The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1998
Review by John Ellison
This review first appeared in Mallorn 36, 1998
This book represents an approach to Tolkien's world little explored previously, save by the author herself who has discussed it in lectures and papers such as that given by her at the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference at Oxford, published in its Proceedings (Flieger, 1995). The interested reader or student may find it helpful to read or re-read that paper before tackling the book itself as it provides an outline of the more detailed commentary on "The Lost Road", and "The Notion Club Papers", the two principal landmarks in Tolkien's exploration of the possibilities of time travel into the past contained in this book.
The paper also usefully summarizes the essentials of the "theory of time", as it appears in J.W. Dunne's An Experiment with Time, a book which Tolkien owned and read, and which he drew on as a kind of springboard for his own "experiments with time", as they might be called. The author's argument in this book, then, is that Tolkien's writings in general, and especially The Lord of the Rings, fall to be interpreted in terms of a twofold handling of the dimensions of time; time both as a linear progression as in our day-to-day experience, and as a unity outside that experience, and comprehending it. In this latter sense, "the field of time" can be viewed, or, "observed", from progressively wider stances up to that of the, "ultimate observer".
What is implied thereby is the ability of "the observer" at each stage to escape into "other time", especially into the past, or into past times. The primary mechanism by which such "escape" is handled for the purposes of narrative is by way of dreams or dreaming, which Tolkien treats in a variety of ways. If in his desire to travel backwards into past time, or times, he seems to be appealing to nostalgia, in his tendency to view the present critically through the lens of the past he is, paradoxically, as much of a "modernist" as other writers and artists who conventionally qualify for that title. The contrasting fates of Elves and Men, of the latter of whom it might be said that the past is their future, and the former of whom it might be said that their future is their past, typify this duality of feeling.
Tolkien was not, of course, alone in treading this kind of path. The author starts by tracing the evolving concept of "escape into past time" in the work of writers both of the previous generation and contemporary with Tolkien's formative years, writers as diverse as George du Maurier (especially the novel Peter Ibbetson (1891)), J.M. Bane (whose work Tolkien knew, of course, and criticised), Henry James and J.W. Dunne himself. Tolkien's interest in the concept of "escape into past time" emerged openly in his agreement with C. S. Lewis whereby the latter would write a story about "space travel" and he would do likewise as regards "time travel".
The immediate result was "The Lost Road" with its proposed structure of time travel by successive stages into the increasingly remote past, the climax to be reached with the involvement of the, "travellers", in the purely legendary "downfall of Númenor". The chief difficulty was to find a means of effecting the entry into, and the departure from, another past or imaginary world in a convincing manner, and Tolkien in order to solve it sought to merge the states of dreaming and waking in a seamless flow. The scheme as we know was never carried through and remained with one of the intermediate stages sketched, and a scene laid in Númenor itself. Subsequently in "The Notion Club Papers", the plan was greatly refined and elaborated, and its dramatic potential as a story much enhanced, by being placed in a "near future", time, and in the context of a real-life Oxford.
The "drowning of Númenor" is reflected in a tremendous storm, at the height of which the two principal "travellers" vanish, only to reappear weeks later to recount their shared experience "in the past". Once again, however, the project was abandoned. It had become too complex, too intricate (according to Christopher Tolkien); does the author of this book feel, though she does not express such a view, that the scheme was incapable of full realisation; that the merging of present time with past time involved too many contradictions to be practical as simple narrative? One's suspicions in this regard spring from Flieger's discussion of the Lothlórien episode in The Lord of the Rings, which she places, not perhaps to the best advantage, in its chronological position between the two unfinished works.
The sense of "timelessness" which the members of the Company experience while they are within Lothlórien needed to be reconciled, somehow, with the straightforward chronological sequence of the surrounding narrative. The difficulty surfaces most clearly in Sam's remarks about the appearance of the moon some days after the departure from Lothlórien, and the debate that follows. As Flieger demonstrates, the problem turned out to be logically insoluble, though Tolkien's drafts show him as trying out a number of possibilities. In the end he settled for a compromise; the dates of the Company's arrival and departure are part of the overall chronological sequence; in between these dates the travellers experience the sensation of time slowing down or stopping so that their awareness of the passage of external time is blurred. The dichotomy of "time versus timelessness" is implied, but not faced or tackled head-on.
The author stresses the significance of Eriol ("one who dreams alone"), the originating persona of the entire mythology, also in his Anglo-Saxon alter ego as Ælfwine ("Elf-friend") in setting a precedent for the related names of the successive travellers and dreamers, the father-and-son pairs of "The Lost Road", Oswin/Albion, and Albion/Audoin ("Eadwine") Errol, and the subsequent father/son pairing of Edwin/Alwin Lowdham of the "Notion Club Papers". [Readers looking for this material will find 'The Lost Road' in The Lost Road, HoME V, and 'The Notion Club Papers' in the unsplit edition of Sauron Defeated, HoME IX.] The names act as a unifying motive underlying Tolkien's development and elaboration of the time-travel theme. Frodo Baggins, Elf-friend, emerges as the traveller- and dreamer-in-chief of all these personalities sharing a common "wanderlust", and ambition to attain "the other world".
In the next stage of the book, the author turns to considering Frodo in this role, especially as regards the importance of his dreams at Crickhollow and in the house of Tom Bombadil. What is perhaps less clear is the extent to which Frodo's dreams support the weight of argument and influence Flieger puts on them. It might be suggested that his role as dreamer-in-chief would have been clearer if we had been permitted a glimpse or two of the content of dreams he may have had, at Rivendell, say, or later on during the course of the journey to Mordor. The visions in the Mirror perhaps make a partial substitute, but their significance for the present purpose is somewhat reduced by being juxtaposed with those of the down-to-earth, not at all visionary Samwise.
Frodo's dreams, for the purpose, are no more than three in number, and one
of them, as it finally emerged (it was otherwise in the earlier drafts) is
no more than a "mood piece", albeit a highly evocative one. In the
other two - respectively the visions of Gandalf rescued from Orthanc, and
of the coast of Aman "under a swift sunrise", he is certainly travelling
"in other time", backwards in the one, forwards in the other. But
is he really doing so,
in the realm of Faërie, as Flieger
would claim? To use her own expression, Frodo's dreams are "correlative"
to the story rather than being structurally part of it, and there's the rub.
Once more we seem to be shying away from any attempt at resolving the contradiction
of time versus timelessness; it is just here that the foundations of the book's
structure begin to creak a little, and the argument to seem like special pleading.
When Frodo and the other hobbits have left Gandalf for the last time, preparatory
to their return to the Shire, and Frodo remarks that
it feels like falling
asleep again, the author's argument that the entire experience since
the original departure from the Shire represents
a waking dream
for him seems dangerously circular.
In the concluding chapters of the book the author turns to considering the
negative aspect of journeying "in other time", in the world of Faërie
in other words; its perilous side is evident in the poem "The Sea-Bell"
which in its second mature version has the subsidiary title of "Frodo's
Dreme", and relates to the
dark and despairing dreams which
visit Frodo in the Shire after his return. Flieger makes an interesting comparison
between the returned wanderer's inability to communicate the reality of his
experience to those he meets, and the inability of the returned soldiers after
the First World War, Tolkien and thousands like him, to communicate to those
who had not experienced them the realities of warfare and existence in the
trenches - the comparison is between two extremes which nevertheless seem
Finally, in Smith of Wootton Major, Tolkien, and we, have to
face up to the truth that "escape", however desirable, has inevitably
to be followed by a return to reality; no one can live a voyage permanently
"in other time". Just as Smith must see his journeying in the world
of Faërie come to an end and pass his inheritance on to his successor,
in Tom Shippey's words
mortal men cannot wander in these visions all
the time, without danger. They must give up and make their peace with the
world. We are left to conclude that all along the reconciliation of
"present time" with "other time" has been an unattainable
ideal, but the justification for Tolkien's artistic career was the tireless
search for it.
This book cannot really be called "an easy read"; the author's style is often rather dense and convoluted, and also somewhat repetitive at times; one sometimes has the sensation of being repeatedly hit over one's head with her arguments and conclusions, rather than merely being presented with them. Nevertheless the book does represent a major addition to Tolkien scholarship; it is full of valuable and illuminating observations on many aspects of Tolkien's life and art, and will more than repay the serious attention of everyone similarly involved.
Flieger, Verlyn. 1995. "Tolkien's Experiment with Time: The Lost Road, 'The Notion Club Papers' and J.W. Dunne" in The Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992 eds. Patricia Reynolds and Glen H GoodKnight. Altadena and Milton Keynes: The Mythopoeic Press and The Tolkien Society. pp 39-44.
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