Quote 3

“[Bilbo] used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.”

The Lord of the Rings is a quest narrative, as the characters spend much of their time on the road, traveling toward the various destinations to which the quest takes them. Indeed, this tradition of the road narrative is a staple of Western literature. Texts ranging from the Danish epic Beowulf to Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Kerouac’s On the Road feature protagonists who take to the road in search of something. Here, as Frodo quotes Bilbo just as the hobbits set out in Book I, Chapter 3, Tolkien creates an image of the road as a river, carrying its travelers along in its current. This current works at the narrative level to advance the plot, keeping the Fellowship moving into fresh encounters and oftentimes into the unknown. Furthermore, the road serves as one of the most potent and charged metaphors in all of The Lord of the Rings. In part, the road represents the passing of time and the ages that time sweeps into the past, just as the road sweeps travelers off into the distant horizon. The road also represents the interconnectedness of all things, the fact that even the smallest footpath in the Shire leads, through many merges and branches, to the most distant and sinister places in Middle-earth. Though the Shire itself may be a place of comfort and familiarity, the road serves as a subtle yet constant reminder that the unknown outside world is present, and merely a journey away.