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SPECIAL GUEST:
The Science of Middle-earth -- Hawk-Flights of Imagination
-- Olog-hai

'Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,' said Merry. 'We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.'
'Not to me,' said Frodo. 'To me it feels more like falling asleep again'.
The Return of the King

'I was awake in bed, and I fell wide asleep:'
The Notion Club Papers

My holiday reading this summer was Tolkien's interesting and characteristically unfinished story The Notion Club Papers, which you can find in Sauron Defeated, Volume IX of The History of Middle Earth. Tolkien started The Notion Club Papers as a kind of breather in the mid-1940s, between finishing The Two Towers and starting in earnest on what became The Return of the King. No more than a year or two separated Tolkien's writing of the two quotes above -- the second, written earlier, could well have influenced Frodo's words on returning to the Shire.

Notion Club is conceived as the fragmentary record, found in mysterious circumstances, of the meetings of an assortment of varyingly eccentric Oxford academics, purportedly held in the 1980s and '90s and discovered in the early 21st century, but thought to be a fiction conceived much earlier, in the 1940s. Now, I just love this kind of cod-literary bluff and double-bluff, which is more typical of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges than Tolkien. (In fact, Notion Club has a lot in common with Borges' essay Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a secret academic society seeks to invent a world in such detail that people actually start to believe it exists, and so it does. Sound familiar?)

Beneath this conceit, Notion Club is a contrived lampoon of the Inklings, the informal literary drinking club of which Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were the best-known members. At least, that's the way it starts. It ends as another reworking of Tolkien's own Atlantis fixation, in which Númenor, Elvish, Old English, Saxon mythology, Elendil, Sauron, the then-emerging language of Adûnaic, St Brendan and even Aelfwine of The Book of Lost Tales find themselves entwined in a thoroughly overcooked stew. And so the story peters out in muscle-bound exhaustion: Tolkien wound up the Notion Club and rode instead to Dunharrow (for which we can all be grateful.)

The comparison with the Inklings is hardly an idle one. The early pages of Notion Club focus on donnish discussions of C. S. Lewis's space-travel novels, leading to Tolkien's working title of Out of the Talkative Planet for his new work. This is a conscious and perhaps slightly envious dig at Lewis, whose Out of the Silent Planet came from a challenge that Lewis and Tolkien had set each other many years earlier, in which Lewis would write a story on space travel, whereas Tolkien would do something on time travel. Out of the Silent Planet led to two published sequels -- Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Tolkien's effort, The Lost Road, was abandoned at an early stage, and yet its central image -- the fall of Atlantis and the 'bending' of the Earth -- carry over into Notion Club. In that, as in The Lost Road, modern people sensitive to the ethereal vibrations of history recover fragments of ancient languages (Quenya, Sindarin, Adûnaic, Old English) by falling into some kind of trance state (hence the 'fell wide asleep' quote above.)

Two members of the Notion Club cause consternation when they pick up dream-fragments of the ancient past, start staring significantly at the sunset and shrieking lines such as 'Behold! The Eagles of the Lords of the West' (in one of a choice of real and invented languages) before falling into a melodramatic funk. Tolkien could hardly be more Lovecraftian if everyone had gotten all covered in ectoplasm and rats had started up the curtains: and you start thinking to yourself 'Out of the Talkative Planet? Nuts -- more like At Hideous Length.'

But I digress. There are a few pages in Notion Club, between the Borgesian and the Lovecraftian, in which Tolkien betrays more than passing acquaintance with one of the most important themes in science fiction -- the technology of space travel. Given that Tolkien is usually seen as the doyen of medievalist, anti-technological swords-and-sorcery fantasy, it may come as a surprise that he knew about what was then known of space and space technology, and how these things were depicted in fiction.

In these early passages, the Notion Clubbers talk about how Lewis's characters travelled between planets, comparing Lewis's ethereal treatment in, say, Out of the Silent Planet with H. G. Wells' more concrete devices in stories such as The Time Machine and First Men In The Moon. In the latter, Wells has his spacecraft powered by a substance called 'cavorite', discovered by his hero, who happens to be called Cavor. The Notion Clubbers, discussing Wells explicitly, argue that for writers to substitute technological-sounding mumbo-jumbo (such as 'cavorite') in place of knowledge is dishonest:

"A gravitation insulator won't do. Gravity can't be treated like that. It's fundamental. It's a statement by the Universe of where you are in the Universe, and the Universe can't be tricked by a surname with ite stuck on the end, nor by any such abracadabra."

This statement, from one of the company, Nicholas Guildford, displays the same disdain that Einstein showed for quantum mechanics: if God does not play dice with the Universe, says Tolkien, then neither should we. In general, Tolkien's character Guildford expresses distaste for the fictional machinery that science-fiction heroes use to get from A to B: "The opening chapters, the journey, of space-travel tales seem to me always the weakest. Scientifiction, as a rule: and that is a base alloy".

This quote is very revealing, for it shows that Tolkien was as familiar with contemporary pulp SF magazines as he was with authors such as H. G. Wells. What we now call 'science fiction' started with the vision of one Hugo Gernsback, who came to the US from Luxembourg in 1904 and made his way as a publisher of cheap magazines. His title Amazing Stories, launched in 1926, was the first English-language magazine devoted to what Gernsback himself called 'scientifiction'. It is an amusing thought that the same pulps that inspired writers such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke might have found their way into the study of an Oxford English professor. 'You can wallow in Scientifiction mags, for all I care,' says Guildford (who adds to a colleague who admits to reading SF, "you read that bastard stuff, scientifiction, not as a casual vice, but actually as a professional interest.")

Guildford's point is that fictional machinery, if not honestly conceived, is a disservice to the tale as a work of literature, not to mention a distraction from the story. If you cannot know how your character gets to his destination, whether it is Pern, Perelandra or even the Planet Turo, then there is no point dwelling on the technicalities: "I should prefer an old-fashioned wave of a wizard's wand" says Guildford:

"A space-travel story ought to be made to fit, as far as we can see, the Universe as it is. If it doesn't or doesn't try to, then it does become a fairy story -- of a debased kind. But there is no need to travel by rocket to find FaŽrie. It can be anywhere, or nowhere."

Why not, then, have a wizard's wand, and be honest? Tolkien's thoughts on science fiction and fantasy, couched as conversation between fictional Inklings, have a remarkably contemporary ring. Many modern SF critics would argue that as genres, SF and fantasy differ only as regards the props they use -- Gandalf's staff is no different from Obi-Wan's light saber. The two are functionally identical (which is why Christopher Lee can be Saruman on one day and Dooku the next without noticeable discomfiture.) Tolkien's point is that the staff is a more honest expression of one's ignorance, for one is not obliged to wonder how Gandalf's staff works, whereas a light-saber is a more obvious expression of technology that begs explanation.

The more fundamental point, about the conjuration of technology in defiance of the Universe, also finds contemporary echoes in SF. In a novel called The Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke explores the human colonization of the galaxy, aiming to be as realistic as possible -- to fit the Universe as it is, not as we should like it to be. Although Clarke describes some fantastic technologies in his novel, such as the idea that we might harness the stupendous energies of the 'quantum foam' that some physicists think underlies reality -- these are all based on real science, or at least informed scientific speculation. Clarke pointedly eschews Star-Trek style technological faster-than-light travel as very much the kind of device so abhorred by Tolkien, describing it as the kind of mumbo-jumbo that conveniently allows the Great Producer in the Sky to get from one location to another in time for Next Week's Exciting Episode. If you are going to travel faster than light, or back in time, or between planets, just wave a wand -- or dream yourself into it.

At this point, the Notion Clubbers start discussing these more philosophical methods of travel in time and space, which two of them eventually use to assume the characters we now know as Amandil and Elendil, and are able witness the downfall of Númenor. Here Tolkien once again demonstrates the extent of his reading, when one of the characters, Ramer, remarks to Wilfrid Jeremy -- an authority on speculative fiction -- that he had become

"…attracted by what you may call the telepathic notion -- merely as a literary device, to begin with. I expect I got the idea from that old book you lent me, Jeremy: Last Men in London, or some name like that."

Last Men In London, published in 1932, tells how the final species of Man -- living on Neptune two billion years in the future -- communicates telepathically with members of our species, living in 1930s London. Its author, William Olaf Stapledon, is one of the neglected genii of modern literature. Just six years older than Tolkien, he had very similar experiences: he served in World War I (in the Friends' Ambulance Unit), became a professional academic, and did most of his best writing as the world slowly slid into World War II.

Last and First Men (1930) -- to which Last Men in London is a kind of appendix -- tells the entire billions-of-years saga of humanity, a saga conceived on the kind of audacious scale that few writers have dared attempt. If that were not enough, the entire action of Last and First Men is told in barely two paragraphs of Star Maker, published (like The Hobbit) in 1937, on the very eve of War. Star Maker is less a story than an almost painfully immense vision in which a modern man, tortured by the circumstances of his day, leaves his suburban home one evening to sit on a nearby hillside and look at the stars. Almost without his own volition, he is caught up in what he calls a 'hawk flight of imagination' (in Tolkien's words, he falls wide asleep) that carries him to the ends of the cosmos, where he finds that the very stars themselves are sentient and -- as part of a community of disembodied spirits -- he gets to meet the Creator. And even as the Creator makes each Universe more perfect than the last, there is still darkness and suffering, which we must do our best to combat before night falls. Stapledon, like Galadriel, is concerned with Fighting the Long Defeat, albeit on a stupefyingly grand scale. In Trillion Year Spree, his critical history of SF, Brian Aldiss hails Stapledon as "the ultimate SF writer" and adds this trenchant post-script:

"How it is that the funeral masons and morticians who work their preserving processes on Eng. Lit. have rejected Stapledon entirely from their critical incantations is a matter before which speculation falls fainting away."

Again: sound familiar?

And while we are on the subject of transport, did you know that the Númenoreans invented aircraft? But perhaps that's for another column.

-- Olog-hai


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