Tolkien’s mythology, especially in dialogue with his designation and understanding of the “Elf-Friend” character, forms essential characterizations within his world for several essential characters, including the Ring-bearer Frodo. Looking at this conception of "Elf-friend," a connecting event or theme of homecoming as somehow important, formative, and lasting arises. Engaging with several examples of Tolkien’s writing, specifically ones dealing with the Elf-Friend, such as: his last story Smith of Wooten Major, his time-travel tales in The Lost Road, and his writings concerning Lord of the Rings directly, a more comprehensive understanding of the idea of homecoming as a motivating factor for Tolkien emerges.
Homecoming as a concept runs deep throughout Tolkien’s work particularly because much of his written corpus concerns a journey, often of varying importance and implication but a journey nonetheless, with a set beginning, various events, both perilous and not, and an end. This structure is notable very much in the recorded tales of the Third Age, from the journey of Bilbo in his adventuring days in the Hobbit and the epic, multi-faceted and multi-numbered journey of the Fellowship of the Ring.
The Elf-Friend as described in one entry in Tolkien’s Legendarium by Verlyn Fleiger, is “a figure who is both inside and outside the story, who is both a character in the drama and a frame for the narrative” (Fleiger, 184). Furthermore, Fleiger goes on to qualify the Elf-friend as “not an Elf, but a friend of Elves…neither wholly outside nor completely inside but in-between” (Fleiger, 186). The idea and theory of an Elf-friend then, is also tied up in the idea of a journey. An Elf-friend, by definition, is one who runs between both worlds, has a foot in each, but often must traverse ground to participate in either. Invariably too however, the Elf-Friend forging a path between both worlds must return home. This is seen notably in Smith of Wooten Major, both to a lesser degree in Smith Smithson and a greater one in Alf, Master Baker. It is important to recognize as well, working within the “greater/lesser” distinction of Smith Smithson and Alf, that while each of these are of differing caliber of Elf-Friends, each still are Elf-friends of a sort. Alf, by virtue of his kingly status, fills the a more principal Elf-friend, simply because he is able to effect change in both worlds. Smith, fills a more minor role due to his position as just an observer.
The Elves as well in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, are, for large portions of their history, called to journey, roaming Middle-Earth as well as, toward the end of the Third Age, leaving the mortal lands of Middle Earth forever, bound for the distant Blessed Lands in the West. Gildor, whom Frodo interacts with early in the Fellowship of the Ring, is one such Elf. His words to Frodo, “we are Exiles, and most of our kindred have long ago departed and we too are only tarrying for a little while, ere we return over the Great Sea” (Fellowship of the Ring, 89-90).
In Smith of Wooten Major, this homecoming is realized, except in a far more complicated and tragic way than the ultimate physical realization of the homecoming of the Elves. In this story, the homecoming of Smith Smithson is one that seems both planned and not. He gives up the star to Alf, yet does it with remorse, knowing full well that with this sacrifice he would forgo Faery forever. It seems at first to the reader that Smithson would continue his journeying if he were able. However, this is challenged when he comes home after his final visit to Faery and answers his son’s questions on how long he walked with, “very far indeed my son. All the way from Daybreak to Evening” (Smith, 48). The tone of this, the quiet resignation and acceptance, rings of an established understanding, that Smithson knew, deep down, that one day his journey would be done, one day he would reach the calm of evening and travel no more. Tolkien hints further at this as well with Smithson’s son comment. “I’m grieved for you; but there’s good in it too, for this house. Do you know Master Smith, there is much you can teach me yet, if you have the time. And I do not mean only the working of iron” (Smith, 50). In the light of the evening of his life, Smithson comes home to pass on the knowledge he has gained, both personal and mythical.
Homecoming for Tolkien can also be seen as a reference to death. Death, however, is not always directly connected. In the Lost Road, the tale of King Sheaf deals with this. The King is covered with a “shadow out of the East,” and therefore must make a journey into the “uttermost West.” He is described as one who has died in this time is described, laid in state, sailing beyond the horizon with all his earthly wealth aside him. However, he is never called dead. He is simply journeying, albeit a journey taking him “out of the sight or thought of men” (The Lost Road, 95).
Looking through the lens of homecoming, the position of Elf-friend increases in poignancy. Inevitably, it seems, throughout Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elf-friend gains only one of the two worlds he or she is connected to. Homecoming is the event that affirms what world is chosen. Furthermore, the end of a journey marks impetus for the sharing and preservation of stories, notably exemplified in the tales told upon the return of Smith of Wooten Major and the entirety of the Lord of the Rings compiled in the Red Book of Westmarch by Frodo and Bilbo Baggins*.
That being said, homecoming for Tolkien whenever it occurs, and whatever stories it spawns, is still a culmination of the direction of a journey. This result is ultimately a portal to certain transcendence, either a personal transcendence, where one affirms their identity on earth; or an existential transcendence, where one moves directly beyond Death and into the starlit perpetuum of the heaven of myth.
* It also is important to recognize that the case of the Bagginses is somewhat unique because the tale they tell is not told once they are entrenched within their final resting place, it is told while they are still firmly entrenched in the reality of Middle-Earth. In the end this probably references more the finality of their resting place. Bilbo and Frodo do this journey backwards, moving from mortal lands to the Blessed Ones as opposed to Smith’s route, which is the opposite.