With all the work I am doing with the friars here in Australia, and with the men’s retreat I gave over the weekend, I have not been able to do much blogging, but I thought I would begin again with some reflections that I made during the retreat. The theme was “The Return of the Church Militant,” which of course is a play on Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
Fourteen men attended the retreat over the weekend. Unfortunately, we Yanks were not aware that there were national elections across Australia on Saturday, for which voting is mandatory by law, so the men had to work around their voting obligation to attend the retreat. All in all, it was very successful.
During the retreat, I mentioned something Chesterton had once written about, namely, that all of us are “kings in disguise.” The idea is that all of us have a kingly destiny through Baptism; however, we are fallen from that dignity and are fighting to recover it. I would seem that Tolkien may have been influenced by this notion in his development of Aragorn’s character. On Saturday night I gave a little talk on Tolkien and developed the following ideas. We then sat down and watched the extended version of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King.
In The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth finds itself in a time of great need. The shadow of Mordor lengthens. The elves are leaving Middle Earth for the Western Shores, and men have become weak and leaderless. Aragorn is one of the Dúnedain, a man of the West from the Northern Kingdom and the lost heir to the throne of Gondor. Few know his true identity, though. He is a ragged and grim wanderer, more a vagabond than a king, as far as the eye could discern.
When we meet him in the Prancing Pony at Bree, he is one big question mark. Both the innkeeper Butterbur and Frodo himself are uncomfortable, to say the least, with the grimy man, quietly smoking his pipe in the corner. In fact, Strider, as he is called, and the other Rangers keep their business to themselves. They come and go, always in a rush, sometimes are not seen for months and when they return are tightlipped about where they have been. No one knows exactly what they are up to, and that alone makes them suspect. Strider was even an enigma to Tolkien himself when he first met him in Bree: “Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than Frodo” (Letters, 163, p. 216).
Tolkien eventually discovered that Strider was connected to his older mythology concerning Númenor. He is Aragorn son of Arathorn, a descendant of the Númenorian kings and heir to the long vacant throne of Gondor. The Rangers are actually his kinsfolk, members of the once great people of the Northern Kingdom, fallen from their glory into a long purgation and mendicancy. They have become men of the wild, scouts and hunters, but still men of noble lineage and great virtue.
What appears to Butterbur and many others, including the Hobbits, as a creepy and secretive way of life, was actually a “knighthood” of the greatest nobility. These descendants of the Númenorian kings, now deprived of all territory and recognition, secretly protect the Northern lands from incursion by the enemy in the South. In fact, in the Third Age, the Hobbits of the Shire, maintain an idyllic life, largely due to the protection provided by the Rangers who patrol the borders of the Shire. Their secrecy is a most effective tool in carrying about the task of deterring or eliminating scouts of the enemy, but it does not gain them many friends. Their true nobility of spirit subordinated any personal interest to the protection of the weak and innocent.
The Broken Blade
At the Prancing Pony, when Strider gives his explanations, Sam is not convinced, thinking that this man was indeed the grimy villain he was thought by most to be, and that the real Strider must be lying dead in a ditch somewhere. But then Tolkien tells us that Aragorn
. . .stood up and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed at his side. They did not dare move. Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly.
‘But I am the real Strider, fortunately,’ he said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or by death I can save you, I will.’
Gandalf had left a letter with Butterbur for Frodo, which the innkeeper had most unfortunately forgotten to have delivered to the Shire. When finally Frodo reaches Bree and reads it, he finds a prophecy concerning the return of the king of Gondor and an exhortation to trust the man it refers to, namely Strider:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
The broken sword of the King of Gondor, and ancient heirloom of men, is a sign of lost greatness and impending doom, yet in the hand of Aragorn it is also a sign of hope. “A light from the shadows shall spring.”
Frodo turned to the man with his hand on the hilt of his sword, towering above him:
‘Did the verses apply to you then?’ asked Frodo. ‘I could not make out what they were about. But how did you know that they were in Gandalf’s letter, if you have never seen it?’
‘I did not know,’ he answered. ‘But I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.’ He drew out his sword, and they saw that the blade was indeed broken a foot below the hilt. ‘Not much use is it, Sam?’ said Strider. ‘But the time is near when it shall be forged anew.’
I Was a Teenage Aragorn
It is worthwhile to note the difference between the way Tolkien crafted the character of Aragorn and the manner in which the script writers of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy adapted that character to the needs of creating a blockbuster. Unfortunately–and I appreciate the demands of movie adaptation and moneymaking–the Aragorn of the movie is ratcheted back from a “king in disguise” to a “king in crisis.” In the hands of the scriptwriters, Aragorn is transformed from a poor nobleman who accepts his destiny and fights against hope to achieve it for the common good, into a somewhat self-absorbed teenager with an identity crisis. To this end he receives his sword at the end of his quest, instead of wielding the broken blade with grim hope from the beginning.
When I first saw the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring and watched the heated argument between Boromir and Aragorn, I grimaced in pain. Boromir accuses the “king in disguise” of being afraid of who he is, and Aragorn contemptuously responds: “I will not lead the Ring within a hundred leagues of your city.” The unthinkable: a whiny, self-preoccupied Aragorn.
The “real” Aragorn is not unsure of his destiny, or of the right thing to do. He is only unsure of the ultimate outcome of his actions, which though it causes him great concern, does not for a moment make him doubtful of his purpose.
The Sky Grows Darker Yet
This reminds me of Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. There Alfred the Great, King of Wessex has been driven back by the Danes to the tiny island of Athelney. He has lost virtually all his territory and most of his men. Our Lady comes to him in vision and he begs Her to tell him whether there is any hope of victory against his enemies. The Blessed Virgin answers without satisfying his couriosity:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
That was all he needed to hear. No promise of victory, only of struggle, and that was enough to inspire him. His queen had spoken, and he knew the right course of action. He went forth speaking Our Lady’s words to men who would listen and soon he had a new army. To war he went because he knew he had to fight. Surrender could never be an option.
Aragorn, the king in disguise, would fight even in a hopeless cause, rather than think of himself first: “if by life or by death I can save you, I will.” His disguise is not only his physical appearance, but also his relative powerlessness, in spite his great prowess, in the face of the overwhelming odds against him.
Men of the Twilight
In Tolkien’s trilogy hope is a silken thread, fine and elegant, but thin and almost intangible. The shadows in Middle Earth are deep and lengthening as every minute passes. It is the hour for men to ascend to their rightful place as stewards of creation. But man is fallen. Even the Sword that was Broken seems to offer little hope. As Faramir says:
‘What hope have we?. . .It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think that it will do more than put off the evil day, unless other help unlooked for also comes, from Elves or Men. For the Enemy increases and we decrease. We are a failing people, a springless autumn. . . . We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with a memory of other things.’
Even so, some of these Men of the Twilight, are more than they seem to be:
‘Lonely men are we,’ Aragorn tells Boromir, ‘Rangers of the wild, hunters–but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy; for they are found in many places, not in Mordor only.’
There is unlooked for help within the heart of those upon whom rests the fate of men. The memory of other things is very much alive.
Aragorn is a type of the Baptized and Confirmed, the members of the Church Militant. We, indeed, are “kings in disguise.” No one would believe it. Even so, we hope for everything from God, though we go despised by men.
Males love a challenge, or at least like to dream about being a hero. What better motive, what graver peril, to push us out of complacence, than the threat to our eternal salvation and to those we love. We are at war, and the shadow Morgoth himself would seem as light compared to threat of our real enemy. However, even if in disguise, we are kings, with memories of other things. We have blood flowing in our veins that the world does not know. As Our Lady tells King Alfred “But the men that drink the blood of God / Go singing to their shame.” We may die fighting, but that is the victory of the Great King and ours as well.
Where Hope and Despair Are Akin
Of Aragorn it was said: “His face is sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would rise at times like a spring from the rock.” Tolkien seems to allude to St. Paul’s words: And they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them: and the rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). The king in disguise is a humble man in the heart of Christ the King.
Of course, in the end the Sword that was Broken is forged anew and Aragorn brings it to Gondor to bring the final challenge to the Shadow. The Return of the King is an act of hope against hope, a deed worthy of imitation: As Gandalf says:
‘As Aragorn has begun, so we must go on. . . . We must march out to meet [the Enemy] at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. . . We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands . . . But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
‘As I have begun, so I will go on. We now come to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. . . .’ Then he drew Anduril and held it glittering in the sun. ‘You shall not be sheathed again until the last battle is fought,’ he said.
Indeed, before the Black Gate Aragorn heeds the uncompromising call to battle, aware of his duty and his great dignity as one so called:
The sun gleamed red, and under the wings of the Nazgul the shadows of death fell dark upon the earth. Aragorn stood beneath his banner, silent and stern, as one lost in thought of things long past or far away; but his eyes gleamed like stars that shine the brighter as night deepens.
May we have the self-possessed awareness of our own dignity and destiny, and in quiet but unswerving dedication, humbly proceed to keep the faith and fight for what is true, good and beautiful. It is time to shed the disguise and claim our right to be kings.