Friday, 13 July 2012

Why read Tolkien's Notion Club Papers?

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Published in Beyond Bree July 2012 pages 1-2

Newsletter of the Tolkien Special Interest Group in American Mensa.

http://www.cep.unt.edu/bree.html

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WHY READ TOLKIEN'S NOTION CLUB PAPERS?

By Bruce G Charlton

The Notion Club Papers (NCPs) is an unfinished and posthumously-published modern science fiction novel by JRR Tolkien which he wrote in 1945-6 and read aloud to The Inklings during a long gap in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. He had become bogged-down over what seems an almost trivial detail in the narrative: synchronizing the phases of the moon in the different parts of the tale.

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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 form merely one part of a scholarly volume also dedicated to charting the evolution of Lord of the Rings, so few Tolkien fans are aware of its existence.

Yet even when they are aware of the NCPs, few Tolkien fans trouble to read it. And this is understandable. What we have 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 I 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.

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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 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.

And thirdly because the NCPs were at one point 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.

Yet another aspect is the development of the concept of Numenor, including 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.

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For the past few years I have been accumulating thoughts about the Notion Club Papers and putting them onto a blog of the same name http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/.

One of the most interesting ‘discoveries’ was that the NCPs were written at a time when Tolkien was suffering from severe psychological stress almost amounting to a ‘nervous breakdown’.

This was probably caused by Tolkien having taken on the duties of the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature while at the same time fulfilling his previous role as Professor of Anglo Saxon, during the period while a replacement was being appointed. Not only was he doing two jobs, but each of these jobs was heavier than usual because of the wartime shortage of academic manpower.

It is perhaps because of Tolkien’s psychological state that the NCPs contain – indirectly and put into the mouths of several characters - some of the most personal and autobiographical material Tolkien ever intended for public consumption.

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And if the writing Notion Club Papers was indeed a ‘therapeutic’ process for Tolkien, then this treatment was apparently effective – since in the late summer of 1946 Tolkien resumed writing the Lord of the Rings and this time he was able to take the work through to completion without any further major hold-ups.

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So The Notion Club Papers is interesting in its own right, and was also a pivotal work in the development of the Lord of the Rings from a hobbit-sequel into what it became.

Because, although it is now hard for us to believe - while he actually was writing it, the NCPs was the most ambitious work that Tolkien has attempted – a book involving both modern ‘science fiction and multi-layered and linked ancient history: both real and fictional. The Notion Clob 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.

All admirers of the Lord of the Rings therefore have reason to be grateful for the fragmentary and unfinished Notion Club Papers.

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6 comments:

Cindy C. said...

Have you done any blogging on Dorothy Sayers?

bgc said...

The short answer is no - I don't know her work very well, although I have read some, and a couple of biographies.

Deniz Bevan said...

Great post! The first time I read the Notion Club Papers, I wished for more! I still wish there were at least two or three volumes of those writings...

bgc said...

@DB - Excellent! I think that makes about six of us NCP-ites in the world, so far...

Samson J. said...

Ordered it. Thanks for recommending it!

bgc said...

@Samson J - Perhaps you could let me know your first impression, when you've read it once?