Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Inevitable Homecoming

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.

-Jack Nuelle

* 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.


  1. Homecoming is such an interesting topic in Tolkien for exactly the reasons you highlighted. I'm especially fascinated by this blend of emotions we find embedded in his understanding of coming home; the inevitability of the need to choose, the sadness attendant to leaving the world behind, and the transformative goodness resulting from the choice (the last is especially evident in the passages you pointed out in Smith's story). It's good too how you notice this sense within the elves, broadening it's applicability beyond elf-friends. It raises the question, is this sense of exile an a need for return characteristic of everyone in Tolkien's world? Certainly all the major characters that we encounter seem to experience it, and I wonder if we could find traces behind the actions of the more minor figures or groups of figures. The inevitability of it all is especially interesting in the context of the debates on freedom arising from the text.

    I also liked this note: "Inevitably, it seems, throughout Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elf-friend gains only one of the two worlds he or she is connected to." It brought to mind the choice granted to Eärendil, Elwing, and their descendents. Whichever world they choose to join brings its own attendant joys and sadness.

    One quibble, however, I wonder if it's appropriate to label Alf as an elf-friend. After all, he is an elf, perhaps you're conflating him a bit with his master the previous cook, who most certainly was a friend to the elves.


  2. I agree that Homecomings are important to many of Tolkien’s characters, but I feel the picture here as been a bit oversimplified. Frodo does not really get a Homecoming, at least not in terms of returning to the place he started from. When all his companions are settling down to life in the Shire again, Frodo is troubled by his old wound from Weathertop (for example: LOTR 6.9.341), and must go to the Grey Havens and depart Middle Earth. If we take his journey to Mordor and back to be his secondary reality and the Shire to be his primary, then he really is forced to resign both.
    Smith is able to reintegrate back into his primary reality, to “come back to hammer and tongs” as he puts it, and as pointed out, this is even cast as a good thing in that he has a family to attend to. He may be sad that he can no longer wander in Faery, but he doesn’t have to die as a result of displacement from both worlds.
    While Smith may stare off out of his window and sigh from time to time, he is allowed a basically happy ending compared to Frodo, but why is this so? Why is one Elf-friend allowed a Homecoming while the other is not?
    I’m not sure, but I think one answer may be that Frodo actually affected the world he wandered in, while Smith merely observed it. Frodo’s secondary reality became more real to him than his primary (we mentioned in class how he said returning to the Shire was for him like going back to sleep), and so when he had to give it up, he was not able to live any longer in his primary reality.

  3. Jack, good post, thanks.

    If anything, I think you may actually be underselling how important this idea is to Tolkien. One example is the exchange we mentioned in class where Merry (or was it Pippin) describes feeling like he’s waking up from a dream—having a homecoming to his primary reality (lowercased here intentionally)—whereas Frodo feels like he’s falling asleep—the world outside the Shire is now his real, more vivid home.

    But of course the towering, irrefutable proof text of your assertion is the way Tolkien chose to wrap up the entire saga:

    But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

    He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.

    This is such a big and important theme, I think you could (without much effort) make an even more persuasive case than you’ve sketched here. You’ve tapped a rich vein…mithril, perhaps?

    Bill the Heliotrope

  4. Sam does seem to be a major example of the homecoming Elf-friend, and has closer ties to Smith of Wooton Major than the other hobbits do. Like Smith, he returns to his life and family; he has to give up all ties with Faerie, possibly forever. (Of course, Sam later travels over the Sea, but he does not know that at the time...) But I think one aspect of being an Elf-friend that has not been touched on is that of time. As you have pointed out, Elf-friends are bridges between Faerie and their primary realties, but they are also bridges between a past and a future reality. We’ve discussed in class how Sam is the bridge between the Third and Fourth Ages, allowing the Shire to move into the Fourth Age. Smith is also positioned at a generational divide; he is able to facilitate the star’s ability to reconnect Faerie and the primary reality, just as he is able to train his son to follow in his craft. Smith and Sam both hold memory and story, and so serve to bridge a generational gap as well.

    Marguerite Meyer

  5. I think Sam touches on an important point about Frodo's primary and secondary realities. But I think you're missing an important question--if Valinor is neither the primary nor secondary reality, what is it to Frodo in the context of his being an elf-friend? Only those with the ability to translate the secondary reality into the primary reality—that is to say, the elf-friends—are able to enter this other world, so does it still exist strictly within the primary reality, or is it some kind of bridge between the two?
    Furthermore, Jack comments in his post that “homecoming is the event that affirms what world is chosen” but I think it’s rather partially an affirmation that the character can never truly be part of one world or another. For example, even Smith who does not ever return to the fairy-world still feels out-of-place in his primary reality. Frodo cannot stay in the primary reality at all and must depart to his equivalent of the fairy-world. Sam, who seems able to return to his primary reality, is also ultimately pulled to Valinor as well.