Aragorn, Part One
Christina writes: I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1955 from the library at the age of thirteen, bought my own set in 1956 (with four months’ saved pocket money), and reread it frequently in the years following. When the second edition was published in 1966, I knew the work so well that I could recognize the changes. Although I empathized with many of Tolkien’s characters (and still do, though not with Jackson’s versions), I felt a special attachment to Aragorn. I suppose some might describe this as the typical reaction of a female teenager to a charismatic hero.
Some years later, when my reading expanded from core books by Tolkien to Tolkien in general, I was impressed by Paul H. Kocher’s chapter on Aragorn in Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien (1971). I thought it a masterly study of the character. At the same time, I was surprised to discover the rather low appreciation some other critics had of Aragorn, notably William Ready, who found him ‘almost too good to be human, he has some of the qualities of a noble horse’ (The Tolkien Relation (1968), p. 101). I never associated Aragorn with a horse (though obviously Jackson did), and found his frequent self-doubt all too human. Nor has much attention been paid to the difficult decisions he faces at the end of Book Two. As the Fellowship passes the Argonath, Aragorn says to himself: ‘Would that Gandalf were here! How my heart yearns for Minas Anor and the walls of my own city. But whither now shall I go?’ He feels that it is his duty to go East with Frodo. Even when Frodo makes his own decision to leave secretly, Aragorn again rejects the road to Minas Tirith, choosing instead to attempt the rescue of Merry and Pippin, rather than ‘abandon the captives to torment and death’. The depth of his sacrifice is not necessarily apparent in a first reading. It is only on re-reading that one realizes that in deciding against going to Minas Tirith he is putting the greater good above his own desires: for Minas Tirith offers Aragorn not only the possibility of glory and kingship, but the fulfilling of Elrond’s conditions for his marriage to Arwen. The late addition of Arwen to the story added extra meaning.
Perhaps because Kocher’s account is so outstanding, Aragorn has not received much attention from other critics. I was surprised, therefore, and pleased, when two books devoted to Aragorn were published in 2012: Hobbit to Hero: The Making of Tolkien’s King by Elizabeth M. Stephen (ADC Publications) and Aragorn: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Undervalued Hero by Angela P. Nicholas (Bright Pen). Both authors are members of local smials of the Tolkien Society, and it shows that both wrote from love of the subject. Both display knowledge not only of The Lord of the Rings, but also of Tolkien’s other writings. (I would be interested to know if either book was turned down by a mainstream publisher: Aragorn is self-published, while Hobbit to Hero is issued by a bookseller with a small sideline in publishing.) Wayne and I bought both books on publication, but I did not read them until late summer 2013. I was too busy to write a blog post about them straight away, and am now taking advantage of a brief lull between deadlines to collect my thoughts.
When I first saw Aragorn: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Undervalued Hero I was slightly put off by its appearance, a large paperback (30 × 21 cm!) with an aggressive layout using bullet-points, though I welcomed its clear typeface and value for money (492 pages including genealogical tables, bibliography, and index). I had not gone far into it before I realised I was finding it the most enjoyable book on Tolkien I had read in a long time, not only reviving all of my early thoughts about Aragorn, but extending them. It also made me analyse why I almost grit my teeth before beginning to read yet another popular general guide to Tolkien, another rehashing of Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, or yet another of the seemingly never-ending collections of essays on Tolkien. In the early 1980s, when I first began to collect seriously, Tolkien devotees were lucky if two or three books on the author were published in a year, while articles, mainly written by fans, generally appeared only in periodicals published by societies with an interest in Tolkien. Part of my problem, shared by Wayne, is that we delved so deeply with our own writings, especially The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, that when we read anything about Tolkien we are constantly noting errors of fact, ignorance of previously published material, or failure to keep up with the most recent scholarship. The main problem with many collections of essays in particular, apart from their variable quality, is that each writer, while trying hard to make a point, often puts forward a theory based on little or selective evidence, so that reading a collection of such work is rather like being forced to watch one battle scene after another, or being hit on the head several times in succession.
In her preface, Nicholas makes the point I have alluded to above: ‘it is only with the hindsight of second and subsequent readings of The Lord of the Rings . . . and perusal of the Appendices . . . that we begin to get any proper idea of who Aragorn is or any sort of appreciation of his significance in the history of Middle-earth in general and, more specifically in the struggle to destroy the One Ring’. She continues: ‘I have long felt that he is underestimated, with his achievements, qualities and struggles often ignored, misunderstood or unappreciated. In addition I believe that his contribution to the “Ring Quest” is at least equal to that of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf and Gollum.’ To build up a clearer picture, she focuses on aspects of Aragorn’s life ‘which are not always obvious’, to deal with misconceptions and to attempt ‘to see into his mind’. To do this, she has used all of Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings, as well as Letters, and has given The Lord of the Rings ‘the “fine-tooth comb” treatment’. This includes ‘analysis of individual words, facial expressions, circumstances etc. For example: Is the situation formal or informal? Are words spoken with a smile or seriously?’ (pp. 1–3). Nicholas admits to speculation and inference, such as who Aragorn might have met when serving incognito in Rohan, but such instances are clearly identified, and to me reasonable and justified.
The first part of Aragorn (pp. 9–119) is divided into a series of chapters beginning with ‘Ancestry’ and ‘Prophecies’, then deals more or less chronologically with his life and death, and concludes with ‘Names and Titles, and Appearance’. An interesting example of Nicholas digging behind minimal information comes in the chapter ‘Childhood’, where she considers Aragorn’s possible thoughts as a child: would he not have wondered about his absent father, and why he was being brought up among Elves? If he was totally unsuspecting, in addition to his pride on learning his ancestry, there must have been an element of shock when he discovered that everyone at Rivendell had been deceiving him. Because most of the action in The Lord of the Rings is presented from the hobbits’ point of view and focuses on their reactions and feelings, Nicholas had to use every clue provided by Aragorn’s words, actions, and reactions to consider his point of view and thoughts. This is not an easy task, as she notes, quoting The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, p. 348: ‘Only rarely does Tolkien let us see into Aragorn’s mind’.
The chapter ‘The Palantír Confrontation’ is the crux of Nicholas’s argument on the significance of Aragorn’s contribution to the Ring quest. She points out that his decision to use the palantír, against the advice of Gandalf, was crucial for the overthrow of Sauron. The most prominent result on the surface was that Aragorn was able to rout the Corsairs of Umbar and relieve the siege of Minas Tirith. The ‘less obvious, but far-reaching and hugely significant’ (p. 73) result was that Aragorn frightened and misled Sauron into concentrating his attention on him, distracting it from Frodo and Sam as they made their way stealthily to Mount Doom. Nicholas presents the evidence to support this, including the conversation of the Orcs from Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol (pp. 73–81), and concludes: ‘The Palantír confrontation was a momentous achievement from the point of view of the courage and mental strength required, and because it was a pivotal action in the struggle to destroy the Ring’ (p. 82). I have read an unpublished letter by Tolkien which fully supports this view of Aragorn’s strategic abilities (22 September 1963 to Eileen Elgar, mentioned on p. 529 of the Reader’s Companion).
The longer Part 2 of Nicholas’s book (pp. 123–457) is devoted to Aragorn’s relationships with various races as a whole and individuals with whom he had more than passing contact. Nicholas points out that a study of these relationships ‘rounds out’ the picture presented in the general biographical Part 1. ‘He had the ability to forge relationships of affection and trust with many different kinds of people: Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the various races of Men, not to mention Gandalf. . . . As well as showing how others viewed him this approach leads to an increased emphasis on Aragorn’s strengths, weaknesses, motives and personal struggles, particularly the psychological and emotional issues . . . touched on in Part 1.’ Nicholas notes that Legolas says in ‘The Last Debate’ that ‘all those who come to know [Aragorn] come to love him in their own fashion’, and she expands on this: ‘As well as inspiring devotion he had a great capacity for giving love and affection. Often his interactions with others brought out the best in him and the best in them’ (p. 123).
Inevitably this series of surveys involves covering the same ground more than once, yet it does not seem repetitive because, although Aragorn may remain a constant, his relationships differ according to the other individual, rather like looking at the same landscape from different angles. As an example, section 5 contains a brief account of the earlier relationship between Hobbits and the North Kingdom and the later secret protection of the Shire by the Rangers and Aragorn, followed by studies of Aragorn’s relationship with Frodo (pp. 232–46), Sam (pp. 246–54), Merry (pp. 254–64), Pippin (pp. 265–72), and Bilbo (pp. 272–7). Gollum is dealt with separately.
Once or twice in the early years of my Tolkien ‘addiction’, I read The Lord of the Rings aloud, to slow myself down and prevent my speeding past known details. Reading Aragorn gave me a similar feeling of slowing time down, considering each word and the meaning it conveys, absorbed subliminally in ordinary reading.
Nicholas has recently posted a list of amendments (mainly addenda) on her website.
See here for the second part of this essay.