- Dream Visions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked that reading a medieval text made him want to write one himself.1 The Lord of the Rings is widely regarded as the culmination of this desire. Although his works are necessarily modern, no one doubts that Tolkien incorporated many of the medieval themes and ideas that occupied his professional life into his creative writing. One medieval preoccupation that found expression in The Lord of the Rings is the medieval dream vision, though the influence of such literature on Tolkien has not been widely acknowledged. Although seldom recognized today, the dream vision was one of the most important motifs of medieval literature. While the dream framework is undoubtedly little more than a literary convention taken over through "sheer intertia" on the poet's part in some cases (Spearing 4), many serious and religious works were cast in this form. Chaucer wrote dream visions; so did the Venerable Bede. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Romance of the Rose, and the Chanson de Roland all contain elements of dream visions. Boethius cast his influential philosophical treatise, The Consolation of Philosophy, as a dream vision. Even Dante's Divine Comedy is usually regarded as a dream poem even though the narrator did not represent himself as falling asleep.
Common to all medieval dream visions is the emphasis on the visual experience of the dreamer. As Constance Hieatt points out, "the imagery and description of the poem are richly visual, and the poem is to a very large extent an account of what the poet sees rather than of what he hears or thinks" (18). Landscapes are highly developed and often have symbolic significance, usually representing an incorruptible space that the dreamer may inhabit only temporarily. In keeping with this tradition, dream visions in The Lord of the Rings also provide rich visual detail. The graphic nature of these dreams are so fully developed that a number of artists have created depictions of events viewed only in dreams and visions—events not otherwise represented in the text.
Beyond their intense visual quality, the conventions and characteristics of the medieval dream vision are almost as diffuse as its applications, and nearly every artist cheerfully adapted the form to suit his or her own purpose. But, of course, the conventions were not completely abandoned, or we should be unable to identify the form at all. Most notably, the dream vision functions as a means by which the dreamer attains knowledge which he or she would otherwise lack. Often, the dreamer [End Page 45] falls asleep wrestling with some problem or vexation, only to awaken in "an ideal or often symbolic landscape, in which the dreamer encounters an authoritative figure" (Spearing 4). In The Consolation of Philosophy, for instance, the figure is Lady Philosophy herself; in Dante's Inferno, the first book of his Divine Comedy, Virgil occupies his role. The figure and the dreamer engage in debate, although sometimes the dreamer watches a debate between dream figures, as in The Parliament of Three Ages. The debate thus guides the dreamer toward some concealed truth. But sometimes there is no debate at all: the dreamer simply experiences a transcendent moment which lends sympathy or insight, as in The Dream of the Rood. This kind of dream vision is simply prophetic, and the dreamer is "given access to a higher moral or eschatological realm" from which he or she "awakens enlightened" (Kruger 124).
Many of the dreams and visions experienced in The Lord of the Rings follow the same conventions. All the hallmarks of the medieval genre are there: the intense visual quality of the vision, the ideal or symbolic landscape, the authority figure at the center, and even the five aspects of dreaming that informed medieval psychology. But while the inclusion of such conventions may be unconscious, his thinking about those conventions was clearly deliberate. As he says in the preface to his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien appreciated the dream framework because it "allowed marvels to be placed within the real world" (11). He distinctly dis...