On occasion, it's occurred to me to wonder why The Lord of Rings is so damn successful. Not too many of us wake up in the morning with the desire to plow through six hundred pages of dense, divagating narrative. And raise your hand if you are desperate to read about a bunch of hairy, undersized males stumbling through the wilderness in search of a glittering prize. It's like a a cross between Deliverance and The Price is Right.
Yet, the books (and their cinematic spawn) are blockbusters, sucking in hordes of readers. This can be explained in part by the oversupply of thirteen-year-old boys in the world, but I think there's more to it than that. Using fantasy, Tolkien manages to tap and magnify some of our most basic, atavistic desires. And I'm not talking sex, though that's an incidental theme. Rather, Tolkien lights on wants and fears many of us have forgotten we have, simple, heedless impulses so elementary that we no longer bother, in day-to-day life, to catalog them.
Thus, from Moria, the hobbits break into clean, sweet air. In Tom Bombadil's house, they revel in the pleasure of a good night's sleep. And Bilbo, on the verge of his last middle-earthly journey, mumbles verse:
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.
For me, the critical lines are the first two: "The road goes ever on and on/ Down from door where it began." The initial line captures the largeness of life, its possibilities and forks and otherness; the subsequent line tethers that largeness to the small, local act of opening the front door.
This conjunction -of everywhere and here, near and far- lurks somewhere at the base of my skull. It rarely impinges on my consciousness, yet nevertheless tugs me -out of my chair, out of the house, down the street. On Monday, it rained. A cats-and-dogs, barking, yowling rain. I let the screen door bang, hopped in the car, and drove a half block south to where the Old National Road threads itself like a needle through the eye of the city.
US 40 is a mountains-to-sea road. It starts in Utah and runs out in New Jersey. Most of it is not Interstate, but local road, with towns and turnoffs and slowdowns and lights. I kept driving. I drove until the city gave way to big box stores and strip malls and the strip malls gave way to new green corn and fields of yellow Rapeseed. Towns sprang up and collapsed like mushrooms. I passed courthouses, yard sales, signs for chicken friend steak.
An airplane ride, an Interstate: these are ways of beaming yourself across distances, propelling yourself across vast, wide blanks until you reconstitute in new place. A road is different. It is where you are rather than how you get there. It is all the small steps between there and back again.