“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?

2 thoughts on ““Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

  1. This is such a wonderful post, thank you. I feel it speaks so much to the times we are in. Celebrity and aspiration to fame is valued, but are people content to be relatively unknown as long as they can do good? Or, on the other hand, we seem to see a lot of people who have rank and status, but don’t really use that power and responsibility that comes with it to serve others. I think you make a wonderful point – perhaps Kierkegaard’s prince, in revealing his royal status, knows he might be able to lift the community of peasants out of poverty, help them out of their hardships? I suppose Aragorn understands this – he seems entirely comfortable with being Strider, even as a king he doesn’t just see it as who he was but rather who he still is. But he chooses to share everyone’s burdens through the mantle of leadership. With the right intentions and conduct, that is a noble thing to do. I also like the gentle way in which Gandalf both admonishes and tutors Frodo, which your post has drawn attention to – a great mentor indeed. Thank you again.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts here. Your thoughts on mentoring are very prescient for me. Just today I have been listening to a podcast by Esther Perel on the subject and she challenges her listeners to ponder who has mentored them. I have written about this before on my blog. All my life I have been in search of fathers like Gandalf but as I reach the age I am now I begin to realise that I may not meet many more of them. I also need to be prepared to be a mentor myself. I also realised that at key moments in my life it was the encouragement of women that proved essential rather than men. This is true for Gandalf too. He was mentored by the Lady Nienna in the Undying Lands before his mission to Middle-earth.
      Aragorn is endlessly fascinating. Peter Jackson most definitely tries to present him as a king hiding from his destiny until the broken father, Elrond tells him “to be who you were meant to be” before giving him the reforged Anduril. Tolkien, as always, is so much more subtle. I think that you are right in saying that he is comfortable as Strider but surely this is a man shaped by years of a practice of self-denial, always knowing that the winning of the hand of the woman he loves and the attaining of the crown of Elendil are one and the same thing yet always knowing too that he can only attain them by a constant willingness to lay them both down in the service of others. Thus he is prepared to give everything up in order to rescue Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard. How can anyone bear such a destiny?
      On Kierkegaard’s story, I am fascinated by the way in which the answer to his question is not a simple one as you point out. Thank you for your willingness to try.

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