Tolkien: Midway in the Journey of our Life…

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The Lord of the Rings is a grand adventure that can enthrall the young, but it is a book that speaks most directly to those of us who have felt loss and emptiness, who have succumbed to temptation and who long to restore a beauty that has been lost. Every page of the book refers to or describes the broken vestiges of former times when there was heroism, nobility, magnificence — all either gone, or embodied in a few wanderers here and there. The many long passages of our protagonists trying to find their way in a strange landscape and getting lost evoke the beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway through the journey of our life I found myself lost in a dark wood…I cannot rightly tell how I entered it.”  We wake up one day to discover that the person who had the innocence, the hope, the dreams, has vanished, and has been replaced by a person whom we do not recognize as ourselves but who vaguely remembers what it is to have dreamed and hoped. What usually happens next is that we succeed in convincing ourselves that this drab new person has awoken to reality, and that the hoper and dreamer was nothing but a fantasist who will inevitably be ground and pulverized by experience.

This indeed happens to most human beings. We spout platitudes like “It is what it is” to reconcile ourselves to reduced aspirations that reach no higher than the knees. One of Tolkien’s wisest inspirations is to choose hobbits as his heroes, little people, the undying child in the heart of adults who can still yearn. These creatures take longer to grow up, apparently — just as most human beings in fact take a longer time to relinquish the things of childhood than their outward behaviors might suggest. The hobbits of Hobbiton — who are not necessarily representative of the entire hobbit species — are lovers of comfort: their cozy little houses with reassuringly rounded doors and windows, their multiple breakfasts (the favorite meal of most children), their love of furniture and spoons and everyday things. Their lives are a sweet parody of the middle-class dream: a world without troubles, but with soft seats and dependable warm meals. No wonder that a hobbit like Frodo — avid listener to Bilbo’s adventures and poetry, a friend to wanderers — would be discontented by such a world and long for something more: “…to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight….He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange vision of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied: ‘Not yet.” (41, 42) He is bursting out of the confines of Hobbiton. It is more than inquisitiveness about the larger world, but a whole-being need felt even in his feet, which have to roam. When the dark riders appear, Frodo risks everything to get a peep of them: “Frodo hesitated for a second: curiosity or some other feeling was struggling with his desire to hide.” (73) It is this “other feeling” that I find interesting, for it might not have a name because it is bigger than can be named.

Jung calls it enantiodromia, the need of the soul to “run in the opposite direction” midway in life. We spend our first decades building up our strengths, developing in one direction, fortifying the foundations that have to support the rest of our lives, our families, our aspirations — but in the process of doing this, we are oversimplifying, narrowing, flattening ourselves. Our souls are so much more than the strengths we build them into, and they know it — so midway in our lives a strange pressure intensifies that pushes us in the directions we have neglected. Either we choose to become more complete by anticipating or responding to this inner urging, or we ignore it only to find that it hits us in the back: the man who has been a puritan fanatic succumbs to a sleazy sex scandal; the successful CEO and entrepreneur falls into a black depression and abandons all his work; the formerly happy mother of three suddenly feels empty and leaves the family to live in an ashram in India. Frodo anticipates it. The Hobbiton hobbits live in repression; they are comfortable, they seem to have all they need and seek nothing outside their small lives — but they resolutely ignore the peril that encroaches on their borders, and show no interest in the vast tides beyond that might drown them. The ignoring of external difficulties is necessarily a reflection of the ignoring of internal ones; their obsession with comforts is in fact a fear of what is intractably uncomfortable — namely, suffering and death. In the descriptions of the Shire there seems to be no place for a cemetery, no mention of burial practices, in spite of the abundance of records of ancestry. Hobbiton hobbits live in an illusion of perpetual coziness, a world that is always something and filled with somethings. All this is cloying to Frodo, who feels trapped and wants the vastness of seas and mountains, and who is drawn by the Nothing that the Black Riders represent and that the Ring summons.

It is no coincidence that Tolkien puts Frodo’s age as past the “tweenses,” past youth where everything is still possible and nothing is truly begun yet: “…his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo. Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden.” (42) At fifty, the life might be seen as complete; one is stable, settled, finished — yet very often, when a person reaches this point at which there should come a sense of order and fulfillment, the soul refuses and is faced with an upheaval. It could come from inside, as depression or as what seems to everyone else as insanity; or it could come from outside, as a task imposed or as a thrown-down glove that one can take up or turn away from. All too often we reject the upheaval: This shouldn’t be happening to me, I was looking forward to peaceful twilight and not to a storm. The acceptance is much harder for someone who thinks he knows what he is and what he loves, and yet is confronted with laying those aside and following what he must. For the weaker soul this manifests as a choice between equals, and such souls are torn apart by the dilemma; they cannot choose one horn without regretting the loss of the other, and since there is no going back the regret is life-long. But Frodo is stronger.

“I should like to save the Shire, if I could…” (61) It starts as a simple heroism, uncomprehending of the depth and power of the menace, but even in these early chapters he knows that the quest is more important than comfort and contentment, and that he must do the thing that perhaps only he can do. Underneath this there is the desire to have the great task that only he can do, the task that presents itself not as one option among many possible options but as a destiny that is felt in the heart. Thus he can enter into this with some blitheness, graciously shouldering the burden that he cannot yet weigh. By the time he has to renew his commitment in Rivendell, he knows not only that he has to renounce his dream of earthly happiness but also that he can, to the deep respect of his companions: “An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

“‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.'” (263-64)

The longing fills all his heart, yet the “other will” that speaks through him is not not Frodo, but the greater Frodo that is not a mere individual but a destinied individual, a hobbit who is not complete but who has to undertake this terrible thing on the way to completion. The nobility of Frodo is that unlike heroes for whom the heroic task is natural and who can think of nothing else they would rather be doing, Frodo is old enough and knows himself well enough to know that there is something he would rather be doing but that there is a big thing that he must be doing — not only for the sake of all those who depend on him, and those great ones who expect it of him, but also for his own sake, only because he is called to it — because he is Frodo, and yet must become fully Frodo. In the middle of our life’s journey, Frodo without hesitation takes the road to do the thing that can kill him, and he does it with a calm, matter-of-fact dignity characteristic of the little guy who has reflected, and who is willing to take on death with open eyes.

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