Recently, the LGBT community added the letter q, for questioning, to their famous acronym. I had a friend clarify the meaning of this new letter. He explained, “questioning is trying out different kinds of sexuality to find the one that’s right for you. It’s like that Tolkien quote, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ With sexuality you gotta wander some to find the right fit.”
The line originally comes from the beautiful prophetic poem about Strider, an unglamorous exile king. Unfortunately, it has become a slogan for trying on non-traditional moralities or new-age religions. Clearly, this cannot be the authentic view of Tolkien, a devout Catholic. To liken moral-relativism to the noble wanderings of Strider is to miss Tolkien’s profound observation about what it means to be a wanderer.
Wandering is a pervasive motif in Tolkien’s writing. The Silmarilion is a long tale of exile and wandering. Likewise, almost all major characters in The Lord of the Rings experience some sort of profound sadness or longing as a result of exile.
Tolkien was also cautious about the perils of experiential evil. He illustrated through Saruman and Gollum how often wanderers isolate themselves and lose their way, aimlessly wandering far from sources of light. Their wandering differs from the purposeful wandering of Strider, who humbly discovers his true vocation by following signs of light and acting virtuously. When Eomer asks him, ‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ Aragorn responds, ‘As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them.’
Aragorn’s position as a homeless wanderer seeking his vocation/kingdom is a parallel to our human situation as exiles from Eden. Strider the wanderer, acting as a spy, remains resolute in his purpose to fights the evil of Sauron before he meets the hobbits. He later grows into his vocation as king of Gondor, not by inventing his own morality or straying from the traditional path, but by humbly submitting himself to the Fellowship, serving hobbits.
Strider’s purposeful wandering recalls Walker Percy’s apt description of man, “it’s a view of man, that man is… somewhere between the angels and the beasts. He’s a strange creature whom both Thomas Aquinas and Marcel called homo viator, man the wayfarer, man the wanderer. So, to me, the Catholic view of man as pilgrim, in transit, in journey, is very compatible with the vocation of novelist because a novelist is writing about man in transit, man as pilgrim.”
In Percy’s novels as well as Tolkien’s, characters grow as wanderers by following signposts. The Fellowship recognizes the light of Galadriel and takes the lembas bread as a kind of spiritual food. These “signs” are symbols: physical entities pointing beyond themselves. Psychological well-being and self-actualization are not the ends – the self’s journey only points back to self, a tautology that goes nowhere. The self cannot save itself or be its own “raison d’etre.” The symbol cannot point to something in this world or it is nothing more than a dyadic sign. And, for Percy and Tolkien, the most powerful symbols, the true signposts for wanderers seeking the Beatific Vision, are the Sacraments.