In our Grey Havens meeting on Thursday night (January 16), I read a brief passage from The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West.” Finrod Felagund enters a camp of Men and picks up a harp and begins to sing, and the listening Men wonder if they are dreaming, but “the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him; for the things of which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadows of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure.” This fascinating passage was apparently written by Tolkien in the late 1950s – the scene itself dates to earlier versions of The Silmarillion of the 1930s (The Shaping of Middle-earth, p. 104; The Lost Road and Other Writings, p. 275). But here it at last features the phrase “clear visions.” This passage in its final form reflects a specific esoteric transmission of imagery and knowledge which fits with Tolkien’s evolving conceptions of vision versus dream. In the late spring of 2013, sorting out the relevant chronology of Tolkien’s writings on the topic, I prepared the paper below, but the full consideration of this topic appears in Tolkien in Pawneeland, where a sequence of chapters ascribes certain aspects of the evolution of Tolkien’s ideas about dream and vision to his exposure in 1942 to Skidi Pawnee mythological texts.
Tolkien’s Sudden Glimpse of Truth
In one of his last notes, dating to circa 1973, JRR Tolkien described how Círdan the Shipwright declared his purpose to sail “into the West” and then “received in his heart a message, which he knew to come from the Valar, though in his mind it was remembered as a voice speaking in his own tongue” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 386). This voice issued a warning and “it seemed to him that he saw (in a vision maybe) a shape like a white boat, shining above him[.]” This marvelously dreamlike transcendent vision was witnessed only by Círdan, but it unfolded from Tolkien’s hand as his final journey into the mysticism of dreams and visions.
In 1942, in the course of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien launched into a period of intense contemplation of dream and vision when he decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and resurrect him as Gandalf the White (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 252-253; The Treason of Isengard, p. 1). In “The White Rider” Gandalf the White meets the remnant Fellowship in Fangorn and describes in visionary terms what happened to him at Moria – an aura of mystery and wonder surrounds Gandalf’s nature, and we glimpse a wonderfully mystical world when he sheds his life as Gandalf the Grey and returns as Gandalf the White.
To grasp the full significance of this plot development in The Lord of the Rings, we must understand what Tolkien made of visionary experience in the evolution of his Middle-earth legendarium. Tolkien’s exploration of dream and vision unfolded slowly in scenes he composed for The Book of Lost Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lost Road. None of these writings offer a coherent formal view of dreaming versus vision, but during the early 1940s Tolkien launched into a more direct contemplation of the nature of reality and fantasy. This pondering took shape in the course of preparing an extensive revision of “On Fairy-stories,” an essay that Tolkien originally wrote in 1938-1939 as a lecture. Here he sorted out not just the character of fairytales, but also the essences of dream and vision.
“On Fairy-stories” underwent composition during at least two periods. Tolkien started writing it sometime in 1938, and it progressed through to the delivery of the lecture in March 1939. Two draft manuscripts seem to date to this period (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 122; Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 686-687). The second draft manuscript dates in part to circa 1939, but Tolkien used it as the basis for an extensive revision in 1943, and from this a third manuscript was prepared that same year (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 122). These three manuscripts have been labeled by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson as “Manuscript A,” “Manuscript B,” and “Manuscript C.” Flieger and Anderson published A and B in their 2008 volume Tolkien On Fairy-stories.
In “On Fairy-stories” Tolkien formally defined his view of “the machinery of Dream” as “only a thing imagined” and “a figment or illusion” (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 35; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 327). This definition does not appear in the original draft, “Manuscript A,” dating to 1938-1939. Nor does it appear in “Manuscript B,” written in 1938-1939 and revised in 1943. It must first appear in “Manuscript C” or in the typescript that followed (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 132, 134) – these later manuscripts are not presented by Flieger and Anderson, but it seems safe to assume that the “machinery of Dream” passage dates to 1943.
There Tolkien writes that “In dreams strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 35; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 327). But the nature of dreaming is such that it “cheats deliberately the primal desire” for “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” To explain, he shifts from the illusions of dream to point out that traditional fairytales accept fairy folk as “not themselves illusions[.]” And such traditions exist in their most exalted form when “presented as ‘true.’” Tolkien concludes that dreams cannot claim this kind of narrative truth and are not therefore the most appropriate environment for a fairytale.
If dreams are fanciful, what is fantasy itself? Tolkien’s consideration of fantasy in the essay begins with a description that sounds like the definition of a dream (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 59; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 361-371): “The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present.” But Flieger and Anderson show that he derived this language from “definition 4” for the term “fancy” in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 110): “Imagination: the process and faculty of forming mental representations of things not actually present.” Tolkien’s paraphrased version does not appear in “Manuscript A” or in “Manuscript B,” so its initial appearance must date to “Manuscript C” in 1943. The OED definition ends with this: “…imagination is the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of realities.” Tolkien attached this statement mostly intact to the end of his opening paragraph on the topic of fantasy. An abbreviated version of it appears in “Manuscript B” on a sheet dated by the editors to 1943 (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 245-246). This shows that Tolkien was giving much thought to these matters in 1943 rather than in 1938-1939.
Inspired by the definition for “fancy” in the Oxford English Dictionary, Tolkien set forth an elaborate cognitive mechanism for creative vision. The faculty of conceiving “mental images of things not actually present,” he says, has been termed “Imagination” but it is “Art” that provides “the operative link between Imagination and… Sub-creation” (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 59; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 361-371). And the term “Fantasy” is useful to “embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression[.]” He then distinguishes fantasy from dreaming, but he provides a highly obtuse meaning for “fantasy” as a term of artistry emerging from the mysticism of what he termed “sub-creation.”
It is in the 1943 epilogue to “On Fairy-stories” that Tolkien sketches his answer to the question of what is “true” in a fairy-story (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 77; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 387): “…in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” From this “brief vision” Tolkien muses, “It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history…” With such imagining in hand, Tolkien’s joy centers on the prospect that “the Great Eucatastrophe” in God’s plan for the world will mean that “Art has been verified.” At this point it is apparent that Tolkien’s uttermost hope is that his own art will become “hallowed” by the Christian evangelium and we will see that “God is Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves.” Tolkien’s happy ending will find fulfillment when “Legend and History have met and fused.”
And so we find Tolkien in 1943 deploying the word “vision” in a mystical fusion of the world of internal imagination and the world of external reality. When he writes “…in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision…” the idea of vision here is one that has the potential to transform fiction into non-fiction. Reality is a construct that can be derived not just from ordinary insight, but also from an ultimate mystical consciousness. And the erasure of a boundary between the fictive constructions of Tolkien’s “secondary world” and the non-fiction truths of our “primary world” can be achieved as a religious act of grace, a Great Eucatastrophe. For this reason, Tolkien took seriously the formulation for his sub-created Elves and Maiar of an aspect of consciousness that could become embodied as a grand outcome of God’s plan for humankind.
His discussion of “recovery” conveys these very teachings (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 67-69; Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 371-375). This concept appears in vague form in the original version of the essay, “Manuscript A,” as “renewal,” while the concept of a “Recovered Thing” receives brief mention in “Manuscript B”: “”The Recovered Thing is not quite the same as the Thing-never-lost. It is often more precious. As Grace, recovered by repentance, is not the same as primitive Innocence, but it is not necessarily a poorer or worse state” (Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 192-194, 265). Tolkien’s full disquisition on “recovery” must therefore appear in “Manuscript C” written in 1943.
Recovery, Tolkien explains, “is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view.” He continues: “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’… though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.” The sin of “possessiveness” of beautiful things means that having acquired them, we have “ceased to look at them” and so we must “clean our windows” of this dross. Toward this end, recovery is a poetic form of liberation: “Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”
These teachings held for Tolkien hope for transcendent visionary enchantment. Having set forth the logic behind this hope in “On Fairy-stories,” he sought conscious moments of contemplative clarity in his everyday life. In late 1944 he wrote a letter describing the essay and focusing on eucatastrophe and vision as the “highest function of fairy-stories” because the experience of it offers “a sudden glimpse of Truth…” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #89, November 7-8, 1944, p. 100). He then goes on to describe three instances of such sudden clarities involving a waking epiphany, the joy of eucatastrophe, and “the most touching sight” of a “holy tramp.” He knew these were esoteric matters, difficult to articulate and very personal: “This is becoming a very peculiar letter!”
In this realm of visionary contemplation, Tolkien found himself journeying upon a path perpendicular to history and into a lattice of intellectual and spiritual connections between what he termed the Primary World and the Secondary World. He discovered there that the ambiguities which so often exist at the boundary separating the inner worlds of rationalism and spiritualism could be less formed from impenetrable materials and more composed of permeable esoteric truths.
It is fascinating to ponder what this signified for Tolkien in his private life as a religious Catholic, and how it impacted his storytelling, but our expectations should be open to nuance – surely Tolkien made different things of this mysticism and had many ways of relating to what it meant. This is implied by Tom Shippey’s sense in The Road to Middle-earth (2003, p. 285) that “For many years [Tolkien] had held to his theory of ‘sub-creation,’” but “by the 1960s he was not so sure.” And Tolkien “no longer imagined himself rejoining his own creations after death[.]”
But during the 1940s Tolkien’s ambitious theory of sub-creation still shined with visionary clarities. In 1944 one culmination of his thinking about dream and vision gave rise to a new aspect of Gandalf – the invention of Gandalf as Olórin the Maia. The construction of Gandalf’s death in 1942 and his aspect as Olórin in 1944 bracket the period when Tolkien formally organized his thinking on dreams and vision. In the delicate spiritual mechanisms of visionary experience, Tolkien found a means of elucidating the mystery that moved in the mist between worlds, between the fictional realms of his Secondary world and the truths of the Primary world.