There’s a magnetism to great stories. Our souls are lined with experiences, each charged a certain way—some positive, some negative, many somewhere in between. A great story links to our experiences and can help deepen our understanding of what’s happened to us, and of what we want to happen to us. As I read The Hobbit again, this time to my firstborn, I could feel the magnetism. I was hooked early and traveled some 300 pages with Tolkien. Rather than listing all those magnetic points, I’ll just describe one, maybe the most powerful: leaving home and going home.
The Hobbit is a story of adventure, of course. But that’s not the heart of it. It’s an adventure from somewhere. Adventures are great not just because of what happens but because of what happened before they began. In this case, what happened to Bilbo before his great adventure is what we often feel is happening to most of us: nothing much. He aims to live a life of comfort, ease, and predictability. His lack of adventuring is what makes him “respectable” in Hobbiton.
That’s why I’m convinced that the greatest step of Bilbo’s journey was from his doorway to the footpath. His decision to leave his home, to let go of what’s happened and pursue what might be, is the greatest act of bravery. All throughout the book, he regretted this decision and dreamed of returning home, to his little garden and whistling teapot. But that doesn’t take away from the initial decision. It takes great courage to leave home, to take steps away from the familiar, the comfortable, the “respectable.” Many of us know that from experience. Bilbo became my hero the moment he stepped off his front porch. All that happened to him for the year of his travels depended on that one moment.
Being the comfort creature that he is (as many of us are), Bilbo was quick to complain and look back—at forgotten handkerchiefs and little cakes and warm hearths. And yet he pressed on, through troll attacks, Goblin captures, a riddle-war with Gollum, the evils of Mirkwood, imprisonment by wood elves, and even a composed conversation with Smaug himself. At each of these encounters, he surprised himself, which can only happen when you leave home. But there came a point, when he felt his epic story had come to its final chapter, when he wanted to go home . . . for good.
Having traveled with him for all those pages, we yearn for Bagend, too. We know he’ll experience that world of familiarity in unfamiliar ways now, since his journeys have shaped his perspectives on everything, even on those things he used to consider commonplace. Tea tastes different when you’ve pined after it for a year. All of his harsh nights and wild days have sapped his energy. He’s tired. And where do you go when you’re tired? Home.
As he traveled back to Hobbiton with Gandalf and Beorn, I found myself constantly linking the word “home” to the life of a dying friend. Home is a place of rest, where longing excuses herself for a while. It’s where labor—the effort, the constant trying—submits to silence and sleep in a place well tended and deeply loved. As I thought of the aching in Bilbo’s legs, I thought of the pain in my friend’s failing liver. I thought also of the word my cancer-ridden father spoke when we told him he was coming home for hospice care: “home.” He was pointing to the blue sky when he said that word.
As much bravery as it takes to leave home, maybe it takes even more to go home, to return permanently to the presence of the God who bore you on his breath. Going to that home is a matter of giving up our breath in order to breathe something better, something wilder, something other-worldly.
Great Stories Keep Telling
Of course, my son didn’t have any of these ruminations. He just enjoyed the tale, which has found a home in his memory, no doubt. But because of the magnetism of this story, I’m sure that when he begins coloring in his understanding of “home” with experiences, he’ll come back to this story. Among many other things, The Hobbit is a story of leaving home and going home. And with all our leaving and going, I consider it required reading for every human.