Transition as Travel: Learning from Bilbo Baggins

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off.

(Bilbo Baggins, in JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings, b. 1 ch. 3.)

I want to talk a moment about the travel metaphor of trans experiences. Defining trans experiences is often done through metaphors. A frequent one is the butterfly metaphor: trans people, through transitionning, reveal the essential butterfly they always were, or were to be; trans people are beautiful being, created through a personal metamorphosis; they are reborn as they come out of their cocoon and experience the world. I would like to discuss another: the idea that transition is a form of travel through gender.

First, some theory. You may have been introduced to the idea of “metaphor”, like I was, in high school literature classes, where it was some kind of magical instrument of poetry, never accessible to mortals. In fact, metaphors are an important part of language. A lot of what we say depends on metaphors. Now, I will draw from Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) example: Discussion is war. The metaphor that discussion is comparable to war can be seen in phrases like “He attacked my position“, or “I defended myself against her arguments”, and so on. This metaphor frames our understanding of discussion as something oppositional, where there is an objective and rhetorical strategies. Basically, metaphors have an effect on thought, in some ways. So how we express these things is important.

Anyway, enough theory.

The “being trans is travel” metaphor makes trans experiences part of a process of movement, where you start somewhere, and go somewhere else. But people like me, from the Western urban middle class, tend to understand travel as something strongly goal-oriented. We travel from A to B, from home to work, from Boston to Paris, from Laurier station to Papineau. Of course, trans people can “travel” from female to male, or from male to female (notice how MtF and FtM, as words, use the idea of direction “to” something, as part of the travel metaphor), but we can make more of the metaphor than just this. After all, the road of transition changes; there isn’t necessarily a clear goal in any transition, and some times, objectives change as transition goes forward. So let’s look at another way to understand travel: Tolkien’s Road, as expressed through Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits, which I find beautiful and instructive for trans realities.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off.

I think this is a great way to frame our experiences. From the point when you first enter the Road of transition, you can never know what will happen. It’s a path of self-discovery and of new experiences. Some people walk slowly and carefully on the Road; some, like me, are more like runners, going as fast as possible. Some have a clear objective in view when they start, like SRS, but change their plans along the way; others just walk on, not thinking about where it will end, and they may end up at the same place anyway. Personally, I never even decided to transition: I just did new things that felt right, more and more, and my transition just… happened. But whatever your way of going forward, you are transformed by going on the Road at all, by the good and by the bad experiences you will have. As the movie says:

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

In a way, in this metaphor, cis people stay at home, eating cake with their afternoon tea. But trans people are called out by wizards, and they go beyond the door, where “there’s no knowing where you might be swept off”. Sure, your plan may be to reach the Lonely Mountain, but everything can happen along the way no matter where or how you start — even if you left without a pocket handkerchief. You may meet dragons, elves and giant spiders, ride barrels, find hoards of gold or outwit trolls. You may make new friends in your treasure hunt, and hey, you may even have to betray your friends for the greater good, and not even come back with any of the gold your contract promised. You may reach your initial objective, or have a new objective, or come back home in the end after a great trip. Who knows? But the travel itself is meaningful.

In the travel metaphor, the distinction between trans and cis is whether you cross the door in the first place, no matter where the Road leads you. To Erebor, perhaps? To Mordor? Or just back home? The Road decides. What matters is that we, trans people, are on the Road. Because the Road has its autonomy, its own internal logic that affects where you go, and it decides where you end up.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet, [Note from Lucrezia: Another version has “weary feet”]
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

There might be a destination, and yet there may not. And even if there is, the intermediate steps may not be settled. You just follow the Road, on and on, until the next crossing of paths. Sure, a great objective (say, being full-time, or having SRS, or just being happy) exists, but it may be far off. In the meantime, you just have to go on, and follow the Road one step at a time, whether eager or weary, looking for the very next step — and whither then? You cannot say. Cross-dressing for the first time may be a step. Identifying as trans or as genderqueer or as something else may be a step. Changing legal name may be a step. Just thinking about gender may be a step as well. As you make more steps, you may notice that you are near your initial destination, or notice you have strayed; you may keep that objective, or give yourself a new one; and you may also just follow the Road, wherever it leads, not knowing what will happen.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

But eventually, your Road is over. If being trans is travel, there can be an end to that travel, a point where you stop, weary or just satisfied of the person the Road created. Perhaps you reached the destination you chose when you got on the Road, or perhaps not. Perhaps you’re back home, or perhaps not. And perhaps your home has changed while you were on the Road, like Bilbo Baggins coming home to an auction of his property. And you will have changed too. Who knows?

But one thing is certain. The Road is still there, for others to follow.

Works cited

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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