When Aragorn first met Arwen Undómiel in the hidden valley of Rivendell he could have no idea what journey was to lie ahead of him. It was loveliness that first called out to Aragorn just as it is with every young man who falls in love but just as it is with every young man falling in love this can never be just a private affair. And if this is so for every young man how much more it is with the heir of Isildur in the very year in which Sauron openly declares himself in the land of Mordor after his long exile and secret returning.
On the day in which Aragorn and Arwen marry in the City of Minas Tirith Tolkien tells us that “the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” This tale lasted for sixty-eight years.
At first Aragorn has to deal with his mother’s anxiety. For Gilraen the long slow years of the decline of her people have left her fearful about the future. It is not greatness that she sees when she looks upon her son but dependence upon the protection of Elrond. And Elrond himself knows that the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth draw now to a close and that Arwen will go with him into the West unless something calls her to remain.
“There will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.”
And so begins the years of labour and of separation. Aragorn becomes Thorongil, the Star Eagle, and serves Thengel King of Rohan and Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor doing great deeds among them and encouraging them to prepare for the crisis that will come. In Gondor he leads a fleet to the Havens of Umbar, destroying the fleet of the Corsairs and overthrowing their captain but at the height of his fame he leaves Gondor and begins his lonely journeys into the South and the East “exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron.”
And so Aragorn leaves behind the young man exulting in his glory, heir of great kings, captivated by the beauty of an Elven princess, the greatest among her people, even as was Beren long before, the mightiest of his forefathers. The long years of labour and separation leave their mark. He becomes “somewhat grim to look upon” unless he smiles but he becomes the hardiest of living men, skilled in craft and lore and “elven-wise”, the hero of his age who gives no thought to his own greatness but only to his task and to his longing.
“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.”
This is a beautiful picture of a man who has been shaped first by joy and then by the adversity that has to follow joy in order to refine it into something of lasting greatness. Aragorn’s majesty will be something that will not be for his benefit alone but will bring life and prosperity to all people. His is a journey from a princeling to a king. Readers will call to mind the moment in the story when he turns aside from his journey to Minas Tirith in order to undertake the pursuit of the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin. To all extent this is a hopeless task and takes him from what seems far more important. He could try to follow Frodo and the Ring or go to Minas Tirith in its hour of need. His decision to follow the “unimportant” young hobbits proves crucial but he could not have known in what way. He makes the choice not upon a whim but because of the years in which his character has been forged. He trusts in the story of which he is a part sure that Frodo does not need him and that he will come to Minas Tirith at the right time and he risks all the years of hope for a single act of loving kindness whose reward is hidden from him. This is the true king!
6 thoughts on “Aragorn and the Lonely Years”
Thank you, Stephen. I think you are right to put the choice he makes to pursue the orcs in the larger context of the choices Aragorn makes that shape his character. It is in many ways not the logical choice to make, which would be to sacrifice Merry and Pippin and follow Frodo and Sam, but it is the right choice. And in Tolkien’s mind morality has a greater logic.
In the same way later we see Sam make two choices, both of them correct. When he believes Frodo is dead, he chooses to take the Ring and go on. When he learns that Frodo is not dead, he chooses to turn back and try to rescue him. Had he not made both of those choices, the one horribly difficult, the other easy but desperate, all would have been lost.
The way in which Sam and Aragorn wrestle with their choices in books 3 and 4 deserves more exploration.
Many thanks for leaving this comment, Tom. I love the connection that you make between Aragorn and Sam. Sam was to become the one that Aragorn could trust in Arnor. Aragorn knew his quality.
I began my adult life with a strong respect for logic. I was sure that it was the only way to act with responsibility. When Aragorn takes on the leadership of the Fellowship and the mission to destroy the Ring he does his best to do it logically. All this does is to leave him in a state of anxious uncertainty. Eventually, after the orc attack, the death of Boromir and Frodo’s decision to go alone to Mordor, he decides to trust the story. I wonder if Tolkien made a similar decision. I can imagine him wrestling with the decision of what to do with the Fellowship after they left Lothlorien. Eventually they all end up being in the right place at the right time. The mystics understand why. I have been thinking about the line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins when, after wrestling with the mess that we are making of the world, declares, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”. There are deeper rhythms at work than the surface chaos that we watch at work each day. Of course there are patterns at work in chaos too!
A great post Stephen, the lonely years of Aragorn are definitely interesting ones especially for us knowing how his story ends, the earlier days and beginnings become of great importance; the events and experiences that shaped such a great man!
Hi Josh, Great to hear from you! I had not given much attention to how long Aragorn and Arwen had to wait for each other until I prepared for this post. Our culture is not particularly good at waiting. Everything is geared towards immediate satisfaction. With Aragorn’s story it is as if Tolkien is asking, what kind of man would be made by waiting and labouring for 68 years? Well the answer is, Aragorn! How we need more people like him!
Do leave comments whenever you like!
I love Aragorn’s humility, patience, compassion, love, loyalty, joy in these years. All this forges him into the king he will be. All great things and great people need this long time, their hidden years as it were, to give them time to become who they are meant to be. I think of my favorite line of his – pledging himself to a stranger, pledging his very life and perhaps his death, whatever will give the most aid. And that great love scene in the FOTR movie where he, a single, mortal man, faces down a horde of Orcs to give this stranger, now a beloved friend, a chance to escape. The LOTR movies excelled in these love stories of brotherhood and friendship. Greater love (and patience) hath no man…
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Every life that is fruitful is founded upon a time of hiddenness. And what struck me about your reference to Peter Jackson’s films is that we do not try to “save” our lives at any time. The scene you speak of may not have been in Tolkien’s original story but it is entirely true to the character of Aragorn that Tolkien created. I think Aragorn may even have welcomed a moment of utter simplicity after the days of agonising about which way the Fellowship should go. Now Saruman (blessed irony!) makes the choice for him.
A new discovery for me in preparing for this last post was to learn that Aragorn was the hero of the raid on the Corsairs of Umbar. I must have read this before but missed it. If he had been a lesser man or if he did not keep his eyes on the prize of winning the hand of the woman he loved he would have given in to the temptation of enjoying the worship that the people of Gondor gave to their heroes in battle. This too is typical of him.
Many thanks once again, Anne Marie and God bless you 😊