Why No One in Lord of the Rings Ever Gets Home

A comment on my last post, “Guardians of the Galaxy and the Hero’s Journey,” in which I referenced the homecoming in the Lord of the Rings, asked me which homecoming I was referring to. I realized I hadn’t made it clear, but in responding I started to think about how many homecomings there were in Lord of the Rings.

And I started to think that maybe there was only one.

It seems like there are several, specifically because there are so many characters. Aragorn comes home, Legolas and Gimli go home, the Rohirrim go home, and the list goes on and on. But as I thought more, I realized that while a homecoming is implied for most of the characters, it seems like only one homecoming is actually shown.

That one would be the homecoming of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. But wait! you say. What about Frodo? And Aragorn? Sure, we don’t see the Elves and Gandalf after they leave the Grey Havens, but they get home, don’t they?

Why No One in LOTR Gets HomeWell, sort of. Again, plenty of homecomings are implied, I’m simply arguing that only Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s is shown. The obvious objection to this is, of course, Aragorn. We see him being crowned King of Gondor, and taking control of his dominion. Isn’t that coming home? The question, though, is whether or not that’s actually a homecoming?

See, a homecoming seems to imply, especially when understood in the sense of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a return to the place where the Hero started. That place is, traditionally, the Hero’s home. Aragorn, if we look closely, never actually had a home at the start of LOTR. He’s a wanderer, a traveler. Sure, he knows he’s King, but Gondor isn’t his home. Nowhere is.

At the end, it seems that he is less coming home and more making a home for himself. Thus, within a traditional Hero’s Journey, Aragorn doesn’t have a homecoming.

But what about Frodo? How does Frodo not have a homecoming? Well, that’s because of one central thing that Frodo says, in the final chapter of LOTR, “The Grey Havens:”

“I [Frodo] tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

According to Frodo, in the act of saving the Shire, he lost it. It’s always been one of the most touching moments in LOTR for me, precisely because it seems to imply that Frodo thought he was coming home when he returned to the Shire, but quickly realized that his home wasn’t anywhere on Middle-Earth. Bag-End is where he stays, but Bag-End isn’t home. He’s lost.

Of course, he realized that he truly is meant to go to the Grey Havens, and to Valar beyond it. So, Frodo’s homecoming is implied, it seems, not actual. The same goes for Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Elves. They all set off for their home, but we never see them coming home. Their return to the place they started doesn’t satisfy them, because they are meant for somewhere else.

So, does Frodo come home? Yes, I think LOTR makes that very clear. But do we ever see it? I don’t think so.

And that seems appropriate, since the entire Grey Havens scene seems to be intended to make us realize that there is a world far beyond Middle-Earth, where darkness never appears. A world that echoes Sam’s proclamation earlier in the story that “there is light and high beauty, forever beyond darkness’s reach.” Sam seems destined to go to this world one day, too, and perhaps Merry and Pippin. Which, if that’s the case, then it seems they never came home either. At least not yet. And it also means that we never truly see anyone come home in LOTR.

Again, that seems appropriate. The characters have returned to their starting place, but they are not happy. They have saved Middle-Earth, but Middle-Earth is not all there is. Thus the place we leave the characters may not be at their home.

Perhaps we leave them all, waiting for the day when they can go to their true home, a kingdom beyond the sea.

As Christians, we are in much the same situation. This world, no matter what we do in it or what we achieve, is not our own. This is not where we belong, it is not our home. All of our returns, after whatever adventures and journeys we experience in this life, are not returns home. We never have a homecoming here on earth. Like Campbell’s mythic hero, we return to where we started, but as Christians we know that where we started will not satisfy us.

And thus we are never perfectly happy, or perfectly satisfied, or perfectly at home in this world. We are not, because we cannot be. We were not made for this world. We are waiting for the same thing Sam, and Merry, and Pippin are waiting for.

We are waiting for a day when we can sail to our true home, to a kingdom beyond the sea.

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