I have lots and lots of books with maps inside the front cover. Maps of Middle-Earth, Pern, Britain in the time of King Arthur; maps of the kingdoms of the Alorns and Angaraks, of Narnia, of Discworld, of Earthsea and Westeros and Fionavar and the Peninsula of the Palm.
The late Diana Wynne Jones didn’t think much of these maps. In her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, the ultimate guide for anyone planning a sojourn in Middle-Earth or the kingdoms of the Alorns, she said of such maps:
you will look in vain for inns, rest-stops or villages, or even roads. No-wait another minute – on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labelled ‘Old Trade Road – Disused’ and ‘Imperial Way – Mostly Long Gone’. Some of these routes appear to lead (or have led) to small edifices enticingly titled ‘Ruin’, ‘Tower of Sorcery’ or ‘Dark Citadel’, but there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places. In short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get. And, be warned. If you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.
And she’s right – these maps are utterly useless. But I keep taking the Tour, embedding myself in the world of these maps, because I love what I discover there. For the same reason I spend inordinate amounts of time travelling with the Doctor through Time and Space, or with the crew of the Firefly-class ship Serenity – I believe that journeying with them makes me a better person. (But I have to admit that despite being told by numerous people I should, I spend very little time on the Starship Enterprise.)
Jews and Christians know that life is a journey. Travelling is the story of our faith. The journey starts with God telling Abram to leave everything he knows behind him and take his household to the land that God will show him. Then Abraham’s grandson Jacob ends up in Egypt, and God later rescues Jacob’s descendants from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”. The people of Israel will be driven into Exile, and then generations later will have to return to rebuild the land. Jesus calls disciples to follow him, leaving everything they know behind them, and sends them out, two by two, without staff or bag or bread or money to share his good news. They follow him to Jerusalem and are then sent to the ends of the earth, knowing all the time that they are on pilgrimage, that this sojourn on earth is temporary, and that they are always on the way to the promised end. Whatever else we are, we are pilgrims and travelers.
There are some things that all pilgrims and travelers need to know, or we won’t get very far. We know that we need to travel light. It’s no good accumulating possessions if we’re constantly on the move. Even Bilbo Baggins found that he could get there and back again without a pocket handkerchief, astonishing as that might seem.
We know that we need to care for others we meet along the way. For one thing, we’re all on this journey together, and we never know when we will need others’ help in return. As Neil Gaiman says in his ‘Instructions’, “favours will be returned, debts will be repaid”.
We know that our travelling companions are of all sorts and that all are equally important. As the Eleventh Doctor says: “D’you know, in 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before”. No one we meet on our journey is unimportant. And even those we have the most antipathy towards, even those who are as unlike us as dwarves are unlike elves, can turn out to be good travelling companions.
This doesn’t mean that the journey is easy or that it will always be fun. We may find ourselves trapped in a tent, like Hermione, Ron and Harry, moving from place to place without any idea where we’re ultimately going, with only the vaguest idea of what exactly it is that we’re doing. We may do our absolute best and seem to reach our goal, only to discover, like Shasta, that our reward is to be immediately asked to set off again and do something harder.
Shasta discovers that he was never alone on this journey. (Spoilers for The Horse and his Boy – if you haven’t read it, go and do that as soon as possible!) He was, at every stage of his journey, accompanied by a Lion who might have seemed terrifying at the time, but who comforted him, kept his safe, spurred him to greater effort, nudged him where he needed to go. Like Shasta, we journey blessed, accompanied and guided by the God who loves us. When the journey becomes terrifying and we’re accosted by hobgoblins and foul fiends we can keep on walking forward, because we know that we are never alone.