If you’ve been around the internet awhile you have probably stumbled upon the adage, “Not all who wander are lost” by J.R.R Tolkien.
This quote is popular, especially with travelers and backpackers who are so often characterized as “lost” by society. I know I have had to field many comments about being “lost” or “finding what I’m looking for” or “running away” in the past decade or so since I started traveling. But for me, like so many, travel is not about feeling lost.
In this post, we’ll look at the meaning of “not all those who wander are lost”, where the quote comes from, how I would change the quote if I could, plus a bonus section of some of the best travel quotes.
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“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” quote meaning
The idea behind the famous quote that seems to resonate with countless nomads and backpackers around the world is that just because they live nomadically without a conventional job/house/family/whatever that doesn’t mean they are confused about their purpose in life. On the contrary: for many of those people “wandering”, they feel they have found exactly what their purpose is.
The quote actually comes from a poem from The Lord of the Rings called All that is gold does not glitter. (This line is an inversion of the quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “All that glitters is not gold”.)
Here’s the original Lord of the Rings poem:
- 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
Apparently “those who wander” from the second line refers to a character from the novel, Aragorn’s, wanderings around Middle Earth to understand the political situation so he can be a better king later on. I don’t know anything about The Lord of the Rings – if you want some more deep reflections on the poem, check out this Quora forum posting.
How I would change the quote
I think there’s more to the whole “lost” story; I don’t think being lost or not lost is necessarily related to wandering or not wandering. Some wanderers are not lost, yes, but some are.
For the stationary folk? The ones with conventional jobs, houses, families? Well some of them are lost too. And some aren’t.
Here’s a diagram of what I mean:
And why should being ‘lost’ be a bad thing anyway? It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent, irresponsible, unintelligent…It’s just a normal part of the human condition.
In conclusion, I would like to propose an addendum to the quote, as follows:
“Not all who wander are lost, but some are. And some who do not wander are lost too. And that’s all okay.”
More great travel quotes
Travel quotes have a way of expressing sentiments about the travel lifestyle in a way we may not have thought to. Here are some other quotes about travel that I love to ponder and their backstories:
“I still believe in paradise, but now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go; it’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something.”
The Beach is a dystopian story of a British backpacker looking for his own personal slice of paradise in Thailand. He finds an isolated beach inhabited by a small community of travelers who will do anything to keep their way of life a secret.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a college grad who burns all of his money and abandons his family and possessions in favor of a life of solitude living off the land. Chris wrote this in a letter to an older man he had met and befriended urging him to leave behind his life of complacency for a life more like Chris’s.
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming of my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”
This quote comes from the opening of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. A novel inspired by true events, Roberts depicts his experience as an Australian fugitive who steals away to Bombay to seek refuge. He lives the slums and sets up a clinic to treat a cholera epidemic; becomes involved in the black market; is tortured in prison in India; and survives a dangerous journey to Afghanistan with the mafia. I love this particular quote because it touches on what Viktor Frankl calls “the last of human freedoms”: to choose how you react to both positive and negative things in your life.
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
This is an excerpt from one of my favorite poems: The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I recommend reading the poem in its entirety, and you can check out the book she’s written around the bigger meaning of the poem as well.