Yet, travel-worship is more than a reverent search for knowledge. Tolkien complicates travel-worship in elevating the destinationless travel, the travel that targets no Unknown, as a purer form of travel-worship: the wander-worship. Perhaps the experience of Creation gathered in such a journey has no contrivance, no selection bias, and thus constitutes a more complete knowledge of Creation. Or, maybe the exercise of free will to craft a radical, immersive change in experience is precisely the way that we were intended to exercise sub-creative power. But, ultimately, the ability to endure, and benefit from, the process without an understandable destination in mind is precisely the faith that Tolkien believes is necessary to fulfill the equally non-comprehensible purpose of life.
None more deeply understands his own reverent wanderlust than Bilbo, who raises questions on how wandering might expose Creation and one’s own role in it. Bilbo reveals to Frodo (Bk II,Ch 2) that he wrote the verses about Aragorn’s latent kingliness:
All that is gold does not glitter,These four lines contain four paradoxes of holiness hidden in unfortunate circumstances. Gold imagery in the first line, our discussions have found, is to be expected in Tolkien’s descriptions of divinity; likewise for the tree imagery of “deep roots” on the fourth line. The third line’s reference to strength in the face of mortality alludes to more latent kingliness: free-will, Creation-appreciation, and hope-driven change, the gifts hidden in the gift of death. In each case, the superficial image hides not only a holy, but a supremely sublime, value. Bilbo’s remaining puzzle hides under the misfortune of being “lost” but, keeping in parallel with the others, must redeem itself in discovery of a supreme holiness. How is wandering, then, the holiest of travels?
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost (Bk I,Ch 10)
Perhaps wandering is particularly holy because of its open-minded willingness to absorb all of Creation. Presupposed destinations might preclude some knowledge. Or perhaps wandering avoids self-subjugation of one’s own free will. Indeed, setting a destination sets a destiny. Yet these speculations are only aspects of the holiness of wandering. Bilbo’s holy imageries are latent and uncertain, only brought to the reader’s light in the fact that the narrator absolutely trusts that the hidden truth exists. Wandering is similar--it is an exercise of free will and trust despite a lack of hope or clear understanding of the purpose of Creation. Similarly, Bilbo’s walking song supposes an infinite road, whose end is unattainable. A traveler must be satisfied with an incomplete knowledge, and carry on past forks, to attain whatever experience and purpose of Creation is within reach--”according to our capacity” (Letters, 400).
Tolkien further addresses free-will and travel destination, responding to Auden’s reviews of his work as a journey of random deeds that do not neatly correlate towards a “political” purpose (Letters, 238). While arguing his journeys as non-allegorical storytelling devices to create coherency, Tolkien cannot resist noting an “afterthought” on journeys. Even short trips allow “deliverance from the plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer, an exercise however small of will, and mobility--and of curiosity, without which a rational mind becomes stultified” (Letters, 239). The Elves are in such a “plantlike state”--they suffer helplessly, and lack curiosity for Creation. They journey under the Valars’ coercion, bound to destinations. To wander is not an option to most Elves; they are “doomed not to leave” (Letters, 246), chained to the land and its history, fated to experience Creation-fatigue. They suffer an inability to appreciate Creation in their immortality, which would make wander-worship unproductive even if it were possible. The Elves are thus “stultified,” unable to fulfill what Tolkien considers the only understandable part of the purpose of life: to “increase...our knowledge of God” and consequently be inspired to praise (Letters, 400).
But this seeming rule-of-no-destination is no standard for worship; holiness is not inherent to wandering. Rather, the holiness of the travel experience is found in the bond between faith and lack of understanding. Indeed, destinations are understandable purposes to journeys. To proceed with such understanding demands no great faith. But faith while in stumbling in darkness, in contrast, is precisely faith necessary to accomplish the incomprehensible purpose of life--God’s “unattainable...answer” in which Tolkien believed (Letters, 400). Thus Tolkien’s encouragement of destinationlessness generalizes to its underlying reason: that faith is found when one exercises free will despite hopelessness. Upon realizing the gravity of the situation with the Ring, Frodo begins to despair. Gandalf advises adhering to a firm conviction in one’s choices despite the circumstances: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (Bk I,Ch 2). The temptation, of course, is paralysis in the face of an end that can only be understood as ill. In these times, eucatastrophe is incomprehensible, impossible to surmise. To exercise the ability to “decide,” however, is to remain faithful to the gift of free will, and trust in its purpose--one’s own purpose--beyond understanding. Gollum’s purpose was incomprehensible even to Gandalf; trusting their feelings of pity, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam each in turn chose not to kill Gollum, despite the hopelessness of his redemption, and the hopelessness of reaching, let alone returning from, Mount Doom. A failure of faith would have equated to leaving purposes unfulfilled.
Whether a journey has a destination only approximates the knowledge of the purpose of Creation one can gain from it. Rather, the journeys that effectively navigate the purpose of Creation are those in which the traveler maintains faith and free-willed action despite a purpose shrouded in darkness, and despite doubt of the existence, possibility, or favorability of this purpose. To Tolkien, the idea of life being comprised of journeys in the dark was quite literal. While dark is more or less symbolic for our ignorance of God’s purpose, the journeys we undertake are not allegorical vacations, but very physical displacements: free, deliberate steps that teach us about our relationship to, and purpose within, Creation.