Strider, Aragorn, Longshanks, Telcontar, Elessar, and several other names come to mind for this particular character. But the first impression a non-Tolkien outsider would get from a man who has a dozen aliases is that he was probably a criminal. Maybe they’d think he was constantly moving from place to place, switching names because he was the equivalent of a modern-day “identity thief” who was on the lam! Funny how things in our modern world don’t always reflect clearly on mythology.
Aragorn is the kind of character that demands a closer look. You must remember the speech that Shrek gives to Donkey about ogres being a lot like onions: “We have layers!” I would also like to use the onion metaphor for Strider. But wait — that’s just one layer. Peel away a bit and you’ll find the outcast orphan-lad who was taken in by the Elves; his mother desperate for some protection. Peel away more layers to find within a skillful fighter, a passionate lover, a delicate negotiator with a voice of great wisdom, a healer and master of herb-lore, and yes… in the very center of his heart, underneath it all, is a King.
It’s no small wonder readers and movie-goers are fascinated by Aragorn. Women of all ages swoon over Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of this multi-faceted character. No one can possibly imagine Stuart Townsend taking the role, not at this point (sorry Stuart). Men have found themselves admiring a new hero on the silver screen: as cool a cat as Errol Flynn and as swashbuckling as Harrison Ford. “This guy is great, man, he can kick-ass and has all the ladies in Middle-earth after him!”
Yes, but I must remind you that that ‘matinee idol’ image of Aragorn is just the surface. This man has so much on his plate, is so burdened by worries and duty and the hardships of his life, that we can’t help but admire the TRUE Aragorn that’s underneath the rugged exterior. I say the true Aragorn is proven by his actions. Yes, he is truly the Ranger, leader, lover, and King that fills Tolkien’s pages and fills our daydreams.
But he is only able to succeed (for himself and for all us readers) because he proves himself. The verb “to prove” has several meanings. You could say the actual word prove is like an onion too. Proving a thing is true can be done by establishing it with facts and evidence. To prove the existence of the King, and his rightful claim to the throne, you have to show clear facts; real things in the physical world that show Aragorn is the heir. So Aragorn is given the Elessar by Galadriel:
“In this hour,” she said, “take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the Elendil.”
A beautiful eagle-shaped brooch, given with love but also with a sense of hanging doom. But the mere possession of this Elessar does not prove he’s the King — let us not overstate the obvious here. I can also find the passage in Appendix A where Elrond gives Aragorn the Ring of Barahir and the Shards of Narsil. There is also the stunning Sceptre of Annúminas, which Elrond refused to give to the young man at first.
Funny. The Elven Lord of Imladris refused to give Aragorn the great Sceptre. Let’s think about that. No matter what kinds of jewelry, crowns, baubles, or finery you have accumulated, you really aren’t the King just by possessing such items. Holding up the reforged Andúril to glimmer in the light does not a King make. Aragorn could have trotted off to Minas Tirith, entered the Citadel with all his fine raiment and his new sword, and walking right up to Denethor declared: “Here I am! Bow down to me!” Doesn’t take much imagination to guess the Steward’s response.
Speaking of inherited artifacts, that creepy little Palantír belongs to Aragorn too, I should note. It is an heirloom of his own house. None of the Stones belong to Saruman or Sauron or Denethor. When Aragorn reveals his true identity to the Dark Lord, using the Stone from Orthanc…. just think! It is a critical turning point in his life: and a turning point in the story. This Ranger from the North is no longer in hiding. He controls the Seeing Stone like a finely tuned instrument, and gives the Enemy a sucker-punch right in the gut. I can imagine the wild fear and hatred that Sauron must have felt! So Aragorn comes closer to proving himself.
Now this is the crux of the matter. This is the true meaning of the verb “to prove.” Peel off another layer of that onion. To prove something you have to test it. You have to put it out there. See how it stands up. That is the Kingly Proof we are looking for.
Aragorn had to prove himself, his worth, and his lineage throughout the War of the Ring. Every task put at Aragorn’s feet, all the difficult choices and furious events, every step forward where his credibility was on the line, was part of his ongoing test. He had to prove that everything hanging over him was indeed his own right to become King. And like Atlas destined to carry such a massive weight, Aragorn proves he is strong enough to hold himself up.
It’s a theme we see often in Tolkien’s world. Characters are pushed to their own personal limits. Sometimes they are given a moral dilemma that must be conquered. Sometimes an army of Orcs. Whatever the test, we are enthralled to read of Aragorn’s exploits. We sense that something inside of him is waking up. It’s something very strange indeed to know that you must prove yourself. I sometimes think it is easier on a person if they don’t know what is at stake. But throughout LOTR Aragorn is painfully aware.
He is not given the Scepter of his forefathers because Elrond doesn’t believe he is yet proven. He is not allowed the hand of Arwen either “….until the time comes and you are found worthy of it.” Going off into the Wild and becoming extremely close in friendship with Gandalf (some would say becoming an apprentice) is how Aragorn responds to this. He must survive many journeys and succeed at many challenges against the Enemy. What must it have felt like for him?
Using the name Strider (or any alias) the servants of the Enemy would not to find him. What a strange dilemma. He had to simultaneously hide himself from Sauron and fight against his encroaching evil as well. All the time thinking to himself that the might of ancient Númenor was flowing like blood in his veins. All the time wondering if he’d be strong enough to live through it. And certainly his own internal conflicts made it more difficult.
Aragorn had so many tests to prove himself it makes your head spin:
1) help the hobbits survive cross-country
2) fend off the Nazgûl attack
3) resist the power of the Ring
4) lead the Fellowship after Gandalf’s fall
5) track down Merry and Pippin’s captors
6) inspire Théoden King at Helm’s Deep
7) survive the Battle of the Hornburg
8) use the Palantír against the will of Sauron
9) traverse the Paths of the Dead and recruit the Oathbreakers
10) defeat the Corsairs of Umbar
11) come swooping in to save the day on the Pelennor Fields
12) heal many suffering and wounded with athelas
13) dismiss the faint-hearted with mercy
14) challenge the Mouth of Sauron and the armies of Mordor
And a dozen other things are thrown at this man that I haven’t even remembered! Does it seem to you that Aragorn was ever once given the easy way out? At what point could he reasonably raise up his hands and disavow himself from all of it? Shouting to the night in exasperation, “Enough already! How much more can I take?”
Yet he never does. And we learn something profound about this man from the fact that he endures so much.
So there you have the reality of “proof.” A lesser man would have been overwhelmed. Aragorn was not. He finds something in his soul that keeps him going. But what is it really? Can we find that final layer underneath it all? What makes Aragorn so strong from within?
The key, I think, is found when the Grey Company rides down from the North, finding Aragorn and the others on the fields of Rohan at night. Halbarad and the other Dúnedain bring him messages and a gift from Arwen. She spent many weeks making a great standard for him to unfurl at the appropriate time. The standard of the White Tree, the mark of Elendil’s house, “wrought in mithril and gold.” She is giving him, in essence, the final acknowledgment that he will become King. That she believes in him no matter what. Something inside Aragorn shifts into place. Tolkien is quietly showing us the point of no return for this character. It is such a revealing moment, yet handled with great subtlety, indeed there is danger the reader might miss it. Aragorn finds his greatest strength from Arwen’s love. He remembers the price she must pay to love him, becoming mortal herself. We must also realize she is paying the ultimate price to be at his side.
Aragorn will pass any test to honor Arwen’s heart — to justly respect and honor what she is giving up for him. He decides to make his heart equally as strong as hers. He is keenly aware of her sacrifice, and it weighs on everything he does. If need be, he will prove himself to the final end of ends. He will fly down the fury of all Sauron’s armies, all the treacherous paths of the world, conquering the Enemy from within and without to honor her. Aragorn’s choices and actions show the true measure of his worth, especially because he understands what others are giving up for him.
That is proof enough for me.
This article was originally posted on October 3rd 2003 as part of our Green Books area.