This particular Tolkien quotation is plastered all over the internet: “Not all those who wander are lost.” It originates in a poem that Bilbo wrote after meeting Aragorn, a poem that appears twice in The Lord of the Rings.
Contra Peter Jackson’s cinematic take, Aragorn did not wander throughout Middle-earth trying to flee his destiny while struggling with a personal identity crisis. Instead, Aragorn was trying to protect his kingly lineage, of which he was the last living heir. In doing so, he was also covertly protecting Middle-earth and its free peoples, keeping watch over the North. Such protection included the borders of the Shire. Aragorn did not wander as one who was lost. We like to explain: “Aragorn was wandering in wonder, taking in all the wonders of Middle-earth. All the while, he was protecting its free peoples so that they could continue to enjoy Middle-earth’s wonder-eliciting beauty.”
There’s a second delightful quote, albeit not so familiar. Though not from Tolkien, it emerges from a universally recognized classic piece of literature. First published in 1926, the clip contains a Niagara of profound insight.
‘I’m scared,’ said Piglet. [Yes, we know you’re smiling.]
‘A story will help,’ said Pooh.
‘Oh. Don’t you know? Stories make your heart grow.’2
We resonate with A. A. Milne’s moving words and something within us goes, “That’s true! Stories indeed make our hearts grow, at least the great ones do.” Tolkien fans heartily agree that his stories are great, and we know his tales accomplish something good deep inside us. From our beloved Professor’s perspective, story’s primal nature holds transformative potency and redemptive power. Tolkien once winsomely observed: “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”2 Deep nuggets of significance lie beneath this statement. Ponder this: Tolkien deliberately designed characters, scenes, and dialog with the express aim of evoking wonder—a wonder that can grow our hearts.
How does wonder work? Why are Tolkien’s tales so effective in making our hearts grow? It’s vital for us to grasp the all-out potency of the ordinary, everyday, predictably routine happenings of life. Wonder is quite often born of pipes, parties, mirth, and second breakfasts. Our encounters with everyday wonder leave us with choices. Will we shrug, choose to feel numb and dull, rather ho-hum to their beauty, or will we respond with humble gratitude? Will we learn to see anew?
Wonder-words and wonder-scenes
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien employs “wonder-words” that accompany “wonder-cenes.” They prove to be awe-inspiring.
Upon our first encounter with Bilbo and Gandalf in The Hobbit, we are swept into their meeting:
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)—Gandalf came by. Gandalf!
Gandalf comically bantered with Bilbo over his use of Good morning. He chided him for attempting to get rid of him and for not remembering that he belonged to the name Gandalf. Suddenly, Bilbo remembered:
Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard . . .who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!3
Tolkien deliberately attached this word wonderful to Gandalf’s storytelling at parties. It was a most strategic verbal linkage by our Professor, himself the great lore-master. When Tolkien scholar Michael Stanton discusses the hobbits and Gandalf smoking pipe-weed, he stresses a vital principle: “(almost) nothing in this book is wasted.”4 As we grow in watchfulness, we discover this principle rings true for all of Tolkien’s writing. His vivid portrayal of scenery and his engaging interchange of characters deliver the wonder of colorful description, artful cadence, and playful dialog.
Recurrences of wonder are woven throughout all the stories. Sometimes Tolkien uses the term as an overt noun, very personal. Notice Tolkien’s introduction of Bilbo in Chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring:
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years…5
At other times, wonder is not blatantly named. Instead, a wonder-filled response springs up for the story’s characters. We as readers then enter the experience and sense it. Remember Gandalf’s fireworks at Bilbo’s long-expected party?
They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age. There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits . . .
Bilbo’s partygoers were in awe of Gandalf’s craft. The grand finale goes like this:
And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon . . .6
Sometimes the precise terms wonder and wonderful are employed. Other times, we simply encounter a strong sense of awe. Tolkien’s poetic artistry and the response of his characters give evidence that wonder has been evoked in both emotion and action.
This recurring smoke-ring of wonder is not exclusive to Tolkien’s hobbits and other Lord of the Rings scenes. Such an aroma also fills the air in the Professor’s magnificent backstory for all things Middle-earth. On the opening page of AINULINDALË in The Silmarillion, we read:
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.7
Puffs of this wonder smoke-ring carried long-standing intentionality. Tolkien’s foundational essay, On Fairy-stories, was delivered in 1939. His erudite explanation served as something of a revelatory bridge, spanning between publication of The Hobbit and his writing of The Lord of the Rings. In this landmark essay, Tolkien aimed to answer the question, What is the use of fairy-stories? Along with other values, Tolkien included this explanation of a beneficial outcome. He dubbed it recovery.
We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.
For fun, carefully read again the Tolkien passages above, playing word search for how many times Tolkien mentions green. With fairy-story and the intended benefit of recovery, he is calling us to more intentionally look, to be startled anew. He urges us to behold creatures again, both the fantastic ones of Middle-earth and those all-too-familiar in our own Present-earth. Tolkien invites us to more carefully appreciate the marvelous colors and critters of our own ordinary, everyday, humdrum, overly familiar existence. He further elaborates: “Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view.” Tolkien beckons us to see anew, to see as we were originally designed to see and then respond accordingly.
Wonder and fairy-stories
In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien explains how wonder can benefit us with recovery:
We need in any case to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones . . . most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.8
The professor diagnoses our desperate malaise. Our life windows get smudged, bugged up, and blurred. We cease to truly see and humbly appreciate our good and daily graces. We become overly familiar with precious faces of family and friends, the scrumptious taste of Mom’s spaghetti, the productivity and creativity in a sweaty day’s work, along with the beauty of free flowers and trees of green. As a result, we turn inward and self-consumed. We cease to truly see the wonder around us. We wander, far from humble and grateful.
Wonder moments might be grand and glorious, something of an epiphany, but many are just the everyday, ordinary things that help lift your perspective. Like meeting a friend for coffee every Friday, or a weekend of soaking up sun at the beach. Through brushes with such everyday wonderful graces, you gain portals to see anew and experience greater hope on your journey.
The poster children for wonder-less living
You know his gurgling voice so well, and the unmistakable hiss of my precioussss. Tolkien’s leading man for acquiring things and arrogantly appropriating them was of course Sméagol.
Explaining the One Ring’s origin to Frodo, Gandalf’s very first words about Sméagol went like this.
He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.9
Such primal posture is telling. Downward. And Gandalf then immediately recounted the Ring’s discovery in the river-bed followed by Sméagol’s dreadful murder of Déagol. Even before we learn of the Sméagol-Gollum obsession with my precious, we discover twisted strands in the fabric of his nature. Ceasing to truly see the everyday wonders of hill-tops, leaves, and flowers, Sméagol assumed a downward view. He took these familiar, everyday graces for granted. He ceased to look up, so his world became wonder-less.
Tolkien depicted a creature no longer living each day with a sense of humility and gratitude. To look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air—these phrases describe one who appreciates everyday beauty. In the days to follow, Sméagol grew meaner, nastier, and more self-consumed. Gandalf subsequently explained: “The ring had given him power according to his stature. It is not to be wondered at that he became very unpopular and was shunned (when visible) by all his relations.”10
Such description of Sméagol’s downward posture during the Third Age of Middle-earth proves reminiscent of Tolkien words from the First Age. An even earlier poster child of vice appears in The Silmarillion.
Now Melkor began the delving and building of a vast fortress, deep under the earth, beneath dark mountains where the beams of Illuin were cold and dim. That stronghold was named Utumno. . . . the evil of Melkor and blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred.11
Melkor was a rebel child, a Satan-like character. When Tolkien tells us Sméagol’s story, we hear echoes of Melkor’s downturned vision and posture during the earliest of days following the epic Creation by Ilúvatar.
In further conversation with Frodo, Gandalf explained Sméagol’s desperate outcome. Due to his meanness and great conflict, his family dubbed him “Gollum” and drove him away. He wandered for some time, eventually burrowing in a cave below the Misty Mountains. Gollum assumed there must be “great secrets buried there.” He would delve deep to discover those secrets. But Gandalf reported only an ironic, tragic discovery: ‘All the “great secrets” under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering…he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.’12 Deep underground, Gollum’s stunning discovery was this: more wonder-less living.
Transforming our posture to encounter wonder
Deep in their hearts, both Gollum and Melkor reeked of pride. Across all of Tolkien’s Legendarium, self-absorbed arrogance served as the cardinal vice.13 In both Middle-earth and now in Present-earth, arrogance and ingratitude over our everyday situations serve as major barricades to encountering wonder. Our windows become blurred. We struggle to see with appreciative clarity.
I must confess. I too readily grumble to myself while washing the dishes or mowing the lawn when there are other things I’d rather be doing. I forget to look around and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of what I’m doing. The sight and sound of water running. The smell of freshly cut grass. If I take the time to pay attention, these mundane experiences have the power to elicit wonder.
Tolkien’s wonder beckons me to “clean my windows” and see anew. And there are times I am weary of my umpteenth drive to the indoor basketball court that’s 15-minutes away so that my son can play basketball with his friends. I can find myself staring out the windshield in self-consumed silence. Or worse, I turn up the radio. In Tolkien’s diagnosis, I have grown overly familiar. I have allowed such potentially marvelous moments and my son’s precious face to become trite, even mundane to my vision. I have appropriated the teenage son in the seat next to me as “mine, my precious,” safely locked away in my hoard. I fail to truly look, to ask him questions about his day, to chuckle over his stories, and to deeply listen. I too numbly forget that someday too soon, providence will lead him into even greener fields. I assume I possess him and the drive time too. How foolish of me. I need to join Tolkien for fresh puffs of wonder.
Fortunately, pride need not have the final word. The opposing virtues—displayed by hobbits, dwarves, humans, elves, and wizards—shine even brighter. Humility blends with gratitude as characters and readers encounter wondrous daily graces. G.K. Chesterton’s winsome thought made a great impression on Tolkien. Chesterton declared: “Thanks are the highest form of thought. Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”14
Tolkien’s tales announce this avalanche of wonder. Watch for it! Wonder in the ordinary involves everything from the simplest of meals—including the hobbits’ famous “second breakfasts”—to the most creative artisans laboring in their daily craft. Describing the work of the Noldor, Tolkien said they “advanced ever in skill and knowledge; and the long years were filled with their joyful labours, in which many new things fair and wonderful were devised.”15 Elrond’s Last Homely House at Rivendell was “perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking . . .”16 On his deathbed, Thorin reflected: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”17
Tolkien wonder is best beheld in songs, stories, trees, and stars. It’s little wonder these stories grow our hearts. Such brushes with everyday grace lift us from gloom and promise us hope. We can even encounter surprising good during ugly seasons of dismal catastrophe. (Yes, we know that might sound impossible, “pie in the sky.”
Will we be startled anew?
Life’s everyday faces and places, even including our rough and tumble, perilous adventures don’t just happen to us. They actually add the potential for transformation in virtue development. We dare not forget. Tolkien intentionally painted his stories’ characters with this opportunity to choose wonder. His aim? Our hearts growing toward character transformation. Wonder encounters necessitate making daily choices to see anew amidst what seems mundane.
In the opening of The Hobbit, Gandalf told the company of skeptical dwarves: “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”18 Across the story’s treacherous terrain, character development permeated the perilous adventure—especially for Bilbo.
Near the end, we hear Gandalf say with his own great wonder: “My dear Bilbo! . . . You are not the same hobbit that you were.” Gandalf recognized it. Bilbo’s heart had grown.
On The Hobbit’s final page, Tolkien landed a parting punch to prove his point. Gandalf exclaimed: “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.”19 Thus, Tolkien reinforced his masterful merger of ordinary, everyday wonders like pipes, meals, and mirth and the resulting posture of thankfulness.
Such a growing heart in response to wonder masterfully matched Tolkien’s own Christian perspective. In the ancient Holy Scriptures, we read: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.”20 May we open our eyes anew to daily wonder, reflect humble gratitude, and begin to experience our own growing hearts.
Now where did I place my pipe?
- Alan Alexander Milne, Winnie the Pooh.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 100-101.
- The Hobbit, 11-13.
- Michael N. Stanton. Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards (Palgrave, 2001), 22.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, 41.
- Ibid., 48-49.
- The Silmarillion, 3.
- Tolkien On Fairy-stories, 67.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, 78.
- Ibid., 79.
- Quenta Silmarillion, 24.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, 80.
- John Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit, 2:565.
- Chesterton. A Short History of England, CW 20:463.
- The Silmarillion, 64.
- The Hobbit, 61.
- Ibid., 301.
- Ibid., 28.
- The Hobbit, 313-317
- Psalm 9:1. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2016.