Why 'Not all who wander are lost' Doesn't Mean What You Think it Means.

If there's anything that one could say about J.R.R. Tolkien it might be that he represents one of the 20th century's most notable iconoclasts. A British WWI Veteran who found his way into the philological world in linguistics, Tolkien's legacy on the world as it currently is cannot be estimated. He paved the way not only for the creation of modern high fantasy and the deep worlds that they create but also for the potential for modern myth-making. Only time will tell how his works may be read in future generations and cultures and what significance they may carry in the long history of the world. 

But in our culture--a culture rampant with commercialization, materialism, innovations in technology, and what some theologians and critics have called (for better or worse) demythologization--our appreciation for Tolkien may in part be driven by our desire to find him as a mirror for our own present condition. No one quote, taken from the corpus of Middle-Earth literature and extrapolated onto t-shirts, stickers, prints, crochets, even...ahem...mugs (we did an early Tolkien mug that has, unfortunately, been retired because the name 'Tolkien' itself appears to be copyrighted....) is more quintessential than this one:

'Not all who wander are lost.'

Some of us, myself included, are textbook definitions of "wanderers." I've been one all my life. It's not that I don't like boxes. I am intrigued by them and can walk into one for a moment and even appreciate what the box does. It's just that in the next moment, when someone tells me I must maintain the box from the inside, I am flinging my arms to get out of it like a swimmer trying to get to the surface before he runs out of air! I get bored quickly. Staying put for too long feels like drowning. The journey feels like freedom. 

Tolkien was just such a man. We might say in Enneagram language, he was a 4 with a 5 win--a Bohemian! It probably goes without saying that if one cannot write a book without believing in what he or she is saying, one cannot write an epic or create a world without finding themselves saturated by their own imaginative construction. In Lord of the Rings and the whole of Middle-Earth, we see Tolkien's heart, enthralled with the journey ahead of him and curious to know where wandering might take him. And so we stumble upon that one sentence in his writing that has become something of an iconic axiom for those who consider themselves restless souls.

I've known for years that the quote belonged to a larger stanza and, at the same time, part of a larger corpus. But as often as we do with Scripture or other infamous writings, small sentences or sections can be extrapolated to say something quite different from what the author was intending. 

So, here is the full quote:

All that is gold does not glitter;

Not all who wander are lost.

The old that is strong does not wither.

Deep roots are not reached by the frost. 


Tolkien is not baptizing the wandering soul in the mere sake of his wandering. Nor does he ever celebrate this type of wandering in his trove of epic fantasy literature. Indeed, he often warns against the danger of wandering far from guidance. Tolkien's literature is rampant with tragedies of individuals who, in seeking something that did not accord with the gods and the goodness of the pre-historic world, fell into snares that only served to deconstruct the very essence of themselves. No more clear example of this is Saruman, but other stories contained in the "un-finished" corpus routinely speak to the fall of men and elves who do not have eyes set beyond their immediate gain.    

Wandering can be aimless. And it can be exciting. But it can also lead one--perhaps more often than not--to places that one never intended to go. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo himself is clearly a wanderer, as is Aragorn and, arguably, Gandalf himself. And yet, the clear message throughout all of their wandering journeys is that they must wander with convictions, with purpose, with a direction towards an end. 

Those last sentences are critical to understanding this stanza: the old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. 

When one wanders, one should still be keen enough to know when to continue wandering in a particular direction or when one's fate is in jeopardy. That may come through the assistance of maps and guides. It may come through the assistance and reliance on God and dear friends. It may come through seeking wisdom for the true love and desire of it as opposed to the pure acquisition of knowledge (the downfall of Saruman, and countless others in our own world and history). 

Not all who wander are lost. This is true. But don't assume this means that if you are wandering you are not lost. Many are. The question is not if you will wander, for some of us naturally are predisposed to this including the man who penned the words. The question is how will you wander. 

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