The Kenosis of Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 6

In the Appendix A account of Thorongil/Aragorn, the statement that the latter was not “holding himself higher than the servant of his [Denethor’s] father” is evocative of the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11:

“Let this mind be be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

We’ve already noted Aragorn’s kenosis in The Lord of the Rings in his being the suffering servant, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53), in Bree, but we might also mention here his entering his kingdom (Gondor) through his own act of “obedience unto death” (following the Paths of the Dead), as well as his camping outside Minas Tirith as a stranger even after bringing victory and healing to the city (cp. Hebrews 13:12). Like Christ, Aragorn becomes a king only after first becoming an obedient and dying servant.

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Denethor’s mimetic rivalry with Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 5

Again, from Appendix A of The Return of the King:

Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

The mimetic rivalry of Denethor towards Thorongil/Aragorn calls to mind the many instances of fraternal conflict throughout Scripture: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David. It’s a pattern that culminates in the “envy” the Pilot observes in the Jewish leaders who hand Jesus over to be crucified. The Appendix A account of Denethor’s rivalry with Thorongil also sets into even sharper relief the very different response of Denethor’s son, Faramir, to Aragorn, calling to mind Jonathan’s willing acquiescence to David in the Book of Samuel and John the Baptist’s preference of Jesus’s person and ministry over his own in the Gospels.

“A Disciple is Not Greater than His Master”: Frodo and Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 4

Some more observations on Appendix A’s account of “Thorongil.” Thorongil’s departure from both his friends and from Gondor on the shores of Anduin while he set “his face towards the Mountains of Shadow” adds some additional perspective and pathos to what is essentially Frodo’s recapitulation of that same act at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as to Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo (and Sam) but to rescue Merry and Pippin instead. Frodo, as it turns out, is having to do what Aragorn did before him (and Aragorn, accordingly, is having to let Frodo do what he did before him). Observe Sam’s summary of Frodo’s dilemma and Aragorn’s response:

‘Begging your pardon,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go. Of course not! What’s the good of Minas Tirith anyway? To him, I mean, begging your pardon, Master Boromir,’ he added, and turned. It was then that they discovered that Boromir, who at first had been sitting silent on the outside of the circle, was no longer there.
`Now where’s he got to? ‘ cried Sam, looking worried. ‘He’s been a bit queer lately, to my mind. But anyway he’s not in this business. He’s off to his home, as he always said; and no blame to him. But Mr. Frodo, he knows he’s got to find the Cracks of Doom, if he can. But he’s afraid. Now it’s come to the point, he’s just plain terrified. That’s what his trouble is. Of course he’s had a bit of schooling, so to speak-we all have-since we left home, or he’d be so terrified he’d just fling the Ring in the River and bolt. But he’s still too frightened to start. And he isn’t worrying about us either: whether we’ll go along with him or no. He knows we mean to. That’s another thing that’s bothering him. If he screws himself up to go, he’ll want to go alone. Mark my words! We’re going to have trouble when he comes back. For he’ll screw himself up all right, as sure as his name’s Baggins.’
‘I believe you speak more wisely than any of us, Sam,’ said Aragorn. `And what shall we do, if you prove right? ‘
‘Stop him! Don’t let him go! ‘ cried Pippin.
‘I wonder? ‘ said Aragorn. `He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think that it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed, if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.’ (“Breaking of the Fellowship”)

Frodo, as a kind of disciple of Aragorn, is having to take up Aragorn’s “cross,” as it were, turning his back on his friends (and hence on Gondor) as he turns his face towards Mordor. Later, Aragorn gives this account of Frodo’s purpose which we may presume to give us an insight into what his own thinking was in departing from his companions and from his ministry in Gondor so many years earlier:

I met Sam going up the hill and told him to follow me; but plainly he did not do so. He guessed his master’s mind and came back here before Frodo had gone. He did not find it easy to leave Sam behind!’ ‘But why should he leave us behind, and without a word?’ said Gimli. ‘That was a strange deed!’ ‘And a brave deed,’ said Aragorn. ‘Sam was right, I think. Frodo did not wish to lead any friend to death with him in Mordor. (“The Departure of Boromir”)

Finally, we have Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo but to rescue Merry and Pippen. Again, I’m suggesting that, in light of Appendix A, we may read Aragorn’s own personal history and experience as part of the relevant context:

‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!’ He stood silent for a moment. ‘I will follow the Orcs,’ he said at last. ‘I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!’ (“The Departure of Boromir”)

More Aragorn Typology

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 3

Another possible christological allusion in the Appendix A (Return of the King) account of Thorongil/Aragorn is his taking a boat across a body of water, only to take leave of his “disciples” on the other side: “For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.” While there is no exact parallel to this scene in Scripture, it might be seen to combine and compress a number of iconic moments in Jesus’s ministry; for example, his crossing the Sea of Galilee (once by walking on the water, another time by calming a storm) and his occasional withdrawal from his disciples to pray. Also of note here are the words used to describe Thorongil’s sense of purpose or destination, “setting his face towards the Mountains of Shadow.” The expression “set his face towards” occurs only a handful of times in the English Bible, most of these appearing in the synoptic Gospels to describe Jesus’s determination to go to his own “Mountain of Shadow,” the City of Jerusalem.

Aragorn and the Prophet’s Reward

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 2

I began posting a few days ago on Appendix A’s account of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias in Gondor while in the service of Ecthelion II, father of Denethor. Another somewhat surprising feature of the account is the warm welcome and esteem Thorongil receives from the Gondorians, especially in contrast to the the suspicion and scorn we know Aragorn to have been held in by the Breelanders, and this despite the fact that Aragorn’s Numenorean lineage is of the Northern line of Arnor, and not of the Southern line of Gondor. To quote from the Prologue of John’s Gospel, “he came to his own, but his own received him not.” I’ve already commented on Aragorn’s Melchizedekian union of the offices of king and priest, but it would seem he only assumes these roles after enduring the fate of the prophet, the one Jesus describes as being “not without honour, but in his own country” (Mark 6:4).

Aragorn, King and Priest after the Order of Melchizedek

The story in Appendix A of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias while in the service of Denethor’s father, Ecthelion II, adds a great deal to the christological typology surrounding Aragorn’s character. I quote the passage at length:

In much that he [Ecthelion II] did he had the aid and advice of a great captain whom he loved above all. Thorongil men called him in Gondor, the Eagle of the Star, for he was swift and keen-eyed, and wore a silver star upon his cloak; but no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born. He came to Ecthelion from Rohan, where he had served the King Thengel, but he was not one of the Rohirrim. He was a great leader of men, by land or by sea, but he departed into the shadows whence he came, before the days of Ecthelion were ended.

     Thorongil often counselled Ecthelion that the strength of the revels in Umbar was a great peril to Gondor, and a threat to the fiefs of the south that would prove deadly if Sauron moved to open war. At last he got leave of the Steward and gathered a small fleet, and he came to Umbar unlooked for by night, and there burned a great part of the ships of the Corsairs. He himself overthrew the Captain of the Haven in battle upon the quays, and then he withdrew his fleet with small loss. But when they came back to Pelargir, to men’s grief and wonder, he would not return to Minas Tirith, where great honour awaited him.

   He sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion, saying: “other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.” Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went. For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.

   There was dismay in the City at the departure of Thorongil, and to all men it seemed a great loss, unless it were to Denethor, the son of Ecthelion, a man now ripe for the Stewardship. to which after four years he succeeded on the death of his father.

   Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

My first comment is on the statement that of Thorongil “no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born.” A few Sciptural associations come to mind, the first being that the lack of known provenance or genealogy for Thorongil suggests a possible connection with the biblical Melchizedek, the king and priest who seems to come out of nowhere in Genesis 14 (“without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually”–Heb. 7:3), and whose name literally means “king of righteousness.” One of the unique qualities of the Numenorean kings was that they were both priests and kings, a coincidence of roles that Tolkien implies Aragorn resumed after assuming the throne of Gondor:

when the ‘Kings’ came to an end there was no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’: the two being identical in Númenórean ideas. So while God (Eru) was a datum of good* Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history. He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place. And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the West, and all the area under Numenorean influence… It later appears that there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindolluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten. It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain. It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. (Letters no. 156)

The uncertainty surrounding Thorongil’s identity and origin also calls to mind the same uncertainty that surrounds Jesus throughout the Gospels, an uncertainty, moreover, that Jesus himself identifies as the mark of one who is “born of the Spirit.” As Jesus explains to the uncomprehending Pharisee Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Normally this passage would more naturally apply to Gandalf, the self-described “servant of the Secret Fire” (i.e., the Holy Spirit), but then again, much of the above passage about Thorongil sounds more like Gandalf than the Aragorn we are used to, suggesting that Tolkien’s purpose is to establish these two characters as far more similar than we might otherwise have realized. As the above passage from Tolkien’s letter reveals, it is not just Gandalf, but also Aragorn who is a “servant of the Secret Fire.” Being “born of the Spirit,” he goes whither the Spirit blows him.

(To be continued….)

When Elves Flirt

Reading from Appendix A of The Return of the King this evening and was amused by what could be construed as Arwen’s not-so-subtle come-on line to Aragorn at their first meeting:

Then the maiden turned to him and smiled, and she said: “Who are you? And why do you call me by that name [Tinúviel]?”

And he answered: “Because I believed you to be indeed Lúthien Tinúviel, of whom I was singing. But if you are not she, then you walk in her likeness.”

   “So many have said,” she answered gravely. “Yet her name is not mine. Though maybe my doom will be not unlike hers. But who are you?”