My little brother has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into the great and exciting story of The Lord of the Rings, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life. My sister and I have been taking turns reading it to him on Monday nights, by candlelight and with strong tea. We are only reading one chapter every week. This is an adventure in which we shall be participating until winter comes again.
Reading these books after half a decade of change and of living, I am becoming convinced that the deep and haunting theme of wanderlust is really as much a part of them as I thought it was when I was a child. In those days I was living in a land of seas and mountains and was as deeply in love with places as with people. Now that I have relocated to the big sky country, some things are different for me. But not Tolkien.
No, he is as enthralled as he ever has been by the prospect of the wide open spaces, by the magic of woods and wilds and winding water. He is as much a prisoner to his unquenchable homesickness as I remembered.
Poor old Frodo is a captive at home, where the constricted and familiar beauty of the Shire is obvious and unsatisfactory, and where the untamed, uncharted places linger just on the borders of his maps. But oh! how much fiercer the sadness of the outside world, where he is ever homesick for what he supposes to be the things he has left behind.
It isn’t, though. It isn’t the things he has left behind that make him heartsick and unfulfilled. It’s something further still, something beyond the borders of the whole known world. Which is why the seemingly half-sad ending of The Lord of the Rings had to be just as it was. Because Tolkien was writing about more things than battles and adventures and wars and fairy-tale and myth. Overwhelmingly, he was writing a story about the horrible wanderlust inside him, inside all of us. And there was only one possible resolution to that story.
Chesterton, it seems, understood Frodo quite well. As I mopped the kitchen floor a few nights ago, listening to a Librivox recording of the first chapter of A Short History of England, I was quite taken by this paragraph that he writes of the British people,
They are constantly colonists and emigrants; they have the name of being at home in every country. But they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems—‘Over the hills and far away.’
These lines describe Tolkien certainly; describe some part of the heart of the mythology he created for England. Ultimately, though, they describe us, don’t they? All of us tormented by this desperate yearning, all of us trapped and fettered inhabitants of the Island of the World?