More Hobbit than Ranger

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Austin Gilkeson first read Tolkien in college, and it convinced him he was bound for great adventure:

I was a privileged college student with my whole life before me, and I imagined myself as Aragorn, ready to leave the comforts of the Last Homely House and strike out into strange-starred lands. But, as I soon discovered, I am more hobbit than Ranger.

After grad school, I taught English in Japan, which had the advantage of being both a far country and a comfortable one. There were ancient castle ruins in the forest and Frosted Flakes in the grocery store. The stars in the sky were the same as in America, but at night the squid boats from my town would go out to sea and light enormous bulbs to attract their catch. From the shore they looked like floating stars, or a fleet of Vingilots, Silmarils at their bows, sailing through the Door of Night.

In those moments, I did feel a bit like Aragorn on his journeys, but I had also realized I was no true wanderer. It wasn’t the shining squid boats or mist-covered mountains that I loved most — it was the comforting routines of teaching, playing with my students at recess, and chatting over drinks with friends at the local fishermen’s izakaya, a pub as lively and inviting as the hobbits’ beloved Green Dragon.


When I reread The Lord of the Rings last year, I wasn’t sitting on a folding chair in a haunted antebellum mansion as I had been the first time, but on the couch in my own house in the suburbs of Chicago. At night, after my son Liam had gone to sleep, and the cooking, dishes, laundry, and other chores were done, I’d park my tired body on the couch and read until I fell asleep — the book splayed across my chest, the living room lights still on. I thrilled at wandering again in Middle-earth, but this time I especially loved the quieter moments in seemingly peaceful countries — the cozy cheer of the Shire, the rustic bustle of Bree, the fragrant woods of Ithilien. The once-exciting battles were now the parts that often left me snoring on the couch. It seems I no longer fantasize about escaping a stifling job to go on dangerous quests in far-off lands; instead I fantasize about a comfy armchair by a roaring fire, book and beer at hand.

Now, when my wife Ayako wakes me on the couch after I’ve fallen asleep reading, my teeth ache from grinding and I grumble at myself for how much electricity I’ve wasted leaving the lights on. I go upstairs and try not to think about how few hours I have to sleep before I need to wake up, get my son ready for daycare, and head to work. If I once imagined myself a young Aragorn, now I identify with the elderly Bilbo when he describes feeling “sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”


  1. Graham says:

    The story of man’s life in a nutshell.

    Given the times Tolkien lived, Bilbo comes across to me sometimes as an old vet of the Zulu wars confronted by the apocalypse of the Great War, and watching his nephew go off to fight in it. [I'd have said the Boer War, but that was too recent in 1914]. For the US, say a Civil War vet watching his great-grandnephew march off in 1917.

    Apropos of the general topic, I just finished In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse. A big historical novel written in Dutch in the 1940s and published in English in the 1980. About selected French participants in the events of the late Hundred Years’ War and the French civil wars of the time. It’s a very interior, mental sort of story and gets more so in the second half. Sometimes quite detached from the flow of world events. Bittersweet all through. Touches on many of these themes. Though I found it useful to have Wikipedia articles on some of the characters and events handy. They aren’t necessary, but they made the book more meaningful for me.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Every time I’m given one of these glimpses into the mind of a sheltered and privileged person, I’m reminded that people can from the same planet and still live in different worlds.

    Or read the same book but encounter different narratives.

    I can muster some sympathy for Gollum, but I would dearly love to kick Tom Bombadil in the teeth.

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