One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.

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3 thoughts on “One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

  1. I enjoy your essays when I make time to read them.

    I’m going to throw another perspective on a point in your last sentence:

    “…a ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.” Did you mean to write it that way? If so, then I submit that Aragorn’s purpose you speak of is very personal, AND is his own. Let’s have a little fun with the hypothetical “…medieval Christian king…” and specifically, Aragorn.

    It is not possible for us to choose in any other way than that which we believe will bring some sort of improvement. The way in which we go for these improvements may look horrendous to another, but it represents some kind of betterment (at some level conscious or no) to us.

    Whether our desired improvement is only relief from a discomfort (using a gun in a robbery to relieve a sense of powerlessness, and our own hunger), or is the satisfaction and love we feel when contributing our time to charity work, we always make a choice that at some level represents some kind of improvement to us… even if in the long run, we are wrong.

    So, from my perspective, there are a few possibilities in the case of Aragorn’s nobel behavior, that I will list in order of likelihood, from my point of view:

    1) The “sole purpose” of the wellbeing (good) of his subjects IS his purpose. He OWNS it. It is a beautifully selfish purpose in that he is connected with it: connected from his soul’s own connection to Divinity on out. From the deepest part of him, he is gratified and has a sense of love as he carries out his mission. He is rewarded by his simple participation in this mission, and even at times blissful when he makes a difference—even if that difference is not recognized by his subjects. He is internally driven.

    2) He has what I call a compliant desire. Rather than directed from his soul’s sense of divinity outward, or by purpose aligned with WHO he is, he has elevated a principle he admires to a point of authority “above and outside” him. His derives some satisfaction from compliance with this principle, and sees his mission as his sacrifice to, and fulfillment of, good, according to the principle. He may feel that compliance with this principle will mean a reward in the afterlife. In this case, his desire is indirectly connected to who he is through some kind of compliance he is taught to believe in, or sees value in, but this desire lacks the power and joy of a desire that is connected to a self-aware, healthfully selfish, individual, who is operating from their own inner authority. Therefore, it is not yet TRULY his own.

    3) A little of both of the above… as in, he might have started out at #2, but finding that acting for the wellbeing of his subjects was in his highest interest, and that it contributed to his highest joy over time, and seemed to enhance his connection with his inner self and his sense of divinity, moved from compliance with principle-only, to acknowledgment of principle as a template.

    In other words, in time his self-awareness caught up with the template, and with the great joy and empowerment of acting inside out, from the soul’s connection with Divinity, he enriched his life and the lives of others by acting on his desire to preserve and even enhance the wellbeing (good) of his subjects. So that both his sole purpose, and his soul purpose (the good of his subjects) became very personal, and very selfish in a good way. :) He loved his subjects. He couldn’t help reaping a selfish reward of good feeling from his endeavors.

    • Hello Mark,
      Good to hear from you again. You are quite right about Aragorn’s actions ultimately accruing to his as well as the benefit of those whom he serves. So no, I didn’t mean to suggest that the one was exclusive of or in necessary conflict with the other. Even the Christian paragon of self-sacrifice, Jesus, seems to take for granted rather than deny the place of self-love when he instructs his disciples to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Epistle to the Hebrews says that it was for the “joy that was set before him” that Christ “endured the cross and despised the shame,” meaning that he was able to see his own good/joy on the other side of his great act of self-abnegation. I think the latter passage particularly important to Tolkien’s characterization, not only of Aragorn, but also Gandalf and Frodo in the whole War of the Ring.
      take care,
      Jonathan

      • Jonathan,

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I had a feeling that there was more behind that turn of phrase you wrote, and you certainly brought out the additional dimension in your response to me.

        I particularly appreciate your take on Jesus and self-love, and feel that many may skip over this important aspect of contributing to the lives of others: recognizing one’s own worth and value—to deny it, in my view, is to pretend away, or deny, the Divine spark in us all.

        Thanks again for your response. I enjoy reading the depth of your thinking, and the perspectives offered.

        ~Mark

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