What Aragorn Had to Lose
Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings, is clearly an archetypal warrior figure, of the kind described in the book How Stories Really Work. Such figures are at first viewed with suspicion by the protagonist, and can look potentially villainous; they often begin in the shadows, excluded and in gloom. One characteristic feature of their development, though, is that they shake off the darkness and emerge from whatever was preoccupying them to in the end claim the position of authority and power that was their due from the beginning. They are figures in transition, often losing a father in the process, and the long arc of Aragorn’s story follows this pattern from the beginning.
In terms of his own life story, he has all the hallmarks of a protagonist: he lacks at least one parent, his father Arathorn having been killed by an orc arrow, and he doesn’t know who he is or his role in the world throughout his childhood. One of the key factors in understanding Aragorn is this early loss of his father. But his strange burdens are too unreal and too great for him to be the protagonist of the main story Tolkien has to tell of the end of the Third Age -readers look for heroes whose problems are comprehensible to them, at least to begin with. This is not Aragorn: his foster-father is Elrond, for example, who was, to be sure, as gracious as he could be to the young bereaved mortal boy, but who was an Elflord whose own father was the Morning Star.
Elrond reveals to ‘Estel’, as Aragorn was known, his true name and ancestry when he returns from a journey with Elrond’s sons Elrohir and Elladan at the age of twenty-one years old; as part of this revelation, Elrond gives to him the heirlooms the House of Isildur: the shards of the broken sword Narsil and the Elvish Ring of Barahir, which had belonged to his family since the First Age. Fatherless Aragorn thus gets an idea of the burden that he is meant to carry: the heritage of Men as a race, stemming from the alliances with the Elves thousands of years in the past, and the destiny of the Kings of Arnor and Gondor and their war with Sauron, as symbolised by the sword shards. As if that wasn’t enough, around this time Aragorn meets and falls in love with Arwen, daughter of Elrond, princess of the Elves, already over two and a half thousand years old.
To put this in perspective, Elrond was born at the Havens of Sirion late in the First Age. His parents were Eärendil (who later went on to become the Morning Star, wearing one of the Silmarils) and Elwing, and he had a twin brother, Elros, who later became the first king of Númenor. Elrond would never understand the loss of fathers: when he looks up into the night sky of Tolkien’s world, he sees his own father sailing close to the sun as the Flammifer of Westernesse, betokening the hope of the gods. Arwen looks at the same star and sees her grandfather. Furthermore, Elros was the father of Aragorn’s ancestors. The Elves, then, have an entirely different frame of reference on things in Middle-earth and Elrond and Arwen do not really know what it means to be fatherless.
So not only does Aragorn bear his own loss, he also carries the weight of his entire race, and the knowledge that the one he loves is as far above him in status as it might be possible to conceive in Middle-earth. It’s little wonder that, after he takes up his proper name as Aragorn, sixteenth of the Chieftains of the Dúnedain, he takes leave of his mother and Elrond he goes into the Wild. For twenty three years until 2980, Aragorn undertakes great journeys and battles against the forces arrayed against the West, working both for the King of Rohan and the Steward of Gondor, including making an audacious raid against the Corsairs of Umbar, before leaving Gondor to travel into the far East and South ‘exploring the hearts of men good and evil’.
If Tolkien was crafting a Tragedy, this would have been where Aragorn turns dark. Here the overwhelming void within him, brought on by the fact that he is a mere mortal man, neither undying nor a hero of legend, has its greatest gravitational pull. Here, faced with impossible goals and an unreal love, Aragorn’s very identity as a man is put to the test. We never get a comprehensive list of all that he has witnessed during these travels, yet the gloom of it lingers and adds to the image of Aragorn as the warrior archetype, as we shall see.
But The Lord of the Rings is not a Tragedy, and in 2980 Aragorn returns to Lothlórien, to meet Arwen again in Caras Galadhon, living in that Elven wood with her for a while. Through his adventures, he has gained about as full a mortal perspective on the world as he could have done, but he retains his integrity. This is the beginning of his emergence from the darkness; his formless burden of need starts to take on a definite shape and goal. Elrond, with his Elvish sense of the rightness of things -calling on the ancient precedent of Thingol’s in relation to Beren and Luthien- gives his foster-son permission to marry his daughter, on the condition that he must first become king of both Gondor and Arnor, for only a king would be worthy of Arwen's hand. This highlights and clarifies what Aragorn needs to do, determining his fate. There, in Lothlórien, Aragorn gives to Arwen the heirloom of his House, the Ring of Barahir, and Arwen pledges her hand to him in marriage. Instead of sinking into the void, to become an embittered tragic figure, he begins to climb out from the shadows.
After this point, as a revealed Sauron regains power in Mordor, Aragorn returns to Eriador where he visits his mother for the last time. She dies before that year's spring, but this doesn’t act to open a wound in Aragorn -he settles on a broad course of action and finds a new mentor, Gandalf. Elrond the Half-elven was unavoidably aloof, but in Gandalf, though the wizard is more ancient even than the Elf, Aragorn finds a father figure to whom he can relate. Gandalf fears Sauron but is driven, like Aragorn, to do something about him.
Aragorn learns from Gandalf of Frodo Baggins' plan to leave the Shire with the Ring. For a potentially tragic figure, news of the Ring would have triggered a Macbeth-like temptation to use it as a short-cut to get what he so desperately wants -but Aragorn is on an Epic path and his Rangers instead keep watch over the border of the Shire and the East Road waiting for sight of Frodo while Aragorn himself seeks the Ringbearer to protect him.
Of course, when Aragorn first encounters the four fleeing hobbits in The Prancing Pony, we don’t know anything about this back-story. Nevertheless, its darkness clings to the initial description of the figure in the shadows:
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.
'Who is that?' Frodo asked, when he got a chance to whisper to Mr. Butterbur. 'I don't think you introduced him?'
'Him?' said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. 'I don't rightly know. He is one of the wandering folk -Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven't seen him about lately. What his right name is I've never heard: but he's known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don't tell nobody what cause he has to hurry. But there's no accounting for East and West, as we say in Bree, meaning the Rangers and the Shirefolk, begging your pardon. Funny you should ask about him.'
But at that moment Mr. Butterbur was called away by a demand for more ale and his last remark remained unexplained. Frodo found that Strider was now looking at him, as if he had heard or guessed all that had been said. Presently, with a wave of his hand and a nod, he invited Frodo to come over and sit by him. As Frodo drew near be threw back his hood, showing a shaggy head of dark hair necked with grey, and in a pale stem face a pair of keen grey eyes.
'I am called Strider,' he said in a low voice. 'I am very pleased to meet you. Master Underhill, if old Butterbur got your name right.'
'He did,' said Frodo stiffly. He felt far from comfortable under the stare of those keen eyes.
Aragorn watches as the hobbits clumsily try to hide their names and intentions; he watches as Frodo falls from a table and disappears as he puts the ring on. This would have been an ideal opportunity to steal the Ring for himself -almost too easy. When seen in the context of Aragorn’s individual story, the temptation is immense: with the Ring, Aragorn might have crafted a new Reunited Kingdom and gained the crown he needed to claim Arwen’s hand. Instead, wiser than that, he arranges for an interview that night, where he warns the hobbits of the Black Riders and persuades them to use him as a guide. They reluctantly agree.
Aragorn’s plan to reach Rivendell involves getting to Weathertop first, and it is during the ambush by Black Riders on that hill that we have a visual image that symbolises Aragorn’s emergence from the shadows.
At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand.
Continuing on his upward trend, Aragorn becomes a member of the Fellowship of the Ring and the ancient shards of Narsil, the heirloom of his House, are reforged after three thousand years millennia. Aragorn renames it Andúril. The name means ‘Flame of the West’, and the sword is symbolic of Aragorn’s emergence from the dark.
At their departure from Lothlorien, Galadriel offers Aragorn a further symbol of this emergence: the Elfstone, which foretells his marriage to Arwen, which would be the culmination of his hopes and dreams. He wears the gem thereafter.
Though struck by indecision and doubt at times during the story, his judgments lead him on a path ordained by fate: it is his decision to follow the captured hobbits, Merry and Pippin, begins the liberation of Rohan and takes him to the encounter with the resurrected Gandalf which signifies the turning of the tables in the war against Sauron. His appearance on the battlements of Helm’s Deep heralds the return of Gandalf with Erkenbrand.
Symbols and symbolic actions continue to mount: Aragorn acquires the Orthanc-stone; he gets a message from Elrond -‘The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead- and Halbarad bears him a gift from the Lady Arwen – the Standard of Elendil. Travelling the Paths of the Dead and asserting his presence as the returned heir of Isildur, Aragorn unfurls the Standard of Elendil at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and then uses the healing powers of kingship to restore Merry, Éowyn, and Faramir, in accordance with the prophecy ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known’.
Victory at the Morannon and the success of the Quest of the Ring means that Aragorn can return at last to be crowned at the gates of Minas Tirith, winning the hearts of the people of Gondor and achieving the position of power befitting his role as the warrior figure in the story. It is also fitting that, some days after his coronation, it is Gandalf who takes Elessar up the slopes of Mount Mindolluin, to show him not only his realm but hope for the future. Their conversation is layered with meaning for both of them as characters:
And Gandalf said: ‘This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.’
‘I know it well, dear friend,’ said Aragorn; ‘but I would still have your counsel.’
‘Not for long now,’ said Gandalf. ‘The Third Age was my age. I was the Enemy of Sauron; and my work is finished. I shall go soon. The burden must lie now upon you and your kindred.’
‘But I shall die,’ said Aragorn. ‘For I am a mortal man, and though being what I am and of the race of the West unmingled, I shall have life far longer than other men, yet that is but a little while; and when those who are now in the wombs of women are born and have grown old, I too shall grow old. And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this City as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?’
‘Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!’ said Gandalf.
Then Aragorn turned. and there was a stony slope behind him running down from the skirts of the snow; and as he looked he was aware that alone there in the waste a growing thing stood. And he climbed to it, and saw that out of the very edge of the snow there sprang a sapling tree no more than three foot high. Already it had put forth young leaves long and shapely, dark above and silver beneath, and upon its slender crown it bore one small cluster of flowers whose white petals shone like the sunlit snow.
This is an offshoot of Nimloth, the sapling which is a symbol of Aragorn’s reign over a Reunited Kingdom. He has overcome the void and triumphed in full.
Aragorn founds the royal House of Telcontar, and has a son and a number of daughters. He dies at the age of 210, after ruling for 122 years of rule. His wife Arwen, now mortal, gives up her life shortly afterwards in the year 121, aged 2,901.