The ultimate adventure story is about the journey home. Consider, for example, Odysseus at sea, Aeneas in search of a haven for the Trojans, the Israelites in the desert. Such stories strike a note on the strings of our souls that vibrates through us like a call. A homeland beckons.
In the archetypal hero’s journey, the adventurer leaves home and enters the unknown in pursuit of some desperate quest, but he always returns, having grown stronger and wiser and possessing new knowledge that is critical for the flourishing of his own familiar land. The point, ultimately, is to come back, to make things better at home, to sink roots into the earth. The young knight conquers his foes, marries the princess, and then rules over the kingdom he can call his own—he does not wander forever.
Wandering forever would be a kind of punishment. We call it exile. In Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the poet imagines the weather-beaten old king long after the events of The Odyssey, struck with a parching thirst for more travels. He wants to leave his home. The notion strikes us as somehow repellent—that Odysseus would endure so much in order to return home and be reunited with his family, finally at peace, only to want to leave again. To what end? It’s perverted. Who would wish to die in a strange land among strange people, forgotten and alone?
Yet, at the same time, Tennyson’s poem captures a deep longing hard to put into words. While part of us might recoil at Ulysses’ determination to leave, another part of us feels that breath of wind across our face that whispers: the search.
There is something more out there yet to be found. But if we, or Tennyson’s Ulysses, burn with a yearning to find that something, perhaps it’s because we have not yet fully come home. One searches in order to find something, not merely for the sake of searching. We seek a place of peace, of belonging: home.
German philosopher Novalis said that all philosophy is born from a similar restlessness: “Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.” Philosophy is, or should be, an attempt to understand the world, to understand what is. Just as a man knows his lane, the trees that line it, his front door, the smell of the kitchen, the feel of his bed, so the true philosopher seeks to know the essences of the things that surround him. What is this world? What are the things in it? Where did it come from?
We are born into a world wrapped in mystery, and the philosopher seeks to peel away those layers between himself and reality until it is, at last, with a shock of recognition, his own. Perhaps that is what Novalis means about our desire to be “at home everywhere”—no longer a stranger in the universe but a man coming through his front door to embrace what is both familiar and loved.
The irony is that to really have something, we must first defamiliarize it because familiarity makes us blind, makes us forget what we have, makes us strangers to it. We walk, oblivious, past the things we see every day, forgetting their strangeness, richness, rarity, and beauty. And if we do not see them, we do not love them. And if we do not love them, they are not fully ours. We are not fully at home. Bilbo Baggins is far more at home in Bag End after his adventure to the Lonely Mountain than before because he returns with eyes open and mind awakened.
The wife belongs to the husband most in the moments when, with a quickening of the heart, he sees her afresh. She is suddenly both familiar and new—both his own dear bride and that “beauty” he happens to pass on the street. The two perspectives, though paradoxical, are not contradictory. They are in harmony.
And they are the solution to Ulysses’ dilemma: If he could see his own dear Ithaca, just for a moment, as it really is—a strange, beautiful, and mythical land—he would have no need to challenge the ocean again and tempt destruction in search of wonderous sights. Penelope is there at his side already. And she is both more real and more wondrous than Calypso or any other goddess.
As Chesterton writes:
The whole object of real art, of real romance—and, above all, of real religion—is to prevent people from losing the humility and gratitude which are thankful for daylight and daily bread; to prevent them from regarding daily life as dull or domestic life as narrow. … What is now needed most is intensive imagination … inwards, on the things we already have, and to make those things live.
If we live this way, we realize what we have, love it, and will give our life for it.
Home is that which we are willing to defend. No one dies to save a hotel. But any red-blooded man would die to save his cabin. To other men, his cabin is just some planks of wood. But to the man who calls it home, who has seen it with different eyes, who has seen it as a castle whose spires pierce heavenward, who has seen his children born there and his father breathe his last there, it is everything worth dying for concentrated into one small space. It is the world in miniature.
If we could see our homes that way, we might have more peace, and more responsibility, and more dedication to the care of our locality. And, with a strong sense of the value of our individual home, we might begin to understand the meaning of “home” in a larger sense.