All That is Gold Does Not Glitter. Aragorn’s Journey Towards His Crown.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.240-243

My feelings about Peter Jackson’s film retelling of The Lord of the Rings have always been mixed but I have never denied that he had the right to make such an attempt. Tolkien always felt that the task that he had been given was to create a mythology for England, one that he felt was lost after the Norman Conquest of 1066. And just as the Arthurian legends have been told and retold by many voices (Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Eschenbach and Thomas Malory come to mind, as well as T.H White and others in the modern era) so we must surely permit voices other than Tolkien to do the same to his legendarium. This will include film and fanfiction in our era, some of which will stand the test of time as being a true retelling of the myth while others will rapidly disappear into the dark. Of one thing that we can say of Peter Jackson’s films is that they have already lasted 20 years since the first of the three was released and although they have their flaws on the whole they show no sign of ageing.

As I have been thinking about Aragorn and Boromir and the war dance that they do around each other so the way in which Jackson treats the two characters has also come to mind; and if I felt that Jackson’s portrayal of Boromir through Sean Bean’s fine performance is of a character too fully formed, then I think that Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is much closer to Tolkien’s original conception.

It is really important that when we first meet Aragorn we do not receive him as the fully formed King of Gondor and of Arnor, the heir of Valandil, of Isildur and of Elendil. When we first meet him in The Prancing Pony in Bree, his well formed Strider persona is more than a name given to him by Barliman Butterbur. Although he bears a certain resentment about the name it belongs to the Ranger doing his work in secret and thanklessly. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote a few months ago about Frodo’s exclamation, “I thought he was only a Ranger.” Even though Frodo always feels that Aragorn is more than he seems even so he fails to perceive the light of Númenor in his companion. Aragorn has grown into his disguise. He is a Ranger.

Strider the Ranger

So it is that in Jackson’s The Return of the King Elrond arrives at Dunharrow just before Aragorn and his companions make the journey through the Paths of the Dead. He brings the sword that was broken with him, reforged and renamed. It is no longer Narsil but Andúril, the flame of the west and Elrond presents it to him with the words, “Become who you were born to be”. Aragorn takes the sword and as he raises it Howard Shore’s magnificent music underlines the significance of the moment. What is significant in Jackson’s retelling is that all this takes place within one short scene. We miss the slow transformation that Tolkien offers to us but whether the transformation takes place in a moment or over many years what is true for Aragorn is that it must take place or he will shrink into diminishment.

Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Each one of us takes a journey that leads to the same end that Aragorn reaches. While we will not receive the crown of the heir of Elendil each one of us should enter into our archetypal kingliness as a king or queen and it is one of life’s greatest sadnesses that so many achieve only a diminished version of what they could be. The same discipline that Aragorn accepts after Elrond tells him that his daughter will not be “the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor or Arnor”, the discipline that takes him through years of struggle, must be undertaken by all us if we are to enter into the royalty that is our birthright. Aragorn’s path will be a lonely one for both his personal happiness as well as his royal destiny are intimately linked. Ultimately he will achieve both together but might he have chosen to shrink into one who was “only a Ranger”? Might he have withered even as Bilbo’s verse speaks about? Might he have withdrawn into the shadows of his own greatness? The answer to that question has to be yes, just as it is for all the characters in the story. As Sam Gamgee says of all heroes as he and Frodo prepare to enter Mordor, “I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t”.

Alfred the Great when all that is left of England is an island in the marshes. I chose this image to give a historical example of the long hard journey into the kingly archetype.

The Boldness of the One Necessary Deed

For a few moments before they take what rest they can Gandalf and Pippin speak together of the debate with Denethor and Faramir. For Pippin the question that is uppermost in his mind is whether there is any hope for Frodo, any hope for any of them? Gandalf’s reply is to take Denethor’s words and to make them his own.

“There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”

And even this hope, slender as it is, is shaken by news that Frodo and Sam seek to enter Mordor by way of Cirith Ungol and guided by Gollum.

But then Gandalf begins to give a little substance to his hope. The substance comprises two hobbits and their treacherous guide, a foolish hobbit gazing into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc drawn by his own curiosity, and a captain, “bold, determined, able to take his own counsel and dare great risks at need” who challenges Sauron in the very same stone. All are bold deeds, even that of Pippin’s foolish act but they amount to very little. Of themselves they will win no battles. Of themselves they cannot withstand the armies of Mordor.

But it is the boldness that exposes both Sauron’s desire and his fear. His desire we know. He desires the Ring and he desires the power that the Ring can bring him. We know that Sauron has become reduced to little more than the sum of his desire. He is no more than a bigger version of the hungry Gollum. “Eat fish every day!” When we saw that desire in Gollum we found it pathetic, even sadly laughable. Somehow when such desire is allied to power it seems to have a semblance of dignity but it is in essence the same thing, both entirely destructive and ultimately empty.

And because Sauron of his own prideful choice can see all reality only in terms of scale, “who or what is bigger or smaller than he is?”, he has a strange and fearful vulnerability. The foolish boldness of Frodo and Sam is something that does even enter his calculations. The Council of Elrond declared that at the very outset of Frodo’s mission. It is an action that is beneath even his contempt and certainly outside of his understanding. No one who possesses the Ring could possibly do so with the intention of not using it, even destroying it! This is the weakness that Frodo and Sam expose.

But there is also something that Aragorn’s boldness exposes and that is his fear. All things seek to hide from Sauron. Until now even Aragorn has done so. Now he challenges him face to face, the heir of Isildur displaying Narsil, the sword that once took the Ring from Sauron’s finger, reforged. This alone brings doubt into Sauron’s mind but it is connected to something else and that is to Pippin’s foolishness. Sauron has seen the face of a hobbit, associating it with the fall of Saruman. Does the heir of Isildur possess the Ring? And so he launches his attack just a little too soon.

What hope Gandalf can find in this remains slender. All that he can offer to Pippin at the end in response to Pippin’s anxiety about Gollum is one of those proverbs that can mean either one thing or another. You take your choice. But Gandalf takes his leave of Pippin with a firm “Good night!” and his determination is renewed.

Such boldness is what is meant by the story that Jesus told in the Gospels of the man who on finding the treasure in the field goes away and sells all that he has in order to buy the field. At that moment there remains no more place for calculation only for the deed. This does not mean that such recklessness becomes the determining principle for every action. There is a place for caution and for prudence especially when care for others is concerned but happy is the one who listens so carefully that they know that all caution must be set aside for the one necessary deed.