What We Can Learn from Traveling “There & Back Again”

Josh Florence

What We Can Learn from Traveling “There & Back Again”

The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) has, for nearly 70 years, captured the imaginations of millions of readers around the world. It has often been considered one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Young and old have set out with Frodo Baggins on his epic adventure through the realm of Middle Earth. 

For fun, my wife and I read it aloud to one another during our engagement. I had read it before but the second reading allowed me the opportunity to step outside of the story’s narrative and think about why the book is just so beautiful. Here, I have 3 lessons I gained from reading LOTR.

#1 “It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out your front door.” –Bilbo Baggins

I’ve always really related to Hobbits. When people have asked me “Where are you from?” I have responded “The Shire.” I suppose I envision The Shire resembling my childhood in rural Ohio. There’s something about the vision of a warm, cozy hobbit hole that’s attractive. Frodo doesn’t actually leave his home until a little into the third chapter of LOTR. Tolkien, I believe, does this intentionally. We pass the first two chapters understanding the rhythm of life in this quiet corner of the world. Following this period of time, we experience the inner turmoil of leaving it.

Tolkien wrote “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” He did not write that the hobbit had permanently stuck his head in the ground. We must, at some point, leave our home. Even if it’s just for groceries. 

We are well aware that Frodo’s journey is not as simple as a forgotten gallon of milk. The reader will sense that Frodo’s journey is extremely perilous. If you read the book for the first time, knowing nothing about the story, you may ask yourself “How is he going to pull all of this off?” 

This sense of danger is important. It does not need to be so present that it would become terrifying. This is true for adults as well as children. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, misfortune of some type can happen whenever we go out our front door. It could be something physical, like we slip and fall on some ice. All the while, we should be more vigilant regarding the spiritual battles that pervade in our world. Children in particular can be more susceptible to this.

 In Michael O’Brien’s book, A Landscape With Dragons, he writes about the importance of presenting our children with good literature. Literature which includes heroes slaying dragons and saving the day but just as important, stories that speak of dragons. Stories which convey that the dragons are dangerous. O’Brien comments that

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground . . . we must avoid imparting an overly fearful attitude regarding the nature of war; but, on the other we should not pretend to the child that he lives in a perfectly safe world. We should neither inflame nor repress his raw spiritual instincts, but rather we should guide them in the direction of a confident realism. . . we must help him to overcome his real and imaginary fears with courage based upon faith that God is more powerful than evil.”1

#2 “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien, a devout Catholic throughout his entire life, added elements of his faith into the storyline of LOTR. An excellent book for deeper analysis is The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, by Fleming Rutledge.2 

Rutledge notes that Tolkien does not set his fictional novel in some far-away world. To the contrary, it takes place right here, on Earth. Tolkien himself said the story takes place when

“The Fall of Man is in the past and off stage; the Redemption of Man [by Jesus Christ] is in the far future. We are in a time when the One God, Eru, is known to exist by the wise, but is not approachable save by or through the Valar, though he is still remembered in (unspoken) prayer by those of Númenórean descent.”3

Tolkien’s world, since he imagined the Hobbits to share it with us, also allows us to share a significance when referring to time. In our Catholic faith, time is measured so that we may give glory to God throughout our day. The liturgy of the hours is a prime example of this, as well as the liturgical calendar. We don’t worship the heavenly spheres, but they do inform us of when certain liturgical events transpire. Here we may be reminded of when we celebrate Easter or how the three wise men found Jesus by searching the stars in the sky.

This concept was not lost on Tolkien. Understanding the importance of measuring the passage of time, along with the movement of the spheres, he created his own type of calendar for his books. He gave names for the days of the weeks and prescribed dates for events in his writings.

There are two important dates in LOTR. The first is the date when Frodo, along with the fellowship, leave Rivendell for Mordor. The date for this event is December 25th4. This is considered a well-timed departure for it is four days before the winter solstice according to Tolkien’s calendar. The fellowship, needing to travel during the night, would make use of the shorter days5. It is also the introduction of the fellowship into the world, just as Our Lord is born into the world on this day.

The other date is the day the Ring is finally destroyed in Mordor. This day is on March 25th6. The mission of the fellowship takes exactly 3 months. In our liturgical calendar it would be from Christmas to the Annunciation. Tolkien chooses March 25th to take the evil of the Ring out of the world to reflect the day that Mary gives her fiat and The Word became flesh. 

Although the date changes on our liturgical calendar every year, tradition holds that Good Friday took place on March 25th7. So, the day the Ring in vanquished from Earth would be the same day sin and death are defeated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The parallels cannot be overlooked.

#2 “ . . . and he [Frodo] laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written.”

This quote is part of the dialogue in the Two Towers from the chapter called The Stairs of Cirith Ungol. In it, we find a warm scene between two friends amidst the darkness of Mordor. Tolkien was very influenced from his experience as a soldier during The First World War. The comradery that he experienced amidst the dangers which surrounded him would become reflected in his book.

Frodo was tasked with the Ring. While he was perhaps best equipped to carry it, he could not have done it alone. Sam Gamgee, always faithful to his master and friend, plays a pivotal role in the success of their mission. Sam, in the quote above, gives his friend hope in a time of darkness. We are not superheroes. We are social beings and need community. We need a fellowship.

Tolkien, in his writings about fairy stories, makes this comment regarding children, journeys, and hope.

“Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we wish to arrive.”

What thankfulness might we have one day in our heavenly arrival? The Lord of the Rings with all of its danger and uncertainty is one in which hope is necessary.  We hope in that which is certain, Christ. On our journey, on our own road, may we find fellowship to guide us and to see us safely back home.