I’m an avid reader of fantasy novels, though my love of the genre predates me learning to read. My introduction to dwarves, elves, and dragons came not from the pages of a book, but an animated, made-for-television movie.
That was how I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Adapted to film in 1977 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, who a decade earlier had created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the cartoon pulled me into a world of magical rings, ugly trolls, mysterious wizards — and singing hobbits!
When the home of Bilbo Baggins is descended upon by a troop of dwarves, they disrupt his quiet, predictable life in Hobbiton, offering him instead an opportunity for adventure. “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!” scoffs Bilbo of adventures. “Make you late for dinner!” Yet in the still of that night, as the dwarves get one last sleep before their morning departure, Bilbo steps outside and ponders this chance of a lifetime. His thoughts are accompanied by the tune “The Greatest Adventure” — one of the movie’s many songs, and the only one with original lyrics not lifted directly from Tolkien’s text.
This same indecision is captured in the 2012 live-action film by Martin Freeman, who briefly opts out of the adventure before realizing what he would be missing.
The dwarven company’s journey to Lonely Mountain was supposed to be only a brief interruption to the hobbit’s quiet life — after all, the subtitle for the original 1937 novel is “There and Back Again”. But along the trail through the Mirkwood Forest, as he acclimates to the life of an adventurer, Bilbo experiences the conflicting desires of missing home while also not wanting to return to it.
I can relate to Bilbo’s initial predilection for quiet, predictable days. I spent the first 32 years of my life in the same county and the first 40 years in the same state. I’d traveled extensively, from Vienna to Melbourne and throughout the USA, but I always had Massachusetts to come home to, where I had my friends, my family, and my routines. But my rooted life sometimes made it hard for me to relate to more courageous individuals.
Ten years ago, I dated a Boston College grad student who’d moved to the area from Kansas City. One holiday, over a year into our relationship, she broke down in angry tears: “This is my life, Ken! I can’t just go home! School is all I have!”
She’d done at 23 what I’d never done at 32: live somewhere far from home. Still, I found myself short on empathy, as she’d chosen this life for herself and had no one else to blame.
Now, a decade later, I better understand the difference between wanting to do something and having to do it. When I first considered becoming a nomad, I was filled with dread: more than something I wanted to do, I knew it was something I had to do. I’d had my quiet life; this was my only chance to try something different, no matter how uncomfortable.
My nomadic travels since then have often fascinated others, but now I’m the one who’s hard to relate to. “What are you looking for?” and “When are you going to settle down?” are the two most common questions I’m asked about being a nomad. The honest answers, though not ones that satisfy the inquirers, are “Nothing” and “Why should I?”
I was reminded of this tension by the recent Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. In the preantepenultimate episode, as a tribe of harfoots traverses difficult terrain, Poppy Proudfellow lightens the load for her friends and family by breaking into song.
Although Tolkien’s works are renown for their songs, I was not anticipating this musical interlude, and the unexpected lyrics brought tears to my eyes. As Poppy’s friend Elanor Brandyfoot discovers at the end of the show’s first season, saying goodbye to all you know can be one of the hardest — and most necessary — moments in one’s life.
Of drink I have little And food I have less, My strength tells me no, But the path demands yes. My legs are so short and the way is so long, I've no rest nor comfort, No comfort but song.
I am no hobbit; my journeys will not be sung by the bards. Nor am I a person who will change the course of the future; I’m quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.
Nonetheless, I’ve traded all I’ve known for the unknown ahead. For, as Bilbo himself once said: “Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”