“There and Back Again” . . .

In fantasy literature, the story often involves a journey from place familiar to place unknown. Leaving your small cottage, you enter the dark forest. Beyond is terra incognito, where dangerous beasts lurk, strange people are encountered, perilous decisions must be made.

These are the roads to the underground maze of Neverwhere, or the serene treetops of Lothlórien, or the tea parties and croquet matches of Wonderland.

There and Back Again, the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, at first seems the epitome of understatement. It suggests the homebody nature of the hobbit, Bilbo’s penchant for the ordinary. The great adventure of going “there,” it suggests, means mostly just being away from home for a while.

But on his return, as is often true in epic tales, the hero finds that home itself has changed. Bilbo’s own neighbors don’t recognize him; they are absorbed in the process of selling off his furniture, eager to take over the cozy hobbit-hole they think he has abandoned. Bilbo himself has changed; he is not quite the same hobbit he used to be.

In that marvelous subtitle, Tolkien has summed up the essence of fantasy. There and back again is the very heart of adventure. To travel through Middle-earth or into any fantasy world is not just a series of stops on a Caribbean cruise. It is a journey into a mythic place.

There’s no “there” there, said Gertrude Stein, infamously, about Oakland, California. In Stein’s circle of hip literati and artists, “thereness” was a prized quality. It described an elevated aspect of place – just as destiny is a special quality of plot, or inner nature is a special aspect of character.

Indeed, this sense of “there-ness” might have been the true meaning of British climber George Mallory’s famous answer to the question of why he attempted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he replied. Perhaps what he really meant was that the high Himalayas had the quintessential “there-ness” of sacred space. Gertrude Stein would have known what he meant.

Perhaps Tolkien did too. As did Joseph Campbell, who wrote: “Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.”

[This is excerpted from A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, copyright 2009. I’ve also added another excerpt about sense of place, from the “Fantastic Places” chapter, to the Excerpt page of this blog.]