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Mark Kanazawa: LOTR and the Meaning of Home

Lord of the Rings is by now one of the most famous literary and cinematic examples of a mythic heroic adventure. Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring seems to have all the elements of Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure: departure from home (his beloved Shire), adventure (galore), and return home (back to the Shire). The story seems complete: he has done what he set out to do and can now live happily ever after, as presumably Dorothy did after she returned from Oz, ecstatically and tearfully exclaiming: “There’s no place like home”.

But why does Frodo then leave the Shire to go to the Grey Havens, and from thence overseas to the undying lands? He was not born there, did not grow up there, and, as far as I can tell, has never even seen them. How does he know he is even going to like being there? When Frodo sails off into the sunset, it certainly doesn’t seem like he is going home.

But in a real sense, of course, he is. It may not be the Shire, with its round doors and gruff yet lovable hobbit neighbors, but we are pretty sure Frodo is going to be happy in the undying lands. Tolkien himself once insisted that fairy tales had to have happy endings, or they could not be considered fairy tales. Well, Tolkien set out to write a fairy tale, and by gosh that’s what he did: one cannot imagine things ending up much better than they did. What I am suggesting is that “home” is not four walls and a roof (or in this case, well-excavated tunnels and invisible but highly effective dehumidifiers) but rather, the place where one is truly happy and fulfilled.

Having said this, let me be the first to admit that the pull of “where one grew up” can be quite strong. As a transplanted Midwesterner originally hailing from the Big Apple, I miss, on a gut emotional level, many of the things I grew up with: playing stickball in the street with my friends amongst the cars and fire hydrants, my creaky old YMCA swimming pool, the Jewish deli down the street that sold the best knishes around. I have no doubt that Frodo will miss Merry and Pippin and especially Sam.

But maybe that’s the point. For Frodo, where he is never seems nearly as important as whom he is with (and maybe that’s a real advantage for someone charged with journeying to Mordor!). When one thinks back upon all the times in LOTR when Frodo was truly happy, they are when he is with friends: Gandalf’s return to the Shire, observing Sam’s clumsy interactions with Rosie, seeing Bilbo again in Rivendell, and especially, the sheer unalloyed expression of love and affection for his three hobbit friends right before he leaves Middle-Earth forever. In the end, the difficult choice for Frodo was who to be with – Bilbo, Gandalf, and the elves or his hobbit friends – not where to be. Things are different for Sam the gardener, who will miss Frodo terribly but who is much more tied to his sense of place. Things are also different for Arwen, who gives up all chance of being with her people to be with the man she loves. Yet we have no doubt that they made the choices that were right for them and that each is, in the end, truly “at home”.