The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 69-73
Those who know and love The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien does not exactly hurry to get his story started. This ought to be a problem. Most story tellers know that unless you have gained your readers’ attention within minutes you will have lost them for ever. And yet in the best selling work of fiction of the last hundred years its author simply does not seem to care. What we are treated to as the world-changing epic journey begins is the anachronistic tale of two gentlemen and their servant setting out for a walking holiday.
Even the more unsettling matters, Gandalf’s failure to make the rendezvous or the encounter between Gaffer Gamgee and the Nazgûl are not permitted to spoil the general sense of well being. At this point in the story the worst thing that can happen is a soreness of the shoulder caused by the rubbing of the straps on a backpack. Happy the man or woman whose problems in life are limited to things such as this.
There is only one thing that disturbs this sense of wellbeing and that is Frodo’s melancholy. If we were to take our Edwardian imagery just a little further then we might liken Frodo’s mood to that which was retrospectively applied to the beautiful summer of 1914. Each memory of that summer was to be marked for ever after by sadness. Those who survived the war would remember the ones who had been lost with whom they had shared that day. And so Frodo looks back at the lights of Hobbiton and of Bywater twinkling in the dark and wonders if he will ever see them again.
Pippin has no more concern than to make his journey to Buckland as comfortable as possible and so in the middle of the day on the first full day of walking he declares to his companions that although the road might go on for ever he cannot, at least without a rest. Frodo takes up Pippin’s reference to the road and begins to recite.
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow if I can, Pursuing it with weary feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
It is not the stepping into the Road that is daunting. Even the great journeys come to an end eventually as Bilbo once pointed out. “Do you realise that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, might take you to the Lonely Mountain?” And as you picture the mountain in your imagination its very loneliness calls you to follow the path. This call is to adventure and it makes your heart grow larger. But the “wither then?”, that sense that the Road may never end, that there might never be a homecoming, never a place to rest your head at the last, that is a different matter altogether. And that too is a possibility when you step out of your door and onto the Road.
Tolkien’s use of capital letters in a noun like this is always significant. This road is not a lane that takes you to a welcoming inn or the road to the home of a good friend. It is the Road. It is life itself and you do not know its final end. No wonder most people choose not to entertain such imaginings. They are much too big and most of us, maybe all of us, are much too small. A Gandalf, calling us to adventure, must cross our paths if we are to embark on such journeys. And when he does so the longing must be greater than the fear; at least until the journey is well underway.