An endearing story about fathers and sons—and almost certainly an autobiographical understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien himself and his own, mostly imagined father, as well as Tolkien and his son Christopher—”The Lost Road” begins with a son, Alboin, asking his father, Oswin, about the origin of his name.

Though Tolkien had already written and published The Hobbit, he wanted his “time travel” story—the one C.S. Lewis challenged him to write in 1936—to be something quite different and, possibly as related to the real world as it was to his own mythical world. The Hobbit, after all, had only peered into his larger mythology, the one he had begun just prior to the first World War.

I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis. This was to be called Númenor, the Land in the West. The thread was to be the occurrence time and again in human families (like Durin among the Dwarves) of a father and son called by names that could be interpreted as Bliss-friend and Elf-friend.[1]

In his own recollections in July 1964, Tolkien believed that he had originally written The Lost Road as something completely distinct from his larger legendarium. “So I brought all the stuff I had written on the originally unrelated legends of Númenor into relation with the main mythology,” he claimed.[2] In his own detailed work on his father’s papers, though, Christopher became convinced that Tolkien had, from the very beginning of the book, conceived of the Atlantis-haunted story as fully within his larger mythology.[3] Regardless of its origins, the Atlantis story did, indeed, at least in its scope and larger manifestations and implications become a vital part of Tolkien’s legendarium, providing the outline and essence of his Second Age.

An endearing story about fathers and sons—and almost certainly an autobiographical understanding of Tolkien himself and his own, mostly imagined father, as well as Tolkien and his son Christopher—The Lost Road begins with a son, Alboin, asking his father, Oswin, about the origin of his name. In reply, his father states:

Well, I might have called you Ælfwine, of course; that is the Old English form of it. I might have called you that, not only after Ælfwine of Italy, but after the the Elf-friends of old; after Ælfwine, King Alfred’s grandson, who fell in the great victory in 937, and Ælfwine who fell in the famous defeat at Maldon, and many other Englishmen and northerners in the long line of Elf-friends. But I gave you a latinized form. I think that is best. The old days of the North are gone beyond recall, except in so far as they have been worked into the shape of things as we know it, into Christendom So I took Alboin; for it is not Latin and not Northern, and that is the way of most names in the West, and also of the men that bear them.[4]

Fascinatingly, Tolkien’s “time travel” story begins with both a linguistic and historical understanding of time, looking backward from the present. Albion, it turned out, had a great faculty for the learning of languages, and he soon mastered Greek and Latin, and then he turned to Norse, to Welsh, and to Anglo-Saxon. Oswin, though, being a historian, has much love for Albion but little sympathy with his son’s interests and discouraged him. Still, Alboin persists, realizing that the “languages he liked had a definite flavor—and to some extent a similar flavor which they shared. It seemed, too, in some way related to the atmosphere of the legends and myths told in the languages.”[5] No matter his father’s objections and no matter how much he wanted to acknowledge his father’s authority, Alboin feels “drawn” inexorably toward the languages and the legends, both real and, as he assumed, imagined. The dreams that connected Alboin to the languages and the myths come and go. Sometimes, they are overpowering, but, for long stretches, they disappeared completely from his life.

Albion comes of age just as his father passes away, and The Lost Road jumps to him as a widowed middle-aged professor and father of a son, Audoin. Alboin, as it turns out, became “a pretty good professor, as they go. Only in a small southern university, of course, and he did not suppose he would get a move,” Tolkien explained. “But at any rate he wasn’t tired of being one; and history, and even teaching it, still seemed interesting (and fairly important). He did his duty, at least, or he hoped so.”[6] The relationship between Alboin and Audoin strikingly mirrors Tolkien’s own relationship with Christopher. Like Tolkien, Alboin loves all things linguistic and philological, loves wordplay, and loves poetic verse. Audoin, though, only appreciates these things, while excelling at “things and descriptions” and, especially, at the fine arts.[7]

The dreams and the strange language come back to Alboin one night, and he finds himself understanding the events of the dream as a memory, as if they had been his own memories. The words, “They look like eagles of the lord of the West over Númenor,” stirred him profoundly, yet he could not quite “grasp” the meaning or the context. Wondering how to return to an earlier time, he chastises himself for wishing for a time machine. “Time is not to be conquered by machines,” he tells himself.[8] Returning to sleep and the dream, Alboin encounters an ancient Númenorean, Elendil, who invites him and his son to the past. When Alboin questions the visitor about time travel as a violation of the natural law, Elendil tells him that it is a violation of the rules but not of the natural law. For, he says, the world of time and space is governed not as a machine but as a mystery. Within that mystery, there are always, to be certain, exceptions, and each person has his own fate, unique and unrepeatable.

The Lost Road shifts to the past, to a restless Númenor, a land of gift that has been, by many of its inhabitants, taken for granted and even, to great extent, resented. Within sight of the island of Númenor lies Eressëa, a holy and timeless realm, also called Avallon, and, from there, one can see Valinor, the realm of the gods. Speaking for many of his fellow Númenoreans, one proclaims:

Thou knowest: to set foot in the far West, and not withdraw it. To conquer new realms for our race, and ease the pressure of this peopled island, where every road is trodden hard, and every tree and grass-blade counted. To be free, and masters of the world. To escape the shadow of sameness, and of ending. We would make our king Lord of the West: Nauran Númenóren. Death comes here slow and seldom; yet it cometh. The land is only a cage gilded to look like Paradise.[9]

The real “Lord of the West,” is the angelic power, or god, Manwë, and to claim that title for anyone else is nothing short of blasphemous. The Númenoreans, it turns out, though, have grown decadent and desirous of things beyond their ability and will to control. They resent their home, and they resent that they must die while their Elven kindred experience immortality.

All of their hatreds have been captured, honed, and given voice by the false prophet, the gnostic Sauron, a liar, manipulator, and deceiver. When arrived, he named himself a true servant of the Númenorean king, willing to share his knowledge so that men could claim both power and immortality. Sauron even convinces the Númenoreans to worship the “true god,” Morgoth, wrongfully accused and chained by the other angelic powers, supposedly jealous of his desire to give men knowledge and power. They build a temple to him, awaiting his return from exile. Before Morgoth returns, though, Sauron preaches, the Númenoreans “must win the West,” that is, invade and conquer Eressëa and Valinor. Through his actions and words, Sauron creates discontent, ripping apart the Númenorean culture and people.

Here, sadly, Tolkien abandoned his story.

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Notes:

[1] JRRT to Christopher Bretherton, July 16, 1964, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257.

[2] JRRT to Christopher Bretherton, July 16, 1964, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257.

[3] Christopher Tolkien, The Lost Road, 9-10. See also, Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, 173-174.

[4] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 37-38.

[5] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 39.

[6] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 44-45.

[7] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 46.

[8] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 47.

[9] Tolkien, The Lost Road, 60.

The featured image is “Portrait of Ugolino Martelli” (between 1535 and 1538) by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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