Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's
Road to Faerie
(Kent State University Press, 1997)  


Time travel and distortions of time are common in stories about Faerie: in ballads (like "Thomas the Rhymer"), short stories (like "Rip van Winkle"), and novels (like The King of Elfland's Daughter). The impact on and distortion of time caused by the Faerie world impinging on the mortal world plays a significant role in how readers relate to Faerie stories.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this concept was a popular literary convention; authors (influenced by advances in physics) across a range of genres explored time travel and its use in crossing between different realms of existence. Writers from George Du Maurier (Peter Ibbetson) to Olaf Stapledon (Odd John) and Jack London (Before Adam) have explored the concept. Before Adam uses time travel through the protagonist's dreams to an earlier incarnation, a device very similar to that seen in George Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson. This approach is also very similar to the communication between John Wainwright and his Egyptian mentor in Odd John.

Though a more subtle influence in his more well-known works, these concepts of time are prominent in some of Tolkien's lesser-known and incomplete works, and they lay the foundation for their use in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's perspective on time and time travel in "The Notion Club Papers" and "The Lost Road" form one of the bases for the concept of Faerie in The Lord of the Rings. In A Question of Time, Verlyn Flieger analyzes Tolkien's use and understanding of time across the full range of his writing, showing how his use and exploration of time (both psychologically and semi-scientifically) marked Tolkien as a modern writer, despite the medieval and ancient subject matter in his work.

In A Question of Time, Verlyn Flieger studies Tolkien's concepts of time and time travel, and their relationship to the world of Faerie. The connection between Tolkien's experiences growing up, and as a soldier in World War I, as well as the influence that popular and scientific culture of his time had on his writing, are also explored. Flieger deeply analyzes the development and intent of Tolkien's two incomplete time travel stories, and relates Tolkien's theory of time in them to his use of time in The Lord of the Rings. Flieger analyzes selections from across the range of Tolkien's writing, finding some of her most profound insights in "Smith of Wootton Major. This particular story showed the greatest detail and most complicated development of the space-time relationship between the mortal world and the world of Faerie, as envisioned by Tolkien.

Flieger carefully builds up the cultural context for Tolkien's handling of time and reality by examining authors, science, and psychics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tolkien's writing is placed in context of other authors of his time to show that he was not simply a fantasy or escapist writer. Other writers, working under the same influences, wrote works with similar themes in different genres. Flieger includes authors like J.W. Dunne (who attempted a more rigorous scientific approach to the study of time) to show the link between scientific and cultural developments. Interestingly, both Dunne's and Tolkien's approaches are similar to the current research on time published by the English physicist Julian Barbour. Barbour proposes that time itself is an illusion, that the mind observes each separate instant of time individually. All instances of time exist simultaneously, and the experience of moving through time (even of movement itself) is an illusion generated by our minds to allow us to interpret what we see. The mind sits outside of time in this sense, a very similar idea to the outside observer found explicitly in Dunne's work and less explicitly in Tolkien's.

Echoing her work in Splintered Light, Flieger contrasts the differences between human and elvishperspectives on the nature of time. The most telling distinction between the two kindreds is drawn through their view of the future. According to Flieger, Tolkien's elves see the future as a period of decline and decay, the opposite of humanity's hopeful approach. This creates a backwards emphasis in the elvish mentality - "men are proceeding into the future, while Elves are receding into it." In this, the Elves and Sauron are much the same (since they are both bound by fate and the Music of Iluvatar). The Elvish rings stave off time and decay just as the One Ring does (though without the negative side effects); representing similar desires on the parts of their makers. The Elves and Sauron are seeking to prevent change, and therefore development and growth. Both lack humanity's potential. Tolkien's development of time travel as linked to death and change, since there can be no passage of time without change. The implication is that Elves might be incapable of the time travel that Tolkien sees men experiencing. Finally, in her exploration of "Smith of Wootton Major," Flieger presents Tolkien's study of time and space as an ongoing effort to construct a plausible way of explaining how the realm of Faerie and the mortal world can co-exist and interrelate.

The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's time travel stories treat dreams (and therefore time travel) the same way. A character's dreams help define their place in the story and what is in their future (Frodo's and Sam's dreams for example, as Flieger points out). Flieger illustrates this point very well with a long and detailed analysis of Frodo's dreams, showing how carefully Tolkien laid them out over the course of many revisions to play an important part of the story. The time travel ideas that were first explored in "The Notion Club Papers" and "The Lost Road" play an integral role in the development of Boromir's character and his role in The Lord of the Rings: a dream and portent of his future drives Boromir to Rivendell and his ultimate fate. Time's fluidity, when crossing between Faerie and the mortal world, is best shown in the experience of the Fellowship when they come to Lorien. While in the forest, they live in Elvish time, cut off from the flow, change, and decay of the outside world. It is only after leaving that they realize the disconnect between the time spent in Lorien and the time that has passed in the outside world. The allusion to the Struldbrugs of Gulliver's Travels, raised first in A Splintered Light, is brought up again to show the negative aspect of clinging to a never-changing present as the Elves strive to do.

Tolkien's incomplete and lesser-known works provide valuable insights into how he constructed his particular worldview and vision of Faerie. A Question of Time is a carefully laid out and striking analysis of these works, showing how their development overlapped with and supported the development of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other more widely read works. Building on some of the ideas introduced in Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger provides a valuable addition to the body of critical works devoted to Tolkien.

A book on Tolkien edited by Flieger, Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle Earth was previously reviewed in Green Man. More information on Verlyn Flieger's work and the courses she teaches at the University of Maryland can be found at her web site. You can find further information on Julian Barbour's theories of time here and on J.W. Dunne's work here.

[Eric Eller]