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Aragorn, Part Two

June 3, 2014

Christina writes: As discussed in the first part of this essay, Angela P. Nicholas in Aragorn: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Undervalued Hero concentrates on how Aragorn is presented as a person in the published Lord of the Rings, and pays particular attention to his thoughts and feelings. Hobbit to Hero: The Making of Tolkien’s King by Elizabeth M. Stephen is a very different work, and although it is shorter than Aragorn (only 283 pages, including a bibliography and index), it is not as straightforward a read. It makes more demands on the reader, who ideally should have considerable familiarity with The Lord of the Rings, The History of Middle-earth, and Unfinished Tales. Stephen’s focus is less on seeking insight into Aragorn’s feelings (though this is not ignored) and more on how the emergence of his character was affected by, and in turn influenced, Tolkien’s larger legendarium, as well as with ‘examining how Tolkien utilized the character to fulfil some of the more profound functions of his wider mythology’ (lower cover blurb). Stephen starts simply, but digs deeper into her subject with each succeeding chapter.

Chapter 1, ‘The Riddle of Strider’ (pp. 11–41), begins as the four hobbits meet Strider in Bree. Stephen notes that the hobbits have missed (as a first-time reader may also) a few previous mentions of, or allusions to, Aragorn, and just how little the hobbits (and the reader) learn about Aragorn at Bree and on the journey to Rivendell. In an essay written years ago, ‘On Reading and Re-reading The Lord of the Rings’, I lamented that one can read The Lord of the Rings for the first time only once. Thereafter, much of the suspense is missing, though there are other compensations. Allowing the reader to know no more than the hobbits in Book One is one of Tolkien’s most brilliant storytelling techniques, and possibly succeeds so well because here, as elsewhere, Tolkien himself was in the dark, uncertain of the identity of the dark stranger at Bree. Unfortunately, those who see the films of The Lord of the Rings before they read the book cannot enjoy this experience.

Stephen Hobbit to Hero coverOnce Aragorn’s lineage has been revealed at the Council of Elrond, the rest of Stephen’s chapter considers the gradual elevation of his stature during and after the War of the Ring until his death, as told in The Lord of the Rings. But unlike Nicholas, Stephen places no great significance on Aragorn’s decision to use the palantír. She finds the ‘crux of the riddle of Strider’ in the revelation of his love for Arwen, and in Elrond’s condition for their marriage (p. 40). She refers to the letter in which Tolkien said: ‘Here I am only concerned with Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees. That is why I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important part of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be “hobbito-centric”, that is primarily a study of ennoblement . . . of the humble’ (Letters, p. 237). As Stephen implicitly sees, this is not the whole truth. The story was far advanced before Aragorn’s persona was fully developed, presenting Tolkien ‘with the unenviable challenge of integrating his long back story into the main text’. Stephen considers that Tolkien’s solution of ‘incorporating Aragorn’s tale as a veiled sub-plot, which is only fully revealed after the completion of the main story [i.e. in Appendix A], has undoubtedly been to the detriment of the level of appreciation felt for this most remarkable of characters’ (p. 41).

The first part of Chapter 2, ‘Trotter’ (pp. 43–82), covers early versions of the story published in The Return of the Shadow and The Treason of Isengard, in which it was Trotter the hobbit who guided the other hobbits to Rivendell and became a member of the Fellowship as far as Balin’s tomb. Stephen records Tolkien’s uncertainty as he began to question Trotter’s identity if he remained a hobbit, and the possibility that he might be a Man. Even when the idea first occurred that ‘Trotter had better not be a hobbit – but a Ranger, remainder of Western men’ (The Return of The Shadow, p. 393), it was some time before Tolkien made the final decision.

This seems a good example of what Tolkien meant when he wrote about ‘feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through’ (Letters, p. 212). Stephen discusses what alterations (surprisingly few) were necessary when the character Trotter the hobbit finally gave way to Aragorn the Ranger, made easier by the fact that Aragorn was deliberately concealing his real status during the journey to Rivendell. Later Stephen notes that it was not until Tolkien wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ in Book Six that Strider replaced Trotter as Aragorn’s alias. From the discovery of Balin’s tomb, Trotter/Aragorn was part of the initial composition. Stephen’s chapter continues through to the end of the story and the end of Aragorn’s life in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, but she is now covering Tolkien’s drafts as published in The History of Middle-earth: hesitations, variations, and changes in plot, and the gradual revelation of Aragorn’s full stature, lineage, and destiny. She draws attention to the fact that Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen, one of only three unions between Men and High Elves – which, like much else, stresses his exceptional qualities and destiny – came late in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Stephen concludes the chapter by noting that the development of Aragorn as the returning king enabled The Lord of the Rings to reach epic stature and provided a link with the earlier mythology through his Númenórean ancestry.

Near the beginning of Chapter 3, ‘The Númenor Dilemma’ (pp. 83–115), Stephen comments that ‘as Trotter shed his hobbit skin and came to need roots that would stretch far back into the created mythical past of the earlier ages, the bridge to hand was the legend of Númenor’ (p. 86). She describes how the concept of a Second Age with a focus on the history of Númenor first appeared in The Lost Road and versions of The Fall of Númenor, written in the mid-1930s, not long before Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings. Even before Aragorn emerged, Tolkien used elements of the Númenor story to provide hints of historical depth generally in The Lord of the Rings. Other elements of the story which would become attached to Aragorn were already in place when needed to provide him with an elevated status: the presence in the unfinished Lost Road of the figure of Elendil, who would later develop into the founder of the Númenórean kingdoms in exile and whose sword Aragorn would bear; distinctive attributes of the Dúnedain, including height, wisdom, and longevity in versions of The Fall of Númenor; and the emergence of Elrond’s brother, Elros, who would become Númenor’s first king, and through whom Aragorn could claim descent not only from the two First Age unions of Men and High Elves but also a strain of divinity from Melian. But as the story of Aragorn evolved, the influence moved in both directions, between the stories of Númenor and The Lord of the Rings and their influence on and growing connection with what Tolkien had already written about the First and Second Ages, including the problem of how his stories of the First Age were transmitted to later ages. This problem became closely connected to his first thoughts for a major change in the cosmology of Arda to bring it closer to scientific knowledge.

Aragorn’s lineage became of even greater importance in Chapter 4, ‘The Divine Plan’ (pp. 117–44). Stephen quotes Tolkien’s draft letter to Peter Hastings: ‘The entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves’ (Letters, p. 194). She continues: ‘There can, therefore, be no doubt that inheriting a strand of divinity as a consequence of long ago unions between our distant forefathers and incarnate immortals became a vital tenet of the mythology, and in the fulfilment of this ambitious undertaking, Aragorn and his descendents would come to perform a key role’ (p. 117). After a brief survey of claims to divine kingship within our world, Stephen shows how Tolkien set about establishing the validity of Aragorn’s claim and ‘went to great lengths to create a divine ancestry for him which would legitimize his claim to the kingship in the manner of the sacral kings of the past’ (p. 119). This includes relating the stories of several of his First Age ancestors and some speculation on his descendents, possibly characters in Tolkien’s own Lost Road and Notion Club Papers or descendants of King Sheave who is mentioned in those works and was considered an ancestor of the West Saxon royal house among others.

In Chapter 5, ‘A Peerless Hero’ (pp. 145–93), Stephen discusses what makes a hero, then looks at some legendary and historical heroes of our world who may have influenced Tolkien’s portrait of Aragorn. Although there are many possibilities, she puts forward the claims of three heroes whose stories were popular in the Middle Ages – Sigurd, Beowulf, and Arthur – and three of Tolkien’s First Age heroes – Beren, Tuor, and Túrin – and compares each with Aragorn. Stephen then considers Charlemagne, who became a legendary figure not only as a great warrior and empire builder but also as a Christian king. Charlemagne and other kings were believed to have healing powers, as does Aragorn. Stephen’s view is that ‘Aragorn’s personal qualities, in particular his compassion, certainly appear to mark him as a Christian hero, though it is too simplistic to label Aragorn as a Christian King. . . . Perhaps Tolkien’s ideal is better described as Northern heroism and courage coloured by Christian values since Aragorn undoubtedly possesses a rather more contemporary heart than his medieval counterparts. This modernisation was essential as a hero who was merely good at killing would not satisfy the modern reader’ (p. 185). Stephen concludes this chapter with the comment that according to Joseph Campbell (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) ‘no hero should fear death, and “reconciliation with the grave” is Campbell’s last prerequisite for hero status. In this heroic requirement, Aragorn excels, and his death is of such importance to our understanding of the character that it is the subject of the final chapter’ (p. 193).

Chapter 6, ‘The Importance of Hope’ (pp. 195–228), begins by noting that Aragorn’s childhood name, ‘Estel’, can be translated not only as ‘hope’ but also as ‘trust, steady, fixed in purpose and difficult to dissuade and unlikely to fall into despair or abandon its purpose’ (p. 195). All of these are appropriate to Aragorn, who refuses to give way to despair and hopes without hope, trusting even in the most desperate circumstances that fears may not be realised and ‘that there are larger, unseen hands at work’ (p. 198). This is accompanied by a survey of various expressions of hope in the legendarium.

The rest of Chapter 6 is more complex, as Stephen builds up the significance of Aragorn’s death. ‘It is no exaggeration to claim that the entire key to understanding the character of Aragorn lies in the manner of his death. . . . Tolkien clearly felt it was important to include an idealised, perfect death in his masterpiece. . . . It is as if he is saying, if you have the Faith, the Trust, the Hope, this is how you do it’ (pp. 201–2). Aragorn chose the time of his death and showed ‘his unshakeable faith in an existence beyond the circles of the world . . . enabling Tolkien to draw together his two greatest themes of hope and death so that the latter becomes the means for the ultimate realisation of the former’ (pp. 208–9). Later Stephen cites a passage in Morgoth’s Ring which suggests that unfallen man was intended to ‘die of free will, and even of desire, in estel’ (p. 341). She sees in Aragorn, who achieved this, ‘essentially a man ahead of his time, one prematurely granted the salvation which will only come for the rest of mankind with the coming of Christ’ (p. 212). The strength of Aragorn’s hope and trust is contrasted with the despair shown by Gilraen, Denethor, and Arwen. His relationship with Arwen is compared with that of Beren and Lúthien, and of Tuor and Idril. Stephen finds that the concept of a willing departure first appears in the legendarium with Aragorn, comparing earlier and later versions of the deaths of Bëor in the First Age and of the Númenóreans in the Second.

Necessarily, as of fundamental significance, much space is given to the exploration of beliefs concerning death and afterlife, both Tolkien’s as a Catholic and as incorporated by him in his legendarium. The Catholic view sees death as God’s punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve, all of whose descendants are subject to original sin and after death might be consigned variously to Limbo, Purgatory, Hell, or Heaven, depending on their deeds while living. Yet, until late in the writing of the legendarium, there is no question that death, in association with the gift of free will, was Eru’s original design for Men rather than punishment for a Fall. This is the view taken up in the published Silmarillion, together with the comment that ‘Melkor has cast his shadow upon it [death] . . . and brought forth evil out of good and fear out of hope’ (p. 216). Apart from an account in the early Book of Lost Tales, which briefly indicated at least temporary destinations similar to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, nothing is said of what happened to Men after death, nor any detail given of a Fall, which is hinted at as having taken place ‘offstage’.

But in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (in Morgoth’s Ring), written some years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien considered the possibility that Men were intended to be immortal but had fallen through Morgoth and become subject to death and shortened lives, thus bringing the legendarium closer to Catholic belief. Stephen admits that ‘if death became anything other than part of Eru’s original design and intent for [Men] the manner of Aragorn’s death would completely lose its significance’ (p. 216). But she does not believe that Tolkien intended to make such a change, though the letter she cites is earlier than or contemporary with the Athrabeth. Her final chapter ends with a consideration of Aragorn as one of several Christ-figures in The Lord of the Rings, of the importance of Eärendil, Aragorn’s ancestor, as a symbol of hope, and of prophecies concerning the ending and remaking of Arda.

The sequence of some of the material in this last chapter might have been slightly rearranged to flow more smoothly – while reading it, I kept wondering why something had not been mentioned at a certain point only to find it appearing later – and there are one or two rather obtrusive elements: for example, I was not convinced by the suggestion that 1 March (St David’s Day) was chosen as the date of Aragorn’s birth and death because of similarities between Aragorn and St David. But given the ground covered, which I have only skimmed in this report, I can appreciate Stephen’s difficulty. I am slightly perplexed by her statement that the three theological virtues are Hope, Faith, and Trust rather than Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love), and wonder if this is an error or a variant.

By the end of Stephen’s book, I appreciated even more the long evolution of the figure of King Elessar, not just from Trotter the hobbit but also early Trotter/Aragorn the man, and Aragorn as a possible husband for Éowyn. As Stephen notes, much of the writing that ennobles the figure of Aragorn is late: the addition of Arwen to the story, The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, other late writings published in Morgoth’s Ring, and the extension of Aragorn’s life in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings from 190 to 210 years (thrice the biblical span of three score and ten). It seems certain that it was only as the story neared its end that Tolkien began to realise the true greatness of the character he had created, and perhaps not even then, since he continued to elevate him in letters written at about the time of publication, and even after publication, as he did with Galadriel.

I note, by the way, that in Hobbit to Hero my surname appears as ‘Scull’ when it comes second to Wayne for The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, but ‘Skull’ when it comes before Wayne’s name for The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, and both are used inconsistently in notes.

One Comment
  1. Nelson permalink
    June 7, 2014 7:12 pm

    Excellent pair of reviews!

    Just one comment – I don’t think that the Athrabeth was ever intended to present the view that Men were originally immortal as ‘correct’. Finrod suggests that the nature of death may have changed (his speculations that ‘assumption’ was the original mode of death for Men), and that their attitudes towards it changed – but a voluntary leaving of the world is still a part of his view in the Athrabeth (indeed is absolutely fundamental to it).

    I’m not quite sure how Stephen’s argument runs, but I don’t see Tolkien ever considering the idea that death might have been ‘anything other than part of Eru’s original design’ in a way that would affect the significance of Aragorn’s departure. If anything, the thoughts in the Athrabeth reinforce and harmonize with Aragorn’s last moments rather wonderfully.

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