Co-authors: Jeremiah Burns, Simon J. Cook, Thomas P. Hillman, Richard Rohlin, Oliver Stegen. For the Verlyn Flieger Festschrift, A Wilderness of Dragons.

The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. (OFS 34-5)


A Question of Time
Dreams in The Lord of the Rings
Another Section


Fairy stories are stories about Faërie, not about fairies. This is the point hammered home in the first pages of Tolkien's essay 'On Fairy Stories'. The point is developed further as the essay proceeds. Fairy stories, we begin to understand, are exercises in fantasy, the literary creation of imaginary 'Other-worlds'. Yet it is the hasty reader who dismisses the significance of fairies. For elves (that is, fairies) are the natural denizens of Faërie: as Tolkien puts it in an early draft: living in and by it, elves have their being in Faërie (OFS 254). To grasp the nature of the perilous realm as a sub-created universe is to grasp (more or less) the nature of its fay inhabitants.

Fairies, or elves, are masters of enchantment, the ultimate tellers of fairy stories. This is the subtle, meta-point underlying the whole of Tolkien's essay. In their ideal form, fairy stories are, literally, stories told by fairies. The mortal art of fantasy, that is, the human composition of 'fairy stories', aspires to the true elvish craft of enchantment. Tolkien explains that fantasy imagines a world that satisfies our deepest desires; and he insists (crucially) that one of the most profound of these desires is for the realisation of fantasy itself. Thus, elves are born of our human desire for fantasy to reach the level of true enchantment. Of 'the desire for a living, realised sub-creative art', Tolkien writes, the elves 'in their better (but still perilous) part are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy' (OFS 64).

A level of abstraction, not to mention self-reflexivity, pervades these thoughts, which are very difficult to hold clearly in the mind. But then, in composing this essay (originally a lecture delivered in 1939), Tolkien was thinking in abstractions and very much about his own art as a story teller. What we encounter when we read this essay is the (mortal) master of fantasy attempting to put his own thoughts in order as he prepared to compose his own fairy story, the sequel to The Hobbit that we now know as The Lord of the Rings. Not surprisingly, within the pages of the latter book we find many concrete embodiments of the above ideas. One such scene, particularly striking in its subtle contrast of mortal and immortal sub-creative art, is set in 'the Hall of Fire' in Rivendell, a place, as Gandalf tells Frodo, where 'you will hear many songs and tales - if you can keep awake':

Frodo began to listen.

At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep.

There he wandered long in a dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice. It seemed to be the voice of Bilbo chanting verses. Faint at first and then clearer ran the words.

Eärendil was a mariner...

(FR, Volume 2, Chapter 1, 'Many Meetings'; emphases added)

This scene could almost be a prelude to Tolkien's own fairy story. First we encouter the true sub-creative art, or rather, its most perfect expression: words that take shape, conjuring visions of things and places never before imagined, of seas that meet the further shore. Frodo's experience listening to the sweet music of the Elvish minstrels becomes ever more inseperable from dream. And then a new voice is heard, a mortal voice; the voice of Bilbo chanting Tolkien's own verse: a lesser attempt to sing of stirring events in the first age of Faërie - an intimation of Tolkien's attempt to (now) tell the great tale of the ending of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

An interesting commentary on this scene is offered immediately after the recitation. Confiding to Frodo, Bilbo remarks that Aragorn, who was supposed to have helped him compose the verse, regarded his very act of singing of Eärendil in the house of Elrond as something of a cheek: 'he obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head... I suppose he was right.' Aragorn highlights the inevitable gap between true elvish enchantment and any mortal attempt to tell fairy stories. Yet Frodo's reply to Bilbo is encouraging: 'It seemed to me to fit somehow, though I can't explain. I was half asleep when you began, and it seemed to follow on from something that I was dreaming about.'

Frodo here does more than offer words of comfort; he points directly, if elusively, at one of the mysteries of Tolkien's mature sub-creative craft. Dream - somehow - is grasped by Tolkien as an aid to mortal composition and telling of fairy stories. As we shall see, a close reading of his epic story of the end of the Third Age - the greatest fairy story of the modern age - reveals a pervasive and multifaceted use and invocation of dreams. Our goal in composing this essay is to bring to waking thought the nature and the role of dreams in The Lord of the Rings.

A Question of Time

As with so many paths in Tolkien studies, Verlyn Flieger points us on our way. Tolkien's conception and use of dream is a vital, if utlimately subordinate theme in her 1997 book, A Question of Time. As her title suggests, Flieger is first and foremost interested in the role of time (or space-time) in Tolkien's fiction. As such, dreams concern her primarily as a means by which Tolkien revealed something beyond normal waking experiences of time (AQT 4). The relationship of dream and time is established by way of J.W. Dunne's An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne had argued that, while our waking experience of time is a moment-by-moment flow, in reality all of time (like space) is always present, and that in dream the mind may extend its range of observation of time, looking forward into the future as well as backward into the past (see AQT 39-47). By way of some brilliant detective work, the influence of Dunne is revealed by Flieger at several key points in The Lord of the Rings. This leads to the conclusion that Tolkien here employed dreams mainly in order to reveal both unexpected depths to, and also developments in the consciousness of his characters, most importantly Frodo.

Flieger deals with dreams head-on in two late chapters of A Question of Time: 'Frodo's Dreams' (chapter 8) and 'Falling Asleep Again' (chapter 9). The first treats of the actual dreams of individuals, most notably those of Frodo. Again and again, Flieger shows how these dreams are vehicles for the thematic development of Dunne's theory, taking the dreamer across space-time and providing access to something the waking self of the dreamer could not possibly know. This leads her to the following generalization about the place of dreams in The Lord of the Rings:

dreams are not so much a part of the action as correlative to it. They correlate the waking and the sleeping worlds, they parallel or contrast conscious with unconscious experience, and they act as chronological markers. Free in a way the rest of the narrative is not to move beyond the confines of conscious experience, the dreams in The Lord of the Rings reach into unsuspected regions of the mind, bridge time and space, and so demonstrate the interrelationship between dreaming and waking that the two states can be seen as a greater whole. (Flieger AQT, 175-76)

Flieger is quite clear that most of the dreams in The Lord of the Rings 'are presented quite explicitly as dreams'. Nevertheless, her chapter 'Falling Asleep Again' addresses those times when, as she puts it, 'the narrative actions and the dream are so entangled that we find ourselves participating in a kind of waking-dream'. The most obvious such entanglement is Lórien, which Flieger argues is in a basic sense a dream. Here she extrapolates in part from Tolkien's discussion of ‘Faërian Drama’ in his lecture on fairy stories, and astutely comments that when Sam, in Lórien, says that he feels as if he is ‘inside a song’, this might sound like metaphor but is meant by Tolkien as a true description of a hidden reality - Sam is in truth inside a song, inside an artistic creation, a ‘Faërian Drama’, woven by some other mind (AQT 192). We shall return to these ideas later in the essay.

The 'dream' that most interests Flieger in this second chapter on dreams is 'one that does not appear to be a dream at all until nearly the end of the story' (AQT 196). On their way home, on the road from Bree and just after Gandalf has left the hobbits to visit Tom Bombadil, the following exchange occurs between Merry and Frodo:

'Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,' said Merry. 'We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.'
'Not to me,' said Frodo. 'To me it feels more like falling asleep again.' (RK, Ch 8)

Flieger suggests that we take Frodo's statement seriously, and she points to the early sequence of adventures experienced by the hobbits on leaving the Shire as marking the gradual commencement of what she calls 'Frodo's waking dream' (198). She points out that in each of these adventures - Old Man Willow in the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wight - 'dreaming and waking are interwoven' (AQT 200) and 'interconnected' (AQT 202-3). These first three adventures, Flieger argues, set the scene for Frodo's general experience on leaving the house at Crickhollow, namely, a falling 'wide asleep into a dream so vivid that ordinary waking life takes on the evanescent quality of a dream in comparison', and the entering of 'a world in which waking experience becomes the stuff of dreams, often of nightmares, and in which their dreams cross over into waking experience' (AQT 199). This whole experience, essentially the whole adventure of Frodo, Flieger sees as bridged by Frodo's reciprocal visions of the further shore beyond the sundering sea: 'white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise'; first dreamed of in the house of Tom Bombadil, then seen on the ship that bears him from the Grey Havens. What was dream at the beginning of the adventure becomes waking reality at the end of the story. This, for Flieger, is Tolkien's ultimate illustration and application of Dunne's theory of time.

Dreams in The Lord of the Rings

Tom's exegesis of dreams in LOTR and criticism of Flieger's position

Reality is larger than mortal minds can perceive in a state of normal, waking consciousness. This view is implicit in Tolkien’s statement that one of our ‘primordial human desires…. is to survey the depths of space and time.’ (OFS 34-35, para. 16) Nor are mortal minds limited in time and space alone. The horizons of reality are as veiled as its depths.
This Tolkien communicates to us in many, mostly small and subtle ways: Gandalf’s hint of Providence to a clueless Frodo (FR 1.ii.56); the thinking fox in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.72); the feeling the hobbits get of the Old Forest’s hostility (FR; the world of the Black Riders, entered by Frodo when he puts on the Ring at Weathertop (FR 1.xi.195-96); and Frodo’s glimpse of Glorfindel ‘as he is on the other side’, a shining white figure with the light of Aman in him (FR 1.xii.214; 2.i.222-23).

From time to time, however, Tolkien grants us a much larger vision, as when Gandalf speaks of what he experienced between his death and his being ‘sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done’ (TT 3.v.502); when Merry looks upon the mountains and feels overwhelmed by the ‘insupportable weight of Middle-earth’ (RK 5.iii.791); or, when Sam, exhausted and near despair in Mordor sees the star of Eärendil, greatest of all the heroes of Faërie, and has a moment of enlightenment:

Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his masters, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. (RK 6.ii.922; cf. App. A 1034)

Dreams in The Lord of the Rings allow the characters, and the readers along with them, to survey these far-flung horizons and traverse the depths of space and time. In doing so they help not only to bind the narrative together – as Frodo’s dream of ‘a far green country under a swift sunrise’ in the house of Bombadil links his first encounter with Faërie to his last – but also to link this world, our mortal world, credibly to that larger reality neither we nor the hobbits can normally perceive. It is dreams that turn the ‘grey rain-curtain…all to silver glass’ and roll it back. (RK 6.ix.1029) Only thus can Frodo’s final journey, which none left on the hither shore could have witnessed or told of, be true.

Yet if we survey that portion of the text which is richest in dreams – from Frodo’s dream in Crickhollow to the hobbits’ departure from Tom’s land – we shall see that a range of states of consciousness exists between dreams and ‘normal’ waking consciousness. It might be best to think of this range as a spectrum, since one state often blends into another (as we saw above, p. 2-3, in the description of the effects of Elvish minstrelsy). In addition to ‘dreaming’ and ‘waking’, we shall see a state of ‘dreamlike’ consciousness, in which one seems to oneself or to another to be dreaming, but is not; a state of ‘widened’ consciousness, in which one perceives more than mortal senses allow; and a state of ‘enchanted’ consciousness, in which one is under a spell most often cast through a song.

Before dawn Merry wakes Frodo from a dream of a tower and the Sea, the sound of which ‘he had never heard in his waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams’ (FR 1.v.108). Soon after entering the Old Forest, the hobbits begin perceive its ill will, of which Merry has warned them. An attempt by Frodo to counter this feeling with a song seems only to make the Forest more hostile, as Merry points out. They struggle on, their path literally shaped before them by the malice and song of Old Man Willow, who sings them into an enchanted dreamlike state, in which all they wish to do is go to sleep. Only Sam realizes what it going on – ‘Hark at it singing about sleep now!’ – and he stays awake long enough to save Frodo from being drowned in the river by Old Man Willow. Even so, he cannot understand Frodo’s claim that ‘the beastly tree threw me in’ except as a dream. Yet as events show, ‘dreamlike’ and ‘half in a dream,’ are not a dream: the tree did try to kill Frodo, and is trying to kill Merry and Pippin.

Though now freed from Old Man Willow’s spell, Frodo and Sam remain powerless against him. They require the help of one whose ‘songs are stronger songs’ (FR 1.viii.142), Tom Bombadil, who turns the tables and sings the Willow to sleep, before bidding the hobbits to follow him home. Without the immediate protection of Bombadil, the ill will of the Old Forest reasserts itself: ‘[The hobbits] began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening’ (FR It is real, however, and once again they are not dreaming, but enchanted, or perceiving things mortals ordinarily do not.

Almost brought to a halt on the very eaves of the Forest, they are suddenly aware of the murmur of the river coming down the hill, and the renewed singing of Bombadil, joined now by Goldberry, daughter of the River, whose voice is ‘as young and ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills’ (FR Song has countered song, enchantment enchantment, and under its ‘spell’ Frodo, ‘overcome with surprise to hear himself saying such things’ (FR 1.vii.123), spontaneously responds with song in the same manner and meter.

That night Frodo, Pippin, and Merry all have very different dreams. Frodo dreams of Gandalf’s escape from Isengard, an event which he could know nothing about, since it took place hundreds of miles away less than a week earlier. So clearly this dream is unusual and visionary. By contrast, Pippin’s nightmare of being back inside the Willow is normal and intelligible, given his horrid experience. Merry also has a nightmare, that the house is being flooded by rising waters that will drown him. This is harder to construe. Hobbits are suspicious of water not in a bathtub and regard the Sea as a symbol of death (FR Pr. 7). Nor is this the last time Merry will have a bad dream about ‘deep water’ (FR 1.x.173).

Nevertheless, it is perhaps best for now to view Merry’s dream as more an expression of fear, since like Pippin when he wakes he hears or seems to hear the voice of one of his hosts comforting him and reminding him that he is safe within this house. Frodo’s dream differs here again. It takes place outside and he fears he will never be able to leave Bombadil’s house again. Consequently, Frodo needs no reminder that he is safe inside these walls. These three dreams describe a range of dreaming experience. Pippin’s directly corresponds to the events of the day, Merry’s is more abstract and primal, and Frodo’s is visionary, ‘surveying the depths of time and space.’ That Sam does not remember dreaming at all is far more than a throwaway line, or the joke at his expense, that it may seem. All of a piece with his being resistant to Old Man Willow’s singing, it contrasts and emphasizes the experiences of the others.

All the next day the hobbits spend ‘under the spell of Tom’s words’ (FR 1.vii.132), which not only causes the hobbits to lose track of time and, what is perhaps more telling, meals, but almost seems to enable them to see back across thousands of years:

When they caught his words again they found that he had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake. Then suddenly he stopped, and they saw that he nodded as if he was falling asleep. The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted; and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars. Whether the morning and evening of one day or of many days had passed Frodo could not tell. He did not feel either hungry or tired, only filled with wonder. (FR 1.vii.131)

‘[R]egions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought’, ‘enchanted’, ‘spell’ – these words describe not dreams, but an enchanted consciousness, the realization of a Faërian drama, maybe, in which ‘you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp’.1 Note well that Frodo (and the others) have lost track of time, that Bombadil is described here as if he were in fact doing what he is singing about, and that it is he who appears to have fallen asleep.

That night, ‘either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which’, Frodo ‘heard a sweet singing running in his mind’ and then saw the ‘far green country’ to which he will travel in the end. The narrator (also Frodo, but with hindsight) calls this experience a ‘vision’, as it indeed proves to be. Just as the previous night’s dream had directed his gaze to the past, and the dream in Crickhollow two nights earlier had him looking for the Sea, which ‘had often troubled his dreams’, so now this ‘vision’ draws his eyes to the future and the Sea, a future which Frodo already regards with little hope: ‘but I go to lose [a treasure], and not return, as far as I can see’ (FR 1.iii.66).

In the land of Tom Bombadil, the ‘Eldest’, who lived in Middle-earth before Morgoth and before fear, who speaks in verse when he isn’t singing, and where mortals sing, ‘as if it was easier and more natural than talking’ (FR 1.vii.125), time and space have little meaning. Under Tom’s spell the consciousness of mortals is larger and more far-sighted whether waking or sleeping. Yet he and Goldberry and Old Man Willow are not the only beings who can conjure so. Just as Frodo’s dreams can transcend time and space, past and future, while he is under Bombadil’s roof, so can Merry’s when under the Barrow-wight’s. For before the hobbits can leave Tom’s land and return to the normal world, they are caught by ‘the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke’ (FR 1.viii.140). Merry’s dream while enchanted is, like Frodo’s at Crickhollow, a dream of the past, but it is a distant past in which he is not himself, but reliving the death of (presumably) a man whose corpse lay in this barrow. Once again Merry has a dream connected to death, and Bombadil in speaking of his experience uses ‘deep water’ and ‘drowning’ as a metaphor for deadly danger (FR 1.viii.144).

Bombadil then firmly grounds Merry’s dream in reality by giving the hobbits swords from the barrow, and conjuring for the them a vision of the descendants of the people in the barrows: ‘some still go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil folk that are heedless’ (FR 1.viii.146). His allusion is of course to Aragorn, whom the hobbits are about to meet; and it is with the sword Bombadil gives him that Merry helps Éowyn kill the Witch-King, a connection which the narrator emphasizes strongly when the moment comes (RK

For this reason, I would argue that we need to expand Flieger’s comments about the exchange between Frodo and Merry on their way home. Frodo is not right and Merry wrong about whether they are now waking from a dream or falling back to sleep. Each is correct, in terms of his own experience. Frodo’s life does come to resemble a waking dream, or rather nightmare, as Flieger says, and by the end he no longer dwells wholly in the waking world of mortals. It is no wonder that the sleepy world of the Shire would seem like a dream to him, or that the dreams he finds in that sleep disquiet him so.

Merry, however, has gone on a very different journey, both in his dreams which are uniformly dark (FR 1.x.173; TT 3.iii.450; RK 5.viii.858-59, 860) and in his real world experiences travelling to Gondor and Rohan, realms where it is hobbits who are regarded as creatures out of Faërie, of whom men have heard but legends and rumors, and the Ents know nothing at all (TT 4.ii.434; iv.464-65, 481; viii.557-58; RK 5.i.760, 767-68). For him, who has known heroic adventures and valiant deeds, and who back in Crickhollow had declared it unfair that Frodo was having adventures without him (FR 1.iv.102), returning to the Shire might well seem like waking from a dream into the real world.

So dreams do correlate the waking and sleep worlds as parts of a larger whole, as Flieger has rightly argued. Yet there is more. Together with other states of consciousness they also correlate, as parts of a larger whole, the world mortals can perceive and the world they cannot: past and future, seen and unseen, the mortal world and Faërie. And in so doing they make mortals greater than they otherwise are, whether the mortal is Tuor granted for one soaring instant the “swift sight of the Valar” (UT, 30) or the hobbits who each experience some larger vision, whether by Ring, dream, or palantír, and ‘arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great’ (FR 2.ii.270). It is thus that mortals may become ready to settle their own affairs, without Wizards or Elves or Bombadils. Nor is it an accident that Gandalf points this out to the hobbits directly before he leaves them at the very point in the road where Bombadil had left them on the journey out, and that Frodo and Merry make their remarks about dreams directly afterwards:

'I am with you at present,' said Gandalf, 'but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you. (RK 6.vii.996)

Dreams and waking reality, and all the states in between, are necessary to bring mortals from the days of legend into the days of history.

Another Section

Resolution of divergent interpretations...


Here we conclude our argument.


1. The phrase occurs in paragraph 74 of OFS, but by an odd chance it fell out of Flieger and Anderson’s edition, where it should have appeared on p. 63, as noted by Anderson in his corrigenda. The complete sentence reads: ‘But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.’


OFS: Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Douglas Anderson, HarperCollins, 2008.
AQT: A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie, Verlyn Flieger, Kent State University Press, 1997.
FR: The Fellowship of the Ring, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
TT: The Two Towers, in J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
RK: The Return of the King, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
UT: Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.