The Road Goes Ever On and On

I was eight when I first saw Gandalf reach out of the gloom to grab Frodo by the shoulder and say, wide-eyed and wild-haired: “Is it secret? Is it safe?”

This was one of the opening scenes of the first trailer for the Fellowship of the Ring and it was hands down the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. It wasn’t without justification though for when I was six or seven my Mum and I would sit down and read the next bit of the Hobbit each day, and I’d re-read it by myself at least once by the time this trailer arrived. The world of Middle Earth, of hobbits, dwarves, goblins and trolls was something which had captured my imagination in a way that neither my beloved Enid Blyton adventures (Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and a Dog, the Secret Seven et al) nor the heroic Redwall series had managed. The only thing which came close was the Welkin Weasel series (which I grew up believing was a trilogy and only recently discovered is actually six volumes!) with its blending of animal style historical novel with fantasy more proper. I wouldn’t have articulated it like this at the time, but Tolkien’s desire to create not just a story or a world but a history complete with legend and geography was exactly the fuel my imagination hungered after. With that first trailer I saw a world which had formed part of my internal mythological landscape (more on this another time) overflowing into reality.

My desire to watch it was fueled further when my Dad returned from the cinema and told me how well done it was, how amazing it had been to watch an impossible film come to life (for it had always been considered an impossible film to make, something we can easily forget nearly 20 years later). I seem to remember pestering my parents to let me watch it. By that time I had just turned nine, and the film was rated 12. Whilst I’m sure it was frustrating to me at the time, my parents decided on a course of action which I’ve always respected and in fact been glad of since.

They told me that I couldn’t watch the film until I’d read the book. And oh boy, did I devour the book! My parents had a large red hardback edition of all three of the Lord of the Rings in one volume. I sat down and began to read, most strangely, of the Hobbits of the Shire and their shy ways around the Big-Folk; humans. I don’t know if you or your children have ever been the same but I had (have) a tendency when reading fiction to somehow stumble around the house one handed while reading, oblivious to the world around me. I dove in deep to Middle Earth such that I felt as if I had lived, rather than read, the journeys and adventures contained within. It took me six days. My parents were suprised but pleased and I seem to remember that we would often talk about the story and what happened, and the various themes within. Then it happened, the Fellowship of the Ring was released on DVD. Finally I could watch it.

Well, not quite. It’s well known that the Lord of the Rings movies have a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ materials chronicling the journey of making the film itself. My parents sat me down at the dinner table one day and told me that if I wanted to then Dad would sit with me and we could watch the behind the scenes together and talk about it, and once we had then maybe I could watch the film. And that’s what we did, just the two of us. Mum and my younger brother and my little sister would be in the living room and I would be with my Dad in his study. This was a big deal to me because Dad’s study was where Dad worked and was busy, and while it wasn’t somewhere we weren’t allowed in it wasn’t somewhere for us to spend much time beyond running in to ask him questions. It also happened that Dad’s wedding ring needed resizing, and it sat on the base of one of those large black folding desk lamps – you remember the kind. For me, this became The Ring and I would often fiddle with it while we watched the ‘making of’ documentaries. It took us time, we watched a bit every few days for a few weeks. We learned that the large scale fight scenes were done using computers. We saw Peter Jackson talk about scouting for locations, the actors discussing their training to learn how to fight, how long it took and how their makeup was applied. We watched the Weta workshop hammer the chain links together to make the armour and how they filmed inside the Mines of Moria (at the time, the longest movie sequence in an entirely CGI set). We didn’t just watch it, we discussed it; I think part of my parent’s hopes were to make sure that their nine year old eldest son knew and properly understood that the film was ‘not real’. (It would later be very grating to their eldest son that his baby sister was allowed to watch Spiderman, a 12 rated movie, aged five – but I digress).

In the process of establishing that it was ‘not real’ the film became not so much demythologised as amplified in its legendary status. These men and women had crafted the world of my imagination impressively. I’ll never forget sitting with my Dad and watching it for the first time. How enthralling the opening monologue was, how startling the dragon firework, and how emotional was the loss of Gandalf and later Boromir.

The following year the Two Towers came out. I was delighted to be allowed, aged 10, to go and see it in the cinema. A year later, I was trying and failing to stifle the tears which always threaten me when Samwise is unable to join Frodo departing from the Grey Havens to the Undying Lands. Even now I can almost hear that beautiful score swelling at its emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Few works of literature have had more impact on me. In part, because the world of Middle Earth truly seems more than a literary creation. Rather it has seeped into that part of my imagination to which few things reach. It’s not uncommon that I find myself drawing on ‘Lord of the Rings’ – esque imagery for metaphors and analogies when speaking with people, especially when trying to give advice. The films may not have been ‘real’, but the world has certainly become ‘real’ in a sense which is hard to qualify. It’s not a “fandom” type of obsession. It’s far less active than that. Equally it’s hardly as passive as being “aesthetic”. Rather it’s one of the many murky and inter-related layers which linger behind the third epithet used on my blog: Husband, Priest, Wanderer.

One element which makes Middle Earth seem more than a literary creation is that it itself contains literary creations born at varying points within its history which, although found within the text of the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, somehow enable the world to become assumed as one focuses on the particular literature. Whether it’s Galadrial’s Namárië, Aragorn’s rendition of the Song of Beren and Lúthien or the Long List of Ents, the world of Middle Earth is filled with poetry and songs which are far more than plot devices – as many other fantasy novels are wont to use them. Poems such as I Sit beside the Fire or Upon the Hearth the Fire is Red hold up perfectly well as poems within their own right, and enjoyable ones at that.

There’s one poem, though, which I’ve adored and returned to many times over the years: The Road Goes Ever On and On. It first appears towards the end of the Hobbit, as Bilbo is returning home to Hobbiton but it also crops up a couple of times during the Lord of the Rings. The first time is when Bilbo leaves for Rivendell having, reluctantly, left The Ring in the care of Gandalf at Bag-End. The second time is shortly after Frodo, Sam and Pippin have left Bag-End for Crickhollow (before it’s revealed Frodo intends to leave the Shire, and will eventually end up at Rivendell). Each time it’s a walking song, a gentle anthem of resolved intent.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

In my minds eye, the Road blends the way out of Hobbiton with the roads through the green hills of Devon, the footpaths through the fields of East Anglia, and continues on through London streets and by the river Wear. That is, the Road becomes the paths and ways which I myself have trod; in sunshine and in rain, in stolen breaks between lectures and essays and through the nocturnal patrols of insomnia. Different each time, the familiar ritual of grabbing a hat and coat and closing the door behind with a thunk opens up to the Road. As Bilbo says, “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Each walk, even on the same paths, is a different journey; carrying with us, as we do, the different parts of our hearts which beat through the days of our own stories. Even in the familiarity, there’s a sense of possibility. “Far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow, if I can, pursuing it with eager feet until it joins some larger way.” It’s rare that we step out on the Road with every step of the journey planned out. Even with a detailed itinerary, or google maps, there’s no guarantee of a smooth journey. We each follow on, as best we can, “with eager feet until it joins some larger way. And whither then, I cannot say.” How human. How resonant.

There’s an intuitive encouragement here which has prompted me to ‘gift’ this poem to more than a few people as they leave one place to another, turning the page to begin a new chapter. It’s never felt like a gimmick. Each time it has held a sincere resonance for the person receiving it. But I’ve also given then next stanza to a small handful of people; identical in almost every way but one.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

With a single word the entire framing of the pilgrim journey has shifted subtly. The Road drags on and on. Where it began, well that was a while ago. To top it all off “Now far ahead the Road has gone”. I’m familiar with that sensation, aren’t we all? The joy of exploration perhaps has worn thin and the path aches beneath our feet as we trudge onwards. It’s not a reluctance. It’s a tired resolve tinged with a question – which way is it? The larger way, meeting with other paths and errands, becomes not the hope of purpose but the promise of a degree of solidarity or even refuge. “And whither then? I cannot say.”

There is, however, one final stanza in the Lord of the Rings. Age has caught up with Bilbo in Rivendell, and he asks Frodo, having returned from Mordor, “What’s become of my Ring, Frodo, that you took away?”
”I have lost it, Bilbo dear, I got rid of it, you know.”
”What a pity! I should have liked to have seen it again. But no, how silly of me! That’s what you went for, wasn’t it: to get rid of it?”
Then Bilbo murmurs:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

‘As Bilbo murmured the last words his head dropped on his chest and he slept soundly.’

These are words which I have not yet given, nor do I own myself. But they serve as something of a guiding light upon the Road. A reminder that our journey is not just one which interacts with others, but comes before and after yet more others – if such a phrase may be permitted. The Road is always outside that door, and there comes a time where in the distance the Road has gone, and it is not for us to follow it on. “Let others follow it who can!” Perhaps offer a helping hand, or a word of counsel, but be mindful that we “at last with weary feet will turn towards the lighted inn, my evening-rest and sleep to meet.”

I was eight years old when I first heard Gandalf say: “Is it secret? Is it safe?” With that question I was drawn deeper into the world of Middle Earth; of its battles and journeys, of its histories and poetry. And in there I found these words which I hold close to me as I soon turn twenty-eight, treading my pilgrim way along the Road which goes ever on and on down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then?

I cannot say.

With every blessing,
Samuel S. Thorp

Husband | Priest | Wanderer

This blog first appeared as one of my Notes from the Pilgrim Path Newsletter.
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