"Seers and Singers: Sub-creative Collaborators in Tolkien's Fiction", Leaf by Niggle, Leeds, Poetry and Songs, Smith of Wootton Major, The Notion Club Papers, Tolkien scholarship, Tolkien Society, Tolkien Society Seminar
Where do the months fly by? June was busy, as I was preparing my talk for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds while also putting the final touches on our family vacation itinerary in Europe — we were given a very special opportunity this year to travel to France, Italy, and Scotland, with a stop in Leeds for the Seminar. Our schedule meant that I couldn’t stay longer for the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, but maybe next year…. The Tolkien Society Seminar plus Dimitra Fimi’s organization of Tolkien sessions at the IMC certainly make Leeds a desirable destination.
The theme of this year’s Seminar was poetry and songs, and we heard many different approaches, from individual word studies to language invention, to women in Tolkien’s works, and poetry as world-building, to individual poem analyses, to the new publication Aotrou and Itroun. You can find the program here. I was impressed by how international this one-day conference was; we had speakers and attendees young and old from Germany, Poland, the US, the UK, France, Italy, New Zealand — and Canada, of course.
My talk, “Seers and Singers: Sub-creative Collaborators in Tolkien’s Fiction,” covered some of the ideas that I’ve written about in my article for Verlyn Flieger’s festschrift, A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (edited by John D. Rateliff and forthcoming from Gabbro Head Press). There’s a lot more in that article that I didn’t have time to fit into my 20-minute talk, including some ideas from Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts about alliterative poetry and his repeated use of the image of the Cook. For the Seminar, though, I outlined some of the similarities I have found in three of Tolkien’s texts that deal with sub-creation and Elvish dramas: The Notion Club Papers, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major. Below is a copy of my abstract for the Seminar talk:
In Tolkien’s creation myth in The Silmarillion, the Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the visions of creatures. As Verlyn Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light, p. 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation (p. 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien.
In this presentation, I will turn to a few stories by Tolkien that are primarily concerned with the sub-creative powers of light and music, image and the word: The Notion Club Papers, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major. The Notion Club Papers explores the struggles and experiments that its characters have with dream visions and languages as avenues of memory and connections with the past. Leaf by Niggle is the story of a visual artist who paints his way into what may be perceived as a faërian drama, and Smith of Wootton Major represents another sub-creator gifted with vision and music who penetrates deeply into the mysteries of the Perilous Realm.
The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image. The stories function as meta-commentaries on collaborative sub-creation, exploring the entry into faërian dramas and the nature of what is experienced there. For example, when the powers of word and image are combined, as in the collaborative pairing of Lowdham and Jeremy in The Notion Club Papers or in their combined presence in Smith, the results are an impressive entry into Faëry. Although each of the stories represents characters who function in different relationships, what becomes evident in each case is that Tolkien does not present a lone heroic poet or artist-figure; instead, some kind of a pairing helps each of his sub-creators. Lowdham and Jeremy, Niggle and Parish, Smith and Alf – in each case the sub-creator relies on another. Throughout, Tolkien also creates the idea of a genealogy of sympathy that enables a tradition to form that will pass on a taste for Faëry and an ability to enter into a faërian drama.