The Road

I’ve probably admitted to this on the podcast at some point; if not, let this serve as my confession. Way back when I first started reading Tolkien as a teenager, I… uh… I often used to skip—or, at best, merely skim—the passages of verse.

Maybe this was my instinctual reaction to poetry as an uneducated youth; perhaps it was just my impatient teenage self anxious to just get on with the story. I don’t know; I can hardly remember those years anymore! In point of fact, it probably has something to do with my more prosy nature — though, like Mr. Baggins, I’m not quite as prosy as I like to believe.

As you’ll soon hear in our special Tolkien Reading Day episode next week, I’ve come a long way since then. And so, as we look forward to this year’s Reading Day theme of “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to take an extended look at one of the repeating verses found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Let’s start in the final chapter of The Hobbit, “The Last Stage”:

As all things come to an end, even this story, a day came at last when they were in sight of the country where Bilbo had been born and bred, where the shapes of the land and of the trees were as well known to him as his hands and toes. Coming to a rise he could see his own Hill in the distance, and he stopped suddenly and said:

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 in 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.

Gandalf looked at him. “My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. XIX, “The Last Stage”)

Indeed, Bilbo most certainly was not the hobbit he once had been. No longer sheltered and naïve, he had discovered in himself more courage and determination than he thought possible. Of course, he’d also come to know more sorrow and grief than he’d likely ever imagined with the loss of Fili, Kili, and most of all, Thorin, giving him a deep sense of sorrow and a genuine appreciation for peace. Oh, and now he possesses a very useful magic ring!

Later it is unknown what the road might
go by. And yet, even with that lack
of certainty, the importance of the goal
is such that it demands “eager feet”.

Before we move on, let’s look at another song from The Hobbit to shed some light on a few phrases of Bilbo’s “Road” song. In Beorn’s hall, the Dwarves sing the following:

The wind was on the withered heath,
but in the forest stirred no leaf:
there shadows lay by night and day,
and dark things silent crept beneath.

The wind came down from mountains cold,
and like a tide it roared and rolled;
the branches groaned, the forest moaned,
and leaves were laid upon the mould.

The wind went on from West to East;
all movement in the forest ceased,
but shrill and harsh across the marsh
its whistling voices were released. 

The grasses hissed, their tassels bent,
the reeds were rattling—on it went
oer shaken pool under heavens cool
where racing clouds were torn and rent.

It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair:
there black and dark lay boulders stark
and flying smoke was in the air. 

It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale,
and stars were fanned to leaping light.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. VII, “Queer Lodgings”)

Bilbo’s ‘Road’, then, is similar to the dwarves’ ‘wind’. “Over rock and under tree” is rather reminiscent of “down from mountains cold… the branches groaned, the forest moaned” while “Over grass and over stone” reminds the listener of “The grasses hissed, their tassels bent”. We get “Eyes that fire and sword have seen” that reminds us that the wind sweeps “above the dragon’s lair… and flying smoke was in the air.” There is mention in both songs of moon and star, too.

But Bilbo can be forgiven for borrowing a few thoughts. After all, the destination of the dwarven ‘wind’ is radically different from Bilbo’s ‘road’: while the wind “left the world and took its flight”, the Road leads home. And Bilbo was certainly pleased to be home again — to “turn at last to home afar” and “look at last on meadows green and trees and hills” that he has known all his life.

When he sings this song next, it is 60 years later and he sings:

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.
     (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. I Ch. I, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Now we see that it has gone from the broad and generic, “Roads go ever ever on” to the very specific and concrete, “The Road goes ever on and on”.

(An aside: that’s rather like The Hill and The Water, as examples of the hobbit tendency to provide very simple names for things. I like this very much. Perhaps we shall rename our podcast to The Podcast. Remind me to ask The Shawn about this.)

And notice also that it is different in other ways — the “feet that wandering have gone” are now the “eager feet” that pursue. The use of the Road is no longer purposeless or aimless — there is a specificity, a desired goal, and it is to be achieved with eagerness. And though it may, in its course, still go by all the places that it did in the first version of the song—over rock, under tree, by caves and streams, over snow, flowers, grass and stone—here it is unknown (“I cannot say”) what the road might, in fact, go by. And yet, even with that lack of certainty, the importance of the goal is such that it demands “eager feet”.

While my point here is to discuss Bilbo’s transformation of this song over a period of 80 years, I should briefly mention Frodo’s singing of it. When he sings Bilbo’s song, barely a day away from home and still (mostly) safely in The Shire, it is identical to the above verse with one exception: Frodo’s “weary feet” replace Bilbo’s “eager feet”. Admittedly, it seems a bit pessimistic of Frodo to think of his “weary feet” after such a short march—especially when we see that Bilbo is the one who should be talking of “weary feet”—but there you have it.

Back to Bilbo, then. He sings it again 20 years after this, saying:

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.
     (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. VI Ch. VI, “Many Partings”)

His journey is over, his ‘paths and errands’ from the previous version have indeed been met, and Bilbo knows it is time to go to his well-deserved rest. His feet were once merely “wandering”, then they were “eager”, now they are “weary”. The destination of The Road now? It’s no longer the geography of the wide, unknown world (rock, tree, caves, streams, snow, flowers, etc.); it’s not even the abstract philosophical concept of a destined fate. It is now simply “the lighted inn”, the place much like home where he can get his evening-rest and sleep. Let others now follow The Road — Bilbo’s time is done, his reward well-earned.

And this brings us back full-circle to the very end of The Last Stage. Here, we return to prose rather than poetry:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. XIX, “The Last Stage”)

What Gandalf says is a clear reminder of something we’ve been talking about on the podcast since the very beginning: the concept of SPBMI (or “shall prove but mine instrument”) that we see in the big, world-changing tales of Middle-earth. The hand of Ilúvatar intervenes (seen, in this case, as the fulfillment of prophecy) to accomplish his plans for Arda.

And though I could go astray on that topic for some time, I should return to Bilbo. Even back when Bilbo sang the first version of his Road-song, 80 years before he sang the last version, Bilbo understood—in his own self-deprecating way—that he was indeed “only quite a little fellow in a wide world” and that others would follow him on The Road when he was done, to play their part in bringing about the prophecies.

12 thoughts on “The Road

  1. That’s one of my most favourite verses in Middle-earth. I love how it alters and reflects all the changes in Bilbo’s life. Thanks for this wonderful essay, Alan!

    • My pleasure, Olga! I feel like this could have been much, much longer — perhaps I’ll explore this again in-depth at some point — but I’m glad that it was enjoyable as is! 🙂

  2. Lovely post. I am reminded of two other Tolkien images: the Tale, as in Sam talking of the great stories going on and people dropping in and out of them; and Niggle’s Tree, which kept accruing branches and vistas. JRRT certainly felt he was on a great adventure with his sub-creation.

    • Ah, Sam… indeed, there is a real parallel there with his recognition of the roles of others in these grand stories v. Bilbo’s acknowledgment that it’s time for other feet to trod The Road. And Niggle: well, that’s always a great reference!

  3. Beautifully done Alan. I loved the comparison to the Dwarves’ song in Beorn’s house. I’ve never picked up on the similarities before (So Bilbo DID learn a thing or two from the Dwarves). You;re analysis of the different versions throughout the legendarium was intriguing and very nicely done.

    • Thanks, Amc — the connections between Bilbo’s poetry about The Road and the dwarven verse on the wind was something I only recently caught on to. That’s one of the beautiful things about Tolkien’s works — you’re constantly finding something new!

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