Friday, 21 January 2011

The Notion Club Papers - why England, why Oxford?

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In the Notion Club Papers as it might have become (i.e. 'Annals of the Notion Club' - ANC - as I term this imaginary production of Tolkien's) the main theme is (I infer) the re-establishment of  a link between Faery and contemporary Middle Earth (i.e. the modern world).

But why England, among all of Middle Earth?

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In a nutshell, Tolkien saw himself (in some way, at some level) 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, and was especially favoured for this reason.

Tolkien regarded this memory as coming down his mother's side of the family, and therefore centred in Warwickshire (Mercia).

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But why Oxford?

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.

From the earliest writings now published in Lost Tales and in Tolkien and the Great War (by John Garth) we find Oxford given a special role in scholarship and 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.

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So, my guess is that the ANCs 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.

The benefits of this mythic knowledge would then enhance first the Notion Club members, then the rest of the University, with elven craft, depth, wisdom and mystery.

This 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 disseminated throughout England by means of Oxford's role in educating the administrators and teachers of the rest of England.

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So, 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 a push from the members of the Notion Club who sense the shallowness and literalness of their world and their work, the damage of materialism and the ugliness of industrialization (e.g. Ramer's rather horrible dream of Oxford through the ages) - and seek to enrich it by contact with Faery.

And on the other hand a pull from the inhabitants of Faery. The elves were assumed (see Tolkien's back-story essay for Smith of Wooton Major) to have benign intentions towards humans and seek to help them.

Especially the inhabitants of Faery 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.

(So that these arts and crafts are not merely practised - as so often in the modern world - for the power, prestige or money they might yield.)

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In sum - the Annals of the Notion Club 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, would be re-enchanted by elvish wisdom and suffused with an elvish perspective.

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[And - as things have turned-out - Tolkien actually succeeded in his desire to fulfill this aspiration, to an extent which he would hardly have dared to hope-for; but via the Lord of the Rings as its focus, rather than by means of the Notion Club Papers.]

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6 comments:

Dale said...

That's an interesting surmise, but it has a millenarian quality to it that I don't find confirmed by Tolkien's other writings as a mature man. It could, however, be connected to the aspirations of his circle of youthful cronies before the Great War devastated it.

Troels said...

I suppose one could argue that it was Tolkien's discomfort at bringing such ideas — whether we call it millenarianism or (as was my reaction) mysticism — into a story set in the modern day world that made Tolkien abandon both The Notion Club Papers and the earlier The Lost Road: that he saw in what direction things were moving and couldn't continue.

I like the description of the TCBS as 'his circle of youthful cronies', though I am inclined to think that Tolkien, at that time, was as much one of the cronies as any of the others — also in the sense of supporter / admirer ;-)

Anonymous said...

To go off on a bit of a tangent re. "Ramer's rather horrible dream of Oxford through the ages"...

It partly focuses on the Radcliffe Camera, while mentioning "Oxford since [...] the beginning of the University": he is awoken from it "by the clock on St. Mary's" - "for my appointment. To go to Mass." The Camera adjoins St. Mary's. The Wikipedia notes (accurately) "In the early days of Oxford University, the church was adopted as the first building of the university" and "the upper storey housed books bequeathed by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, which formed the first university library."

By contrast, the Radcliffe Camera was formally opened in 1749. Relying (I hope not too rashly) on its Wikipedia article, it seems to have soon had quite a collection of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew manuscripts - but also to have quickly become known as 'the Physic Library', with a subsequent shift to concentrating on "specifically scientific books."

Then, not so long after its first century, it effectively merged with the University Library, with its "collection transferred to the new 'Museum Library' being constructed (now the Radcliffe Science Library)." This is when it got called "Camera" as a chamber of the Library rather than being a distinct 'Library'. "It now holds books from the English, history, and theology collections" though no dates are provided in this context - was this so in the 1940s?

From philological accent (with theological and perhaps cosmological dimensions) to 'scientific' back to philological, historical, and theological. Something analogous to your thesis, here...

Also, St. Mary's - first university building, first library, yet always church - gives way as library, gets 'reformed' as church. Ramer goes to "Mass". Is he Catholic? Or, 'Anglo-Catholic'? I don't think anyone would have spoken of 'going to Mass' at St. Mary's in the 1940s - nor does Ramer say he is going there.

I wonder about the comparisons and contrasts between Numenor and Oxford in all this. St. Mary's is like and unlike the Pillar of Heaven. The Radcliffe Camera comes along later, and is domed - like the Temple of Morgoth - and is arguably in some ways related to the atheisticalized science that comes later, and to the emphasis on applied science generally paralleled in later Numenor. Yet it is more distinctly unlike. The proper worship in Numenor has been fulfilled in the Church, and the Reformation is not a substitution of Morgoth-worship. Yet, again, Morgoth-analogous dangers are present, and partially actualized, in technological (post-)modernity.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I had not previously noticed the comment about going to Mass - but I think it is significant in subtly establishing a Christian framework for the story. As for what kind of Mass? - I would assume that it refers to Roman Catholic Mass, because I regard Ramer as the most Tolkien-like character (who includes many of Tolkien's deepest and most 'secret' characteristics) - and that he was awakened by St Mary's bell (since the church is near to Brasenose College, where Ramer is a Fellow) but that he would be attending Mass elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

That sounds most likely to me, too. I wonder how significant the Feast is, as well. Two Apostles - those having successfully gone out proclaiming and preaching - traditionally distinguished by especial reference to the Jews where St. Peter is concerned and the Gentiles where St. Paul is concerned, and both regarded as martyrs, and as martyred in Rome. (Incidentally, a quick recourse to Wikipedia suggests Oxford never had a Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and only a 19th-c. C of E St. Paul's (in Walton Street, now a cafe bar), though various St. Peter's Churches - one pre-Domesday Book, one now St. Edmund Hall library and one now St. Peter's College chapel.)

Speaking of significant days and dates, the combinations reported in the Notion Club Papers seem odd for someone often as careful as Tolkien. None fit the 1980s. Night 54 fits 1944 (and its 'content' reminds me a bit of 30 November 1939 as reported to Warnie by C.S. Lewis on 3 December). Nights 60 & 61 fit 1936, 1941, and 1947. Nights 62-70 fit 1924, 1941, 1947, and 1952. Does any of this mean anything?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Tolkien's carefulness was not in the first drafts of a work, but only after he had established its basic structure. The NCP drafts seem to have been written very rapidly over a period of just a few months. If the book had ever reached a form appropriate for publication, Tolkien would certainly have checked and revised all these dates to make them wholly self-consistent.