The evolution of Aragorn

Bellerophon and the Chimaera
Bellerophon and the Chimaera: artefact in the British Museum © C A Lovegrove

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.

24 thoughts on “The evolution of Aragorn

  1. Very interesting. I really credit Jackson with fleshing out aspects of both Aragorn and Arwen that are not prominent in the text, especially the loss that Elrond foretells (in the movie) as a result of an immortal marrying a mortal. It meshes with C.S. Lewis’ comment after finishing the trilogy, of how truly sad is the ending. In ROTK, the end of Arwen and Aragorn is relegated to an appendix.

    I battled through the Silmarillion in the throes of the classic “what now?” blues at the end of my first reading of LOTR. Have not and will not read it again!

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    1. Everything I read or watch informs my next re-reading of LOTR, Morgan, so I’m pleased to have read this study (and maybe even give The Return of the Shadow and The Silmarillion another go).

      I agree that the treatment of Aragorn and Arwen in the film significantly helped integrate what Tolkien left to an appendix; it works in the film but I can see why he may have felt it didn’t fit in with the rest of the trilogy.

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  2. Whether it’s true or not, I always felt that Tolkien had discovered Strider’s hidden identity in the process of writing LOTR, and with every reading (almost annually for 4 decades now — What? Is that even possible? I think I’m crazy), I enjoy watching the character evolve from the dusty and questionable Ranger to the magnificent warrior and finally to the King who unites Middle Earth. I still haven’t come to a decision about the film version of the Aragorn-Arwen saga, but the book version has always struck me as sadder than Frodo’s departure from The Grey Havens. Pippin and Merry have each other, Sam has Rosie, but Arwen has no one. The elves are gone, and her sons have their own concerns. No other story of old age has struck me as so starkly final and lonely.

    I will look for this book. I can see that it’s a must-have for this JRRT fan/atic.

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    1. I concur with both you and Morgan that Arwen’s solitude after Aragorn’s death (despite his long life) is very poignant, and I think the extended DVDs of the films helped to underline this.

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    1. I seem to remember a story about some early 20th century figure like Gurdjieff who so strongly imagined a human following his party in Central Asia that others, not suspecting his mental projection, actually claimed to have seen this figure or something like it.

      But though Strider’s appearance in Tolkien’s draft was of a slightly different order, it is surprising how characters can spring, often almost fully formed, in one’s story — rather similar to those figures who materialise in vivid dreaming.

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    1. I’m sure that Tolkien was not unaware of Oswald — and I ought to check out if he references him anywhere, I suppose — but if the sometime exiled warrior king regarded by Bede and Adomnán as saintly was a model for Aragorn he would’ve been only one of several whom Tolkien could’ve chosen; Trotter is certainly no Oswald however.

      Of course now I’ll have to look out that Adams book to see what his arguments are! And perhaps dig more into Christopher Tolkien’s monumental Middle-earth history…

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  3. Strider/Aragorn has always been my favourite character – and my vision of LOTR has always been coloured by the classic Jimmy Cauty poster he designed for Athena in 1976 (I still have a copy), so I was delighted when Viggo Mortensen so fitted my vision of Aragorn in the films, lightweight that I am. 😀

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    1. I only remember Cauty’s Glastonbury poster in the 1970s, the only LOTR one being Pauline Baynes’ map of Middle-earth. I admit I can’t see Aragorn represented on Cauty’s LOTR poster, sorry!

      Mortensen is Aragorn as well, as far as I’m concerned; Bakshi’s Aragorn was always too stout, as I thought when I first saw his truncated LOTR in the cinema.

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      1. I only read LOTR for the first time (although I had read the Hobbit multiple times before) at around the time that poster came out. Why he left Aragorn off I don’t know, but it fits well with the Jackson films. Y’know, I’ve never seen the Bakshi animation (was probably very sniffy about it at the time!) – You’re right, his Aragorn is wrong!

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        1. The Bakshi version has lots to commend it, and you can see a fair bit of its influence on Jackson’s own aporoach; it’s just a shame it was never finished because, technical warts and all, it was still largely faithful to both text and its spirit.

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          1. I’m going to look for this book. Aragorn was, for me in 1986, the key character in the trilogy, and the snippet of backstory in the appendix sent me to The Silmarillion, which I finished but only through sheer bloody mindedness. I can’t say I enjoyed it or remember anything of it!

            I wanted Aragorn to be real. He was the imperfectly perfect antihero that stitched the trilogy together for me, right from his first appearance. That Tolkien was getting to know him as he wrote him makes sense. I felt that I was doing the same, more than for any other character.

            I couldn’t bear Peter Jackson’s films. I watched the first, slept through the second and didn’t bother with any more. Mortensen was the only good thing about the first film.

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            1. I don’t mind Jackson’s films, for all their imperfections (and there are many) and there are many occasions when I think they get it right — if only one could re-edit them and excise the ill-conceived parts! I watch the extended DVD edition every now and then with crucial character developments and plot details restored (such as Saruman’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance in the cinema release, though Jackson transposes Grima Wormtongue’s final act to another occasion).

              Viggo Mortenson was the heart and soul for me too in much of the film. I’ve an interesting essay to discuss in a review I hope to post in the coming weeks about how men in particular are drawn to Mortenson’s portrayal of Aragorn.

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            2. I’ll look forward to reading that. I’m enjoying going back to find your Talking Tolkien posts, being relatively new to your blog (thank you Paula and Dewithon!).

              I think my response to the films, to almost all films adapted from books that I love, is because I’m an immersive reader, transported by my imagination thoroughly into my own envisioned version of the author’s world, so that another person’s envisioning rarely matches my own. Your discussion of the reader feeling able to make their own interpretation of a fantasy world rang true with me.

              I also feel that Mortensen is a rare actor. Whatever I’ve seen him in, he’s been thoroughly convincing.

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            3. I’m always anxious when books I’ve enjoyed are slated for some kind of adaptation, conflicted because the new version might have something interesting to say, on the one hand, but on the other hand because it might completely betray what made the book worthwhile in the first place. In these discussions I’m trying very hard to go to the source, interrogate it fairly and consider what true scholars had to say in the past.

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  4. I’m with Annabel: Strider/Aragorn was always my favourite character and Mortensen was perfect for the role. Though I claim it was among my most favourite reads, I’ve only read LotR twice, once as a child & once to my own children. One of those occasions where I’ve worried that to revisit might ruin the magic. But I’m starting to think that maybe it’s time to try again. Many years have passed since that last reading!

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    1. I shall eventually be reviewing a book of essays, one of which does focus on Mortenson’s appeal as Aragorn, so I’ll leave discussion of that until later, but I agree, he gives the trilogy a sense of integrity, pbysical presence, gravitas and above all credibility which it’s hard not to like and respect.

      If it’s any help, Sandra, each time I’ve read it I’ve discovered new things about it that I seemed to have missed before, none of which has impeded my enjoyment; and those new aspects have probably been picked up on because my personal priorities change and I then sense them in the text.

      Where jeopardy and otherworldliness may have attracted me in my teens, loyalty and poetry, say, may draw my attention more now. I’m sure you’ll find the same as it seems to be the reason so many of us for for multiple reads.

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