Monday, June 2, 2014

Like a spring from the rock: Aragorn, kingsfoil and the use of small things

“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”


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I also tend to disagree with part of Flieger’s argument, in particular when she distinguishes Aragorn from Frodo by saying that “He is above the common herd. … We are not like him, and we know it. We admire him, but we do not identify with him” (Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero, page 124). This is all mostly true (although I do think that we can at least partially identify with him), but I do not think it is any truer for Aragorn than for any of the other heroes in The Lord of the Rings.
    I, in fact, have always felt like I can identify more with Aragorn than I can with many hobbits. (Not that I can totally identify with him. He is, indeed, larger than life.) I personally have always thought of Aragorn as a TCK (third culture kid), that is a person who has grown up between different cultures, and because of this can adapt well to either one, or even other new cultures. I doubt that Tolkien intended to make Aragorn a TCK (the term and the study of this phenomena is rather recent), and I may only think of him as such because, as a TCK myself, I tend to look for TCKs in all my favorite stories. However, I think it is a testament to Tolkien’s skill as a sub-creator that Aragorn fits this category so well. The most important characteristic that Aragorn shows is his ability to adapt to any situation. When we talked about style earlier this quarter, we pointed out how Aragorn can change the register of his speech to match that of his audience. As you said, Aragorn does not totally leave behind Strider to become King Elessar. But I would go further than to say that this simply makes his story more impressive. I would say that it is his experience as Strider, and all of his other earlier experiences that make it possible for him to later be “above the common herd”.

  2. Will, thanks for the provocative post. I think the one thing you leave out that may tell against you is the fact that Aragorn is actually rather superhuman, being of Númenorean descent. He’s longer-lived, faster, hardier, taller, etc. etc. etc. than your average Man of Middle Earth (can you blame Éowyn for swooning?), pretty much by definition. I think his conflicted disinclination to claim his throne is a very important part of his story arc (and so compelling that the movie makers never manage to really show him emerging as the unconflicted King).

    I think you’re right that Aragorn seems to be the everyman hero who emerges from nowhere, but he is in fact the Lost King, a high Romantic figure, not the common man who has greatness thrust upon him. (Ask me to rant for about ten hours how George Lucas screwed up all of Star Wars by violating his democratic, everyman hero and making him a Lost Prince. Wait, don’t, I don’t want to have a stroke. Not so subtle, but quick to anger here. Lucaaaaaaaaaas!)

    So, wait, where was I…great argument, I don’t quite buy it, but it’s well-made and well-sold, and rests on some inarguably important facts we didn’t address deeply in class. So, yeah, well done!

    —Bill the Heliotrope

  3. I like your treatment of Aragorn here, and definitely think that Aragorn is just as much (or little) of a hero as Frodo. You alluded to this, but I think that while Aragorn could be seen as much as a romantic or epic hero as Frodo, perhaps Tolkien did not intend for Aragorn/Strider to be a hero, but rather a figure which takes the place of a hero. That is, perhaps Aragorn, a man who eventually ascends the throne of Gondor, is not really an epic hero in the tradition of Beowulf, but merely alludes to the “hero-figure” present in all those myths Tolkien translated and read; Aragorn acts as a hero, but does not fit the role in LoTR, as there really is no place for an epic hero. I do like your criticism of Flieger, but you could take it further by saying that Frodo, being a manifestation of all those immaterial good things, is the true “hero” or center of this story which involves not people, but abstract forces (although Tolkien himself would hate to say this). Desperately searching for a true hero may be futile if Tolkien never intended there to be one in the first place.

    Scotty Campbell