The Two Aragorns
Updated: Apr 28
Last week I posted essays on Treebeard and Faramir, two noble characters from the Lord of the Rings whom, I argued, Peter Jackson "unforgivably" depicts as less good than they really are. There are, it turns out, two Treebeards and two Faramirs.
There are also two Aragorns. I've delayed writing this one, and the next--on Gandalf--partly because the main details from the films I'll be relying on to make my case are a little more open to interpretations different from the one I'll be offering. So some might think that the case for two Aragorns isn't as strong as the cases for the earlier pair of pairs. But the other reason for delay is that the way Aragorn is desecrated is harder for folks nowadays to care about.
We tend not to admire people who are great, and know it, and expect others to know it, too. In short, we tend not to admire the virtue of magnanimity. And Aragorn is magnanimous.
By 'magnanimity' here I intend roughly Aristotle's meaning. For him, magnanimity is a sort of crowning virtue, a virtue conditional on having the other virtues. The magnanimous person is truly great, and knows it. Aristotle's word literally means 'hugeness of soul'; sometimes the word is translated as 'pride'.
Our resistance to magnanimity has many explanations, no doubt, but I think near the top of any list of explanation should be that we are still haunted by vestiges of the Judeo-Christian morality and anthropology which has shaped us. We are vaguely aware of meek Jesus showing up pompous Pharisees, of the Beatitudes and their promise of blessing to the poor in spirit, and of the Bible's pervasive warnings against pride. Then there is one of the scriptural bases for the scriptural injunction to humility: none of us is great! Our righteousness is as filthy rags, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, etc. So not only does the Bible tells us to be meek and mild; it tells us that these are the appropriate attitudes for sinners like us.
But all of this morality of meekness must be understood as the teaching of the Greatest Man ever, so great he was God's equal, whose humbling of himself only makes sense as an astonishing mystery if we take as granted his greatness. The humility of Christ is not like the humility of a hobbit. Frodo and Sam's great victory is astonishing because they are humble hobbits; Christ's humility is astonishing because he is God incarnate. What Christ shows us is not that there is no place for magnanimity in the moral life. Instead, he shows what form magnanimity should take: the greatness of the great flowing down to the small in a river of Mercy.
But having this moral framework knocking around our minds in a distorted way, with just the reminders that we're rotten sinners and therefore ought to be humble, would tend to make us suspicious of anyone exuding an odor of greatness: he is vainglorious, or he is self-deceived, or both. Hence our affinity for heroes who overcome great personal struggles in their heroism, and especially those who are able to be heroic precisely because they finally overcome personal struggles.
Book Aragorn is a humble and compassionate man. Knowing exactly what he is, he spends several years of his life doing little besides guarding the Shire from bad guys. The people of Bree view him as an eccentric and somewhat dangerous traveler, but he is not offended by their cold treatment and does what he can, unnoticed, to protect their way of life. In Rivendell he takes time out from graver matters and puts heads together with Bilbo to help the old hobbit with his poetry. Much later, after the battle of the Pelennor Field, Aragorn will not stay within the city walls of Minas Tirith, yet enters at night in secret, to heal the wounded in the Houses of Healing. His healing art is spiritual as much as it is medical, for as he tends Faramir, he "held a hand upon his brow. And those that watched felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn's face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked afar in some dark vale, calling for one that was lost."
This humility and compassion are all the more lovable, however, because Aragorn is a great man. There are many passages in which those around him suddenly see him for a second, like so many little transfigurations, as he really is: a great king. In Rivendell, Frodo glimpses Aragorn standing by the seated Arwen and Elrond: his "dark cloak was thrown back, and he seemed to be clad in elven-mail, and a star shone on his breast." And later, as the Fellowship travel down Anduin, they behold the Argonath, the megalithic carved "Pillars of Kings" proclaiming the rule of Numenor. Frodo feels "awe and fear" at the sight, but Aragorn says, "Fear not!" When Frodo turns to look at him, he "saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eye: a king returning from exile into his own land."
Movie-Aragorn is very good at the humility, and not at all good at the greatness, of Aragorn. Movie-Aragorn begins the story an insecure, reluctant leader, written off by his own foster father Elrond. Before setting out from Rivendell, he tells Elrond, "I do not want that power," referring to his unique power rightly to wield the reforged sword of Elendil.
Also in Rivendell, he tells Arwen, pensively, reflecting on his forbear Isildur, who captured the Ring from Sauron but refused to destroy it, that "the same blood flows through my veins; the same weakness":
Of course we know that Aragorn, including movie-Aragorn, is not weak at all. He is in fact the most reliably noble Man in the whole of the film trilogy. As in the book, he joins the Fellowship to assist Frodo in his quest to destroy the Ring. When Gandalf falls in Moria he takes charge of the company, guiding them to Lothlorien and then down the Anduin River, before the Fellowship breaks up at Parth Galen. He leads the long pursuit of Merry and Pippin when they are captured and, once reunited with the risen Gandalf, journeys to Rohan in time to take the leading part in the battle of Helm's Deep. As the Rohirrim are mustering to join with Gondor in the war against Mordor, movie-Aragorn heeds the wisdom of Elrond to take instead the "Paths of the Dead," a second dark journey through the hear of the mountains, to summon the accursed army to fulfill their oath to Elendil by following Elendil's heir to war against Sauron. (In the book, Elrond's advice is conveyed by Elrond's son, Elrohir, who with his brother joined a company of Dunedain Rangers who ride to Rohan in aid of their lord Aragorn.) Aragorn's army, sailing up Anduin on the Corsair ships, arrives in the nick of time and proves decisive in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. And it is Aragorn who advises the lords of Gondor and Rohan to ride to the Black Gate itself, tempting Sauron to empty Mordor and give Frodo and Sam the best shot at destroying the Ring forever.
Like Faramir, Aragorn is not attracted to the Ring. He and Faramir, perhaps alone of all men, can be trusted not to take the Ring. Movie-Faramir, of course, could not be trusted. Movie-Aragorn has just one moment of weakness when it comes to the Ring. At Amon Hen, after Boromir has tried to take the Ring and the Uruk-hai have finally caught up with the Fellowship, Aragorn frantically searches for Frodo...to protect him, of course, but...to protect the Ring also? For a few seconds it looks like Aragorn too might be overcome by the same desire as Boromir:
While I dislike this tease, it does provide the occasion for some of my favorite shots of the whole film: Aragorn kneeling before Frodo, closing Frodo's hand over the Ring with his own, assuring Frodo he would have gone with him "to the end, into the very fires of Mordor," before removing his hands in a gentle gesture of disavowal.
Nothing I've said so far about movie-Aragorn is quite "unforgivable," even if his anxious lines about not wanting power and being weak reveal a different approach to character and storytelling than Tolkien himself had. Other changes in the films I don't much like, either, but again don't feel strongly about: Aragorn falling off the cliff during the skirmish with the warg-riders on the way to Helm's Deep, and having a bit more romantic tension in his relationship with Eowyn then the book would grant.
But there are two very dispiriting Aragorn scenes in the films, which I call unforgivable. And now it is time to write about them. The first concerns Aragorn's attempt to win control of a palantir from Sauron. (The palantiri are the "seeing stones" of Numenor, which were sort of like spherical FaceTime machines. Sauron has taken control of them, but they are the property of the Numenorian kings and Aragorn intends to take back what is his.)
The scene starts off just right. Aragorn is determined and announces his title and intention. But somehow Sauron is able to get into Aragorn's mind, perceiving this man's fear for his elvish beloved, Arwen. He shows Aragorn a false vision of a wan Arwen who, having abandoned her immortality (not in the book, by the way), is lying on her deathbed. Overcome, Aragorn drops the crystal ball and it shatters to the ground. The next scene shows Aragorn, grim and hopeless, riding off to Mordor, a journey from which he reasonably guesses he'll never return.
The timing and narrative purpose of this scene differs from its book version. In the film, Aragorn looks into the palantir after the Battle of the Pelennor Field, and before the Captains of the West make their last march on Mordor. It's as though Aragorn meant to tell Sauron, "Look at me; I'm the one you need to be worried about. And I'm coming for you." But he loses the battle. Sauron doesn't blink, and pushes back with images perfectly calculated to cause Aragorn to freak out, and then despair.
In the book this battle of wills occurs much earlier. Returning to Helm's Deep after their interview with the captive Saruman, Theoden's army meets up with the Dunedain who have ridden to assist Aragorn. Elrohir tells Aragorn to "remember the paths of the Dead." Uncertain what to do, he decides to consult the palantir which Saruman's miserable servant Wormtongue had tossed out of a high window of Orthanc, and which Pippin, memorably, picked up before Gandalf took charge of it. When Aragorn tells Gimli and Legolas what he has done, Gimli is horrified: "You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry! [...] Did you say aught to [Sauron]? Even Gandalf feared that encounter."
Aragorn replies sternly, "You forget to whom you speak." It seems rude, blunt like a slap in the face. But he goes on, "in a softer voice": "Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough--barely [...] It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass [...] In the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure [...] To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem [...] Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him."
Having gained control of the palantir, Aragorn uses it to learn "many things." In fact he sees the gathering of the Corsair ships at Pelargir, at the mouth of the Anduin River, and knows that if this threat is not neutralized, even the combined forces of Rohan and Minas Tirith will stand no chance in the coming battle. Taking into account Elrond's advice to remember the Paths of the Dead, and consulting with Theoden about how long it will take to muster the Rohirrim, he makes the difficult choice that sounds like insanity to Theoden: "[My kindred and I] must ride our own road, and no longer in secret. For me the time of stealth has passed. I will ride east by the swiftest way, and I will take the Paths of the Dead." Aragorn travels through the mountains, to the standing stone of Erech, where he summons his ghost army. They ride to Pelargir, commandeer the ships, and save the day at the Pelennor Field.
In the film it's less clear why Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead. He and Theoden have a little tension between them, Aragorn keen to get to Gondor as quickly as possible and Theoden a little insecure about his own abilities as a general. When movie-Elrond delivers the re-forged Narsil and urges to take the Paths of the Dead, it's as though Aragorn is just seeing his chance to get moving. The masterful strategy, made possible in the book by his victory in re-taking the palantir, to use it for his own designs, is nowhere to be found.
I don't care so much that the palantir battle scene occurs at a different spot in the film than it does in the book. What I do care about is the way movie-Aragorn's defeat in this battle detracts from his greatness, makes him seem more desperate, less courageous, almost makes his march to Mordor a rash rather than courageous move. By contrast, in the book, Aragorn's victory in the battle for the palantir is one of the great signs of his kingship. His magnanimity is on display first and foremost in the fact that he won, but also in his confidence that he had both "the right and the strength" to stand against Sauron in this way, even while Gandalf himself was afraid to do so.
The second concerns Aragorn's treacherous treatment of the treacherous "Mouth of Sauron" during their parley before the Black Gate. Now there are many details about this scene which are relevant to consider. Since the movie version of this scene desecrates both Aragorn and Gandalf, and because this post is already so long, I will keep my final comments here relatively brief and spend more time with this scene in my next post.
In this scene the Mouth, appropriately depicted as disgusting and haughty, is yammering on about how weak their army is and how much Frodo suffered. Aragorn has had enough, rides up to the side of the Mouth, and then as he is riding toward the Mouth's backside, Aragorn unsheathes his sword and without a word, decapitates him.
I was horrified the first time I saw this and I still can barely believe Peter Jackson had Aragorn do this. If you're not actively in battle, you don't kill people, and you don't attack people behind their backs. There's a reason why "stabbed in the back" is the best and most common metaphor for treachery. Even writing these words right now, I am astonished that I have to say these things about a version of Aragorn, Aragorn, the best man who ever lived in a book.
Not only is movie-Aragorn's action treacherous, it is weak. And it is especially weak when we compare it to the way in which the real Aragorn defies the Mouth of Sauron. Receiving verbal abuse from the Mouth, "Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other's eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow. 'I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!' he cried."
Peter Jackson took several ideas from this passage. There is here mention of a weapon. There is also mention of a blow. Oh yah, and Aragorn doesn't say anything. But instead of seeing here the greatness of the king who can stand before an army many times greater than his own, and with no discourtesy frighten the herald of Mordor with his eyes--instead of seeing this, or, maybe, seeing it but just not being into that sort of thing--Jackson makes movie-Aragorn do in fact what the cowardly Mouth accuses him of doing: treacherously striking a herald during a parley. Simply unforgivable.