Monday, May 7, 2018

Not all those who wander are lost

One of the themes that has been romping around in the back of my mind the last few months is this: I've been thinking about stories and how they shape us, and specifically I've been thinking about characters in stories and how we read them in ways that give depth and meaning and structure to our own lives. I've just finished rereading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and I've been pondering a couple characters specifically. The first is Aragorn, or Strider, who comes off as one of the main heroic characters by the end of the story. The other is Eowyn, and I'll write about her in the next few days.

Through much of the narrative, Aragorn is a guy with lots of potential, a fantastic backstory, and wonderful dreams. But throughout the story the likelihood that Aragorn's dreams will be accomplished seems so, so far away. Tolkien sets things up so that as readers, we yearn for Aragorn to get what he wants -- for the One Ring to be destroyed, for Sauron to be defeated, for Middle Earth to be protected, for the free peoples of the world to unite in opposition to evil, and eventually for Aragorn to be crowned king and almost as a tag line at the end, to marry Arwen. When all of this happens by the end of the story, the reader feels gratified and satisfied.

Here is where the danger lies for the inattentive or surface-level reader. It looks like those things are Aragorn's goals, and he is a lofty, capable, highly motivated character who is almost impossibly pure in pursuing the good, true, and beautiful. I don't think Tolkien saw him this way at all, and for the reader to see Aragorn in this way provides little that is helpful to ponder, as this caricature of Aragorn gives the average reader nothing to grab hold of -- only a noble ideal to aspire to, but nothing that can be honestly reached. Aragorn (who without doubt functions as a sort of Christ-figure in the stories) is, like Jesus, too good to be true. And like Jesus, if we interpret Aragorn this way, we miss so much.

I've been reading this time through with an eye to wondering what Aragorn would be like if Sauron was defeated but a few other details were not accomplished. You see, dig deeper and you find that throughout the story Aragorn is motivated by a relatively simple desire: He is desperately in love with Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, and Arwen loves him back. Reading the details, I believe it is this love, pure and simple, that motivates Aragorn in all the challenges and trials he faces. Granted, he's born into the line of the Numenorean kings, and he is born at the time when the One Ring is rediscovered so it is possible for him to lead the movement that defeats Sauron. These are what we might call the "accidents" of his existence. But hidden away in the appendices of Tolkien's trilogy is a story of Arwen and Aragorn meeting and falling in love, and Elrond -- Arwen's father -- being quite unhappy about her loving a mortal man. (It's complicated, but basically Arwen lives as one of the Elves, with immortality and the possibility of sailing over the sea with Elrond her father to enter a sort of this-world heaven, and marrying a mortal would mean she gives that up.) Elrond declares that he will not permit Arwen to marry any mortal unless that man is the king of not only Gondor (the southern kingdom) but also of Arnor, the northern kingdom that has long been chaotic and unruled. He must possess the scepter of Annuminas, the traditional symbol of the authority of the northern kings. He must rule with the White Tree growing in his courts, and the last living White Tree had died many years before. If you read Tolkien carefully, all these are the things that Elrond has set out as requirements for Aragorn to marry his daughter -- and Aragorn works throughout the story to achieve these ends for the sake of his great hope and his great love. So the great defeat of Sauron is in a sense, for Aragorn, a means to an end.

Tolkien was a bit of a romantic. This theme of great love, even what Shakespeare termed "star-crossed" love, as the motivator for great deeds, appears over and over in Tolkien's work.

Imagine for a moment if Aragorn had not achieved all his desire. It requires rewriting the entire epic, sort of like those "imagine if" books that say what if Hitler had not been defeated in World War Two. Aragorn's character would not be any less -- he would still be an incredibly strong, incredibly driven man with deep loves. He might still achieve much that is good, and he might still have people who love him deeply. But in the end, his character might frighten us for no other reason than that we see too much of ourselves in it -- we see our own frustrations, our own unfulfilled desires, our own almost-but-not-quite lives, our own disappointments. The inspiration of LOTR lies largely -- and Tolkien himself talked about this -- in everything turning out right. By the end of the story we may well cry out, overwhelmed with joy along with Sam the hobbit, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

The trouble is, like Aragorn before the War of the Ring, we judge ourselves harshly and we see ourselves as less than we truly are. Like Aragorn, we need others to name us and describe us and believe in us so that we might see ourselves accurately, because even what we see in the mirror is rarely factual. The reality is that we are far more glorious than we usually believe. We filter and interpret, most often in a way that damages us. We are reluctant to receive the word God speaks to us along with Jesus, "You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased." We are reluctant to read all the present tense truths of Ephesians 1 and believe that they are true about us. We are reluctant to read Colossians 2:8-9 and believe that we are included in this strong statement about who Jesus is and about what we have been given. Each of these powerful statements is most often met with a wistful "yeah, but ..." because we know ourselves better -- better than God knows us. We know our fallibility, our failure, our untrustworthiness, our ugliness, and who is God to tell us any different?

In the end what makes Aragorn a noble character is that he knows his potential and he is willing to risk greatly. In the beginning of the story, he is only a wanderer of great lineage, great possibility. Bilbo has written him a poem that begins,

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

But it seems like Aragorn does indeed wander purposeless, spending his days tilting at windmills and wandering the face of the earth without ever really accomplishing much, a hunter and a traveler. "Stick at nought Strider" is one of the names he's given by his detractors. His real worth and his real strength is hidden from others, and sometimes even from himself.

So what do we do with Aragorn? And more important, what do we do with ourselves? Is it possible that you are who God says you are, not who you imagine yourself to be? Is it possible that God is right about your strength and potential? And who has described you, who has named you, who has offered you feedback (what an odd pop psychology term) about who you truly are in a way that agrees with what God says about you?

It's worth pondering.


  1. One of my favorites. Will have to re-read. Interested to hear your musings on Eowyn. Neither her, nor her brother Eomer are given enough screen time in the movies. Pity. But if I remember correctly, the movies depict Eowyn in a much better light than the books... -AFI

  2. It's been a while since I've seen the movies -- I remember that Jackson went into detail about Wormtongue's abusive, manipulative relationship with Eowyn, but other than that I don't remember a lot that differed from the books. It's been fun digging deep into a few characters this time around. Thanks for your thoughts!