The Notion Club Papers (NCPs) is an unfinished (posthumous) novel by JRR Tolkien. The Notion Club was a fantasy version of The Inklings. My overview of NCPs is at: http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/2012/07/a-companion-to-jrr-tolkiens-notion-club.html. I was winner of the Owen Barfield Award for Excellence 2018.
Monday, 31 January 2022
The River Anduin as bearer of the One Ring
Sunday, 9 January 2022
True Romanticism in the Notion Club Papers
There is a truly Romantic spirit which I value supremely when I find it; which is seldom, including very rare instances in myself.
We are, apparently, trapped by deep habits, fears and a kind of sheer incompetence; and therefore find it extremely (sometimes impossibly) difficult to be what we most desire to be; to express what we most desire to express.
The true Romanticism can be found only seldom - for example in some of William Blake's aphorisms and short lyrics, but not in his long poems or most of the rest of his oeuvre.
By the strictest standards; I cannot find Romanticism realized anywhere in Coleridge, although Coleridge knew it, understood it, and sought it; and much the same applies to Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield and CS Lewis. All wrote about it, with great insight and value; but did not themselves embody it in their writings.
But writing about Romanticism - including that 'writing about' which is the use of allegory (as with Blake's prophetic works, or some of Barfield's and CSL's stories) - is not the thing itself.
What is meant is being referred-to, but the actuality is not embodied in the writing.
What I am saying is that nearly all writers, in their writing, keep a distance from actual Romanticism: the distance of scholarship, allegory, facetiousness or irony.
Yet True Romanticism can be found in writings; sometimes in obscure authors like William Arkle; but supremely in JRR Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings - which is, I think, why this work holds its unique and elevated position.
Tolkien, here and there - but more often than anybody I know - gives expression to the fullest and truest Romanticism; and in a way that is highly accessible, and easier to appreciate than any other.
This was only possible because Tolkien was himself a Romantic, but then again so were CS Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams - yet none of these managed to get past the barriers to its expression in the way that Tolkien did.
What I mean by Romanticism, and how it is nearly always blocked, can be seen in The Notion Club Papers (NCPs). In broad terms, this incomplete and posthumously published novel represents an Inklings-based group that is able to break through the crust of convention and constraint to achieve a fully expressed Romanticism.
The NCPs begins with superficial and facetious interaction between its members; a jokey and cynical conversational style of a kind familiar to any English person of the professional classes. This is one type of defensiveness, and it absolutely blocks Romanticism.
Another defensiveness is of conventional values - such as 'scholarship' or 'science' when these are regarded in a consensus fashion. Such conversation serves to suppress individual discernment and creation by a kind of implicit threat related to pointing out its transgression from the group norms; norms that provide coherence and power.
The idea is that group members should fear going beyond the group-approved forms and content, and the fear is of being singled out, stripped of status, and scapegoated, ridiculed, demonized. Such external control may be done with a light touch, ambiguously and deniably; but the message is transmitted nonetheless - and there are few who resist it and none who are unaware of the implications.
So fear is one reason; but also people just don't know how.
Some people are drawn to Romanticism, and are aware that indirect references to the Romantic are not enough - but instead only succeed in emoting. Instead of Romanticism there are just strong and merely-subjective feelings.
The truly Romantic must be transcendent, must embody the divinely creative - directly apprehended; whereas emotions and feelings as-such are merely animal responses to the environment or to inner body states. To rant and rave - to free associate or let-rip - is not of any transcendental value.
Thus the literature of the Beats, Hippies, Sixties Counterculture and New Age is almost wholly worthless from a truly Romantic perspective of written-expression. It may be based upon an accurate diagnosis of the problem, but is profoundly wrong in assuming that liberating the id or collective unconscious is a solution.
To try and suppress human consciousness, delete the self or ego; and assimilate to the un-conscious or 'liberate' the 'instinctive' is not to solve the problem of alienation of Men. It is merely to crave oblivion - to aspire to cease being a Man - to regress Man towards the animal.
It is easy to say what Not to do, to describe the pitfalls in various direction; but there is no formula for what to do instead - which is why it is so rarely achieved.
Nonetheless, the matter can be illustrated, and it has been illustrated in the Notion Club Papers. What happens at times through the accounts of the Notion Club; is that the conversation is able to escape from facetious joking, or mere description, and attain a truly Romantic level that transcends all the pitfalls. We are actually shown what this would be like.
The NCPs begin with the club responding to a story by Ramer - and for some pages the response is merely superficial - full of 'joshing' - mostly good natured, sometimes rather pointed. Some characters (such as Lowdham) adopt a cynical attitude, repeatedly trying to bring the conversation 'down to earth' in an irritating fashion.
It later emerges that this is a defensive posture by Lowdham who is (fearfully) attempting to hold-back an almost-overwhelmingly powerful Romanticism in himself; but at first he is the worst representative among an unserious tendency in the group.
At the other extreme is Jeremy, who is always earnest and never even tries to be witty; indeed he seems to be regarded as something of the butt of group (to be 'shot at' with barbed quips; as being younger, and seemingly more naively enthusiastic). Yet he is in reality the conscience of the Notion Club.
Jeremy goes on to say some of the most profound and important things in the NCPs; and (surprisingly) joins-up with the rambunctious Lowdham to make a complementary team; who whole-heartedly seek to experience the fullest possible Romantic contact with providence and the divine.
It takes several pages of merely scholarly and jocular talk; but the NCP discussion becomes more serious rather suddenly when Guildford says the word 'Incarnation' as his suggested 'method' for space (and indeed time) travel.
Although the intended meaning of the word incarnation is never given a wholly satisfactory explanation in the NCPs, it can be inferred from usage and context that what it partly means is a kind of reincarnation involving mind-to-mind connection - whereby a modern person has (or develops) the ability to experience events in the past that were experienced by his hereditary ancestors*.
Hereditary - but not by a genetic mechanism, but really more a matter of spiritual ancestry: the sharing of a spiritual orientation across (perhaps) very-many generations.
Specific heredity emerges later in the NCPs when Lowdham and Jeremy become - for a while - 'possessed' by former identities of men in Numenor during the lead-up-to and events of that lands cataclysmic (literally world changing) drowning.
They become able to speak the Numenorean languages, and re-enact some of the ancient events - and in doing so they apparently create a 'cannel' by which the actual Numenorean storm breaks-through into modern England to wreak considerable havoc.
This carefully-prepared direct mind-to-mind human connection - which has an implicitly general and providential aspect, never explained in the surviving fragments of the NCPs - is an actual expression of Romanticism in the text.
But in this early stage of the NCPs the main Romantic protagonist is Ramer; who has - it gradually emerges - succeeded in travelling both in space and time; but without any reference to either incarnation or reincarnation. Instead Ramer seems to have developed a way of attuning his mind to non-organic 'things' - such as a meteorite.
Ramer was eventually able to re-experience the 'life' of this meteorite from its remote origins buried in some remote celestial object, through its journey through space and the eventual burning entry through earth's atmosphere.
It seems that by Incarnation, Tolkien may intend also to include this implicit 'animism'; a living universe whereby there are no 'things' but only 'beings' - and whereby 'inorganic'/ mineral entities are possessed of memory and consciousness of a type.
This is an aspect of Romanticism that recalls the consciousness of ancient tribal Man and the early childhood of every Man; and it recurs whenever the perspective reaches its strongest expression.
Thus Ramer can commune-with (and participate-in the consciousness of) a rock; much as Lowdham is able to do with his remote Numenorean ancestor -- and also his more recent Anglo-Saxon ancestors of Mercia; which 'inheritance' is the posited mechanism by which he spontaneously knew this language.
(It seems, from multiple comments in his letters and private conversation, that this spontaneously knowledge of Mercian Old English also applied to Tolkien himself.)
(Note: There are many other examples of such 'animism' - communing with living, conscious realities in non-human animals, plants and minerals - all-through The Lord of the Rings.)
It is by this means of fiction - but fiction-presented-as-real - that JRR Tolkien was able to express True Romanticism. How he did this is ultimately a matter of genius - coming from the divine creativity innate in all Men to some degree; and Tolkien in this particular fashion.
If Tolkien had not himself regarded his fictions as really-real, and been writing from the heart; then there would have been nothing real for him to communicate.
But Tolkien also achieved this rare literary feat by his careful and rigorous techniques of framing the fictions in a quasi historical fashion (for the NCPs by means of the Foreword; in LotR by the Prologue and Appendices), of creating a fictive-sense of depth by reference to untold stories and hinted back-histories; and in the Notion Club Papers by a gradual ascent from the mundane chit-chat at the beginning to the fullness of sincere, unguarded, heart-felt Romantic interaction among club members in later passages.
*Note added: This may be implied by footnote 15 to part one, of the first draft, which provides a partial explanation with Guildford saying: "try reincarnation, or transcarnation without loss of memory." Transcarnation may imply that that the consciousness of one person can 'move' to another body - which would be functionally equivalent to a direct contact between two consciousnesses in different places.
Sunday, 2 January 2022
The reality of the imagined: Why did Tolkien frame the Lord of the Rings as if it was real history?
Something missed by casual readers of The Lord of the Rings is the 'editorial' apparatus that presents the book as based-upon an ancient manuscript; in other words, the claim that the book is real history. Why did Tolkien do this - especially considering that he had not done so in The Hobbit?
Well, in the first place, it was not unusual for the early novelists to claim explicitly and non-ironically that their books were either real records of actual events, or based upon such accounts (e.g. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - if considered as a novel). Indeed, this was so common as to be almost normal up to the twentieth century.
However, the practice had stopped before Tolkien began work on his Silmarillion legendarium with the unpublished (in his lifetime) Lost Tales commenced late in the 1914-18 War. These stories included a very elaborate feigned-historical framing and explanation of their provenance - that is, the links of how it was that these stories came into our world, into the hands of the modern reader.
The practice had become very rare by the time Tolkien published Lord of the Rings - except in a self-conscious manner that was intended to be taken ironically or satirically (as with the tongue-in-cheek 'editorial' apparatus of Farmer Giles of Ham).
Tolkien, by contrast, was not-at-all ironic, but indeed very serious and 'literal' in his within-text claim that LotR came from 'The Red Book of Westmarch', a strategy repeatedly pursued in the Prologue and Appendices that bracket the story; and this was later buttressed by the editorial introduction he included with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
Furthermore, it is a significant part of the failure of The Silmarillion of 1977, that any attempt at framing was abandoned by Christopher Tolkien - a decision CRT soon regretted, and endeavored to 'undo' indirectly, by his History of Middle Earth.
Note: Verlyn Flieger has written an excellent account of Tolkien's lifelong wrestling with the matter of framing his stories - Interrupted Music, 2005.)
So why was it so important for Tolkien to frame his stories by serious attempts to explain how they came down to modern readers - against the trend of 20th century fiction?
I think the answer is simply that he wanted to create an imaginative bridge that explained why these stories were not-just-entertainment, not just 'escapism; but were intended to be 'relevant': of serious concern to modern readers.
This was especially important to Tolkien because he eschewed the usual means of making imagined world relevant - which is allegory.
Tolkien's world was not meant to be allegorical, and he reacted quite aggressively against those who said it was; but real in-it-own-terms. Yet without any framing and linking between the stories and ourselves this detailed, autonomous, not-allegorical world-building might make the stories feel simply irrelevant...
By providing a feigned history to bridge between the stories and ourselves, Tolkien created a single imaginative conception of the stories as forming part of our living world - hence obviously of relevance and serious concern to modern readers.
It seems pretty clear to me that Tolkien did not want to admit that he was doing this! - and indeed (e.g. in the preface to the second edition of LotR) he sometimes denied that his stories had any 'purpose' except to entertain people who happened to share his taste for such things.
But this is to ignore the great efforts he made to frame and link LotR. These went far beyond parody, satire or the merely fictively-sophisticated.
Indeed, setting aside defensiveness; the truth of the matter was apparent in Tolkien's own - passionate, and non-ironic - practice of referencing his own work in commenting on everyday life; e.g. labelling the attacks on trees (e.g. by chain-saws) as orcish, or modern bureaucracy as the work of Saruman.
And even developing (post LotR) Galadriel as more and more an echo of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom he was religiously devoted. This linkage would be merely blasphemous unless it were underpinned by a very serious and real imaginative link between his sub-created world and God's creation as known by modern people.
In other words, Tolkien wrote and lived-by a belief in the potential reality of the imagined: and the actual reality of his own imagined world.
Tolkien did not, however, theorize the reality of imagination.
So we can see that for Tolkien it was vitally important the seriously imagined worlds were regarded as really-real - despite that, at another and theological level, he denied this very assertion.
According to available biographical data, and confirmed by the brilliant analysis by RJ Reilly in his Romantic Religion; Tolkien was apparently unaware of his friend Owen Barfield's extensive and rigorous philosophical work that coherently theorized the reality and truth of imagination.
Of course; Barfield was working from a metaphysical basis that Tolkien's orthodox, traditional Catholicism did not share.
But we, looking back, can now perceive that Barfield explained the reality of Tolkien's profound intuitions regarding his own world; and why it is that an imagined provenance for The Lord of the Rings was so important to Tolkien - and so effective for some of those most serious of his readers who regard the Prologue and Appendices as a vital part of the effect made by the whole book.