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.
12 thoughts on ““The Road Goes Ever On and On”. Frodo, Sam and Pippin Begin a Journey that will change the World.”
Beautifully written, Stephen! I love how Tolkien differentiates “a road” and “The Road”. Merely written like this The Road makes it clear how special it is.
Pippin’s lightheartedness looks like a real blessing: it would have been more difficult to start out and reach a certain point of the way, had he behaved otherwise.
I think that I am writing this for myself. I am quite a serious person although I enjoy laughing. My daughter, Bethan, is just reading Dostoevsky’s, Brothers Karamazov for the first time. I am trying to imagine Dostoevsky writing The Lord of the Rings. Alyosha has Pippin’s innocence but he is so much more serious.
I used to think that Gandalf took Pippin with him to Minas Tirith in anger. In part I think that he did. But perhaps he needed to keep Pippin near him to lighten his heart. He almost admits to this at one point in his gruff manner.
Are you able to teach at the moment. It must be very difficult for teachers and students who are separated from each other.
I can relate. I think I’m quite the same: serious, but enjoy laughing. So being around lighthearted people is a very refreshing experience for me 🙂 So, Gandalf, being very serious too, did need this kind of a lighthearted being by his side at such a moment.
If Dostoevsky had written The Lord of the Rings, it would have been much gloomier, I think. He was such a sombre kind of writer! How’s Bethan finding the book?
Fortunately, I am able to teach. Online doesn’t come close to face-to-face lessons, of course, but I’m doing my best to make it fun for my students. So, we’re watching videos, reading texts, poems and stories and then discuss them. I hope they are enjoying the experience.
That Gandalf might have taken Pippin with him to ‘lighten his heart’ is such a wonderful reflection – thank you!
Thank you, Stephen, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post, as ever it is perceptive and makes one think more deeply. I liked this point a lot: “And yet in the best selling work of fiction of the last hundred years its author simply does not seem to care.” I have often thought about this: the courage; the conviction in one’s own interests and passions; the sincerity to do something with seemingly little concern for publicity or approval; the willpower in not being distracted by every new idea or old expectations, are all remarkable. I wonder if that single-mindedness would even be possible today. I suppose yes, successful authors seem to manage it even now, don’t they? But it does seem it would be more difficult. Your point about Frodo’s melancholy is interesting too (his melancholy always makes me wonder) – it is, as you point out, already present, before the terrible events that will take place. Is that his disposition, or is it the melancholy that permeates his story-telling as he looks back?
It was so good to hear from you. I have pondering the things that you said. I think that Tolkien was blessed by his sense that what he was doing was largely a private matter for himself and for a few friends. The success of The Lord of the Rings took almost everyone by surprise. It really was an expression of dancing as if no one was looking, just as Lúthien thought she was doing. I wish I had just a little more of that sense of freedom that allowed Tolkien to be utterly true to his inner vision.
As to Frodo’s melancholy, it seems to me that he shared the inner life of the Elves and their sadness over the temporal nature of life in Middle Earth. They certainly recognise him as a kindred spirit naming him Elf Friend which I think is more than just recognising someone who is on the same side. If that were all that there was to it then the title would be more readily used.
Thanks for these excellent points. Yes, I suppose one can be braver, more sincere, more joyous and playful when writing/ doing anything with and for a small group. It allows one to be more creative and pursue what one really enjoys. I do share your wish too – although blogging offers a bit of that ‘honest space’ I suppose. Thanks for the illuminating pointer on ‘Elf friend’, yes it is a special title.
Really enjoyed it. The symbol of the Road and the Journey is clearly very important in all of Tolkien’s stories for the legendarium, but I like the aspect you caught here: that, although important, the Road is kind of scary, because we don’t know where it leads, we don’t know wher eit ends, and we don’t know whether will ever see the end.
Hi, and thank you for leaving your first comment on my blog. This has been a labour of love now for about seven years after half a century as a reader of The Lord of the Rings so I am glad that you enjoyed this piece.
The fact that the Road goes on and on really should teach us a little humility. Even the greatest among us will only see a small part of it. It struck me a few years ago that there are many places within the small islands in which I live that I have never seen let alone the rest of the world. The great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, once wrote that “to know fully even one field is a lifetime’s experience”. I think that I want to spend most of the last years of my life trying to live like that. Do let me know what you think.
I do not think it starts off too slowly, considering the length of the book. I would generally think of the second act beginning in “Three Is Company.” Still, I do agree about the Road.
I think that you must be a more patient reader than many in our times. Most literary agents today would be anxious that people would not be patient enough to wait for more action. But maybe all the greatest books pay little attention to these man-made rules.
I suppose so. Tolkien broke a couple of the modern rules for writing novels.