“The Road Goes Ever On and On”. Frodo, Sam and Pippin Begin a Journey that will change the World.

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.

Two Edwardian Gentlemen Out for a Stroll

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.

An inn in the Cotswolds by night

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.

The Road goes ever on and on

The Road Goes Ever On and On. Bilbo Sings for the Ending of an Age.

At last the great company arrive in Rivendell and the hobbits are reunited with Bilbo.

“Hullo, hullo!” he said. “So you’ve come back? And tomorrow’s my birthday, too. How clever of you!”

And the hobbits have that special and rare delight of telling their story to one who listens with pleasure and interest, although Bilbo is now old and drifts off to sleep from time to time. But after two short weeks, and with the first signs of Autumn, Frodo and Sam both feel the call to go home. And they have a sense that they must not delay any longer.

Bilbo sends them off with sadness and also some ceremony and then he starts to chant.

The Road goes ever on and on, Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can! Let them a journey now begin, But I at last with weary feet, Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” 

There are three variants of this poem in The Lord of the Rings. The first comes at the decisive and remarkable moment of liberation when Bilbo freely gives up the Ring (with a little encouragement from Gandalf!) and sets off on his travels once again. At that moment Bilbo speaks of Pursuing it with eager feet and speaks of happiness and being swept off his feet. The Road, the One Road that is “like a great river; it’s springs… at every doorstep, and every path… its tributary” is at that moment all opportunity, all possibility.

Later on in the story we hear Frodo speak the same lines at the very start of his great journey and still in the Shire but this time the feet are not eager but weary. Frodo is contemplating the leaving of his home and his friends and a journey into danger.

And now Bilbo speaks of an end to the journey. The Road continues and others will follow it if they can. But he will do so no more. It is time to find a friendly inn by the roadside to enjoy a good meal and a long rest.

I am reminded of a prayer by John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory, whose priests undertook the responsibility of guardianship to Tolkien after the death of his mother. “Support us all the day long of this troublous life until the shades lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.” I do not think it too fanciful to think that this prayer was in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote this final version of Bilbo’s poem. I first heard it when I was a choir boy in an English parish church near Oxford. The vicar always ended Evensong with this prayer and it had quite an effect on me even though I was just 11 years old. But the image of homecoming has always had this power for me.

Bilbo speaks the poem for himself but also for the ending of an age. For Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf it is also time to leave the Road to others. The Road goes ever on and on and Aragorn has the responsibility of founding a new age. “There is a real king now,” says Frodo to Bilbo,”and he will soon put the roads in order.” And Arwen has chosen to stay with him and not to leave the Road with her father. No-one knows where this road will lead. We walk the same road today pursuing our own errands that we have been given even as Bilbo did. The way as it was for him is often troublous but also wonderful. Each day unfolds both to us as it did to him. And the ending is a homecoming when the work is done.

Frodo is sent off with a blessing and a sense that he has a burden to shoulder once more. He senses that he is reaching the end of the Road but it is not quite just yet.