For today's Superversive Blog, we have a guest post by British professor Bruce Charlton, who happins to be one of my husband's favorite authors.
The Notions Club — as envisioned by Afalstein
JRR Tolkien’s fragments of a novel called The Notion Club Papers:
and my attempt to finish some of his unfinished business
By Bruce G Charlton
Few people know that, just as the second world war was ending, JRR Tolkien broke off from writing The Lord of the Rings and spent about a year and a half working on a modern novel called The Notion Club Papers (NCPs).
The draft novel material can be found on pages 143-327 of the Sauron Defeated, which is The History of Middle Earth Volume Nine, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published twenty years ago (1992) – and in addition there are a further hundred pages of drafts of the history of Numenor which was intended to have been integrated into the story. This is a big chunk of writing, done at the peak of Tolkien’s powers, so it may be surprising that it is not better known – but of course the Notion Club Papers forms merely one part of a scholarly volume also dedicated to charting the evolution of Lord of the Rings, so few Tolkien fans are even aware of its existence.
Furthermore what we have of the NCPs is a mere fragment: a scrappy ‘set-up’ for a very ambitious fiction which is mostly unwritten. Furthermore, the novel is not just un-finished, but hardly begun in terms of its action. Most novel readers are looking for a complete and coherent story with clear characterisation – and the NCPs do not offer anything of that type.
Why read it then? I can only try to explain what draws me back to this tantalising work again and again.
In the first place there is a delightful sense of eavesdropping on a real-life Inklings meeting, because (as the name implies) the ‘Notion Club’ is modelled upon the Inklings, as reading and discussion groups of – mostly – dons, and meeting in the evening in Oxford Colleges. The style, and even the topics, of discussion at the Notion Club fit very well with what is known of the Inklings at their best.
Secondly, these fragments are worth reading because the NCPs (Notion Club Papers) is thematically focused on some of Tolkien’s deepest and most enduring concerns and yearnings – in particular his desire to provide England with a mythology that he felt it lacked, and to re-connect the impoverished modern world view with the richer, deeper perspective of the past. There are particular passages, here and there, which jump out at me; and feel like Tolkien talking of his inmost desires and deepest convictions.
Thirdly, the NCPs were vital in developing the concept of Numenor, including spurring the invention of the language Adunaic as the everyday language of the Island. Among this material is a fascinatingly ‘garbled’ version of Numenorean history. Which Tolkien constructed as an example of the way that the original correct information from the elves might have become distorted by the passage of time and cumulative errors of many generations of men.
Finally, the NCPs were intended to be Tolkien’s fictional link from the modern world to his whole ‘Legendarium’ of the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion legends. Specifically, it seems that the Notion Club was to describe how the stories of ancient and magical times were transmitted to modern times: partly by the dreams experienced by members of the Notion Club, and probably also by two Notion Club members actually voyaging West across the Atlantic Ocean, discovering a long-lost route and coming to the land of the elves.
In a nutshell, Tolkien intended that the Notion Club papers would be the very first work the reader of Tolkien’s works would encounter – an introduction to the whole body of his ‘mythology for England’ providing a transition from modern life to ancient mythology, and thereby ‘framing’ The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit to follow.
So, the Notion Club Papers may or may not be interesting to read in its own right, but it is without question of major significance in the development of the Lord of the Rings from a mere Hobbit-sequel into the extraordinary work it became.
Because the NCPs was by far the most ambitious work that Tolkien had attempted up to that point – a book involving both modern ‘science fiction’ and multi-layered and linked ancient history: both real and fictional. The Notion Club Papers were, indeed, themselves a development of an incomplete story begun in 1936 called The Lost Road and now available as volume five of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth. So, the combined efforts of The Lost Road and Notion Club Papers represented a whole decades-worth of effort, albeit intermittent, to bridge the ancient and modern, the factual and fictional, in a single complex work which would explain and introduce all his tales of Faery.
But when Tolkien abandoned The Notion Club Papers, it seems that this vast ambition was instead, somehow, channelled-into the emerging Lord of the Rings, enriching and deepening the concept.
Given that what we have of the Notion Club Papers is fragmentary and undeveloped, and indeed unsuitable for its purpose as envisaged by Tolkien; 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.
What follows is, then is a Treatment, for a possible novel that might be developed from the existing Notion Club Papers; consistent with what I understand to be Tolkien’s purpose in writing them.
A Treatment for a possible completed Notion Club Papers
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. Therefore, I suggest that the NCPs would – ultimately (if finished) – have provided a fictional history of the processes that brought Tolkien's historical myths 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. Essentially, 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. 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.
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 the main characters 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 (that is, 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 rather a background character in terms of the action and excitement, and it would have been the extrovert Lowdham in particular who 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 (who is Tolkien’s alter ego and main mouthpiece in the drafts we have) 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 from Faery 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 (presumably the elven Lonely Ise of Eressea): Lowdham (the mariner) would 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, my guess is that the link between Faery would be firstly psychic, and only secondly physical – because the early parts of the NCPs are concerned with the initial glimpses of myth and faery via dreams, then there is a break-through of visionary material from the past into the modern present – so powerful that it had an actual physical effect on Oxford and nearby areas of England (there is a storm which replicates 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: the Notion Club Member called Dolbear – who (I suggest) 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 are told that Dolbear has 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 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.
And, 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 elven inhabitants of Faery would 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 – this possible, projected, actually-published 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.
So, that is my Treatment for a possible completed and functional novel of The Notion Club Papers!
But it is only one person’s view – and the NCPs could be a rich source of creative stimulus for other people.
For whatever reason, and thank Heavens! – Tolkien broke-off from writing the Notion Club Papers and instead finished The Lord of the Rings – but in doing so he left some very important things unsaid, and some vital connections unmade; there are many dangling threads that could, in principle, be gathered together.
Maybe some sympathetic and informed modern writers may be able to create ways of knitting-up these threads, and thereby completing at least some of Tolkiens ‘unfinished business’.
To read more by Professor Charlton:
Visit his general blog
Visit his Notion Papers Club blog
Buy the book John liked so much: Thought Prison
Or, read it here for free: Free online version of Thought Prison