Walking With Tolkien


After finding a paperback copy of Tolkien: A Celebration at Goodwill (one of my favorite places to shop for books), I sat one day by a stream in a nearby wood, reading George Sayer’s account of his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. He writes of being invited to go walking with C.S. Lewis and his brother Warren, and with Tolkien. Both of the Lewis brothers were dressed for a serious walk: stout walking sticks and rucksacks and boots for hiking. C.S. Lewis asked George if he could walk with Tolkien, “He’s a great man, but not our sort of walker. He doesn’t seem able to talk and walk at the same time. He dawdles and then stops completely when he has something interesting to say, Warnie finds this particularly irritating.”

Both C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie were serious walkers. They walked hard and fast and could for hours. Tolkien described them as “ruthless walkers.” Unlike both Lewis brothers, Tolkien loved a slow, leisurely pace. He enjoyed talking and stopping to notice whatever in nature caught his interest: trees, flowers, birds, insects, and plants. At one point, he even tells George all about the common wood avens, “This is Herb Bennet, in Latin Herba Benedicta. What do you think that means? The Blessed Plant. Yes, though the English form wants it to be St. Benedict’s Herb. It is blessed because it is a protection from the devil. If it is put into a house the devil can do nothing, and if man carries it about with him, no venomous beast will come within scent of it.” Or, of celandine, “Did you know that when picking celandine various combinations of Aves and Paternosters have to be said? This was one of the many cases of Christian prayers supplanting pagan ones, for in ancient times there were runes to be spoken before it was picked.”

More than any other part of nature, Tolkien had a deep love for trees. Is it any wonder then that he created Ents? After Samwise Gamgee, who I believe to be the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, my favorite characters in this fantasy series were the Ents; in particular, Treebeard. There was something about ancient tree-like shepherds and protectors of the forest that I deeply loved. Perhaps it is because I have always loved spending time among trees. The woods behind our house was my second favorite place to spend time after the library.  The word Ent comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means “giant.” Tolkien describes Treebeard in The Two Towers as being:

A large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating.


I can imagine that Tolkien came up with Treebeard after spending time among the rowan trees, beech trees, and oaks that this character would so closely resemble. It’s part of why I love Tolkien’s writing so much: his eye for and his love of the natural world. One can feel his ache for a world in which forests are not cut down and diminished by modern industrial-age progress.

As I read about the difference between the way that C.S. Lewis walked to J.R.R. Tolkien, I could not help but see that as indicative of their personalities. Lewis more blustery and full-speed ahead in his views and opinions, while Tolkien was known as being a quiet man whose lectures were often hard to listen to because he spoke so softly. Lewis’ writing is far more succinct and Tolkien’s is more filled with description and diversions (who else spends so much time going into great detail the eating habits of Hobbits?). Tolkien writes like he walks. He is not in a hurry to get to his destination because he understands that it is about the journey. Is it any surprise that a man who liked to amble and explore, as opposed to simply get hurriedly from point A to point B, would write, “Not all those who wander are lost”?

I certainly identify more closely with the very private Tolkien. My older son is a Lewis-style walker: brisk and for exercise. My younger son and I are Tolkien-style walkers: we constantly stop to get a closer look at whatever in nature catches our attention. We love to look more closely at fungi or leaves or to watch small minnows in a creek or to stop and watch birds. We delight in inspecting and noticing and in talking about what we have discovered. Often we stop to take out a field guide of some sort to look up a bird or plant or tree or mushroom that we don’t recognize. Sometimes we may even sing our own walking song, as Hobbits are prone to do. As Tolkien writes, “They began to hum softly, as hobbits have a way of doing as they walk along, especially when they are drawing near to home at night. With most Hobbits it is a supper-song or a bed-song; but these hobbits hummed a walking-song (though not, of course, without any mention of supper and bed).”


Frodo, Sam, and Pippin sing:

Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.

Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe,
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.

Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!

Is it any wonder that Tolkien is one of my favorite authors to carry along with me when I go on walks? I love to keep company with The Hobbit or any one of The Lord of the Rings. Certainly, I would have adored going on walks with Tolkien the man. I would have loved nothing more than to stop and listen to him explain why the main pass over the hills is called Wyche by explaining the various meanings of the word Wye or how Malvern is a corruption of two Welsh words “moel meaning bear, and vern derived from bryn or fryn meaning hill.” I would be fascinated in what he had to say and would have no problem with his genial and relaxed way of walking. I wish the world were filled with more Tolkienesque walkers: those who find the journey to be the point, who are not hurried in their desire to get to the destination but delight in discovering what the path and off the beaten path has to offer.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this post. I also enjoy walking. It is my favorite outdoor activity.


  2. yoileen says:

    Lovely post! I’d be like Tolkien but where I live there are very few forests and woods (and some of them have been burnt this summer) although there are few big parks. And I also enjoy paying attention to the trees, birds…thank you for the post!


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