Sunday, 15 November 2009

Ghosts in the Notion Club Papers

The Notion Club Papers seem to suggest that JRR Tolkien believed in ghosts.

On page 179, the subject of haunting is introduced in a way that suggests that all members of the Notion Club accept the reality of the phenomenon.

Ramer is describing his idea of how to use 'the history of things whose paths have, at some point of time or space, crossed the path of my body'.

He argues that the mind uses the memory of its body and that memory may be one example of a record of past events which is embodied in a specific form. He adds that 'disintegration of the form destroys the memory'.

In trying to elucidate this idea, he brings up the example of 'a haunted house', to which Jeremy responds that 'All houses are haunted.' to which Ramer promptly replies 'I agree', and the next participant, Frankley, adds his opinion that 'haunting and atmosphere (which I suppose is what Jeremy means), are something added by accident of history (...) They're not part of the house itself, qua house.'

What is striking is the lack of disagreement among the Notion Club concerning the premise that house haunting is a real phenomenon. The discussions are instead concerned with the precise mechanism of haunting.

Ramer says that 'if you destroy an actual house, qua house, you also destroy, or dissipate, the special haunting. If a haunted house were pulled to pieces, it would stop being haunted, even if it were built up as accurately as possible again. Or so I think, and so-called 'psychical' research seems to bear me out.'

Jeremy points out that 'you can go a long way, short of destruction, without wholly banishing atmosphere or laying ghosts (...). Bricking up windows, changing staircases, and things like that.'

To which Lowdham adds a funny story about a 'well authenticated' case of a haunted house in which builders raised a floor level after which the ghost’s feet were seen walking along under the level of the new ceiling.

[I have heard a version of this story told about Treasurer's House in the city of York, England - but this was reported in 1953, after the writing of the NCPs].

Ramer concludes with the comment that 'I expect there are in fact lots of neglected chances of historical research, with proper training; especially among old houses and things more or less shaped by man.'

So, the NCP consensus is that some hauntings are real, and might even be used for historical research. My reading of this, and the tone of the passage, leads me to suspect that Tolkien was reporting both his own belief in the reality and nature of haunting, and perhaps also the consensus of the Inklings - as if they had had similar conversations to the Notion Club.

On page 196 the conversation again moves onto the subject of ghosts when Jeremy asks Ramer about the nature of other minds that come into contact with Ramer's mind during dreams:

"What kind of minds visit you?" asked Jeremy. "Ghosts?"

"Well, yes of course, ghosts," said Ramer. "Not departed human spirits, though; not in my case, as far as I can tell. Beyond that what shall I say? Except that some of them seem to know about things a very long way indeed from here. It is not a common experience with me, at least my awareness of any contact is not.'

My usual assumption is that Ramer is channeling Tolkien - and if so, then the NCPs suggest that Tolkien had considerable interest in, and experience of, hauntings and ghosts; and that (as was the case for dreams) he regarded hauntings and ghosts as potentially a source of useful historical and geographical information.

Of course such unconventional beliefs of JRR Tolkien can be ignored or simply dismissed; on the other hand, if such an intelligent and well-informed a group as the Inklings really did believe in hauntings and ghosts, there exists the possibility that they may have been right!

Notes added 26 March 2010 - On 24 November 1944 JRRT wrote to his son Christopher about an Inklings meeting at which they had "some illuminating discussion of 'ghosts' ". Presumably this real life Inklings formed the basis of the discussion of ghosts in the Notion Club Papers. Letters of JRR Tolkien, H Carpenter and C Tolkien, 1981 page 103.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The shamanistic creative method of JRR Tolkien


Tolkien's remarkable creative method has been elucidated by TA Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth; and amply confirmed by the evidence from the History of Middle Earth (HoME) edited by Christopher Tolkien.

In a nutshell, Tolkien treats his 'first draft' as if it were an historical text of which he is a scholarly editor. So when Tolkien is revising his first draft his approach is similar to that he would take when preparing (for example) an historically-contextualized edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf.

So, as he reads his own first draft, he is trying to understand what 'the author' (himself) 'meant', he is aware of the possibility of errors in transcription, or which may have occurred during the historical transmission. He is also aware that 'the author' was writing from a position of incomplete knowledge, and was subject to bias.


This leads to some remarkable compositional occurrences. For example, in the HoME Return of the Shadow (covering the writing of the first part of Lord of the Rings - LotR) Tolkien wrote about the hobbits hiding from a rider who stopped and sniffed the air. The original intention was that this rider was to be Gandalf and they were hiding to give him a surprise 'ambush'. In the course of revision the rider became a 'Black Rider' and the hobbits were hiding in fear - the Black Riders were later, over many revisions, and as the story progressed, developed into the most powerful servants of Sauron.

This is a remarkable way of writing. Most writers know roughly what they _mean_ in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to decide what it meant - and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning.

In other words, Tolkien's original intention counted for very little, but could be - and was, massively reinterpreted by the editorial decision. The specifics of the incident (rider, sniffing) stayed the same; but the interpretation of the incident was radically altered. This pattern is often seen throughout the HoME - specific details are retained, while the meaning of these is transformed throughout the process of revision.

(By contrast, most authors maintain the interpretation of incidents throughout revisions, but change the specific details.)


This corresponds to the transmission of texts through history - specific and striking incidents tend to be remembered and preserved - while (due to historical changes in culture, assumptions, background knowledge etc) these incidents get hugely re-interpreted in 'anachronistic' ways. So the incident may stay the same, but its meaning may be reversed.

I have seen this with a couple of folk tales during my life. When I was a child King Midas - everything he touched turned to gold - was regarded as a cautionary tale of greed leading to (potential) death (since his food and drink were also turned to gold). But nowadays, the Midas Touch is regarded as something desirable - it means the ability to make money in any situation. Presumably the benefits of wealth are now regarded as greater than survival!

"Shooting yourself in the foot" used to mean a deliberate act of self-wounding with the aim of being invalided away from the front line of a war. Someone shot themselves in the foot on purpose, but pretended it was an accident. But it now means almost the reverse - an accidentally self-inflicted wound.

In both cases a striking detail is preserved, but its meaning is transformed.


Tolkien's compositional technique recognizes this process - and Tolkien approached his first draft of composition as if the draft were the end product of this type of misinterpretation or distortion. So, his draft containing the striking detail of the sniffing rider'; but it is as if Tolkien assumed that the meaning of the detail had been misunderstood by one of the copyists via whom the text had been transmitted to Tolkien.

But why did Tolkien write in this way? I think there are two reasons. The first is that he was by profession a philologist: a scholarly editor, a man concerned with old and fragmentary and distorted texts - and he brought this skill and perspective to his fictional writing.

But secondly it relates to Tolkien's creative processes - which were 'shamanistic' (and it is one of the purposes of this blog to demonstrate the fact, since it comes through so strongly in the Notion Club Papers). By shamanistic, I mean that I believe much of Tolkien's primary, first-draft creative, imaginative work was done in a state of altered consciousness - a 'trance' state or using ideas from dreams. The re-writing was done in clear consciousness, with full critical faculties brought to bear.


This combination of creating a dreamlike first draft which is then used as the basis for scholarly and meticulous revisions is not unusual among creative people, perhaps especially poets. Robert Graves wrote about this a great deal.

And neither is it unusual for poets to treat their 'inspired' first draft as material for editing. The first draft - if it truly is inspired - is interpreted as coming from elsewhere - from divine sources, from 'the muse', or perhaps from the creative unconscious; at any rate, the job of the alert and conscious mind is to 'make sense' of this material without destroying the bloom or freshness derived from its primary source. In this respect, and others, Tolkien wrote more like a poet than a novelist.

This is, I believe, why Tolkien did not see himself as inventing, rather as understanding. He was not consciously inventing his first drafts but rather 'transcribing' material which came to him during altered states of consciousness, by a process of inspiration which was not under his control. When revising this primary material, if he found that key evidence was missing, he could try and interpolate it like a historian by extrapolation from other evidence, linking between the inspired material; or he could await further poetic inspiration, which might provide the answer.

This interpretation is also consistent with Tolkien's oft stated remarks that the Legendarium came from the language; in the sense that words were often primary data which required to be understood - for example the Anglo Saxon word Earendil. As Tolkien's Legendarium evolved, the meaning of Earendil (the myth behind the word) changed - but the word remained.

Or, the meaning of the Beren and Luthien story changed (Beren was originally an elf) - but key details of the story remained constant.


Tolkien - I think - regarded these key words or key story elements as his primary source material, material which must be preserved throughout revision because it had been inspired. The interpretation of these emotionally-charged, entities (words, story elements, images, artefacts) might change, might even reverse, but the entity should be kept the same throughout all these changes, because that was what had been 'given' to Tolkien from his primary sources, accessed during his most profound creative states.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Personality of JRR Tolkien: classic creative genius

That JRR Tolkien was a first rank creative genius is a matter of judgment at this stage; but there are reasonable grounds for suggesting that this is by now close to being an established objective fact based on consensus and influence - for instance, TA Shippey makes a strong case in 'Author of the Century'.

HJ Eysenck, the eminent psychologist, wrote a book about Genius (1995) shortly before his death and synthesizing a lifetime's research; where he described the typical features of a creative Genius whether in science or the arts. As well as needing 'luck', the Genius also needed very high intelligence (IQ), a strong ego, and - most controversially - Eysenck argued that creativity was associated with a moderately high level of the personality trait termed Psychoticism.

Very high Psychoticism is associated with psychotic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and also with antisocial psychopaths; very low Psychoticism includes all sorts of traits which are generally regarded as socially desirable such as a friendly and empathic personality, self discipline and conscientiousness. An extremely high level of Psychoticism would usually rule out creative achievement. In general, it is better to be low in Psychoticism oneself, and to have neighbours low in Psychoticism; however, moderately high (but not very high) levels of Psychoticism have one very positive feature: that of enhancing creativity.

For Eysenck, creativity is part way to insanity, in the sense that the weird experiences and crazy ideas of insanity are an extreme version of the processes of creativity. Creativity is therefore seen as a version of the thought processes occurring during dream, the wide ranging associations between material. He also notes that creative people have much higher than average levels of psychotic illness, alcohol and drug usage - and various other signs indicating that the trait of creativity is associated with a tendency towards altered states of consciousness.

Most people who are high in pure, wide-associative-field creativity are not able to achieve much with it, due to low intelligence or the other aspects of a high Psychoticism personality. So there is a very important distinction between creativity and creative achievement - and most highly creative people do _not_ achieve highly; not least because their creativity is usually associated with antisocial traits and rather poor self-discipline.

It is the rare combination of high creativity with high IQ and a strong sense of self (ego strength) which potentially allows high levels of creative achievement. From here on I will say nothing more about ego strength (which is a poorly defined concept) and focus on combination of high IQ and moderately-high Psychoticism as a basis (although not the whole story) for high creative achievement.

In surveying the Notion Club Papers in particular, but in the context of everything I have read by and about JRR Tolkien, I would regard him as a classic creative Genius: with a very high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism.

That Tolkien had a very high IQ would not be disputed by those who know of his biography and very rapid ascent to academic eminence; and the reports of those who knew him. High general intelligence is associated with the ability to understand and learn very rapidly, to solve novel problems, and to reason abstractly. Tolkien was always perceived, and from a young age, as extremely quick-witted.

However, I would argue that Tolkien also showed signs of moderately high Psychoticism such as a tendency towards experiencing altered states of consciousness, and moderately low levels of self-discipline and conscientiousness as evidenced by his truly amazing lack of ability to finish projects in which he was not very interested - such as the Clarendon textbook about Chaucer, over which he spent several decades before abandoning unfinished, or the preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which could have been finished in a few days but was delayed for about a decade until Tolkien died before publishing it). The new Chronology of Tolkien's life (in the recent JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide) is replete with similar examples.

This trait of moderately low conscientiousness goes back to school days and his early university career where, despite his high intelligence and ability, he took two attempts to achieve a financial award to attend Oxford, and even then failed to get a scholarship but instead attained a lower level of funding called an exhibition. And his first university course was 'classics' - the conventional high status Oxford degree, but which did not much interest Tolkien. After scraping a low second class mark in his first set of classics examinations (and only getting that high a mark due to the philological part of the course - otherwise he would have received a disgraceful 'third'), Tolkien switched to an English degree mostly consisting of his beloved philological studies - and excelled from that point onwards, receiving a full Oxford Professorship (the pinnacle of his profession in the UK) at the remarkably early age of 32 (and despite his years of service in the 1914-18 war).

In other words there is a consistent pattern throughout Tolkien's life of very high achievement when doing things that he loved, combined with a near-inability to do things which he did not love. This is a classic pattern of moderately-high Psychoticism seen in many (but not all) creative Geniuses - they do _not_ excel at things that do _not_ engage their deepest interest. Another example was Einstein, whose early scholarly career was somewhat mediocre until the point when he could work on exactly that subject which most engaged him. Einstein was of course - par excellence - the epitome of an imaginative, visualizing, intuitive creative genius.

Therefore Tolkien, like many creative geniuses, could work incredibly hard and fast on topics which deeply interested him; but was almost unable to get himself to work on topics which - although he felt a duty to do them - did not interest him deeply.

To see the difference between a highly intelligent person like Tolkien with moderately high Psychoticism/ high creativity and lowish Conscientiousness; and a person of similar intelligence but with low Psychoticism and high Conscientiousness - one need look no further than his friend CS Lewis.

Lewis could make himself work hard and regular hours even on matters which bored him but which he felt he ought to do - for example correspondence - at which he laboured for about 2 hours per day in later life. Meanwhile Lewis was publishing around a book a year plus scholarly articles and journalism: a vast volume of _finished_ work.

Yet Lewis was not so creative as Tolkien. He is of course much more creative than most people; but in comparison with Tolkien his fecundity was more a matter of selecting, combining and extrapolating from his vast fund of knowledge. And Lewis had a tendency to lapse into pastiche, which is evidence of his lower mode of creation (Tolkien by contrast would lapse into bathos - which is more the mark of a first rank creative genius when having an off-day - think of some of Wordsworth's lamest poems...).

Lewis did have 'visions', or images - from which his fictions often arose (eg the vision of a faun with a parcel which was elaborated into the Narnia books) - but Lewis was not in the same league as Tolkien in terms of creative imagination: the ability deeply to imagine a believable world (believable to the reader and inhabitable by the reader because it was believed and inhabited by the author).

One can also see this in their poetry - Lewis was a skilled versifier, while Tolkien was a lyric poet who at times (albeit rarely, like all but the greatest lyric poets) achieved greatness (e.g. Three rings for the elven kings...', or 'Where now the horse and the rider?").

Like other true lyric poets, Tolkien in his own poetic loves focuses on very specific phrases which have a mystical depth and resonance for him, such as "éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended" or "Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað" . This, I take it, is evidence of the highly creative mind, that finds wider associations than usual mortals can discover.

By contrast, Lewis - although a greater and more productive critic of English Literature than Tolkien - seems to me both to interpret as well as write poetry much more narrowly and literally - more as if it were a technical form of prose (which of course is true of almost all so-called-poetry, almost all of the time - i.e. most soi disant lyric poetry is a kind of manufactured fake, displaying borrowed plumes).

Tolkien has often been described as if he were a rather dull character who never did much - that is probably most people's take home image from Humphrey Carpenter's biography. A rather typically stuffy and inhibited English Professor of his stuffy and inhibited era. But the truth is far in the opposite direction: JRR Tolkien was an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary mind, and living at an extraordinarily vivid and creative time - he was not just intellectually brilliant but _wildly_ creative.

In my opinion, when we think of what Tolkien was like, or of who Tolkien most resembled, we should be making comparisons with other imaginative, creative, idiosyncratic geniuses of something like the stature of Einstein. Yes, really.

Tolkien as mystic

It is well known that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and attended mass frequently throughout his life. However, the comments of Ramer suggest that (unlike Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis) Tolkien may in addition have had religious or spiritual experiences, and probably some of his personal beliefs were related to these experiences.

However, these experiences (if that is what they are) are only discussed in fictionalized (or semi-fictionalized) form in Tolkien's work as published so far (so far as I know), perhaps because these experiences were private, or of dubious orthodoxy; or since Tolkien seems to have regarded specifically religious discourse as the province only of priests, accredited theologians and the like (one of the reasons that he was apparently uncomfortable with C.S. Lewis's highly successful explicitly religious writings).

On page 195 of the Notion Club Papers volume, Ramer comments that during sleep the mind inspects material that is presented to it from various sources. The club member Frankley picks up on the word 'presented' and asks whether this means that some of the material come from outside.

Ramer replies: "Yes. For instance: in a halting kind of way I had managed to get onto other vehicles; and in dream I did it better and more often. So other minds do that occasionally to me. Their resting on me need not be noticed, I think, or hardly at all; I mean, it need not affect me or interfere with me at all; but when they are doing so, and are in contact, then my mind can use them. The two minds don't tell stories to one another, even if they're aware of the contact. They are just in contact and can learn."

This strikes me as such an unusual idea that, again, I would regard Ramer as here reporting what was essentially Tolkien's own personal mystical or spiritual experience that was perceived as telepathic contact between his mind and other minds, occurring in dreams, and in which some of these other minds were non-human, and from outside the earth.

This interpretation emphasises the conviction behind the frequent assumptions of Tolkien scattered throughout his works that knowledge obtained in dreams may provide true information which would otherwise be unavailable; although he always makes clear that dreams can be confused, memories are often incomplete and distorted, and that human sinfulness and imperfection may warp the reporting and interpretation.

More than this, Tolkien (via Ramer) also states that there dream experiences have informed him that there is purposive evil in the universe, with a specific purpose of harming humans (among other things, presumably), and that this evil may have widespread influence on humanity via dream experiences.

The reality of purposive evil is of course a major element in Tolkien's legendarium including LotR. This is a view of life which is mainstream among humans throughout most of the modern world, and has been universal (so far as we know) throughout most of history and until recently - yet of course it is not now part of the moral system of secular modern societies, where 'evil' is regarded as only the 'privation', or lack, of good (as Ralph Waldo Emerson termed it).

But the modern secular elite ruling class does not believe in evil as either positive or pervasive. To talk of evil in everyday elite life in the way that Tolkien does here is to elicit sniggering condescension at best, or more likely to be regarded as a deranged and dangerous reactionary.

Nonetheless, it is clear that in 'real life' Tolkien believed in the reality of purposive evil, and this is also a major theme in his works where such evil operates spiritually in dreams as well as materially in the waking world.

There are two notes to this above passage which expand on the point - one which is part of the fictional text on pages 195-6 purportedly authored by the fictional Notion Club Secretary Nicholas Guildford, in relation to the telepathic 'reading' of other minds in contact. This concludes with:

"There's a danger there, of course. You might inspect a mind and think you were looking at a record (true in its own terms of things external to you both), when it was really the other mind's composition, fiction. There's lying in the universe, some very clever lying. I mean, some very potent fiction is specially composed to be inspected by others and to deceive, to pass as record; but is made for the malefit of Man. If men already lean to lies, or have thrust aside the guardians, they may read some very maleficial stuff. It seems that they do."

['Malefit' is a word invented by Tolkien meaning the opposite of 'benefit']

This is amplified by note 47 printed on page 217 which is an early version of this passage, containing the following more explicit account of what Tolkien was driving-at:

"To judge by the ideas men propogate now, their curious unanimity, and obsession, I should say that a terrible lot of men have thrust aside the Guardians, and are reading very maleficial stuff.'

The nature of the 'Guardians' will be elucidated later in the main text as printed. But the first draft makes clear that Ramer (and perhaps Tolkien?) is making the suggestion that purposive evil can perhaps work in dreams to mislead misguided human minds, en masse, to believe false and damaging stuff; and that this may be an explanation for the coordinated deluded behaviour that Ramer sees in mainstream public opinion.

Whether this description of the operations of evil reflects Tolkien's real life conviction, his real life suspicions, or is a purely fictional device - it is a remarkable idea: the idea that humankind has been, and presumably is being, corrupted and led to disaster by wrong human choices made during dreams, and by deliberately false knowledge spread by purposive evil during dreams.

I have never come across anything like this idea before - yet it is just one of the many amazing and haunting ideas which Tolkien scatters through the NCPs; and provides yet more evidence of the depth of fecundity and profound originality of Tolkien's creativity.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Notion Club theology

From about page 193 of Tolkien's Notion Club Papers, the conversation takes on an implicitly theological turn.

The main difference between the Notion Club and the real life Inklings, is that the Inklings probably spent much of their time discussing Christian matters - with the exception of Owen Barfield (an Anthroposophist but who only rarely attended due to living in London), the core shared features of the Inklings were two-fold: they were friends of Lewis, and they were Christians. The nature of the Christianity varied across a fairly wide spectrum from Roman Catholic (Tolkien and Harvard), through Anglo Catholic (Charles Williams) to more protestant wing Church of England (the Lewis brothers - although CSL certainly moved towards Catholicism as he got older).

The Inklings was, like the Notion Club, primarily a society for reading aloud new writings - it was a writers group (as Diana Pavac Glyer makes clear in her superb book on the Inklings - The Company They Keep). Conversation was typically stimulated by whatever was read; however, aside from the issues related to writing (the club's primary purpose) it seems that Inkling conversation was typically of a moral nature, underpinned by shared Christianity.

However, the NCPs do not contain any explicitly Christian discussion. There is nothing to contradict an assumption of shared Christianity among its members, but certainly this aspect is not obvious. The discussions of time and space travel, telepathy, dream knowledge - are all Inklings themes, but in NCP presented apart from the Christian underpinnings they would have had in 'real life'.

The NCP does, however, contain a few pages where 'theology' comes nearer the surface.

Ramer comments on p. 193 that his dreams are sometimes like fragments of a larger whole, with separate dreams actually being somewhat like pages taken from a book. So that, over time, and bringing together memories of several dreams, Ramer gradually realizes that he has been glimpsing parts of a greater whole.

This is certainly a major theme of Tolkien's work. Throughout his whole adult life his fascination with, and presentation of, his own work was as if they were fragments and glimpses of a greater whole - a whole now either lost or at least inaccessible. (TA Shippey's Road to Middle Earth has a brilliant exposition of this aspect of Tolkien.)

Consistent with my understanding of Ramer as Tolkien's lightly-fictionalized mouthpiece, Ramer describes how he feels a larger significance in dreams than is explicable from their actual content, and he explains this on the basis of their fragmentary nature. The most famous and earliest example of this in Tolkien is when as an undergraduate before WWI he was fascinated by a reference to 'Earendil' in an otherwise rather uninteresting Anglo Saxon poem Crist. In a sense the whole Legendarium is an elaboration of this 'fragment' - the Legendarium being the recreated 'lost' whole from which this fragment was presumed to have come.

The Green Wave dream makes an appearance on page 194, as another example of a significant fragment. This was a dream of a vast wave coming over the green land, sometimes with ships riding its crest. The dream was recurrent with Tolkien in real life, also his son Michael (apparently spontaneously so) and is given to Faramir in the Lord of the Rings, and here to Ramer. (Tolkien once said that Faramir was the character in LotR which most resembled him - except for being much braver!) In LotR (as here, in the earlier NCPs) this fragment of the wave came from the larger tale of the destruction of Numemor, and the wave brought the ships of the faithful Numemoreans to Middle Earth where they founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor.

Other apparently significant dream fragments reported by Ramer are an empty throne on top of a mountain (I am not sure what this is - perhaps the sacred mountain Meneltarma in Numenor - with the throne empty due to the action of Sauron in introducing the worship of Morgoth?); a wide plain before the feet of a steep ridge with above it an immense sky blazing with equally placed stars rising as a vertical wall not bending to a vault (presumably the edge of the flat, disc world just prior to the destruction of Numenor and the creation of the round globe earth); a dark shape passing across the sky blotting out the stars as it goes (reminiscent of the Nazgul in LotR, but here maybe the eagles of the Lords of the West at the destruction of Numemor?); a tall grey, round tower on the sheer end of the land (perhaps the tower hills on Middle Earth, awaiting the arrival of the great wave?).

Then, on page 194, the report takes an explicitly religious turn when Ramer says: " does sometimes see and use symbols directly religious, and more than symbols. One can pray in dreams, or adore. I think I do sometimes, but there is no memory of such states or acts, one does not revisit such things. They're not really dreams. They're a third thing. They belong somewhere else, to the other anchorage, which is not to the body, and differ from dreams more than Dream from Waking.

"Dreaming is not Death. The mind is still, as I say, anchored to the body. It is all the time inhabiting the body, so far as it is in anywhere. And it is therefore in Time and Space: attending to them. It is meant to be so. But most of you will agree that there has probably been a change of plan; and it looks as if the cure is to give us a dose of something higher and more difficult. Mind you, I'm only talking of the seeing and learning side, not for instance of morality. But it would feel terribly loose without the anchor. Maybe with the support of the stronger and wiser it could be celestial; but without them it could be be bitter, and lonely. A spiritual meteorite in the dark looking for a world to land on. I daresay many of us are in for some lonely Cold before we get back."

I believe this is not only theoretical, nor is it fictional; but it is I think an account of Tolkien's own personal experiences and understanding.

This passage is, however, very obscure; indeed I suspect it is wilfully obscure for the reason that Tolkien is speaking directly of his profoundest intuitions.

Such deliberate obfuscation reminds me of a phrase from Robert Frost's poem Directive: "I have kept hidden in the instep arch/ Of an old cedar at the waterside/ A broken drinking goblet like the Grail/ Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it...". Tolkien does not want 'the wrong ones' to understand him. Or of what Robert Graves meant when he said that ancient poetry was often 'pied' or deliberately obscure in a way that only those other bards who were initiated into the same tradition (and inspired by the muse) could understand. Tolkien wants his full meaning to be understandable only to devout Christians.

So, rather than trying to explicate Tolkien's theological meaning, and I am not sure that I can; I will just say that this passage deserves study by anyone who wants to understand Tolkien's deepest convictions, hopes and fears.

And I think the same applies to what follows; a passage that seems to me as beautiful and as deep as anything Tolkien ever wrote.

Ramer continues: "But out of some place beyond the region of dreams, now and again there comes a blessedness, and it soaks through all the levels, and illumines all the scenes through which the mind passes out back into waking, and so it flows out into this life. There it lasts long, but not forever in this world, and memories cannot reach its source. Often we ascribe it to the pictures seen on the margin radiant in its light, as we pass by and out. But a mountain far in the North caught in a slow sunset is not the sun."

Monday, 19 October 2009

Ramer as Tolkien

Several of the characters in the Notion Club seem to contain elements of Tolkien. But the main protagonist of Part 1, Michael George Ramer, seems to contain some of the most surprising - including aspects of belief and behaviour which do not (so far as I know) come through in other writings by or about Tolkien.

In particular, Ramer gives very detailed accounts of psychological experiments concerned with 'telepathic' attempts at space and time travel, mainly using dreams. These accounts are given in such extreme detail, and with considerable conviction, that they raise the likelihood that Tolkien made such experiments himself and had similar experiences (or even exactly the same experiences) as described by Ramer.

If Tolkien did not actually embark on these experiments and have these experiences, then the NCPs constitute evidence that he had at least thought about these matters in considerable detail, and followed through the possible outcomes of such experiments.

Ramer's accounts go beyond anything published elsewhere, as I mentioned, but there are at least three experiences of Ramer which are given specific endorsement by Christopher Tolkien in the notes, as having been actual experiences of his father - while others are fascinations that appear elsewhere in Tolkien's writing at times distant from the composition of the NCPs.

Therefore, my inclination is to assume that these specific confirmations are but the tip of an iceberg - and that pretty-much all of Ramer's comments are probably 'Tolkien talking'.


The NCPs start out with a critical discussion of a science fiction story which has been read out by Ramer - until Ramer is pressurized (mainly by Dolbear) into admitting that he had not 'made-up' the story about visiting another planet, but had actually been to the place: 'there is such a world, and I saw it - once.'

On page 173 Ramer begins to explain that he was attracted by the 'telepathic notion' that the mind can travel while the body is in a trance. He relates this to the phenomenon which he says 'cannot reasonably be doubted' that the future can be foreseen in dreams, and that there are 'authenticated modern instances' of visions of this type. Ramer describes this as a 'case of translation', a transference of observation which is usually obscured by the 'never ending racket of sense impressions'.

This interest in, or belief in, the possibility of 'telepathy' chimes with Tolkien's Osanwe-Kentar (published in the magazine Vinyar Tengwar in 1998 Vol 39). This was probably from work on the Silmarillion Legendarium around 1959-60 (more than a decade after the NCPs). Tolkien here asserts that direct communication of thoughts is possible not just for elves but men also, but it is subject to interference from spoken language. Also that men's abilities are weaker than the elves (especially the Eldar) due to men’s relative lack of control of the body.

Ramer then traces the sequence of his psychological experiments, and the ideas which lay behind them. On page 178 he says: 'I had the notion (...) that for movement or travelling the mind (when abstracted from the flood of sense) might use the memory of the past and the foreshadowing for the future that reside in all things, including what we call 'inanimate matter' (...) I mean, perhaps, the causal descent from the past, and the causal probability in the present, that are implicit in everything. At any rate, I thought that might be one of the mind's vehicles [for travelling in space and/ or time]'.

Ramer’s aim was 'to observe new things far off in Time and Space beyond the compass of a terrestrial animal.'

'...I thought that all I could do was to refine my observation of other things that have moved and will move: to inspect the history of things whose paths have, at some point of time and space, crossed the path of my body.'

'The mind uses the memory of its body. Could it use other memories, or rather, records? (...) The fragments, right down to the smallest units, no doubt, preserve the record of their own particular history, and that may include some of the history of the combinations they are entered into.'

(page 180) 'I expect there are in fact lots of neglected chances of historical research, with proper training, especially among old houses and things more or less shaped by man.'

'So I tried various experiments, on myself; various forms of training. It's difficult to concentrate, chiefly because it's difficult to get quiet enough. (...) I wanted to discover if my mind had any power, any trainable latent power, to inspect and become aware of the memory or record in other things. (...) I don't think I have any special talent for it. (...) It is difficult, and it is also frightfully slow. Less slow, of course, with things that have organic life, or any kind of human associations. (...) It's slow, and its faint. In inorganic things too faint to surmount the blare of waking sense, even with eyes shut and ears stopped.'

My interpretation is that, via Ramer, Tolkien is here either describing his own beliefs and self-experiments; or at the least his own potential beliefs and detailed thought-experiments. Either way, it is telling us something about Tolkien's personality which is considerably at odds with that rather hidebound reactionary which the young Humphrey Carpenter put forward in the authorized biography - a much stranger and intellectually unorthodox personality.

At this point, Ramer's experiments in trying to attain telepathic movement in time and space via inspecting the 'memories' located in other entities seems to have failed. However, at this point Ramer brings in the third 'thread' in his argument - which was the deliberate use of dreaming.

'Remember, I was also training my memory on dreams at the same time. And that is how I discovered that the other experiments affected them. Though they were blurred, blurred by the waking senses beyond recognition, I found that these other perceptions were not wholly un-noted; they were like things that are passed over when one is abstracted or distracted, but that are really 'taken in'. And asleep, the mind rooting about (...) in the day's leavings (...) would inspect them again with far less distraction, and all the force of its original desire.'

Again, to me, this passage has the feel of direct reportage.

Ramer then goes on to talk about some of the dreams: 'I used to get at that time very extraordinary geometric patterns presented to me, shifting kaleidoscopes especially, but not blurred; and other queer webs and tissues too. And other non-visual impressions also, very difficult to describe; some like rhythms, almost like music; and throbs and stresses.'

Again my impression is that Tolkien - via Ramer - is here striving to express something very difficult to express from his personal experience. This, especially, because the passage does not work very well in the narrative and stands-out as being unnecessarily detailed.

'But all the time, of course, I wanted to get off the earth. That's how I got the notion of studying a meteorite' (...) I took to hobnobbing with [a large meteorite in a public park]. (...) It seemed to be quite without results. ‘

However, later Ramer found that 'there had been results. It had evidently taken some time to digest [the memory records in the meteorite], and even partially translate them. But that is how I first got away, and beyond the sphere of the Moon, and very much further.'

This begins to sound more speculative, and yet the following reported experience is explicitly verified by Christopher Tolkien: Ramer reports that he got 'some very odd dreams or sleep experiences. Some were quite unpictorial, and those were the worst. Weight, for instance. Just Weight, with a capital W; very horrible. But it was not a weight that was pressing on me; you understand; it was a perception of, or sympathy in, an experience of almost illimitable weight.'

The note from Christopher Tolkien reads: 'My father once described to me his dream of 'pure weight''.

Ramer is struggling to describe a very strange dream experience, and it seems that it was also describing an actual dream of Tolkien's. This was not what Ramer desired from his dreams, and he again changed strategy:

(Page 183) 'I found it all very disturbing. Not what I wanted, or at least not what I had hoped for. So I turned more than ever to dream-inspection, trying to get 'deeper down'. I attended to dreams in general, but more and more to hose least connected with the immediate irritations of the body's senses. Of course, I had experienced, as most people have, parts of more or less rationally connected dreams and even one or two serial or repeating dreams. And I have had also the experience of remembering fragments of dreams that seemed to posses a 'significance' or emotion that the waking mind could not discern in the remembered scene. (...) Many of these 'significant patches' seemed to me much more like random ages torn out of a book.'

Christopher Tolkien's notes reads: 'Of this experience also my father spoke to me.'

So here we have further corroboration that Ramer is speaking of Tolkien’s experiences. And these experiences constitute an account of experiments in dreaming. In Verlyn Flieger's Question of Time she goes into great detail about the use of meaningful dreams not just in the NCPs but throughout Tolkien's whole corpus. It seems likely to me that this was a major interest of Tolkien’s, including a practical and self-experimental interest; and that he was discussing this via the mouthpiece of Ramer in a form where the whole matter could be discussed week by week in Inklings meetings.

I think it likely that a major motivation for writing the Notion Club Papers was precisely that it served as a semi-fictional vehicle whereby some of Tolkien's most strangest and most compelling beliefs and experiences could be presented candidly, yet somewhat indirectly, for detailed discussion in the safe and trusted context of the Inklings.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The fascination of the Notion Club

I find the Notion Club Papers (NCPs) to be one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

Some basic information can be found at Wikipedia

I was stimulated to read the NCPs by Verlyn Flieger's wonderful book on Tolkien: A Question of Time. Flieger's Interrupted Music adds even more depth of understanding.

There are several reasons why the NCPs are so compelling:

1. The book is an example of Tolkien writing a modern novel, with modern characters more or less in the science fiction genre.

2. The characters are somewhat based on the real life Inklings, and the nature of their conversations certainly resemble a kind of idealized Inklings meeting.

3. The characters of Ramer and Lowdham, Ramer in particular, embody aspects of Tolkien's personality which are seldom, or never, represented anywhere else in his published work.

Indeed, my feeling is that parts of the NCPs represent the most candid, most undisguised autobiography that Tolkien ever wrote (or at least that has been published so far). If I am correct about this, the reason is that the NCPs were written to be read privately to the real life Inklings (who were old and trusted friends) and probably would never have been published without considerable further revision (and opportunity for elaboration and concealment).

4. According to Flieger's speculations, the NCPs may have represented an extremely ambitious and complex attempt to 'frame' the whole of Tolkien's Legendarium - including the Silmarillion, The Numenor legends, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings - in a science fiction novel set in the future, the NCPs itself having an elaborate fiction of how it was discovered and edited, and was itself a fiction masquerading as fact.

So, while an unfinished and unpublished (until half a century later) novel, much of it in note form, is obviously something of somewhat limited and specialized literary appeal - in terms of Tolkien's life and work, the Notion Club Papers has a very important place.