Thursday, May 25, 2017

Not The, But A, Journey in the Dark: Wander-Worship and Journeys as More Than Just Allegories or Plot Devices

     In discussion we briefly laughed at a lighthearted criticism of Lord of the Rings: that it is just 1000+ pages of walking. This joke quickly passed as we summed up walking as just another of Tolkien’s methods of slowing down to pay attention to Creation, to reach the unknown and increase our understanding of it. In this view, walking is merely one of many vessels for prayer; it directs our attention to Creation. On one hand, this view is entirely accurate. Indeed, Tolkien’s worship routine tended to begin on the way to Mass with a similarly humble and deliberate journey of cycling, even in bad weather (Letters, 99); one might compare his contemplation on the bike to his soul-searching prayers while in Mass. And the Hobbit was based partly on Tolkien’s own teenage experiences backpacking through Europe in a group of twelve (Letters, 391)--he seems eager to note the holy size of such a pilgrimage, stopping short of any non-humbling claims of discipleship.
     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,
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)
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?
     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.



  1. I agree with your point on the importance of “travel-worship”. However, I’m not sure that the elves are in the “plant-like state” as you describes it. They certainly do not “lack curiosity for creation,” if you recall how Legolas worships the trees in Lothlórien and in Fangorn, for example. Elves adore creation and pay attention to it more than other beings on middle-earth. In Letter no.181, Tolkien mentions that “[elves] have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and … not as a material for use or as a power-platform”(Letters 236). Wandering is not the only form of worship, and elves can certainly wander if they want to. They are doomed not to leave Arda, but no one prevents them from wandering on middle-earth. Their fault is, as Tolkien mentions, being unwilling to face change (Letters 236). And change is a necessary and meaningful component of a journey (Letters 240).
    Also, I don’t think that Tolkien would favor wandering without purpose over journey with a destination in mind. In Letter no. 183, he mentions that “some strong motive for endurance and adaptation” is especially helpful in a journey for one to change and grow. One of the strongest factors that sustains Frodo and Sam is exactly their faith in the purpose of their journey, not because the purpose is hopeful, but because it is meaningful— the preservation of Being and the struggle against Anti-Being. As they attend to the beauty of Creation during the course of their journey, this purpose only becomes clearer and firmer in their mind, which motivates them when all hope appears to be lost. - Kay Liao

  2. I especially enjoyed your careful reading of Bilbo's poem: I think you are right to see in it a clue to Tolkien's understanding of "right worship." What is the difference between wandering and pilgrimage? I agree with Kay: it is hard to imagine a journey without a goal--even Bilbo's journey was *to* somewhere (the mountain/dragon). Perhaps this is why Aragorn's wandering is a paradox? It is not directionless, but purposeful. Much to think on here! RLFB