A Tolkien Sighting

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A Tolkien Sighting:
Day of the Dead Exhibition at the Longmont Museum
Essay by Andrea Mathwich of the Grey Havens Group
Photos by Roger Echo-Hawk

The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd of every year.  The ancient Aztecs believed that their deceased loved ones lived on after death in another place, but once a year they were released from that otherworld and allowed to return to earth at midnight, October 31.  Families would set up elaborate tables full of the dead’s favorite foods, drinks, books and collections so these wandering souls could easily find them.  For the next two days their spirits joyously reunited with their living relatives. TolkienGHGAltar(02b)

We are a Tolkien reading group in Colorado and have been meeting weekly for years. You could say we are like a family.  We come together because we all share a joyous passion for Tolkien’s works.  So much so that reading about him has inspired us to create and collect.  Some of us have started writing poetry and Tolkien fan fiction.  Others have picked up the paintbrush and created visuals and maps of Tolkien’s world.  Still others have picked up sharper things like knitting needles and have patiently yarned up the Hobbit story in the form of scarves. We have collected Sting, miniatures of Rivendell and Minas Tirith, Strider’s Sword and about every book ever written about him.  A few have learned to write in the beautiful Elvish language and in strange Runes, all for the love of Tolkien. TolkienGHGAltar(88)

It was time for us to gather these collections into one place to celebrate the life and works of Tolkien, and the Day of the Dead Exhibition was just the place to do it.  We carefully placed a good pipe and a strong English beer on the table to entice his hungry spirit to linger. We had a warm fire blazing in hopes he might rest his weary soul before making his return journey to that other land.  We baked up some fresh lembas, a sustaining bread from his stories, to energize him as well. We placed his books on the table so that he might leaf through them, and perhaps weave us a new tale.  We were ready for his visit.  The crowds gathered on the opening night at the Longmont Museum to view all the offrendas of the Day of the Dead.  Tolkien’s table was glowing with candles and twinkling lights. The scent of tobacco floated through the air and melodic music played in the background.  The occasion was happy and festive.  We were excited to be together.  We knew Tolkien’s wondering spirit would not be lost.

The Grey Havens installation crew gathers around Donna Clement’s magic fireplace; Dyhrddrdh Colby, Andrea Mathwich, and Charlie Krinsky begin work, Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2014

The Grey Havens installation crew gathers around Donna Clement’s magic fireplace; Dyhrddrdh Colby, Andrea Mathwich, and Charlie Krinsky begin work, Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2014

Andrea and Charlie agree that this is exactly where Bilbo would hang Dyhrddrdh’s artwork: “The Ring Verse”

Andrea and Charlie agree that this is exactly where Bilbo would hang Dyhrddrdh’s artwork: “The Ring Verse”

The Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar, Friday, September 26, 2014

The Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar, Friday, September 26, 2014

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Grey Havens gathers at the Opening Fiesta, Friday evening, September 26, 2014

Grey Havens gathers at the Opening Fiesta, Friday evening, September 26, 2014

Luthien and Beren (photo of the Tolkien gravesite by Steve Eggleston)

Luthien and Beren (photo of the Tolkien gravesite by Steve Eggleston)

Next time you visit Middle-earth, be sure to try Andrea’s lembas and Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms.

Next time you visit Middle-earth, be sure to try Andrea’s lembas and Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms.

Down at the Prancing Pony visitors from afar read Father Christmas Letters when they get tired of jumping over the moon

Down at the Prancing Pony visitors from afar read Father Christmas Letters when they get tired of jumping over the moon

Hobgoblin Ale goes well with a little Longbottom Leaf

Hobgoblin Ale goes well with a little Longbottom Leaf

Dan Hollingshead’s epic painting “Sailing to Valinor” hangs over Donna Clement’s fireplace

Dan Hollingshead’s epic painting “Sailing to Valinor” hangs over Donna Clement’s fireplace

Linda Echo-Hawk tells Andrea that she thinks well of Gollum because his eyes glow in the dark just like a cat

Linda Echo-Hawk tells Andrea that she thinks well of Gollum because his eyes glow in the dark just like a cat

Thanks to Andrea Mathwich for developing, organizing, and producing the Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar

Thanks to Andrea Mathwich for developing, organizing, and producing the Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar

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The Grey Havens Hobbit Hole

Welcome to the Grey Havens Hobbit Hole  courtesy of Barbed Wire Books and artist Donna Clement

Welcome to the Grey Havens Hobbit Hole
courtesy of Barbed Wire Books and artist Donna Clement

The door is real with a painting of Donna propped up in front of it

The door is real
with a painting of Donna propped up in front of it

Kelly pauses in the Shire on her way to Grey Havens

Kelly pauses in the Shire
on her way to Grey Havens

Dyhrddrdh is in a hurry to hang her hood next to Kili’s hood

Dyhrddrdh is in a hurry to hang her hood next to Kili’s hood

Katy, magic weaver of enchanted scarves

Katy, magic weaver of enchanted scarves

 

For the first time ever Erika enters the door with the magical sign

For the first time ever
Erika enters the door with the magical sign

Ivan and Michele know the secrets of both mice and mystics

Ivan and Michele know the secrets of both mice and mystics

Sisters of the Enchanted Drum

Sisters of the Enchanted Drum

Donna and Andrea speak “friend” and enter here

Donna and Andrea speak “friend” and enter here

Kate and Donna visit Bag End to search for tunnels full of jewels and gold

Kate and Donna visit Bag End
to search for tunnels full of jewels and gold

Dan appeared from his mysterious journeys and said, “Well, I’m back.”

Dan appeared from his mysterious journeys
and said, “Well, I’m back.”

Elisha is thinking of forgetmenots and flag-lilies and a silver-green gown

Elisha is thinking of forgetmenots
and flag-lilies and a silver-green gown

 

Beth feels at home when she’s not abroad

Beth feels at home when she’s not abroad

Tonight we will ponder the ruin of Beleriand and Fingolfin’s sword that glittered like ice

Tonight we will ponder the ruin of Beleriand
and Fingolfin’s sword that glittered like ice

Tolkien’s Sudden Glimpse of Truth

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.