Recently I have been reading Tolkien’s unpublished story Roverandom. Roverandom is a beautiful story about a dog who has been transformed into a toy, and goes on an adventure to become a real live dog again. Along the way, Rover meets wizards and mermaids, and in what I found to be the most compelling portion of the tale, he takes a trip to the moon, where dreams are made and experienced by the people of earth as they sleep. There, Rover meets the little boy who cared for him while he was a toy, and he realizes how much he misses his home.
While I read this section, I found myself thinking about space travel, stories about adventures, and the otherworldliness of myth and faerie, and I realized that what a lot of speculative stories have in common isn’t just that they take us out into the unknown, but that they make us look at our own home – earth – with fresh eyes. In Arthur C. Clarke’s “If I forget Thee, O earth…” Marvin is struck with a nostalgia for a past that he had never known, a longing for a place he had never been. The titular reference to Psalm 137 calls up a longing for more than just a place to call home, but a return to a home that has been lost and which cannot in this life be truly regained:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
It is difficult to tell here which is the true fantasy: the home for which we long, or the idea that we can return. In Roverandom, things works out for the best, as they do also in pixar’s Wall-E, which seems to offer the desired conclusion to Clarke’s setup, and countless other tales. It isn’t necessarily a fantasy to imagine that we might physically return home, but because of our new perspective, it is possible that the home we see is no longer the same for us after our exile. It may be there, but it may not be there the way we wanted. In the prologue to her book The Human Condition, Arendt claims that space travel has changed the condition of humanity from one that was at home in its earthliness, to one that has now displaced itself with a self-imposed exile conceived as liberation. Following the 1957 launch of Sputnik, she says:
This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” (p17)
The call to adventure is often represented thus – not as exile, but freedom, exhilarating and liberating.
Likewise, Rover at first finds himself enthralled with the moon and all of the adventures he has there, just as Bilbo in Tolkien’s The Hobbit is as first called to adventure by an itch of restlessness he cannot name, just as Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows is impelled by his frustration with the drudgery of his daily home life to seek the open road. Mole is driven suddenly to seek something different – something better – than the repetitive labor of daily, earthly life. The earth, in many ways, binds us with its materiality, and we carry with us the illusion that we can master such necessity in some way, either by finding a new place to live, or a new way to deal with our limitations. At least, that’s the supposition in fiction that casts us as colonizers of space and time, seeking places of refuge after we have used up the resources of earth (“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth…” and Wall-E), of heroic epics wherein the protagonist seeks to become immortal or commune with the Gods (The Illiad, for example). And for Arendt, it’s the impetus for metaphysical contemplation.
But I find myself drawn more to tales, or at least parts of stories, where the hero returns home. Mole feels the tug of longing for his comfortable hole when he and Rat pass by it on their travels. Bilbo and Samwise the Brave return happily to the Shire. Rover finds his way back. Wall-E and the human species return to earth. But as much as we think of the adventure into the beyond as fantastic, and the return home as the mundane return to reality, it often seems like these homey resolutions are the fantasy. It’s all too neat, too much wish-fulfillment. On the other hand, there’s no resolution for Marvin, Achilles earns his immortality at the expense of his life, and Frodo, after everything, can’t really go back to his normal life. I realize that I’m mixing spiritual, political, scientific, and fantastic models of adventure and home fairly wildly, but perhaps escape is more properly to be thought of as exile, and maybe this is more realistic, if less appealing.
This isn’t necessarily as defeating as it sounds; Simone Weil implores us that “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise” (Gravity and Grace, p53), and I think for Weil we are to do this without losing our longing for a true return home, leaning into the suffering of our mortal exile from the oneness of God. For Weil, though, this contradiction of longing for the impossible is spiritually redemptive, so long as it finds no worldly resolution in illusion:
It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward.
To draw back before the object we are pursuing. Only an indirect method is effective. We do nothing if we have not first drawn back (Gravity and Grace, p117).
In their inability to return, Marvin and Frodo might offer us a truer connection to our lost home than the illusory possibilities of Roverandom and Wall-E.
When I started writing this, I thought I’d be writing about the importance of hearth and home, taking up an Arendtian call for a return to the vita activa, but somewhere along the way I’ve, well, lost my way. But perhaps I ought to get more comfortable in my confusion. Then again, if the imaginary consolation of Mole’s home or Bilbo’s return to Bag End give us comfort even in their illusory temporality, is that not real in its own way? Marvin takes comfort in his purpose, in the teleology of his longing, even if it doesn’t mean “real” resolution for him. Perhaps that is the key for Weil; perhaps “home” remains a valuable concept in its desirability, and our desire is maintained only by the impossibility of its gratification.
My thoughts here feel jumbled and unfinished, and if I am honest, I will likely continue to cultivate a sense of home that matches my memories and my favorite stories, dreaming of the Shire, believing that I can succeed. I am perhaps not built for the detached spirituality of Simone Weil. It makes me happy to imagine Roverandom finding his way back, no matter how unrealistic a story it may be, but I also think that the happiness I get from such dreaming of the impossible is real. It helps me frame how I experience home, family, nature, and the divine, adding to my appreciation and enjoyment of them.