I have just finished re-reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit, inspired to return to a childhood book by the forthcoming film. This reminded me that Bilbo’s journey and subsequent memoir are a perfect depiction of what it means to return home after living abroad or, as in The Hobbit, after an extended trip away. Since this is Tolkien week, it seemed a good time to write about this.
While he’s on his admittedly rather uncomfortable journey, Bilbo longs for the coziness of his hearth and the rolling idyll of his homeland. Most expats – though not all migrants if we differentiate between the two – live more comfortably and with more self-determination than Bilbo but will regularly have moments of longing for home even when enjoying life elsewhere. The sparks for this are often small things, familiar and homely like Bilbo’s fire, a frequently invoked symbol of the heart of the home.
There is also a rose-tinting that comes with this distance such that home and its surrounds become smoothed and brightened in our mind’s eye. The positive side of this is the reminder it brings of all the good it can be easy to overlook when we live somewhere everyday. These longed-for things will not be exactly the same on returning but provide a perfect starting point for thinking about what it will be like to go back home. Some will not be nearly as rosy as you remember, others you might appreciate even more, like Bilbo and his singing kettle.
Perhaps the most important message in The Hobbit for returnees is, as Gandalf tells Bilbo at the end of the book, ‘You are not the hobbit that you were’. It is not just Bilbo’s memory that might lead him to find his home a different place on return, but Bilbo himself. His new knowledge of other places, people and experiences makes him different and, consequently, means that he relates differently to his home on returning to it. Throughout The Hobbit and its sequel The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s homeland is a place of constancy, an image of never-changing English rurality. In truth, this was already threatened as Tolkien wrote and nobody should expect to find their home exactly as they left it. Instead, expectations should be moderated by recognising that time changes all things. That doesn’t mean, though, that there are not welcome homely things awaiting you, just that they might surprise you.
Of course, very few of those moving abroad have experiences comparable to Bilbo’s. However, many will relate to his sentiments on returning home and the book is unusual in reminding us that any journey is not just about ‘there’ but also about coming back again.