Reading books where characters go on a quest or an adventure usually have a great appeal to most readers. It is not surprising: travelling to different places, whether in your imagination by means of a book or physically in reality, has always been especially thrilling.
J. R. R. Tolkien successfully applied the “travelling” framework in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, his earliest idea for the book we know as The Silmarillion also was a traveller’s tale, with Eriol (Ælfwine in later versions) going to the Elven island of Tol Eressëa and talking to the Elves there, writing down their tales. How Tolkien envisioned this narrative in its earliest form can be seen in The Book of Lost Tales, volumes I and II.
Tolkien saw a lot of positive aspects in such a narrative frame and in the idea of travelling as such. As the Professor called travelling a departure from a “plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer” (Letter 183), giving exercise for one’s mind, body and will, it is good by itself. Travel broadens the mind, after all, and even a short trip can have a great impact on one’s personality. On the other hand, it is a really convenient format for an author to follow, for “it provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he [author] has in mind may be strung to make a new thing, various, unpredictable, and yet coherent” (ibid.). Tolkien’s application of the travelling framework allowed him to demonstrate all the aspects of his detailed world-building and great mastery of English showing in his rich, vibrant language, as well as to show how much his characters evolved during their travels, how they displayed such personal qualities that none thought they had.
The topic of the road permeates both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is clearly seen in The Road Goes Ever On verses. It spans both tales, emphasising the continuity between them, while various versions of the stanzas show the progression of the roads for Bilbo and Frodo. Thus it unites the two stories and the two Hobbit lives into one single inseparable whole.
The poem makes its first appearance in The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins returns to Bag End from his adventures with the Dwarves. After spending a lot of time in strange, far-away places he is happy to be home:
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
(Hobbit, pp. 346-347)
This verse recalls the places Bilbo has been to on his journey. The Misty Mountains, the dark caves beneath them and the Goblin tunnels, Mirkwood, Dale, Laketown, the Enchanted Stream, the Long Lake or Erebor itself — roads were many and new for the Hobbit, and on that single journey he has seen more than he has in his entire life. The tempo of the poem is leisurely and has nostalgic notes in its flow: Bilbo has seen a lot but he is happy to be home again. The Hobbit that sings this song is not the Hobbit that set out on a journey a long time ago: Bilbo has changed and Gandalf does not fail to point that out. Bilbo’s life after the quest for Erebor, where he discovered a new side to his character, takes an absolutely new direction, drastically different from his life before it.
Bilbo carries this verse into The Lord of the Rings and goes on with it when he is getting ready to leave Bag End on the evening of his 111th birthday. He has been living comfortably in the Shire for many years, has earned himself the reputation of a weirdo, but the effects of the One Ring are beginning to show: the long possession of the perilous Ring is beginning to take its toll. Bilbo feels tired, in need of a long holiday and wants to see the wide world again:
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.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 47)
Bilbo sings it softly, as if talking to himself. The tempo does not change but the topic alters, the roads of the Hobbit poem change their meaning, gain new significance. Roads become The Road: capital R, definite article, singular, and so they will remain in several other versions of the poem. Now Bilbo is talking about his own personal Road — his life road — that he has to follow. His big adventure passed years ago, but his life still goes on, and the Hobbit feels the need to see the world, to travel: he is eager to go on, to have a change in his life, to escape nosy neighbours and wild rumours. Both Bilbo’s roads — the one below his feet and the life Road — will be quite leisurely from now on: he is embarking on this journey eagerly, willingly, with no need to hurry, so it will be a pleasant experience with a good effect on his mind, body and soul. From now on Bilbo will be free from the dominion of the One Ring and his life will be slowly changing for the better. However, even this nice Road will be part of the bigger Road — the flow of life in the world.
Bilbo’s “eager feet” become “weary feet” as Frodo speaks the verse on his way towards Crickhollow with Sam and Pippin. Just like Bilbo before him Frodo speaks the verse aloud, but as if talking to himself. The young Baggins’ original intention was to follow Bilbo in his wanderings, find him at some point. Frodo wanted his own adventure but he pictured it as a holiday. Instead, his adventure turns out to be a dangerous quest which he begins full of uncertainty, doubts and insecurity. Spoken at the beginning of his journey into, at that point, the unknown, the verse reflects, emphasises all these feelings and Pippin notices that “it does not sound altogether encouraging” (ibid., p. 98). Very soon Frodo is to meet the Black Rider and learn that his journey is even more perilous than he thought at first, thus putting his life into a great danger.
The poem then returns to its creator, Bilbo, when Frodo’s quest is over and he is returning home having completed his mission although shattered by the experience. This verse of Bilbo’s is a farewell. He is already very old and his Road — his life — is coming to an end:
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.
(Return of the King, p. 321)
Bilbo has had a very eventful life and now it is time for others to step on this Road of life and have their adventures. New tales will be created by new heroes but they will still remain parts of a larger, greater tale that never ends. Life Roads interweave in ways that we might not even consider. Different actions create ripples that can touch many lives and have various impacts where we do not even expect them to appear. This is shown in how the One Ring changed owners, how their actions and decisions, performed wittingly or unwittingly, led to its eventual destruction and freedom from the tyranny of Sauron in Middle-earth.
It is Frodo who finishes the verse cycle before he sails West:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
(Return of the King, p. 374)
The road here is again written with a small letter, hinting at its usage in the meaning of “way”. Frodo and Bilbo are about to sail to Tol Eressëa where they will be able to get their well-deserved rest and a chance to heal after carrying the burden of the One Ring for so long. The Straight Road to the True West is hidden for mortals, but is open for Elven ships. This hidden secret road becomes available for Bilbo and Frodo, too. Their Roads of life are taking a new turn, towards the end, while others will fill the space of adventurers for them.
Bilbo liked saying that going out of one’s door was a dangerous business. Going on the road may change us dramatically and small roads of our travellings will have an impact on our life Road as well as others’ Roads. The Road Goes Ever On verses show the progression that Bilbo’s and Frodo’s lives and journeys take. Each verse reflects the feelings of the moment when it is spoken or sung, thus being especially suitable for this particular situation. The topic of physical roads we tread every day becomes closely interwoven with the concept of the Road as the synonym of life, and Tolkien clearly shows the close connection between the two notions. Because after all Bilbo would often say that “there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 98)
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image: Ivan Shishkin – Rye (Wikimedia Commons)