“Aragorn is the epic/romantic hero,” says Verlyn Flieger in Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero. “Frodo is the little man of fairy tale.” I do not dispute this characterization of the duel heroes of The Lord of the Rings, or that, as Flieger says, “the balance between the two heroes … widens and deepens the meaning of Tolkien’s tale”. Rather I believe that this “balance” is more equal: both Frodo and Aragorn are “little men” in big stories, as well as “kings” among smaller folk. In fact Aragorn is as much of an unlikely hero as Frodo, and their relationship is less one of contrast than as two incarnations of one of the central themes of The Lord of the Rings: that is, hidden beauty, and the birth of greatness in humble beginnings.
Against the long shadow cast by the great deeds of Aragorn in the tale’s later sections, it may be forgotten that “Strider”, as he first appeared in the Prancing Pony, was no epic hero. The Strider of Book I’s eponymous chapter is but a dubious, shadowy figure in the corner of the room, thoroughly unremarkable beyond his exceptionally travel-worn appearance (he is so thoroughly “low” as to be an outcast even among the very earthy men and hobbits of the East Farthing). “A strange looking weather-beaten man,” he appears to Frodo, and not particularly savory at that. Fliger characterizes him as “a character out of the mythic American West - the stranger in town” (126), and that description fits Strider to a T - he is at once unremarkable and exceptional, a figure capable of blending in to a crowd but always a foreigner to its people. “His ways were hard and long, and he became somewhat grim to look upon,” says Tolkien of Aragorn.
But, like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Strider “the grim stranger” is also a man of hidden depths, despite his ragged appearance. “'It would take more than a few days, or weeks, or years, of wandering in the Wild to make you look like Strider,' he says of himself. 'And you would die first, unless you are made of sterner stuff than you look to be.'” And Strider, like the hobbits he is speaking to and many other “small” folk besides, is indeed made of sterner stuff than he looks to be.
It is true that Aragorn’s subsequent exploits, and the manner in which he accomplishes them, can at times make him seem like a larger than life figure, and a truly “epic” hero in the vain of Beowulf, Sigurd, Galahad and the like. Flieger categorizes him as a member of the “fair unknown,” (126), a well-worn trope in Medieval romance, and posits that his destined greatness and kingly mien renders him more difficult to relate to than Frodo, or somehow less real. “In the transition from Strider to Aragorn much of that folk-hero quality is lost, and with it his hold on our imagination… we admire him, but we do not identify with him.” (124)
Here I disagree. While his destined path to kingship may transform him from a dusty vagrant to a shining king, in my reading of his character arc I do not see Strider as being truly left behind in favor of a perfect, unassailable Aragorn. Rather the great deeds of King Elessar are made all the more impressive and inspiring when set against the anonymity and laughing self-doubt and deprecation of old Strider, a man who would have been as out of place in Minas Tirith as Pippin but who later came to sit on the throne of Gondor.
The story of Aragorn is symbolic of one of Tolkien’s central concerns in his mythology, that being the value of “low” things, and the beauty hidden beneath their humble exteriors. Is it any coincidence that athelas, the balm of kings in Tolkien’s legendarium, seems to be only a common herb to the folk of Gondor? “'Tis a strange name,” says one charismatic healer of the plant Aragorn calls “kingsfoil”, “and I wonder why 'tis called so; for if I were a king, I would have plants more bright in my garden.” But where some would prize “brightness” and beauty,
Tolkien places a thing’s worth on its use*, and small wonder that the most precious things in Middle Earth - not gold or jewels, but love, kinship, good food - are among the most common, and find their best use among the “smallest” folk of Middle Earth. And the old healer Ioreth does, at the end, seem to recognize the worth of such things: “Still it smells sweet when bruised, does it not? If sweet is the right word: wholesome, maybe, is nearer.'”
*I’m reminded of Tennyson here, of whom I’m sure Tolkien was fond:
"I once was looking for a magic weed,
And found a fair young squire who sat alone,
Had carved himself a knightly shield of wood,
And then was painting on it fancied arms,
Azure, an Eagle rising or, the Sun
In dexter chief; the scroll 'I follow fame.'
And speaking not, but leaning over him,
I took his brush and blotted out the bird,
And made a Gardner putting in a graff,
With this for motto, 'Rather use than fame.'
You should have seen him blush; but afterwards
He made a stalwart knight.
“Merlin and Vivien”