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 Post subject: The Notion Club Papers
PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2009 7:48 pm 
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I am fascinated by the Notion Club Papers (NCPs) and am currently exploring some of the reason why in a new blog:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/

If anyone is interested, it would probably be best to read the blog in chronological order (in other words, the opposite order to that in which postings are displayed on the blog).

So far I have only covered a small part of the first part of the NCPs.

I'd be interested in feedback on what I have written so far; and indeed any comments on the NCPs, since there has been very little published about them - so far as I can discover.

If anyone would like to submit essays or observations to the blog I'd be happy to consider publishing them. I'd like it to be a bit of a web resource for people interested in the NCPs.

My personal e-mail is editormehy@yahoo.com


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2009 8:10 pm 
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T-P, have you read Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time? It is the only work that I know of that discusses The Notion Club Papers at length.

I'll be back once I've had an opportunity to read your blog post.

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 18, 2009 9:43 am 
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One of the topics which I think is illuminated by the NCPs is Tolkien's creativity - the nature of his genius.

I wrote about this in my NCP blog:

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.

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

This pattern is often seen throughout the HoME - specific details are retained, while the meaning of these is transformed throughout the process of revision.

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.

This is not unusual among creative people, 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.

This is, I believe, why Tolkien did not see himself as inventing, rather as understanding. If key evidence was missing, he could try and interpolate it like a historian by extrapolation from other evidence, or he could await 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 Eärendil. As Tolkien's Legendarium evolved, the meaning of Eärendil (the myth behind the word) changed - but the word remained.

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

Tolkien - I think - regarded these key words, key story elements as his primary source material, which must be preserved. The interpretation of these emotionally-charged, externally-inspired 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 was 'given' to Tolkien from his primary sources, accessed during his most profound creative states.

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/20 ... lkien.html

Does this interpretation ring true to other Tolkien readers? Do many other prose writers employ this 'shamanistic' method of composition? (many real poets seem to do so).


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 21, 2009 6:09 am 
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I just finished reading "Until We Have Faces" by C.S. Lewis, and he used the same technique - he looked "behind" the story of Psyche and Eros to imagine what the original "true" story was out of which the legend was created and later recorded.

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 21, 2009 5:20 pm 
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I'm not familiar with the Notion Club Papers, but that was very interesting. It absolutely rings true.

Quote:
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.


I think you're right that the "shamanistic" state isn't uncommon, the most famous example probably being Jack Kerouac and "On the Road", even if he did have a little help with the 'altered state'. However, I suspect it's more Tolkien's background that comes into play here, particularly since his earlier writing was doing just what he does with his own legendarium.

I would add to your two reasons that this method is very particular to what he was trying to do. He wasn't trying to write a story, he was trying to write a history, and that's how history works. It's the same as constructing a language. You have to start from somewhere, and then figure in things that get slurred together and vowel shifts and the collisions with other languages. Without those quirks, it's not a real language. Things are lost and distorted and rediscovered, but sometimes even those rediscoveries aren't particularly accurate. Of course, his original method of writing was like that, with the stories he wrote based on fragments of old texts. But I suspect that what he did was the only real way to create the sense of mythic history that he was trying for. Especially working with texts from oral cultures as he did and then basing some of his own cultures on that, it's the distortions and reinterpretations that give things depth and that sense of antiquity.

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:11 pm 
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Tplkien's theology is a huge topic - but some people might not be aware of the aspects which emerge in the Notion Club Papers:

From http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/2009/11/notion-club-theology.html

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 'Eärendil' 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 Númenor - 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 Númenor 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 Nazgûl 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 arival of the great wave?).

Then, on page 194, the report takes an explicitly religious turn when Ramer says: "...one 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 fom 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."


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:25 pm 
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The thing about the NCP that makes them unique among Tolkien's writings is that, even more than its unfinished precursor, The Lost Road, it contains modern-day characters (though interacting with both the real ancient history and Tolkien's own mythological history). That adds a different level of verisimilitude in regards to spiritiuality and religion not present in his other works, which all take place in a pre-Christian world.

Note: I'm going to combine this thread with the other NCP thread. We don't really need two separate active threads on the work.

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:41 pm 
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Note: I'm going to combine this thread with the other NCP thread. We don't really need two separate active threads on the work.


I wonder if it might be better instead to abandon the NCP thread, as it seems few have read it?

I am worried that people might be put off by discussing Tolkien's theology in an NCP titled thread - and indeed the discussion would (and should) almost certainly go much wider than the NCPs if the thread did 'take off'.

Instead I might use NCP related ideas in other threads, and thereby eventually hope to stimulate more people to read the NCPs...?


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 3:50 pm 
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Too late. ;) In any event, your post was explicitly about the NCPs, and so really should be in this thread. If you want to start a separate broader thread on Tolkien's theology, go right ahead.

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 22, 2009 4:50 pm 
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OK - but before I do, I will wait and see if anything happenes here first...


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