Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Journeys of Life and Death

“The story of The Lord of the Rings  is a journey, both literally and metaphorically” says Flieger, author of Splintered Light.

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


  1. Oh, I like this argument very much! What *is* the relationship between the journey of life and a journey towards death--if, that is, you are not an Elf and must expect every journey (ultimately) to end in death? Very nicely observed as well on Tolkien's apparent criticism of those who refuse the journey at all.


  2. I like this comparison of journey and how you explain both its literal and metaphorical sides. I wonder if you could tease out another theme in your analysis--the idea of "there and back again" that is a part of so many of the journeys that Tolkien's characters take. I think that would be particularly interesting in the case of Bilbo, whose journey/death parallel is well categorized as one of, as you say, "restlessness". I can't help but feel he also has a desire to return as much as to journey again, which renders it even more poignant, I think.


  3. I think you have it quite right about the journey being as important, if not more so, than the destination or any particular accomplishment. They way in which people face life (and death) is what defines their quality rather than whether or not any particular was successfully accomplished.

    Take Boromir, he died a hero not because he saved Merry and Pippin nor because of the number of Orcs that he killed, but because he chose to risk and ultimately give his life doing all that he could to defend others albeit unsuccessfully. His failure to achieve his aim did not negate the worthiness of his action. The same could be said for Sam and Frodo at Mt Doom had the turned out badly. Indeed the whole journey of the Fellowship went all pear-shaped rather quickly, but it was still a worthwhile thing to attempt the least worst opion for saving Middle Earth.

    There is also the unknown greatness of a journey--that which is beyond our comprehension and can only be realized long after the matter. Here the element of keeping faith through the journey is important. It is important that the actors maintain faith in the rightness and worthiness of their paths even when the way ahead appears inpassible. Sam at Mt Doom, Gandalf vs the balrog, Boromir defending the hobbits--in each instance while facing their own ends they believed that some good must come of their journey even if no good will come to them. And good did come from their actions although they had no way of knowing.

    To loose this faith leads one down the paths of Saruman and Denethor. Cowardice, cynicism, and despair ultimately do not save you from death; it only changes the state you are in when you reach the end of the road. It is the difference between dying in a state of grace or in despair.

    -Jason A Banks

  4. A thought; maybe the journey towards death symbolizes some sort of conquering of death? Not in the sense of immortality, but if everyone is headed towards death eventually, even the Elves to some degree, there could be emphasis placed on having an “honorable” death, or a death that was earned, if that makes sense. If one takes the journey that has been laid out for them, then they can die feeling fulfilled and knowing they had some lasting impact, not matter how small, on the world that will outlive them, and thus die in peace. Those who do not take the journey will die anyway, but without leaving anything behind (where anything is more than heirlooms and knickknacks, but stories perhaps). So maybe the journey is towards a kind of immorality, “dying in grace” like Jason said, but where the grace manages to outlive you. I don't think this journey would also be a matter of “Oh if I do this, they will sing my praises for ages.” The trials they are forced through would stop any person just in it for the fame; part of that search for grace and “good” must come from a genuine place.


  5. I really appreciate the distinction you draw between a "journey through life" and a "journey towards death"-- the way the focus shifts between the two descriptions encapsulates the distinction between the two. A "journey through life" does not connote a predetermined endpoint-- The importance is placed on the journey itself, on what can be accomplished or experienced along the way-- while a "journey towards death" invokes a funeral march, casting a shroud over the entire trip, removing (at least for me) the ability to live and embrace everything fully.

    I think you're right about Tolkien's views-- the journey is the important part because it is the only part, especially since for Men, there is no real knowledge of anything coming after the final destination, Death. For Elves, perhaps the destination is the important aspect in many ways-- the Hall of Manos is, after all, where they will be reunited with all their ancestors-- but for those blessed/cursed with mortality, the journey is the be all and, perhaps, end all in itself.