

This makes the dates of Tolkien's psychological problems building-up to become severe by December 1945, peaking in March and April of 1946, and resolving in July of 1946.

The probable cause and effects of Tolkien’s breakdown

Tolkien seems to have written most of The Notion Club Papers during the darkest and most difficult time of his life - the period of somewhat more than a year which followed after his appointment to the Merton Chair of English Language and literature in June 1945.

The root of the problem seems to have been overwork and stress brought on by the fact that he took on the duties of the new professorship (from October of 1945) while overlapping with duties of his previous professorship (in Anglo Saxon, at Pembroke College). So Tolkien was doing a double work load, plus all the extra work of taking on a new job.

Another factor he refers to in later correspondence was that this was the only period of his academic life when he had to teach subjects in which he was not interested; and he absolutely hated this.

From Tolkien's selected letters - To Michael Tolkien 1 November 1963: "...I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 - that was awful.) 

It seems that this put sufficient stress on Tolkien's marriage that he talked about the resulting problems with his friends; and Ronald and Edith temporarily separated for some period of time in early 1946 as described above.

(Unless, as is possible,  problems in the marriage were themselves a contributory cause of his nervous breakdown.) 

It is interesting that Tolkien, despite the extreme psychological stresses, did not stop writing; but apparently worked-through his psychological difficulties in fictional autobiographical terms - specifically the Notion Club Papers. This story has many descriptions of unusual mental states - such as trances and lucid dreams which Christopher Tolkien confirms were sometimes accounts of JRRT's own experiences.

It may also be significant that by the time Tolkien resumed work on the Lord of the Rings in the autumn of 1946, probably during September; and after a prolonged break, the book seems firmly to have become conceptualised as a deeper and more serious book than it was when he embarked upon it as a sequel to The Hobbit.

My guess is that the nervous breakdown experience of late 1945-1946 had a permanent effect on Tolkien - and that the effect was beneficial to his writing. On the one hand he was able to write with increased emotional depth. More speculatively; it is possible that the experience of his 'self-therapy' in writing the Notion Club Papers was able to give him surer access to altered states of consciousness, especially dreams, and these provided a source of other-worldly sub-creative reality to the Lord of the Rings.

Without the nervous breakdown of 1945-6, and without the experience of writing the Notion Club Papers - The Lord of the Rings would have been a different, and probably lesser, book.

*Note on the meaning of 'nervous breakdown'. 

I should clarify the key inference which I make: and this is quite simple. That when Tolkien has a period of time off work, leave of absence, of a few weeks, on psychological grounds - then this is strong evidence of psychological illness. I believe this inference is correct, because (partly due to my training in psychiatry) I know that it was unusual in the mid-twentieth century to take time off work explicitly for psychological reasons. Indeed, it is still unusual - and the majority of people who are diagnosed with anxiety or depression do not stop work. It is even more unusual for people who have stopped work for psychological reasons in addition to take a rest cure away from home, a therapeutic holiday, as Tolkien did; but this difference may be more a matter of fashion. Therefore, I consider it very highly probable that JRR Tolkien suffered significant psychological problems, and that these would at the time have been regarded as severe enough to be termed a 'breakdown'  (since he needed to stop work). The diagnosis of these kinds of problem is not precise and has changed over the decades - the usual symptoms are mostly anxiety and depression. The illness was certainly 'neurotic' rather than psychotic, and was an exacerbation of predisposing personality ('reactive') rather than coming out of the blue ('endogenous'). But during Tolkien's era the term 'depression; was reserved for severe illness requiring admission to a hospital. So the diagnosis of the 1945-6 episode at that time was probably some kind of stress-related anxiety state - which was usually termed a nervous breakdown.

My dissatisfaction at the metaphysics of Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

 The lion archetype launched upon an unsuspecting world...

The fact that I have just re-read Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion for (about) the sixth time (in thirty years) is evidence of my fascination with this book. And this despite that I also regard it as extremely flawed! - being written in a clumsy and unconvincing (intrusively facetious*) style, and lacking effective expression in some of the most important passages.

What I like so much about it is probably similar to what I like about Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers (itself a work which lineally descends, via The Lost Road, from Tolkien's own reading of PotL in 1936). And that is the idea of 'the hero' working by means of a gain in understanding and a change of consciousness - and 'the quest' therefore being, mostly, a matter of discussion, thought, reading and meditation.

Yet I realised how far away from Williams my own understanding has moved, so that regard his plot - the nature of threats and the solution to it - as no longer credible; it would have been credible at earlier times in English history, but not in recent generations. In this sense I think Williams was simply mistaken in his basic understanding of the world.

In terms of what he personally sought, Williams aimed to revive, strengthen and adopt the 'medieval' metaphysical system; which was itself lineally descended from the Ancient Greek philosophical breakthroughs of the age of Plato (this is what Rudolf Steiner would term the Intellectual Soul - see Owen Barfield's Romanticism Comes of Age, for an analysis).

My understanding of this consciousness is that it divides reality into categories, and is has a primary role for proxy-action - for the intercessions of particular individuals (who have been-through mystery-initiation processes) to act on-behalf-of ordinary humanity. Thus, in PotL the world is threatened by the categories of basic ideas, of ultimate archetypes; and these are defeated by an individual asserting authority over them on behalf of Man (and the Christian God).

This is a model in which reality is knowable only by mystic-priests, and these do their salvific work - by means of symbol and ritual - on behalf of the mass of people. It is thus a version of 'Temple Religion', or the work of monasteries - but putatively translated to a modern context.

This, I regard as a half-way house consciousness - in between the ancient individualistic immersion in the divine and the modern materialist self-exclusion from the divine; but no longer viable. I do not believe that there really are such entities as Plato's ideas or archetypes; not do I believe that intercession is possible any longer (although it was possible in the past).

We are confronted by a reality which we must apprehend each for himself by intuition; and in which our individual salvation depends on a directly attained knowledge; and personal freedom, agency, choice... The reason (as I understand it) for this necessity is that Man's divine destiny is linear, sequential, non-repeating - although with some cyclical aspects; so that history resembles a spiral.

Salvation is individual - we are Not converging onto a single 'type' but rather we ultimately are aimed-at becoming our-unique-selves And fully-harmonised with the divine purposes.

To make this possible, God has taken care that every specific place, hour, day, lunar month, year, and era are different - so that each individual human life may be provided with the experiences best-suited to its spiritual progression (then; it is up to each of us to learn from these experiences).

On the other hand, it is only from the repetitions and regularities of life that we are able to learn. So we get both.

Therefore, I have to regard the basic set-up of Place of the Lion as mistaken and - not just unlikely, but impossible. This recognition has triggered a compelling line of thought in me (that has not reached a conclusion)  - which is based on 'If not, Then what?'...

In other words; what would be an analogous but correct plot for a more-metaphysically-accurate version of Place of the Lion?

*As replicated by the illustration...

Sunday 5 August 2018

Depictions of the Inklings, by the Inklings

An Inklings meeting was the (usually) Thursday late-evening meeting in CS ('Jack') Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford; to read work in progress, criticize it, and have conversations arising from this.

It is important to recognise that the focus of the Inklings was the writing of its members; even though one of the members – Robert E ‘Humphrey’ Havard - did little writing, and that mostly of a scientific nature (he was JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’s doctor).

Havard and Warren (‘Warnie’) Lewis functioned mainly as an enthusiastic and critical ‘audience’ for the three main writers: Jack Lewis, Tolkien (nicknamed ‘Tollers’) and Charles Williams. Of course there were many other guests, readers and conversationalists during the fifteen or so years that the Inklings were active.

These true Inklings meetings probably began in the early 1930s and finished in October 1949 – when Warnie Lewis recorded for the first and final time that nobody had shown-up for a scheduled meeting – except himself and his brother Jack.

The Inklings was not, therefore, the Tuesday (later Monday) lunchtime gatherings at various pubs in Oxford, again focused on Jack Lewis, which happened especially at the 'Bird and Baby' pub (a slang term for the Eagle and Child), or sometimes at the Lamb and Flag situated opposite.

These lunchtime pub meetings were certainly attended by The Inklings, but also a wide range of others on a casual basis; and they were occasions for general, mostly light, conversation. These informal, convivial meetings continued until Jack Lewis's death in 1963.

There is no direct transcript of an actual Inklings evening, featuring the actual people who attended. The nearest to this are a few, paragraph length, summary entries in Warnie Lewis's diary - a selection from which is published in Brothers and Friends: the diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis edited by Marjorie Lamp Mead (1988).

The best known word-by-word depiction of an Inklings meeting is a chapter in Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1978); which is not an actual meeting, but one that he creatively reconstructed by sampling and synthesizing from multiple writings of the Inklings, together with hints from Warnie's diary. This features the Lewis brothers, JRR Tolkien, Havard and Charles Williams – and these seem to have been the core Inklings of the 1939-45 war years. The only survivor - Havard - endorsed Carpenter’s account as providing the genuine flavour, although probably more intellectually concentrated than a typical real meeting.

JRR Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers (an unfinished and posthumously published novel to be found in Christopher Tolkien's edited The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9, Sauron Defeated, 1992) comprises a highly Inklings-style meeting of a club that was based explicitly upon The Inklings and written to be read at Inklings meeting during 1945-6; but with different, fictionalized and composite participants. This probably captures the spirit of an Inklings meeting more closely than any other source.

CS Lewis also left a short depiction of an Inkling's-esque meeting which can be found in an unfinished fragment of a story named The Dark Tower, and which was posthumously edited and published by Walter Hooper in 1977. The tone of discussion – its mixture of humour and seriousness - is similar to that of the Notion Club.

Owen Barfield was an infrequent, but very keen, Inklings participant - and arguably the Inklings evolutionarily-arose from the Barfield-Jack Lewis conversations and written debates of the 1920s. Barfield published a novel entitled Worlds Apart (1963) which describes a weekend length conversation of a very Inklings-like character - including characters based on Barfield and Jack Lewis.

What was the key to the Inklings as a club? My guess is that it worked and kept-on working because of the friendship between the participants; but to keep going for so long and with such intensity, the meetings required two further elements.

The first was the shared serious focal element of being helpful with the writing of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; indeed the club was absolutely vital to the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

The second element was that – especially from the perspective of Jack and Tollers, these writings had a broad cultural significance; they were Christians who were fascinated by myth and the imagination as things of real importance and modes of truth. In other words; the Inklings meetings were (for CSL and JRRT specifically) not only enjoyable and helpful – they were doing something important.

And this is where the – mostly absent – Owen Barfield came in; because he was the philosophical theorist among the Inklings, whose life’s work was to explain exactly why – and in exactly what sense - myth and imagination were important, real and true.

This is why, I believe, the Inklings was so much more than a fluid assembly of Jack Lewis’s friends (as Humphrey Carpenter regarded them), and so much more than a writers’ workshop (as DP Glyer regards them, see Note). The Inklings were, and are, a group of major cultural significance; which is why public interest in these men and their private meetings has grown significantly with every decade over the past seventy years.

Note: For further discussion of sources relating to the Inklings, see Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep (2008). This important book is a very thorough and enjoyable account of the Inklings as writers, and of their interactions. But DPG is not, as I am, in profound sympathy with the core Inkling ‘philosophy’.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Faramir, Boromir and Providence in Lord of the Rings?

From The Council of Elrond, Boromir speaking:

On the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother [i.e. Faramir] in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.

In that dream I thought the Eastern sky grew dark and there was a growing thunder, but in the West a pale light lingered, and out of it I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying: 

Seek for the sword that was broken: 
In Imladris it dwells; 
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells. 
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand
For Isildur's Bane shall awaken
And the Halfling forth shall stand.

This is a very interesting passage, for several reasons. Most obviously, the content of the prophecy is remarkable. On the one hand it is expressed in a riddling form, that none of the recipients could fully understand. Only Denethor knew what Imladris was (i.e. Rivendell), and he did not know exactly where to find it. - just that it was in a 'far Northern dale'.

(I am unsure whether Denethor realised that Isildur's bane was the One Ring, or even suspected it; but I doubt it - or else Denethor would surely have 'briefed' Boromir on the matter and instructed him what to do with the Ring.)

But the prophecy was certainly helpful; and some aspects of the prediction are remarkably exact - especially that in Imladris a token would be shown - i.e. the One Ring; and that the Halfling would stand forth - which was fulfilled when Frodo volunteered to be the Ring Bearer.  The dream came to Faramir on 19th June and the Council of Elrond was 25 October - and a lot happened between the two events; specifically Frodo was in great peril and in danger of death several times.

To an alert observer (Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn) the prophecy would confirm that there was a destiny ruling their choices and actions; and there was a 'right answer' they ought to seek and do.

Who, exactly, was it that sent this prophetic dream - clearly it was divine, and also benign: on the side of Good. I think it most likely that this dream came from Eru, The One, God - rather than one of the Valar (angelic rulers or gods); because I don't think the Valar have that kind of detailed foresight, nor (at least in the Third Age) do they seem to intervene directly in this proactive and strategic way.

Did this mean that Frodo was never really in danger, and also his dangers were pretend, and his decisions could not have been otherwise? No. I think we must assume that a Halfling would have offered himself as Ring Bearer, but it need not have been Frodo - but if it had not been Frodo, then things would probably have turned-out worse, overall. Furthermore, the Council needed to choose the correct Ring Bearer - the Halfling would have stood forth, but the Council might have chosen somebody else.

Also Frodo's wrong choices, and failures to resist The Ring's temptation, led to the permanent psychological damage he suffered from the stabbed with the Morgul knife on Weathertop.   

An example of things turning out worse is probably that it was intended to be Faramir who undertook the journey to Imladris; since the dream came to him first and many times, but to Boromir only once - and perhaps merely as a confirmation of its objective validity.

It was the bad decision of Denethor (based on his bias and also the beginnings of his corruption, despair and exhaustion) that over-ruled the proper choice of Faramir and enabled Boromir instead to join the Fellowship of the Ring; and it was of course the corrupted Boromir who prevented Plan A being pursued by attacking Frodo and attempting to take The Ring. We can infer that if Faramir had been present, 'things' would have turned-out better.

Overall, it seems that God provided the kind of prophecy which left a great deal of hard work to the forces of Good, in terms of both interpretation and action; and all the important decisions still needed to be made by Men (also hobbits, dwarves, and elves) unaided... Or, unaided except by their intuitive sense of what was right; which all the best characters have (even when they sometimes fail to follow it for various reasons).

This fits with a picture of the world in which God has made the world such that Men's agency is primary; is indeed absolutely sacred - but made a world in which God is always present, and will sometimes intervene directly (as divine Providence) in order to create situations where it is possible for Men to make the right choices, leading to the best possible outcomes (the best possible - given the cumulative effects of evil in the past).