No writer has ever described more accurately the feeling of trudging through a landscape, of finding a path, of getting lost, than Tolkien. Much of the Fellowship of the Ring is about leaving the confines of home and launching out into unfamiliar territory, and this journey on foot over particular quirky terrains is meticulously unfolded and is an essential thread in the book. Very often when we read we make the mistake of predetermining in our heads which parts are crucial and which “transitional”: the battles, the key conversations, the confrontations, the councils, are all crucial, whereas the bits in between — in which the protagonists attempt to “get there” — are seen as physically necessary but not thematically essential. The underlying prejudice takes for granted that the narrative is for the sake of the destinations and climaxes, and the wanderings over land can be skimmed because locomotion is after all an inconvenient task that we undertake to connect places that are important to us. It is this prejudice that makes airports, bus stations, train stations so ugly and unpleasant, not to mention the planes, buses and trains themselves: Because we view the physical activity of travel as a regrettable necessity, the forms of travel themselves become dismal. Yet careful readers have always known that in a great work of literature the supposed “transitions,” when considered seriously, contain as much of the whole as so-called major chapters or scenes do. In the growth of an animal, would we consider adulthood the interesting thing, and all the preceding stages merely means to get there? — or is the flowering of the rose, the full moon, the most important aspects of moons and roses? The Japanese writer Kenko is surely right to say that to think like that would be as vulgar and puerile as to think that the only thing interesting in a romance is sexual consummation. For this reason Tolkien’s careful attention to the realities of journeying and to the resistances of topography cannot be ignored as only passage-work.
For example, read this slowly:
“He soon found that the thicket was closer and more tangled than it had appeared. There were no paths in the undergrowth, and they did not get on very fast. When they had struggled to the bottom of the bank, they found a stream running down from the hills behind in a deeply dug bed with steep slippery sides overhung with brambles. Most inconveniently it cut across the line they had chosen. They could not jump over it, nor indeed get across it at all without getting wet, scratched, and muddy. They halted, wondering what to do…They waded the stream, and hurried over a wide open space, rush-grown and treeless, on the further side. Beyond that they came again to a belt of trees: tall oaks, for the most part, with here and there an elm tree or an ash.” (87)
Tolkien renders perfectly what it feels like to be finding a way through wooded terrain, the ups and downs, the surprising obstacles, the periods of thought and decision. In such terrain we cannot see very far, and so every few yards we have to take stock, recalculate, and recommit; there can be no long route followed effortlessly. When we are alone in a forest and suddenly realize that we are lost, there is always a moment of embryonic panic that then has to be reabsorbed in order for us to think calmly. The panic has to do with all kinds of grim imaginings — what if we don’t get home before dark, what if we freeze out here? — but even when we know that nothing terrible will happen, there is still the panic that needs to be suppressed — and this panic is more primordial, a panic at lostness itself, which is fear of being caught in an alien and unnavigable world. When accompanied by a group we tend not to feel this, since companionship muffles fear; it is harder to feel that panic when there are people around us who could help.
This early landscape is English, with familiar features such as hedges, gates, dikes, and trees with known names; nevertheless, even this landscape has to be read and navigated, its turns and passages correctly interpreted. Tolkien expresses a tangible sense of crossing over ground, and one can almost smell mud and moist air as the hobbits pick their way over the ruts of the lane. This landscape is involved in lives and purposes, histories and intentions, unknown to the journeyers; the trick is always to move past obstructions and not antagonize further obstruction.
“The sun escaping from the breaking clouds, as it sank towards the hills they had left, was now shining brightly again. Their fear left them, though they still felt uneasy. But the land became steadily more tame and well-ordered. Soon they came into well-tended fields and meadows: there were hedges and gates and dikes for drainage…They passed along the edge of a huge turnip-field, and came to a stout gate. Beyond it a rutted lane ran between low well-laid hedges towards a distant clump of trees.” (89)
The detailed account of this foot-journey is no mere transition but a necessary stage in the “training” of the hobbits. Prior to the journey, the news brought from distant lands might well provoke terror at unknown forms of destruction now slowly approaching; the imagination runs wild, and the will caves in to it. What happens on the journey counteracts this: We now have to pay attention, make singular decisions as to where to turn, how far to go — and each decision both reveals who we are and habituates us to some tendencies that we might need for the challenges ahead. The hobbits do not tend to crash recklessly through undergrowth, or to take turns whimsically; their strength is a cautious decisiveness that may come from being so close to the ground. A friend has described this entire process of getting lost and finding the way as a “taming of the imagination” — a disciplining of desire and dread, to make both head and heart clearer.
It is only after this that the hobbits enter the Old Forest, and here the landscape feels markedly different: no longer the lived-in English countryside, but thick primeval woods not hospitable to humans or hobbits. This time the forest feels the way it would to a small child who is lost in it: looming, menacing, confining, dark, and of dubious intentions. This may actually be our more primal relationship to forest, not Wordsworthian faith but deep mistrust stemming from acute knowledge that we really do not know what kind of a world this is. This forest governs us, forces us into paths we are not sure we want to take:
“At length they made up their minds to go on again. The path that had brought them to the hill reappeared on the northward side; but they had not followed it far before they became aware that it was bending steadily to the right. Soon it began to descend rapidly and they guessed that it must actually be heading towards the Withywindle valley: not at all the direction they wished to take. After some discussion they decided to leave this misleading path and strike northward; for although they had not been able to see it from the hill-top, the Road must lie that way, and it could not be many miles off. Also northward, and to the left of the path, the land seemed to be drier and more open, climbing up to slopes where the trees were thinner, and pines and firs replaced the oaks and ashes and other strange and nameless trees of the denser wood.
“At first their choice seemed to be good: they got along at a fair speed, though whenever they got a glimpse of the sun in an open glade they seemed unaccountably to have veered eastwards. But after a time the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled. Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay unusually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards.” (112)
The move from Shire to Old Forest is not only temporally sequential, but feels as if in fact the Old Forest is the underlying reality of the seemingly benevolent countryside. Beneath domesticated nature, where we wander through a labyrinth of man- or hobbit-made routes, there is the specter of primeval nature that is not necessarily friendly to us and that we have to treat with caution, even fear — because there we are truly lost, vulnerable, puny. Here the hobbits are genuinely unsettled, and their relationship with nature destabilized in a way that it wasn’t before, even when pursued by the Riders; in those frightening moments they were able to hunker down behind a bush or in a hollow, finding refuge in nature. In the Old Forest there is no refuge, and going through this might be an essential education both for surviving the hostile landscapes to come as well as to appreciate the serene beauty of places like Rivendell and Lorien.
There is one other dimension to these descriptions of wandering: they are given from the point of view of a narrator who knows the topography intimately. The characters may be lost, but the narrator knows exactly where they are at any moment. This illusion of authorial topographical omniscience creates in us a sense that the landscape is real, pre-existing the characters, indeed INSIDE which the characters are located, as if on a map. It is not merely a setting for the action, but one of the principal characters in the action — and as we shall see, each landscape ends up affecting the characters and altering them as they are forced to have a relationship with it and to negotiate, deal, with it. This is why Tolkien paints the journey with such painstaking detail: the trudge over difficult ground may be the very heart of the book, for it is in this that Frodo finds not only his way but himself finding his way. And there is no way to find, if one first doesn’t realize that one is actually lost.