- From Dejection in Winter to Victory in Spring:Aragorn and Alfred, Parallel Episodes?
It is well known and often mentioned that while writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, himself a professor of medieval English language and literature, drew inspiration from the rich corpus of Old English literature: parallels with the Beowulf epic, on which he delivered one of his most memorable academic papers, and with the Old English Exodus, which he edited and translated into Modern English, have been emphasized.1 Many characters in The Lord of the Rings have been brought together with real or fictional Anglo-Saxons by whom Tolkien may have been inspired. For example, Tolkien’s character of Aragorn has been recently compared to a king of early Anglo-Saxon history, St. Oswald of Northumbria (634–42): in his biography of Oswald, Max Adams claims that the king “was the model for Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings” (4), but unfortunately he does not substantiate that claim. Maybe the title of his eighth chapter, “The Return of the King” (141), gives us a clue: Oswald was indeed an exile who came back to his ancestors’ country and reconquered his throne—but here, apparently, would the comparison end.
There is in fact an Anglo-Saxon king who may have more in common with Tolkien’s Aragorn, and that is none other than Alfred the Great (871–99). I do not think that any serious enquiry into the resemblances between those two characters has ever been published. There is no mention of Alfred in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien. The thorough J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, compiled by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, has no index entry for Alfred, and neither has it for the two late ninth-century works, which set out to describe his life and achievements, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of King Alfred; Alfred is also absent from the index of the same authors’ Reader’s Companion to The Lord of the Rings. There is an “Alfred the Great” entry in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout, but it does not mention Aragorn (Holmes 320–21). Several commentators have referred to Alfred’s translation (or maybe more exactly adaptation) of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy,2 but only while addressing the question of a possible “Boethian” dimension of Tolkien’s conception of providence, chance, and fate.3
Similarities between Alfred the Great and Aragorn have occasionally been observed, but they have not been pursued consistently. The [End Page 95] earliest suggestion I know of was made in 1974 in relation to the portrayal of Alfred in The Ballad of White Horse, written in 1911 by G. K. Chesterton, himself also a major English Catholic writer of the early 20th century: Christopher Clausen remarked that in Chesterton’s epic poem, “Alfred himself, like Tolkien’s Aragorn, is an idealized heroic figure who roams around in humble disguise” (11). Without disclaiming that possible influence on Tolkien’s work, it seems to me that the connection actually goes back to the Old English and Latin texts that were in fine the inspiration for Chesterton’s poem. More recently, Christopher Snyder wrote in his The Making of Middle-earth, “an unexpected monarch (he had four elder brothers) and inspirational leader who united disparate peoples, Alfred is perhaps one of the inspirations for Tolkien’s Aragorn/Strider” (55). Since this article was largely written before the publication of Snyder’s book, and since it proposes a much more focused parallel between Alfred and Aragorn, I believe it is still worth proposing the following reflections to readers of Tolkien Studies. Indeed, I will try to show that the connection between Alfred and Aragorn is not a consistent one, and that it does not allow us to say that Alfred was a model for Tolkien’s Aragorn: rather, the parallel is mainly confined to one episode, inspiring the way the story was told rather than Aragorn’s character in general.
There can be no doubt that Tolkien knew about Alfred: no Anglo-Saxonist could ever have ignored...