Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost – What Does It Mean?
When Lord of the Rings enthusiasts are not burning wedding bands in fiery pits in their backyard—checking for Black Speech inscriptions—they are frequently found uttering the clever sayings of their favorite fantasy author. Who can blame them? Tolkien, a philologist by trade, is known for many wondrous, existential musings. Yet one proverb is clearly quoted more than the others. Go ahead and search for J.R.R. Tolkien quotes, you will be barraged with pretty pictures coined with the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost”, especially on Hobbit Day (September 22), the fictional birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Now, I will not claim to be an expert on Tolkien, but I do enjoy a bit of speculation and would invite you to explore the line with me.
The words, Not all those who wander are lost, are taken from the poem, “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter”:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Once called “The Riddle of Strider” in older editions, we find the well-known passage appears twice in The Fellowship of the Ring, indicating its importance, and foreshadowing what has yet come to pass. See what I did there! Many forget Bilbo Baggins wrote the poem about Aragorn II Elessar. He admits as much to Frodo at the Council of Elrond when attempting to convince Frodo to trust Aragorn.
“I made that up myself,” he whispered to Frodo, “for the Dúnadan, a long time ago when he first told me about himself.”
Although many fans speculate that Bilbo initially met Aragorn in Rivendell in 2941, during the Quest for Erebor, we believe it unlikely Bilbo wrote these words until much later. Aragorn did live with the elves at Rivendell as a child, but he was ten-years-old when Bilbo passed through, and did not learn about his lineage until the age of twenty.
The Lord of the Rings Reference
For the sake of brevity, I am not going to break down each line of this masterpiece. Each line holds its own symbolic meaning and interpretation, whether we concentrate on the story of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings or wish to apply the secreted messages to our own lives. Nevertheless, I think it is important to have an overview of what Bilbo is talking about when he shares these words with Frodo.
In 2951, Elrond Peredhil finally tells Aragorn about his birthright to be a noble king in Middle-earth. This is the year “Aragorn goes out into the Wild.” I believe the reasons for becoming a Ranger are poorly alleged to in the movies. The Peter Jackson summarization suggests Aragorn is running from his destiny to be the King of Gondor. However, we should remember that Aragorn’s father, Arathorn II, and several other Chieftains of the Dúnedain were slain by trolls and orcs. In retrospect, for years, the Dúnedain kept to the shadows as wandering Rangers until the War of the Ring. Aragorn was simply following in the footsteps of his bloodline. Not to mention, Aragorn was mentored by Gandalf and Elrond, who I believe would have encouraged him to explore the world.
If anything, his immersion in the world would force him to learn about the geo-political system of Middle-earth, and the realms of men, ultimately preparing him for kingship. Though, no matter his intentions for becoming a Ranger, Aragorn is met with experiences during his travels through Rohan, Gondor, and beyond, which force him to mature into the man—nay, the king—he becomes.
Back to the Verse
The line Not all those who wander are lost is a reflection on Aragorn’s adventures in the Wild under the pseudonym Strider, until Gandalf first enthuses him to follow his calling in 2956. The basic analysis of the verse is Aragorn, while behaving against the customs of the larger society, is unwittingly being molded for greatness. From the perspective of the world, he is wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, while truthfully, he is strengthening his character.
Aragorn is a wanderer in every sense of the word. As a Ranger, Aragorn he has no place to call home, known to roam the North. Plus, he strays away from what other men expect from him (e.g. settling down, having a family, etc.). As a result, the people, evidenced by the townsfolk at Bree, judge him; fear him; distrust him; scorn him. He does not look like them. He does not think like them. He is an oddity to other men. And until he reaches his peak of greatness in the War of the Ring, the majority believe him to be dangerous.
In the Lord of the Rings, he serves as an example of the person meandering down a path less traveled in attempt to know themselves better, and to understand their place in the world. He has an inner calling that he cannot describe. Of course, Aragorn does not know how his future might unfold. Yet he trusts in his heart. His willingness to lose himself allows him to truly exist. Undeniably, he would have never become great by listening to the rhetoric of other men made from the world. His strength came with his exploration of self, seasoned by his many trials and tribulations.
The Lesson to Be Learned
Our concept of weird underlines what is deviant from current societal norms; even though, the perception of abnormal behaviors will continue to change over time (e.g. living together before marriage, smoking in public, gender roles, etc.). When we meet someone, who seems to be aimlessly drifting, we should consider they are on a personal quest to find their real self.
I imagine those, who are willing to face the adventure, live a much more fulfilling life, and discover a deeper meaning. To wander off the hardened road is evidence of having the faith to follow one’s heart. I raise my cup to anyone willing to carve their own path. These courageous individuals, in my humble opinion, are doing exactly what they should be doing. Certainly, we are not all Aragorn, destined to be King or Queen. But we are all the heroes to our own story.