On the Notion Club Papers

This is a remarkable way of writing. Most writers know roughly what they mean in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to understand what it meant – and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning.

I am a Tolkien fan, but not a Tolkien acolyte. Aside from the standard texts, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I’ve read The Silmarillion and a few other writings, but I never made it through The Book of Lost Tales, and I’ve never even tried The History of Middle Earth.

Prof. Bruce Charlton is hard core. I was directed to his blog, Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, by our friend Dale Nelson, who has been in correspondence with him. Dale sent me a file of Prof. Charlton’s long blog post, A Companion to JRR Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, which I read with some interest. You can find it at the blog right here and judge for yourself.

The Notion Club Papers is an unsuccessful attempt by Prof. Tolkien to write a modern novel. He made a plan with C.S. Lewis to write a time travel story, while Lewis himself began a space travel story which became Out of the Silent Planet. Tolkien’s book, however, never got beyond preliminary notes, which are preserved (if I understand correctly) in The History of Middle Earth.

Prof. Charlton’s contention is that The Notion Club Papers was more significant than most readers guess. For one thing, Tolkien had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was utterly blocked on his “Hobbit sequel.” He took six months off work, and successfully treated himself by going away and working on the NCP. As the story developed, it turned from his original concept of time travel to become a book about modern men making contact with the ancient powers of Numenor, and so receiving the material which would be the Legendarium of Middle Earth. This change in concept helped him to figure out what kind of book The Lord of the Rings needed to be, and prepared him to complete it with new vision.

One of Prof. Charlton’s most interesting contentions is that Tolkien wrote in a “shamanistic” manner—recording images and scenes he’d seen in lucid dreams, and then building stories around them. Often the stories became something entirely other from what he originally thought they were going to be. He also argues that both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s fiction were conscious attempts to revive Christianity in England through a revival of myth.

I’m in no position to judge Prof. Charlton’s scholarship. It seems strong to me. I will mention that he has an irritating habit, hard to understand in an academic, of hyphenating verbs unnecessarily, as in, “So Tolkien wrote-about….”

But other than that, this material is much recommended for Middle Earth geeks. As a conversation starter, if for no other reason.

2 thoughts on “On the Notion Club Papers”

  1. Very interesting! I’ll have to check that Tolkien blog out– I’ve been a devoted fan of Tolkien and his works since the age of eight. Always interesting to read more about the great man and his work!

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