Against the Cult of Travel, Or What Everyone Gets Wrong about The Hobbit

That's the title of a fascinating essay at The Art of Manliness. The authors, Brett and Kate McKay, begin by descibing the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote about Hobbits who left their comfortable homes to go on extraordinary journeys. But aside from his time in the trenches during World War I, Tolkien himself rarely left Britain.

Tolkien was a man of constant routine. He said, "I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size." The McKays write:

Tolkien’s own life was one of quiet, ordinary, unvarying domestic routine. He lived in a series of modest, very conventional suburban homes, and spent his days as professor, husband, and father. A typical day for Tolkien consisted of bicycling (he didn’t own a car for most of his life) with his children to early morning Mass, lecturing at Oxford’s Pembroke College, coming home for lunch, tutoring students, having an afternoon tea with his family, and puttering around the garden. In the evenings he’d do some writing, grade exams from other universities to earn extra money, or attend the Inklings, a kind of literary club. He rarely traveled, almost never went abroad, and when he did vacation, he took his family to thoroughly conventional, thoroughly touristy resorts along the English coast.

But he did not have a limited life. Rather, Tolkien believed that the greatest exploratory jouneys lay within oneself and everyday life:

For Tolkien, those important truths included the idea that all of life — whether in suburbia or on an actual battlefield — constitutes an epic, heroic clash between good and evil, dark and light; that everyone’s choices, no matter how “little” of a person they are, matter; and that each individual’s small story is part of a larger, cosmic narrative. Everyone has a part to play and a pilgrimage to make — not necessarily a physical journey, but a moral and spiritual one.

Tolkien further believed that reading myths was one of the surest ways to begin such a journey. In myths one finds fantastical explanations of who we are, how we got here, and what we’re capable of. Such stories, Tolkien held, are filled with echoes of Truth with a capital T – “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality” that was truer than anything strictly factual. A good myth, in departing from reality, paradoxically helps us rediscover it — reminding us that beneath the blandness and busyness of our day-to-day lives, lies heroic and mythic potential.

The McKays then critique the popular notion that wide and especially international travel is necessary in order to have a complete life. It's wrong-headed:

The benefits associated with it, like the chance to expand one’s perspective, grow in maturity, and learn how to handle uncertainty, are certainly real, but do not automatically accrue simply by moving from point A to point B. If they did, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, who began her globe-trotting adventure flaky and narcissistic, would have ended her trip a better person, and yet — spoiler alert — she seems no less self-absorbed by the journey’s end. […]

If one feels that they cannot find themselves or fulfillment without making a certain trip, then they may know for certain that they are setting out with the wrong mindset — the one that says, “If I just had/did X, everything would change.” It’s the same mindset that makes you feel that if you just found the right diet, you’d lose weight; if you just got the right organizing app, you’d get more done; if you just got a better paying job, you’d be happy. In such cases, you’re not actually looking for a tool to kick-start your goal, but a distraction from having to work on it at all.

If you can’t find satisfying adventure in exploring your own backyard, you won’t discover long-lasting satisfaction backpacking through Europe. If you can’t create a rich inner life in suburbia, you won’t develop one in the ashrams of India. If you can’t find freshness in the familiar, and fulfillment in the quests of self-mastery, spirituality, and virtue, then a summer’s trek around the globe won’t ultimately save you from a life of empty dullness.

I like this essay because it gives solidity to something I've been contemplating for a while. Compared to many of my peers, I rarely travel. I've always viewed it as an expense rather than an investment and have never bought into the idea that geographic travel is an essential part of human fulfillment. There's already so much for me to explore within my own family, workshop, and self.

-via Althouse


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