“What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves! This is what I have been really longing for, for years! Goodbye!’ he said, looking at his old home and bowing to the door.” ~ Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring
There was a time I enjoyed road trips. When I began college, I landed in a group of friends who jumped in the car on a whim and freely drove here, there, anywhere. Freedom. Community. Fun. The open road. These carefree folk indulged in gleeful midnight drives and weekend jaunts: I joined in with abandon. The mountains! The beach! The hills of North Georgia! The Hard Rock Café in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. The hot, flat center of Nowhere, Alabama to visit a friend of someone’s friend. But somewhere along the decade between going to grad school and staying home with a toddler, my traveling tendencies have grown fewer, my goals for the road smaller, more planned, more manageable. Precise. It seems I prefer predictability. Really, I prefer home.
I suspect that’s partly because, in recent years, I’ve exchanged the footloose and fancy free road trip for actual life-hauling moves. Our family moves a lot. After an eighteen year childhood stretch set firmly in one city, I have been repeatedly carried away to new places. I haven’t always liked it. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[i] Yes, Bilbo. Agreed. College was the beginning of that road, and town after city after town has followed.
The most recent move has been particularly difficult. Two weeks after leaving our house in Blacksburg, Virginia, we traveled back for a day of cleaning and grabbing up odds and ends. We unlocked the kitchen door and looked around. The first home we’d ever owned stood empty save for the dust in the corners. Potential buyers came to look with high hopes but decided it wasn’t the place for them, after all. “It needs a lot of work,” my husband heard the woman say. I found myself sitting on the sole remaining piece of furniture—a piano bench—in tears. The small space was surprisingly empty, even of memories. How could this be?
I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy most years, usually in the fall. In the beginning of Fellowship, I’m always a little pained by Frodo’s newly-bought house at Crickhollow. How can any house—any house—replace Bag End? Impossible. In the end, of course, it doesn’t have to; Frodo gets to go back home. Still, in those moments before Frodo and Company must continue so quickly on their tri-book journey, Frodo looks around at Bilbo’s familiar furniture arranged in an unfamiliar place, and tries to convince himself that Crickhollow could be home: “‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’”[ii] I don’t believe him.
With each year’s reread, I end up getting through less of the series. I think it’s because each year I need less—less adventure, less wizardry, less epic battle, less grandeur. Two falls ago, The Fellowship of the Ring sufficed. Last September, I was satisfied to read the hobbits safely from Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil. This year I took the first book off the shelf a few months early. Something in this upheaved summer told me I’d need it. I cracked the covers that will soon fall completely apart and found myself slowed down by that first chapter or two. I pored over and over certain paragraphs and phrases: “For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future.”[iii] I couldn’t move beyond Frodo’s slow, pleasant early years at home in Bag End. And, of course, those moments when Frodo can’t make himself go:
To tell the truth, he was very reluctant to start, now that it had come to the point. Bag End seemed a more desirable residence than it had for years, and he wanted to savor as much as he could of his last summer in the Shire.[iv]
Even on the day of departure, Frodo wanders the darkened rooms of Bag End; he walks to the bottom of the garden path; he must drag himself away. When he and Pippin do finally go, he pauses yet one more time: “‘Goodbye!’ said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows” and waving his hand.[v] It is a long goodbye when heart takes leave of home.
Undoubtedly, I remained in this segment because I was looking around my own home, cleaned, then boxed, then emptied. How could I leave this place where I had cooked meals, made new friends, brought home a baby? To add insult to injury, Frodo’s move follows on the heels of the pleasantest weather in memory: “The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn.”[vi] It was, indeed, a particularly, painfully lovely spring this year in Southwest Virginia. The trees were a healthy, non-drought green, the lilies flourished, and there were, for the first time, cherries to pick. Our backyard had never looked better. This, I realize, is often the way of things: When life is normal, I see all the flaws—the chipped paint, the uneven ceiling; when normal life is lost, the familiar glows bright before my eyes. The birds sing louder, and I want to stay forever. When I read those opening pages of Fellowship back in June, I could only laugh for trying not to cry.
Frodo willingly marches into misery, danger, and despair to save everyone but himself, so far as he knows. But that is not the full extent of his sacrifice. Till this year’s reading I had never realized the depths of what slows Frodo as he heads out on his journey. His deep desire is to stay not merely in comfort but in a sense of place, history, memory, family. Yes, he is supposed to go out and do this grand thing. But his dragging feet are caught on the threshold of his love for home, that very place he most wants to save. And so, this year, I had no need to travel the Old Forest, go through Bree or visit Rivendell. I remained where Frodo and Sam wished they could: The Shire. If they couldn’t keep watch over home themselves, I’d do it in their stead. If I can’t stay in the home we spent three years imbuing with memory, love, and meaning—if home must be, for now, a row of townhouse rentals set down in yards of pavement in a new city—then I won’t read past page 142. I’ll find solace in Bilbo’s garden.
Like Frodo on that first and only night in his Crickhollow house, I look around this temporary place and say with some effort, “This does look like home.”[vii] I try to mean it. That won’t stop me from hoping we’ll have a place of our own again someday, one in which we can truly settle. Fewer road trips for me, and hopefully no more moves—just a backyard window view, one with daylilies and cherry trees.
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993. (102)