Hobbit to Hero:
the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012
Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.
As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.
So, here we have Stephen’s study of the evolution of the character whose story in the author’s own lifetime was limited to what could be gleaned from the trilogy and one of its appendices. Now, however, we have access to shelf-loads of posthumous publications, from drafts to letters, from private musings to literary criticism, all of which throw light on a figure whose first appearance at the inn in Bree, as Tolkien wrote to Auden, was a complete shock to the author, who “had no more idea who he was then had Frodo”.*
Stephen starts by outlining Aragorn’s appearances and changing roles in The Lord of the Rings. Her first chapter introduces the faintly sinister figure of a Ranger known as Strider whose ancestry and intensions we only get to know in dribs and drabs through the three books. She then reminds us that Strider the man only gradually evolved from Trotter the hobbit, the mysterious figure Tolkien first envisaged in The Prancing Pony (and who furnishes a part explanation for this study’s title).
Chapter 3 reconstructs how Tolkien started to integrate Aragorn’s destiny with both an invented mythology and a legendary Númenor, which is followed by a chapter showing what the implications of amalgamating all these strands were for the final conception of the hero. Chapter 5 looks at the various possible and probable models for Aragorn: legendary and semi-legendary figures like Sigurd, Beowulf, Arthur and Charlemagne.
This paves the way for Stephen’s final discussion of Tolkien’s realisation of his hero as a kind of prefiguration of Christ (perhaps rather as Old Testament role models such as Melchizedek prefigured the Christ of the New Testament); in addition she discusses the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Trust for the part they play in the formation of Aragorn’s character, all testifying to Tolkien’s deeply held and abiding Catholicism.
This rather headlong dash through Stephen’s study scarcely does it justice. There is a lot of insight as well as information, and while a reader only au fait with hobbits and their adventures will struggle with the passages discussing the lengthy history and mythology of Middle Earth there is no doubting the author’s thorough exploration of Aragorn’s evolution. Over two hundred pages of text are supplemented by over fifty more pages of notes, bibliography, index and so on, while there is a previously unpublished photograph of Tolkien in 1958 gracing the front cover plus a specially commissioned painting by Ted Nasmith on the back.
The overall impression is of a labour of love, evident both from the text and the careful editing (relatively few typos, for example). This is certainly a study to read prior to a re-reading of The Lord of the Rings, and increases one’s admiration for Tolkien’s skill in allowing the reader’s focus to be on his halfings even while he was developing Aragorn to be the lynchpin of the whole saga: a simple if inflated re-run of The Hobbit it certainly wasn’t to be.
* Christopher Tolkien’s The Return of the Shadow — Volume 1 of The History of the Lord of the Rings and Volume 6 of The History of Middle-earth — chronicles the process by which the hobbit Trotter became Strider.
Repost of a review from 9th November 2013 as part of Talking Tolkien: I’m grateful to LibraryThing member Rivendell for providing a copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways.