Journey as Quest

I offer some of Michael Northcott, reflections on “Journey as a Quest” reproduced below, and summarises some of my feelings about what I hope our journey is about. But it may also speak, help discussion for those who will shortly watch the film The Way, which the will be the focus of the Biddenden and Smarden Lent study group this year.

The Journey as Quest

Literary accounts of heroic journeys that encapsulate the archetypal desire to travel are, like traditional pilgrimage, set apart from rapid mechanical journeys of the modern tourist in their description of the formative role of chance and circumstance that the hero encounters on the way.

At the outset of the journey the hero often has little idea of the end in view, and even less confidence in his capacity to reach it. The eventualities of ups and downs of the journey are therefore crucial to the acquisition of the virtues and skills that the hero needs in order to attain the goal. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings powerfully evokes the way in which at the beginning of many classic narratives of heroic journeys the hero is often hardly a hero at all; hobbits are at first sight too quirky, short, and physically weak to perform the valiant task set before them by Gandalf.

Along the way Frodo the hobbit chosen for the quest, is plagued by self-doubt about his ability to succeed. By being open to the gifts and interventions of friends, strangers, elves, ents, and even enemies, the hobbit who becomes a hero is eventually able to complete the quest to cast the ring into the fires of Mont Doom, and so save Middle Earth from the militaristic and technological darkness of Mordor. But there is also a contrast between Tolkien’s tale and other shamanic myths in which the hero gradually acquires mastery and new powers through the journey which enable him to fulfil his quest. At no point does Frodo become a master of the ring, or even master of the journey. On the contrary, he relies on Gollum to guide him for much of the way, and by the end Frodo has so fallen for the dangerous attraction of the ring that he only succeeds in destroying the ring through the intervention of Gollum, who in one last desperate attempt to wrest the ring from Frodo falls into the fires with the ring in his clutches, and so destroys it, and with it the rising and destructive power of Mordor.

With this crucial twist in the tale Tolkien has evoked the essential feature of the Christian conception of the life as a journey or pilgrimage, which is that of learned dependence. Far from achieving mastery and autonomy, the Christian pilgrim goes the way of the cross and therefore seeks to remain humble and open to the gifts and trials which each turn in the road, each step may bring. Mastery and control are not the ends in view, but instead encounter and submission to the Master, and a related preparedness to endure the rigours and rewards of life on the road. . . .

extract from A Moral climate, Michael Northcott. 2007. p224