And indeed, this thought seems to hold true for every aspect of Tolkien’s epic. From the literal journeys through which the tale is told to the symbolic journey that Tolkien pursued in creating his work, the idea of transition, of movement from one state to another seems inherent to the world of The Lord of the Rings. These transitions are best exemplified by the story’s primary characters—Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Bilbo, etc.—whose physical travels engender their internal passages into fuller, more complete individuals. However, another journey runs in fascinating parallel with these, sharing many of the same experiences and pitfalls: the universal flight of all men towards death. By comparing these two sorts of journeys (and their literal and metaphorical qualities), I hope to illuminate the importance that both serve in Tolkien’s creation.
Both hobbits and men, being “relatives” and mortal, are well familiar with these resonating journeys. In the case of literal journeys, Frodo and Aragorn, Sam and Gollum all end up setting out in pursuit of some aim or ideal (and as we well know, the moral nature of these aims varied by the nature of the pursuer). For the reader and author, the actual achievement of these aims is less important than the internal transformations these characters undergo during their quests. This is because these quests somehow bring out everything the characters have to offer, allowing them to fulfill a potential unknown even to themselves. These ideas are well-expressed by Sam’s apt description of his journey: ”…I feel different. I seem to see ahead in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road into darkness…I don’t rightly what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire” (LotR, Book 1, Chpt 4). This notion of one’s destiny being fulfilled through the completion of a journey interestingly coincides with Tolkien’s mythological conception of death, and the special role he has assigned to man in their ability to die. For “the sons of men die indeed, and leave the world…death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar…of old the Valar declared to the Elves that Men shall join in the second music of Ainur” (The Silmarillion, 38-39). Even in reality, Tolkien identifies a certain “greatness” that is fulfilled during one’s journey toward death. Though he overshadows this greatness with the tragedy of the collapse of T.C.B.S., Tolkien nonetheless pays homage to the “holiness of courage, suffering and sacrifice” that overlayed a friend’s memory who died in World War I (Letters 9). While this friend was technically “defeated” in the end (much like Frodo on Mt. Doom), he achieved the true greatness of his journey—”the greatness I mean was that of a great instrument in God’s hands—a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things” (Letters 9).
Another connection between the characters’ journeys and the journey towards death is their negative alternatives. Since transition and movement are so important to the structure of the work as a whole, Tolkien portrays the desire not to journey and stay home—which is to say, an overt attachment to places or things—as generally flawed. This is well-displayed when Bilbo complains of the Ring’s effects to Gandalf: “I need a holiday, a very long holiday: don’t suspect I shall return…I am old Gandalf…Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread…I want to see mountains again” (LotR, Book 1, Chpt 1). Two evils are expressed here: one is the undesirability of immortality (t least the sort of immortality that the Ring gives), the other is strain of staying in one place for too long. Bilbo’s complaint is made even more interesting by the fact that he equates the sensations of the unnatural lengthening of his life with those of restlessness. What Bilbo experiences through the Ring is the suspension or cessation of time’s movement, or a “clinging to time”, which results in the same sort of stagnation that occurs when one resists the transition or growth provided through journeys (Letters 267). In both these cases it is the overt attachment to things opposed to creation and development that truly demark them as evils for Tolkien.
Thus, Tolkien’s conception of death shares some poignant qualities with the literal journeys his characters pursue. To further complicate matters, one should also consider the fact that often times the end result of the characters’ literal journeys seem to be death itself. Again, Sam describes this phenomenon best: “…after all, he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning…Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all the way, that was what he had chiefly come for” (LotR, Book 4, Chpt 3). Therefore, is the real question of this topic whether or not one’s journey—and the self-development that accompanies it—is worth it if everything will end for naught? Perhaps the purpose of -Tolkien’s emphasis on journeys is to relay the overarching message that—even when contemplating the finality of death—it is the actual journey towards the end that is of the most consequence.-Jessica Adepoju