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  • Councils and Kings:Aragorn's Journey Towards Kingship in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings
  • Judy Ann Ford (bio) and Robin Anne Reid (bio)

Within The Lord of the Rings the return of the king to Gondor is secondary, yet independently important, to the main plot of the destruction of the Ring. Destroying the Ring will save Middle-earth from falling under the shadow of Sauron, but it will take the true king—Aragorn—to restore the world of men to its former glory. Aragorn must not merely help defeat Sauron or rule a great kingdom; he must serve as the agent of Gondor's renewal on both the material and spiritual levels. His destiny is inherent in his name: having entered Minas Tirith, Aragorn says: "'. . . for in the high tongue of old I am Elessar, the Elfstone, and Envinyatar, the Renewer'. . ." (RK, V, viii, 141). It is made clear throughout J.R.R. Tolkien's novel that Aragorn is a character conscious of his destiny and determined to fulfill it. In contrast, the Aragorn of Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings is far less certain about his destiny; he is a more modern, self-doubting hero.1 These two versions of Aragorn both arrive at the same narrative resolution, namely, becoming the king who restores the world of men to the glory of earlier ages, but their narrative arcs describe two quite different paths. This paper compares the treatment of Aragorn's relationship to the office of king in Tolkien's novel and Jackson's film by exploring the different cultural concepts of kingship and heroism that inform the two versions of the character. In both versions, the events of the Council of Elrond prove to be crucial to Aragorn's narrative journey and thus are a central focus of discussion.

In the novel, Tolkien incorporates many elements from the literature and culture of the Middle Ages, particularly the early Middle Ages, roughly the sixth through the tenth centuries. The Lord of the Rings is, among other things, his attempt to create the sort of story that could have been told by Anglo Saxons, filled with their beliefs, values, and ideologies, adapted to the modern form of a novel. Many medieval elements of The Lord of the Rings have been analyzed by scholars, especially Tolkien's use of literary, linguistic, and mythological sources, but little attention has been paid to his incorporation of early medieval concepts of kingship.2 Tolkien's conception of Aragorn as king was influenced by Anglo-Saxon, and more broadly, early Germanic ideas.

Anglo-Saxons, like the other Germanic peoples who settled into [End Page 71] territories once held by the Roman Empire, assimilated elements from Rome but continued to hold on to much of their earlier culture. During the centuries of migration, settlement, and the establishment of political states, Germanic kingship, not surprisingly, evolved a good deal, both through contact with Rome and the force of circumstances. It is not the purpose of this paper to trace out the complexity of these developments, but rather to focus on the characteristics that broadly typified Germanic kingship in contrast to later European ideas of kingship which are more available to modern readers. Scholars in Tolkien's time, the mid-twentieth century, argued that in pagan Germanic culture, kingship was sacral, that is, it was grounded in a religious purpose.3

The king's principal role, according to this theory, was to preserve the people through his relationship with the gods. He was the head priest, performing rituals and making sacrifices for victory in war and prosperity in peace, but the king was much more than an impersonal enactor of ritual. Germanic kings traced their ancestry back to a god; Anglo-Saxon kings commonly claimed descent from Woden. This divine ancestry was believed to endow royal blood with a portion of divine wisdom and supernatural power. The king's relationship with the gods was believed to be crucial to the survival of the nation. The people expected to receive guidance from the gods through their king and to be...