Friday 26 January 2024

Ramer contra Lowdham - comparing Tolkien's alter ego characters in The Notion Club Papers

Christopher Tolkien published the surviving material of The Notion Club Papers (in The History of Middle Earth - Volume Nine) in two parts, each of which has a particular character who serves as the main mouthpiece for Tolkien's own ideas; an alter ego. These characters are Ramer in Part One, and Lowdham in Part Two. 

Ramer and Lowdham divide between them several of Tolkien's major personal characteristics, motivations and interests - so that put-together they would represent something quite close to Tolkien himself. 

Furthermore, there is a progression between Ramer and Lowdham in the story which represents an imaginative possibility for Tolkien himself - albeit one that never happened "in real life".

Like Tolkien; Ramer is, apparently, a philologist (however Ramer's specialty is the Finnish and Hungarian language group); but "better known" as a writer of what would nowadays be termed fantasy fiction, including "science fiction". I think we are perhaps meant to infer that Ramer's heart is not in philology (that is what comes across in the reported conversations) - his interest in it is professional rather than personal - his heart is in his fiction writing. 

He is reported as having read a story to the club; then, after some preliminary "skirmishing", the NCP narrative takes-off when Ramer begins to describe his experiments in exploring the remote past and outer space with "parapsychological" methods such as telepathy, lucid dreaming and psychometry. 

The similarity of Ramer with JRRT is that internal evidence and some of Christopher Tolkien's notes suggests that his father had some experience of these paranormal-type experiences, and used the results in his writing.

Ramer could be described as having something like a travelers interest in other times and places - albeit this goes very deep; because he describes an extreme kind of sympathy with other places and "things" (such as a meteor) that amounts to near-complete identification of "what it is like" actually to be them. 

Yet, Ramer does not seem to want to do anything with these experiences more, or other, than to enjoy them; to remember and write about them.  

In sum, we could describe Ramer's "paranormal" experiences as being essentially contemplative - he desires to visit and mentally-explore remote space and time - partly from curiosity, but also implicitly to "use" such information in his fictional writing. This was also Tolkien's practice - to some extent; but it leaves-out some of Tolkien's other distinctive characteristics - in particular his lifelong passion-for, and profound expertise-in, philology. 

While Ramer is a somewhat lukewarm philologist; Lowdham is - like JRRT - a vocational philologist; and with similar specific interests in Germanic, Scandinavian and ancient English languages. Furthermore, Lowdham (and Lowdham's father, by report) articulates Tolkien's own special affinity for Anglo-Saxon. 

In Part One, Lowdham comes across as a rather facetious character, who protects his real nature and deepest enthusiasms by a "tortoise-shell" of bumptious behaviour, vulgar singing, and a stream of witticisms and jokes. Tolkien, likewise, was often defensive, and deliberately misleading, about the depth and passion of his unusual interests and strange beliefs. 

Yet, Lowdham's friends realize that this protective carapace is beginning to crack under the influence of Ramer's revelations and the themes that are emerging. As the story progresses and especially in Part Two, Lowdham comes to the fore as an intensely emotional man; almost volcanic in his energies and will. 

Indeed (like Tolkien as a keen rugby playing youth) Lowdham is a very physical man - loud of voice (his name was originally spelled Loudham) - albeit Lowdham is described, quite unlike Tolkien (fair haired, nimble), as physically large and dark-complexioned.   

Lowdham's core interest is (like Tolkien's) primarily in remote times; in ancient history rather than the further reaches of outer space. 

And indeed he seems most attracted to the uttermost West, beyond the British Isles - the mythic land of Faery and of "Atlantis"/ Numenor - which, he suspects, may have been the intended destination of his father - lost at sea. 

If Ramer's aims are those of a visitor, an historian - with intent to use the material in writing fiction; Lowdham's interest is more philological than historical. And more "therapeutic" than literary; in the sense of Lowdham desiring to follow his father Westward, or at least discover what happened to him and perhaps re-open a channel of communication between here-and-now and then-and-there. 

While some of this is - no doubt - a scholarly drive; the fact that Lowdham goes off on an actual quest with Jeremy, sailing along the Western coasts of Britain and Ireland, and exploring the countryside - a magical quest, indeed, where Lowdham's mediumistic ability to hear ancient language in states of lucid dreaming, is combined with Jeremy's complementary talent for experiencing visions of that which Lowdham hears.

Jeremy's developing partnership and alliance with Lowdham brings a focus on myth, about which Jeremy has much to say; and as the story proceeds mythic considerations tend to transcend Ramer's more mundane interests in the geography and history of strange places and remote times. 

Jeremy therefore brings-in yet another aspect of Tolkien. And Jeremy is another fantasy fiction writer - indeed that is his special interest as a literary scholar and critic. 

So; why do Lowdham and Jeremy desire so much to re-open communications with Numenor, and via Numenor with the ancient world of the elves (as understood by Tolkien), that they risk their lives in its pursuit? Risk death in that the two men are nearly killed by first walking into the teeth of a hurricane, then later sailing a small boat into the residue of terrible storms that have come-through into the times of the Notion Club from the downfall of Numenor?

What I perceive, overall, in the Notion Club Paper fragments and (by inference) from behind them; is a transformation from the somewhat detached, contemplative, non-interventional perspective of Ramer; through to a more active, participating and (potentially) world-transforming engagement with the reality of myth

This would represent a movement of intent from the mundane and aesthetic, into the spiritual and indeed divine purposes: It is (implicitly) Tolkien's acknowledgement of the need for the modern world of the Notion Club (and of the Inklings) to be rescued, or redeemed, by the realities of Tolkien's mythic world - as represented by first Ramer, then Lowdham - complemented by Jeremy. 

The Notion Club Papers can be seen as a sketch of how this epic task might be begun - if not accomplished altogether. 


Monday 22 January 2024

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from The Red Book by JRR Tolkien, 1962 - a review of 50 years re-reading

When I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings some half century ago, I didn't much enjoy the poetry - mostly because I did not enjoy any poetry at all at that time in my life. 

Or, more exactly, I didn't enjoy poetry qua poetry, but for other reasons. For instance, I enjoyed Middle English poetry such as Chaucer or Sir Gawain, but because I enjoyed the language rather than from any reason specifically poetic. 

But as the decades have rolled-by; I have come to appreciate and enjoy Tolkien's poems and verses more and more - indeed, more each year; until now I would have to say he is one of my very favourite poets! 

Most of Tolkien's best poetry is in The Lord of the Rings; but in 1962 he published a collection called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (ATB) which was beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 

In 2014 was published a new edition of ATB, with extensive notes by those superhumanly-thorough scholars Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond (authors of the indispensable JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide). 

These fascinating notes by S&H explain Tolkien's wide-ranging vocabulary, references, and acknowledged influences; and also often include earlier versions of the 1962 poems; which are always interesting and sometimes extremely good in their own right. 

(Unfortunately the page size in the 2014 edition of ATB is approximately halved from the 1962 version - including my 1972 reprint; so the illustrations have been somewhat miniaturized -- which is why I like to own and use both editions.) 

There are sixteen poems - long, medium and short, three of which are also in Lord of the Rings

The longest poem, and my favourite of all, is Bombadil Goes Boating: a tour de force of rhyme and allusion, which is touched by the genius of true lyric poetry. Scull and Hammond's notes really enhanced my already high appreciation. 

This poem was written just before 1962, and especially for this collection. Its original title demonstrates that it was envisaged as a series of "flitings" - a fliting being a public contest of ritual (i.e. non-serious), but exaggerated, satire and insult between master poets - as with the enjoyable Middle Scots Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie by William Dunbar from about 1500.  

The title poem opens the volume and makes a pair with Bombadil goes Boating. Bombadil admirers will relish it as a "prequel" (attributed to Hobbits of the Buckland area and nearby) to the Hobbits' encounter with Tom in the Old Forest. 

Another favourite is the remarkable and haunting The Sea-Bell; which works at several levels. These include in-universe references to Frodo's sadness and isolation during his final years after the One Ring was destroyed and before leaving Middle Earth; also un-missable autobiographical echoes, concerning Tolkien's own relationship with Faery. Its 1934-published precursor was titled "Looney" - i.e. lunatic, mad-man; which is telling. 

Overall; Sea-Bell makes a more pessimistic partner-piece to Tolkien's "valedictory" story published some five years later: Smith of Wootton Major

The final poem in the volume, The Last Ship, is also beautiful and sad. And it also has a precursor published version from 1934, called Firiel. Firiel is excellent; and interestingly different from Last Ship in both setting and mood. 

There are several pieces of Comic Verse that demonstrate Tolkien's excellent technique and capacity for complex verbal trickery - Errantry is the best known of these; but I prefer Fastitocalon; and its 1927 precursor is even better. 

Sam's Oliphaunt rhyme from LotR is is also featured in ATB; and Scull and Hammond provide a truly brilliant 1927-published version in the notes: which is the equal of Hilaire Belloc at his best.  

There are also pieces in a folk song or "ballad" narrative style - such as Perry-the-Winkle, and a couple provide fanciful "back stories" for nursery rhymes (one of these is the song Frodo sings standing on the table at the Prancing Pony). 


The illustrations are Pauline Baynes at her incomparable best; and they are very important to the effect of the book as a whole. Since there is such a wide range of quality and quantity among the sixteen pieces (e.g. I find Princess Mee pretty feeble*) - it is the illustrations running-through that bind the heterogeneous parts into a coherent and effective whole. 

Illustration for The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon - an imagined and elaborate precursor to the modern nursery rhyme about cold porridge in Norwich. 

*But only a fool judges a poet by his worst works! (Or are we to regard Shakespeare as the author of Titus Andronicus?) And even the best poets will produce mostly-mediocrity, and only relatively few (or even just one!) really good poems.