Saturday, 1 April 2023

My Treatment for how The Notion Club Papers might have been completed

Tolkien's Notion Club Papers completed by Bruce G Charlton
(a speculative, summary 'treatment' - as if for a movie) 

Having brooded (some would say obsessively - and they would be right!) over Tolkien's Notion Club Papers for a couple of years, I am now going to speculate about where the NCPs were tending; what the NCPs would have been about and what they would have been like - if ever Tolkien had finished the novel.

In a nutshell, I believe that the Notion Club Papers were intended to serve an extremely important purpose: to rescue modern England from its spiritual malaise. At least - that was what the Notion Club themselves would be depicted as doing fictionally - and the finished book would be intended to make this possible in the mundane world. Tolkien's ouvre (his Legendarium) was intended to make a mythology for England; the Notion Club Papers were intended to link his mythical Legendarium to modern England. (I got this from the work of Verlyn Flieger - especially her book Interrupted Music.)

I suggest that the NCPs would - ultimately (if finished) - have provided a feigned history of the processes that brought Tolkien's historical myth/s into action in the modern world.

What was Tolkien 'rescuing' England from? This is made explicit in the NCPs: [Jeremy] ..."Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.(...) "They're not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots." (...) "[The roots are] In Being, I think I should say," Jeremy answered; "and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and the designs of Geography - I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance. (...) "Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past."

With the NCPs Tolkien was intending to tell us something true about the past, something that we need to know because at present England's past is merely history, when it should be myth. The Notion Club Papers were intended to make England's history into myth - i.e. to reverse the process of myth dissolving into history described by Jeremy in the quote above. Tolkien wanted, that is, contemporary history to dissolve into myth; and the NCPs were (as they evolved) aimed at achieving this.

Arguably, Tolkien achieved his goal, although by other and less direct means - in the sense that many people (like myself) nowadays 'use' Tolkien's Legendarium as a myth by-which (and through-which) they understand and interpret the current world. We do this despite the lack of an explicit and comprehensive mythical link between the Legendarium (saturated, as it is, with purpose and meaning) and the nihilistic modern world of objective irrelevant 'facts' and purely-individual subjectivities. However, in order for this to have happened via the NCPs, they would need to have needed to end-up very differently from how they set out: in literary terms, the NCPs would have required very substantial re-writing, in ways which we can only extrapolate from hints and glimmerings.

The basic situation which the Notion Club inhabit is an Oxford (England, Western Civilization) that is out-of-contact with Faery: in more general terms, a society out-of-contact with myth. Hence vulgar, coarsened, materialistic; without depth, meaning or purpose. The action of the Notion Club throughout the novel, I speculate, would have been aimed at restoring this contact between Faery and England; and indeed I speculate that the climax of the novel would have been precisely this re-establishment of contact.

As scholars and writers, the Notion Club would have been aware of the necessity for human contact with Faery (i.e. with myth) in order that their work (as well as their lives) may be profound, imaginative and ennobled - and rise above mere 'utility'. The means by which the club would restore contact with myth would, I assume, be the usual ones employed by Tolkien and of which hints exist in the incomplete and surviving NCP text: by a quest, by a hero who is an 'elf friend', and by a 'messenger' between Faery and the mundane world.

As they stand, the NCPs are - to me - an endlessly fascinating fragment, full of evidence about Tolkien and his deepest concerns; but it seems to be a work of extremely limited appeal (at least, I only know of two or three other people than myself who find it at all interesting or enjoyable!) - and therefore I assume that the story in its present form would either be unpublishable, or else destined only for a microscopically small cult audience.

If the NCPs had been completed they would therefore, I believe, have ended-up very differently from the way they exist at present. The overall purpose of the NCPs (within Tolkien's books) would have been to provide a frame for Tolkien's legendarium - in other words, a pseudo-historical 'explanation' for how the legends of the elves, Numenor and ancient Middle Earth were transmitted to our times (transmitted specifically to England, and even more specifically to Oxford). In other words, approximately to link The Silmarillion, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the modern reader by a feigned history.

The Notion Club Papers novel would, then, describe how a link between Middle Earth (this modern world) and Faery was re-established.

The shape of the novel would presumably have been the same as Tolkien's other works - some kind of heroic quest in which the hero or heroes come into contact with 'Faery' and an ennobled by contact with 'higher things' and made wiser by their experience. Clearly, the Notion Club Papers would therefore require need a protagonist with whom the reader would identify. That is a character whose thoughts and feelings the reader would get to know in the course of the story. But such characters are lacking (or indirect and inexplicit) in the current NCP drafts.

The existing form of the NCPs, i.e. the literary conceit of their being the formal minutes of club meetings, would therefore need to be dropped or relaxed; to bring in much more direct forms of narrative or reportage. This was already beginning to happen in the later parts of the NCPs, with the introduction of letters from Lowdham (plus some footnotes), and an extended 'dream sequence' which reports Lowdham's inner state during an Anglo Saxon episode. So, in the NCP novel there would be a great expansion of such letters, and also probably diaries and journal entries - so as to bring the reader into more direct contact with the action.

In terms of character, the ANC would therefore need to get inside at least one of Guildford, Ramer, Lowdham and Jeremy. My guess is that the protagonist would have been Guildford - the recorder, who would become the narrator, and would speak directly to the reader (to posterity) about the collection of minutes, letters, poems, fragments and journal entries which he has gathered and collated with the aim of preservation and propagation. Probably, Guildford would have remained a rather background character in terms of the action and excitement, and it would have been the extrovert Lowdham in particular would emerged as the most obvious hero - supported by Jeremy who would, I guess, end-up being the main person responsible for achieving the quest to re-connect with Faery.

I suspect the Ramer character might therefore have receded in importance. His role might be in learning the languages necessary to interpret the documentary material eventually recovered from Faery by Lowdham and Jeremy. Ramer's role at the end of the ANC would perhaps be as scholarly interpreter of the texts brought back to Oxford by Jeremy (who seems not to be skilled as a philologist or historical linguist).

I would imagine that Lowdham - accompanied by Jeremy - would make the breakthrough to physical contact with faery: set sail for the West with Jeremy, be responsible for navigating the boat, and eventually actually land in Faery where he would meet his father - and the High elves. But then Lowdham would stay-behind in faery (with his father) and Jeremy would be the one who returned to England bringing the legendarium - especially the Red Book of Westmarch and Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish.

In sum, the Notion Club Papers would be presented as a collection of minutes, letters, journal entries etc. collected by Guildford concerning the Notion Club in general and Lowdham and Jeremy in particular - telling the story of how a link between faery and England was re-established by the efforts of the Club - firstly in dreams then ultimately by a voyage to Faery.

However, the link between Faery would be firstly psychic, and only secondly physical - the early parts of the NCPs are concerned with the initial glimpses of myth and faery via dreams, then a break-through of visionary material from the past - so powerful that it had an actual physical effect on Oxford and nearby areas of England (the storm replicating the downfall of Numenor). This stage would also provide sufficient linguistic information for the Notion Club (with its linguistic, historical and philological expertise) to be able to interpret the extensive documentary material which would eventually be brought back by Jeremy.

This requires an intermediary: Dolbear - who turns-out to be a wizard/ angel/ messenger from Faery.

The character of Dolbear jumps-out of the Notion Club Papers as somebody about whom there is more than meets the eye. Almost everything he says is wise and cuts-deep. He seems to understand more of what is going-on than anyone else. We know Dolbear has certainly been working, independently, with Ramer even before the meetings were reported and also later with Lowdham - on their dreams and interpretations. Dolbear is also hinted to be a kind of grey eminence at the least; someone greatly respected by the other members (underneath their chummy chaffing) and probably somebody who is - in fact - actually stage-managing the whole process by which the Notion Club re-establishes contact with Faery.

In this sense Dolbear resembles Gandalf - who is a wizard or an 'angel' in disguise; in the sense of being a higher being from the undying lands who is a messenger and catalyst. Probably the reader would not have access to Dolbear's inner life - he would (like Gandalf) be observed rather than experienced. Dolbear would make things happen, by hints and directions and providing key pieces of information - never by force. And at the end of the story Dolbear would return (like Gandalf) whence he came - to Faery.

This is (I speculate) the meaning of Dolbear seeming to sleep though the meetings, yet remain apparently aware of everything which is happening in them - indeed more aware of the implications of the meetings than are the active participants. I suspect that during sleep Dolbear is in contact with Faery and with the Notion Club at the same time. He is therefore a conduit or passageway linking Oxford and the undying lands - he transmits the proceedings of the Notion Club to Faery, and receives instructions of what to do. Dolbear's trance-like states of sleep are therefore (I believe) the specific means by which the inhabitants of Faery are encouraging the renewed contact between England and Faery which the Notion Club themselves seek.

The Oxford setting is highly significant, as is the general similarity between the Notion Club and The Inklings.

Tolkien saw himself as the inheritor of an English racial memory of Faery. In his earliest legends (now published as Lost Tales) England had indeed been a part of Faery - with a place to place mapping between mythic and modern places, and England was especially favoured for this reason. Tolkien regarded this inherited memory as coming down his mother's side of the family, and therefore centred in Warwickshire (Mercia).

And Tolkien had less strong but similarly mystical feelings about Oxford as he did about the nearby West Midlands of England, and of course he spent most of his working life at the University, and this was where most of his friends lived. But mostly, for Tolkien, Oxford had a special role in scholarship related to Faery. And from a practical point of view, Oxford in the early and mid-twentieth century was the perfect place from which knowledge of Faery might have been disseminated throughout the rest of England.

So, my guess is that the NCP novel would have described the Inkling's-like Notion Club in Oxford as having first established a psychic link with Faery - with visionary material glimpsed during dreams, then having recovered extensive documentary evidence from Faery, and brought it back to Oxford for secret safe-keeping, translation and dissemination. The benefits of this mythic, faery knowledge would then enhance first the Notion Club members, then the rest of the University, with elven craft, depth, wisdom and mystery. A special quality in the work of the Notion Club, and Oxford, would have been recognized by the English (who were genetically predisposed to appreciate it) and the effects and benefits would have been spread throughout England by means of Oxford's role in educating the administrators and teachers of the rest of England.

So, in order to re-establish contact between Middle Earth and Faery there would need to be efforts form both sides: both a push and a pull. On the one hand there was a push from the members of the Notion Club, who sensed the shallowness and literalness of their world, the damage of materialism, and the ugliness of industrialization (e.g. Ramer's horrible dream of Oxford through the ages) - and sought to enrich life by contact with Faery. And on the other hand there was a pull from the inhabitants of Faery. The elves were assumed to have benign intentions towards humans and seek to help them.

Especially the inhabitants of Faery wish to help Men to adopt an attitude of love towards nature; to become 'elvishly' capable of disinterested craft, art, science and scholarship as things to be loved for their own sakes, rather than as a means to another end.

In sum - the The Notion Club Papers would (I imagine) describe how the post-medieval process of 'myth turning into history' would be reversed; and first the Notion Club, then Oxford, then England, then maybe eventually the World - might again connected with Faery, and re-enchanted by elvish wisdom and suffused with an elvish perspective.


WW said...

Bruce - I missed this post earlier when I commented on your other, more recent NCP/ Inklings post.

This is great! I really liked what you imagined for how the story continues. I have a one add for your consideration, as well as an identity/ character for Dolbear.

First the add... I think the story needs some drama and an antagonist. As events in NCP go from just words to real interactions with Faery/ Heaven, perhaps the resulting impact on individuals and the group in general could provide both.

Ramer, who up to this time has played the leading role and central point of interest, may not accept the diminished importance of his role as things go forward. If he feels strongly enough about it, he may actively work against events as they unfold. The club fractures as a result, and events are made more difficult due to Ramer's opposition. Nothing in the story necessarily suggests that this would be the case, but Ramer and other individuals wouldn't have yet been put to the test of needing to pass the baton, as it were, so it can't be dismissed as a potential plot point, either.

On Dolbear, I very much agree with your assessment of his character and role in the story. A Gandalf-type person makes sense, and I actually propose the Apostle John as playing this role. Having been around for quite awhile now, and also having an understanding of how the the whole story goes (or should go) from the beginning to the end, he plays the role of actively guiding things both on earth and in heaven in reestablishing a link between both places, first in pure psychic terms and then in actual events transpiring, just as you wrote. The guidance although active, is very much in the background - almost imperceptible, but very much real. Nudges here and there where needed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - Good suggestions - especially Ramer; there are hints of potential for antagonism in the early parts. However, I suspect that Tolkien's orthodox Catholicism would have inhibited him from including an Apostle - no matter how useful to the plot.

WW said...

I went back and read a bit more of the NCP, and am convinced a bit more that Ramer as current/ future antagonist is a probably development. One key that I had overlooked/ forgotten was Dolbear’s dream regarding Ramer.

In the dream, Dolbear relates seeing an image of Ramer (but with Frankley’s long nose) trying to drink whiskey from a glass, but being unable to do so since his arms were gone and replaced with black wings, making him look like “a devil in a stuffed M.A. gown”. I think this may set up the issue. Ramer’s inability to drink the whiskey is symbolic of him not being able to make the voyage to Faery/ Heaven (though strongly desiring to do so, as he himself states several times). He isn’t invited to go, ultimately, or is incapable of doing so, and the imagery of him with black wings looking like a devil may mean there is a very good reason why he isn’t.

On Dolbear himself, I actually think his name may contain another clue as to who he could represent in this story. I looked up a post you had from several years ago on thoughts regarding Dolbear’s name and the meaning behind it, which I took as meaning you also had some intuition that his name perhaps had some deeper meaning. Here is one thought for consideration in addition to what you wrote then:

Dolbear may simply be an English-spelling of how phonetically one would say “Dol(l)-ber” in Elvish (from Tolkien’s etymologies). If one is creative enough (I won’t go through the tortured logic here… ), that name could mean something very similar to one translation of the name Aragorn.

I associate the individual who was Aragorn in LOTR as the same being who was/ is John, and so thus this (perhaps too conveniently) could further support a Dolbear-as-John interpretation. I understand at least one of John’s roles as working to restore all things, which would include the linkage or reconnection of Heaven and earth. I imagine him perhaps doing so very much the way Dolbear seems to be guiding and working with the NCP.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - Another aspect of Dolbear is that while he was clearly modelled on Humphrey Havard originally, when I talked with Humphrey's son John, he said the character of Dolbear was really nothing like his father in any recognizable way. This suggests to me that the story had taken-up Dolbear and begun to transform him, for larger purposes.

But to me Dolbear has a very different 'feel' from Aragorn; indeed he is not much like any other Tolkien character - except for a few aspects of Gandalf (irritability, competence etc).

I know that Tolkien had a special regard for the Apostle John - but I haven't read anything about whether Tolkien believed that John did not die, and continued to live and influence the world in a covert fashion. I came across this idea through Mormonism, where it is pretty prominent and mainstream; and I haven't heard it from Roman Catholics.

I have my own, and very different, ideas about the author of the Fourth Gospel - as described in my mini-book Lazarus Writes -- but that is not relevant to what Tolkien meant here!

WW said...

My own thinking of John continues to evolve, but it currently isn't necessarily inconsistent with your view on Lazarus being the writer of the 4th gospel and the beloved disciple.

Jesus is referenced in the Book of Mormon as teaching that the beloved disciple is John, and Joseph Smith also seems to confirm this... so, if that is correct (and I believe it is), in order for your view to also hold, it must mean that Lazarus and John are the same person.

I don't put this out of the realm of possibility, particularly since I don't hold the bible as very reliable or trustworthy on the whole, and purposefully harmful in many instances. It could very well be the Lazarus is John (and thus, in my mind, also Aragorn), and these details were confounded and changed in the tales we have today.

Strangely - perhaps by chance, or not - Lazarus is apparently the Greek form of the original Hebrew name of "Eleazar", pronounced "El'azar". As you would know, if you were to say that name in Elvish, one would be referring to Aragorn, the Elfstone - Elessar.

On Dolbear, I agree - his character doesn't feel like the Aragorn of LOTR. Not at all, really. It is my own experiences, I suppose, that help me find him, correctly or not, in that role within the NCP, and it might have been hard to do so otherwise.

But I also don't exclude the possibility that Dolbear is meant to represent several people, in addition... an amalgamation of characters with similar roles. Gandalf being one of them, as I also believe he has such a task in these times. This might be why some Gandalf-ness comes through in the Dolbear character.

But, I think Aragorn-John 'directs' the efforts, more or less, so Gandalf would be working under his ultimate responsibility or mandate.

Bruce Charlton said...

WW - Well, this blog isn't really the best place to discuss scripture; but in a nutshell I believe that there is no good reason to call the author of the Fourth Gospel (most of Chapters 1-20) by the name of John - unless one has already decided/ assumed 1. that the Synoptics (in combination or individually) have primacy of authority, and 2. all Gospels can be integrated; nor that the IV Gospel author wrote anything else collected in the Bible.

WW said...

Bruce - agree not the best place to discuss scripture. Please see my comment on your other post regarding my feelings about the bible. I think one can arrive at John (who also carries many other names) being the beloved disciple tarrying until Jesus' return without having to assume anything about the bible or even crack it open at all... and this would be the preferred manner of doing so.

The bible is probably best left on a shelf to gather dust for now unless you know exactly what you are looking for.

Anonymous said...

Catching up after lots of Lenten and Holy Week singing, I found this a fascinating post, richly pondered in the making and full of food for thought - thank you! I've recently got the impression that there are more NCP lovers out there than I realized, though I have not yet encountered any such attempt to work things out as yours!

Seeing Tolkien having moved from the (so to say) father-and-son 'tight focus' of The Lost Road, I wonder what other 'genealogical continuities' - between befriended ancestors of Lowdham and Jeremy such as those circa AD 914 - there might be, analogous to those pondered for The Lost Road - back to the Lombards - and back to faithful escaped Númenóreans, for notable instances.

I also wonder, tangentially, how properly NCP-ish Tolkien found the Númenor-British Merlin continuation in That Hideous Strength, among things he liked about that novel. And, how similar or dissimilar is the acute crisis in near-future Britain which Merlin 'addresses' to any relation of the Eagles references and storm in further-future Oxford to the just destruction of Númenor?

An intriguing 'matter' in the Notion Club (and Lost Road) drafts, in Tolkien's thinking about Elven-to-human transmission of history elsewhere, and in your post, is the fact that all the First Four Ages (and however much even later) history is pre-Incarnation - what Christian-Elvish/Valar/Maiar/Istari/Hobbit (et al.) interactions would need to be addressed with Roman-British, Irish monastic (e.g., St. Brendan), Lombard, and 10th-century English Christian people involved? (Something squarely addressed in That Hideous Strength.)

Taking up some comment-discussion matters - I propose further-developed positive Ramer - and Ramer-Dolbear - contributions, though which of the two might be more Gandalf-like and which more Aragorn-like is an interesting question. Ramer seems clearly born - with an elaborately-developed Magyar experience (to which Finnish is added). Might Dolbear have a mysteriously unclear past - allowing him mysteriously long life - perhaps like Williams's Prester John in War in Heaven (or, if differently, Merlin in That Hideous Strength) - or Father Nicholas Christmas, for that matter? I've wondered how much Williams is playing with John the Divine in Prester John...

Something that came curiously to mind while reading your discussion of the importance of Oxford and the likely possibility of actual adventurous travel is Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger series - could Tolkien be playing (by contrast but also comparison) with parts of this?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Trying to complete the NCPs is clearly a very speculative business, done for my own benefit mainly! But I think you have also begun to appreciate its interest - and possible value as a critical exercise.

One aspect I missed out of my treatment, was that the NCPs was (probably) supposed to function as a prequel and a frame to Lord of the Rings. More could be said on that matter.