On the Death and Birth of Aragorn

“The funeral-boat of Boromir.” Anke Katrin Eißmann. 1999.

One month ago, my fourteen-year-old daughter told me that I should write a tribute to Aragorn for March 1st, the date of his birth and his death. I was proud that she had March 1st associated with Aragorn in her mind and flattered that she would want me to write a tribute to him. Therefore, with some advanced notice and a few snow-days in the interim, I wrote it.

Near the end of my first time hearing The Lord of the Rings trilogy read out loud to me, I can remember looking back on my first impressions of Strider and hardly believing that I had once mistrusted him. Tolkien’s roguish introduction to Aragorn in the common room at The Prancing Pony is a profound reason for the love that so many have for Aragorn. We first come to know Aragorn through the eyes of the hobbits, as a relatable yet mysterious character. In the rest of the story, we are introduced to his many names and honors only gradually and in small, appreciable glimpses. Collecting together material from all of Tolkien’s writings, Aragorn is exalted virtually beyond comprehension:

  1. one of the children of Lúthien;
  2. the son of Arathorn II and his wife Gilraen;
  3. the wielder of the sword Andúril (reforged from the shards of Elendil’s sword Narsil);
  4. Isildur’s Heir and commander of the Grey Host;
  5. crowned as King Elessar Telcontar (meaning “Elfstone” and “Strider”);
  6. the restorer of the divided kingdoms of of Arnor and Gondor;
  7. the last of the Númenóreans and the Elendili in the Third Age;
  8. the first king of the Forth Age;
  9. the last of the Dúnedain or Rangers of the North;
  10. and the husband of Arwen (son-in-law of Elrond), therefore a re-uniter of the two Half-elven families (Arwen being the daughter of the immortal Elrond and Aragorn being the 60th-generation descendant of Elrond’s twin brother, Elros, who chose mortality).

Long before Frodo Baggins encountered Strider just outside of the firelight in the inn at Bree, Tolkien himself had already been loving and developing Aragorn’s elaborate family story for several decades. Tolkien started to write the story of Aragorn’s exalted linage in 1914 at age 22 while serving in World War I, and Tolkien did not start connecting his humble hobbit story (written in the 1930s) to the story of Aragorn’s epic heritage until 24 years later in 1938 at age 46. These older epics were not inspired by Aragorn but led up to him, and they were not published until after Tolkien’s death (when they were first collected as The Silmarillion). This blending of worlds in The Lord of Ring ended up taking many years and being written in large part as a series of chapter-letters to his son who was serving in World War II. We hobbit-like people of this current age (pragmatic and democratic to a fault) are virtually incapable of reverencing Aragorn’s illustrious ancestry (the content of Tolkien’s first and deepest love). We fans are blessed indeed that Tolkien thought of hobbits in his midlife and then eventually found a way to bring them into contact with Aragorn and his world. This happy collision guided us gently into the final days of the Maiar, high elves, ents, and Númenóreans.

Aragorn ends up playing an essential part in this wooing of our imaginations when we first encounter him as the despised and enigmatic Strider. When Aragorn stands up to reveal his power and authority to Frodo and the other hobbits (leaving them with a terrible decision to make), this rough-looking Ranger of the North becomes a critical link between the humdrum world of the Shire and the mythic world of ancient men and elves. Aragorn’s own suffering in life had prepared him to play this part graciously and well. He was never frustrated by the ignorance of those around him regarding the many legends, peoples, and royal families of which he knew so much. One example of this is when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas explain to an impatient and suspicious troop of the Riders of Rohan that they are tracking two hobbits. A rider standing beside Éomer replied with a laugh:

“Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

Aragorn, more than most men, could do both. He could stride the green earth in daylight while defending the truth that we also walk in legends.

In his early years, Tolkien was systematically creating a mythic backstory that the barbarians of his island did not have. Tolkien literally worked backwards from the oldest languages and stories of his island peoples, creating the histories and the word-roots of multiple languages in a process of reverse-evolutionary legend-making. With the Númenóreans of Aragorn’s family tree, Tolkien was giving a proper mythic ancestry to kings such as Arthur (late 400s to early 500s), Alfred the Great (c. 847 to 899), Cnut the Great (c. 995 to 1035), and William the Conqueror (c. 1028 to 1087). By the time that Tolkien was finished, he had carefully crafted multiple languages and evolving alphabets (of elves, men, and dwarves) as well as complex dynasties for each of these races that covered many generations—leading all the way back to the singing into existence of the world by an exhaled order of powers who directly served Eru Ilúvatar (in the high elvish language of Quenya, Eru means “The One” or “He that is Alone” while Ilúvatar means “Allfather”).

Tolkien was filling in (for his own delight, initially) stories that sit behind the misty past of the English-speaking peoples—working in a layer of mythic time that was equivalent to the places of Cain, Seth, Enoch, Nimrod, and Solomon within the stories of the Semitic peoples from the Fertile Crescent to Ethiopia. This project was certainly born out of a great love for his own English people, but it was not done under the assumption that his ancestry was somehow uniquely noble. German Nazi’s were interested in having his books translated into German, and sent a letter to his publisher praising the books and asking if they could verify Tolkien’s ancestry. Disgusted by this inquiry, Tolkien wrote (on July 25, 1938):

If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Aragorn stands at the beginning of the age of men (were Tolkien leaves off all of his story telling), and it is clear that Aragorn’s linage extends to the people of today. Tolkien clearly desired to give the English people a mythic ancestor who could be a worthy source of pride. Aragorn himself honored all men and races of creatures, elevating the hobbits above himself at several points. Tolkien’s images of evil in his works speak boldly against all forms of corrosive power and pride. We see a portrait of this worthy ancestor that Tolkien wanted to give to his own English people in these words of Legolas:

In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.

However, with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien achieved far more than the story of a particular people. Anyone can learn to love Aragorn and the fellowship of which he becomes a part. Harper Collins publishing house reports official translations into 39 languages, and fans report quite a few more.

In college, a group of four dear friends and I began to call ourselves the Dúnedain. I do not want to take this tribute in a personal direction and to pay honor to myself, but I want to illustrate my own gratitude. Without presuming to speak for these friends, I can say that my own love for Aragorn was focused on his most relatable and basic of human traits: the loss of his parents as a child (to learn only late in life of his royal lineage), the long line of exiled and hidden kings before him, the love of a woman whose character and beauty humbles him, the endurance (along with his comrades) of mistrust and suffering while waiting in the wilderness over many years, his long watch-keeping on the outskirts of the Shire, his faithfulness to Gandalf through many risky and (sometimes) pointless-seeming assignments, his respect and care for a noblewoman who falls in love with him, his compassion for the fall of a great lord who could not pass by the opportunity to seize power in an attempt to restore his people and achieve much good. This long list fits into simple and familiar categories that anyone can appreciate.

But perhaps Aragorn’s most endearing quality in the end is his respect for the hobbits, his great faithfulness to them, and his ultimate trust in them. He starts by giving them the freedom to accept his help or not. He trusts them to take on the greatest task alone. He tracks two of them over many weary days in almost utter hopelessness. And he places them on his own throne at the end of all their labors. Aragorn admired the Shire-folk deeply, and this enduring love makes his humanity clear.

These simple qualities won my heart as a child and have left me (along with many dear friends and family) profoundly indebted. In later years, I came to learn that Aragorn followed in an ancient tradition of those who died on the day of their birth and of those who foresaw their coming death and accepted it immediately, with complete peace and contentment. However, these higher and mythic qualities are not what first won my heart. To this day, these epic elements only point me remotely to values and stories that I can barely comprehend. Like many others who have come to love Aragorn in the 64 years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, I’m still learning what this love means, and I expect to continue learning this until my own death.

“Strider.” Oil on hardboard, 24″ x 30.” ©2010 Matthew Stewart.

he says your beer is always good

Some more favorites bits from reading Tolkien’s The Return of the King with the kids:

Celeborn and Galadriel … had journeyed thus far by the west-ways, for they had much to speak of with Elrond and with Gandalf, and here they lingered still in converse with their friends. Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under teh stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro. (book VI, chapter 6)

[Gandalf speaking:] “But if you would know, I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.” (book VI, chapter 7)

[Butterbur speaking about the new king:] “Though I’m sure I don’t know why he should, sitting in his big chair up in his great castle, hundreds of miles away. And drinking wine out of a golden cup, I shouldn’t wonder. What’s The Pony to him, or mugs o’ beer? Not but what my beer’s good, Gandalf. It’s been uncommon good, since you came in the autumn of last year and put a good word on it. And that’s been a comfort in trouble, I will say.”
“Ah!” said Sam. “But he says your beer is always good.”
“He says?”
“Of course he does. He’s Strider. The chief of the Rangers. Haven’t you got that into your head yet?”
It went in at last, and Butterbur’s face was a study in wonder. (book VI, chapter 7)