First and foremost I have mad respect for one Viggo Mortensen and his abilities as an actor, his rather down to earth nature, and all around signs of being a decent human being. So we’re going to ignore the acting portrayal of Aragorn because actors tend to do a pretty decent job in most big blockbuster films, but they are confined to directorial decisions, the whims of producers and writers who don’t understand the material so now that I’ve established that Mr. Mortensen is safe from ridicule in this article let’s dive in.
Movie Aragorn is dull, there’s no other way around it. Sure he’s got the rough rangerish look going on and seems like a man struggling with his destiny but the motivations for his character are overused tropes that resemble very little of the character he’s named after from the books. In fairness like much of the Lord of the Rings movies, everything starts out just fine. When we first met Aragorn in the Prancing Pony he’s dark, mysterious, and dangerous. Of course for anyone who has read the books we all knew that Strider was the one true king for Gondor blah blah blah, and for the first twenty to thirty minutes he seems to be a fair and passable rendition of the character. He leads the hobbits into the wild, Sam doesn’t trust him, he fights the Ringwraiths at Weathertop using fire, he searches out the athelas leaf to drive back the Black Breath in Frodo after he has been stabbed and then we reach Rivendale.
Rivendale is probably when everything went downhill in the LOTR movies for me. Before that, sure they had changed some stuff, like there is no particular reason to wait twenty years between Bilbo’s Party and when Frodo leaves the Shire, there’s no particular reason to have the whole conspiracy plot of Sam, Marry, Pippin. and Fatty Bulger. There’s no reason to confuse audiences with a long drawn out hash and song session with Bombadil in the woods or have the DM’s hastily thrown together session of the Barrow-Wights so he could reprove Bombadil’s deus ex machina status in the world. It really doesn’t matter much for the story that needed to be told. But Rivendale is where the deviations from the books start to properly matter and have a lasting effect on the rest of the trilogy.
The major issue we see with Aragorn in the Rivendale is how he perceives himself and perceives his family. Movie Aragorn has a stark streak of self-loathing that would make Trent Reznor jealous. When he talks to Arwen about the Narsil and being the descendant of Isildur he complains of weakness in his blood of his whole family. Strangely Arwen seems much more supportive of the idea of Aragorn reclaiming his heritage then Aragorn himself. Now things become clearer, or would be more clear, when you see Elrond and listen to him talk for more than like a minute. Elrond speaks about men in much the same way that Aragorn seems to perceive them, as weak children unable to take up the mantle of defending the world from its enemies since the Elves are wanking off to heaven because they got bored or something.
This is where a lot of context gets cut from the books to the movies because they never entirely make it clear WHY the elves are leaving Middle Earth in the movies, where they are going to (until like the very end), and I understand you have to pack in a lot in and that stuff has to be cut but it leaves this question for anyone who hasn’t read the books of “why though?”
Of course if you’ve read the books it clears it up (somewhat?) but you also won’t find a Man-hating Elrond or a self-loathing Aragorn and that’s the frustrating part. Of Isildur it is said that he was counseled by Elrond and others to destroy the Ring but kept it as his own. Not some dramatic moment where the “the strength of Men failed”. Elrond in the books then kept Rivendale as a safe harbor for all Free Folk (as Tolkien termed them) for like 3000 years or something offering counsel and rest for any who choose to seek it. Because Elrond is a chill dude in the books, and he agrees that something has to be done about the Ring of Power and knows the Elves can’t do it anymore. But in the books Elrond thinks ill of Isildur’s choice but he still speaks of men with a measure of respect, of the efforts of Minas Tirith and Gondor to hold back the host of Mordor. Now this distinct self-loathing of Aragorn might stem from the explained fact that after his father Arathorn II was killed, Aragorn’s mother took him to Rivendale to be raised in hiding since he was the last of the line of Elendil. Except this point is never brought up in the movie so we have no idea that Elrond was a surrogate father to Aragorn and so the connection of their particular outlook on the situation is lost to the moviegoer.
Continuing on the path of how Rivendale continue to give us a watered down shadow version of Aragorn, we see him trying to deny his heritage at the council of Elrond, or at least down play it, declining to claim his heritage or to have to sword reforged, which in the books is rather like King Arthur pulling the Excalibur from the stone. This plays into a lot of the symbolism of Aragorn taking up the legacy of Elendil, indeed Elendil is Aragorn’s go to battlecry showing he is embracing his family, his legacy, and his destiny, not hiding from it. Indeed one of the more powerful moments is Aragorn renaming Narsil to Andúril, Flame of the West. More than anything though the reforging of Andúril and the War of the Ring is not a thing that happens to Aragorn and thrust him into the kingship but is in fact the cumulation of his entire life’s labor in reaching his goals, and the goals of his family dynasty for nearly a thousand years.
See if you dig into the lore, which yes I know the movies can’t go back into the thousand years of backstory,you learn that Aragorn’s ancestor, who was King of the Arthedain a long lost kingdom, had made a claim to the crown of Gondor as the heir of Elendil after the previous king of Gondor died. This ancestor soon died in a war against the Witch King of Angmar and the kingdom of Arthedain was lost. The Dúnadans then worked for the following centuries to ensure the safety of the West until the time was right for them to reclaim the crown. Obviously blah blah blah prophecy and such, but the point is that Aragorn knew that eventually the crown of Gondor would have to be reclaimed and the king reestablished.
Aragorn reforging the sword and going on the quest serves three distinct purposes that get muddled in the movies. The first is the war his family has been fighting for over three thousand years and he knows there will be no peace with Sauron. He knows that Isiduar’s Bane needs to be destroyed and it is of his legacy to have a hand in seeing the job. He knows that when Isiduar’s Bane is found again that the time for the King to return is at hand and he is the guy who has to do that to create a united army of Man to fight Sauron and for Man to take the lead custodianship of Arda from the Elves.
The third piece of this is far more personal and gets a bit more coverage in the movie but the messaging get muddled in that Aragorn doesn’t want to be Isildur’s heir, he doesn’t want to be king. But that purpose is Arwen. Aragorn is like madly in love with her and they are betrothed, and Elrond in fact blesses the union, however he does so on the condition that Aragorn becomes the king of Gondor and Arnor and reunites the Kingdoms. So Aragorn has to prove himself worthy of Arwen, sure it’s a pretty high bar, but Elrond I don’t believe did this out of malice for his foster son, but because he put a high value on his daughter’s future, and also knew that a union of Men and Elf often results in tragedy (for more on this go read about Elrond’s family from Beren and Luthien and Tuor and Idril horrifically heartbreaking stuff) and that the King can only return if Sauron is defeated and if Sauron is undefeated there will be no peace or safety for his daughter. This leaves Aragorn knowing he has to correct the mistake of his ancestor and he very well is likely to be the guy to restore the line of kings and rule Gondor one day. So what does he do? The movies would have you think that he resisted all of this and just kind of wandered around hanging out with Elves or something.
The book Aragorn instead spends his entire life training to be king. He sets off when he is eighteen and spends the next twenty seven years traveling the known world and serving in every military on the planet. He serves in the army of Gondor, rides with the riders of Rohan, he goes into the far east and south and lives among the Haradrim, the Corsairs of Umbar, to “explore the hearts of men good and evil” and to learn the “plots and devices” of the servants of Sauron. He cannot reclaim the kingship by just being the guy with the family blood, he has to be able to stop the most powerful enemy in the world since the imprisonment of Morgoth. He also knows that even should he be able to stop Sauron and win the war he then has to rule and doesn’t want to be a weak ruler or a cruel ruler, he is of long line the heir of almost every great hero of Man from the First Age, the last king of the men of Númenor. You talk about a guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders, look no further than Aragorn, and most men would probably shrink from their duty and not want to have to take on those burdens and be unwilling heroes with greatness thrust upon them.
But I think when we analyze Aragorn’s life we don’t see someone who waits for greatness to be thrust on him, or an unwilling hero forced to go save it. We see a guy who was born into tragedy, who knows his destiny, knows he can fail, and instead embraces it, who fights for seventy years to make it a reality. Who trains and learns and waits for everything to fall into place. He doesn’t want to hide from the quest, he needs the quest to succeed, he needs to save Gondor and Rohan because his family goal is to finally see Sauron defeated, and he has a much larger personal stake in that he needs to marry Arwen, and let’s face it guys will do some pretty crazy shit to score the hot elf, chick, for Aragorn that just happens to be saving the world and becoming King.
Oh also by not having Andúril in The Two Towers kind of loses some of the effect on helping convenience the Rohirrim to throw in and trust Aragorn. He uses the sword and his name liberally as a “I am the king returned to save you” mechanism to win allies. This is all very Arthurian, remember how I mentioned the reforging of the sword was very much like Arthur drawing the sword from the stone? In the ancient Artherian legends it is said that when England faces it’s darkest hour that Arthur will return to save England from her foes. By openly carrying the sword of Elendil and declaring himself the heir of Isildur to everyone they met it would be like Arthur returning to England to save it. This reduction of Aragorn’s willingness to seize his destiny is also felt by the drastically reduced role of Éomer. The Two Towers and The Return of the King are very much about both Aragorn and Éomer coming into their rules. Éomer, who was not supposed to be king after Théoden until Théodred is killed during the war, finds himself having to take on the burdens of leadership. Them drawing swords together at the Battle of Helm’s Deep and later them meeting on the fields of Pelennor Fields to save Gondor and both being together at the Black Gate all serves to put both men through their final trials to earn their crowns and to forge a bond between both men who need each other’s support during the War of the Ring and who will need it afterwards when they will both be ruling their own kingdoms, we miss out on that friendship, first by Éomer being excluded from the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the movie and second by not having them meet on the Pelennor Fields and having the deus ex ghost army do a quick mop up job to win the battle it removes for both men of that bond of friendship and forging a trust between the future rulers of the continent.
Now look I get it they can’t fit everything into a movie, there’s no time to explain all of this, but I think we got robbed of some of the more interesting moments for Aragorn and his path to the kingship and especially of his history and motivations. There’s nothing wrong with the unwilling hero necessarily, but we have a long long, LONG list of unwilling heroes to read or watch movies about. There’s also a long list of wannabe heroes who end up failing pretty badly (compare MCU Steve Rogers with John Walker in the Falcon and Winter Soldier for example). But I feel we don’t get a willing hero who spends a lot of time not just being a willing hero, but training and working towards being the best hero he can be, and I for one would like to see more heroic characters who are willing to get the job done and spend less time whining about how life is unfair.
The movies very much present a guy who is an unwilling hero, they even say as much in the dvd commentaries, but looking at the books we don’t see an unwilling hero or unwilling king, but rather a man who knows his destiny and knows he is the future king and isn’t going to half ass it, but make sure he is the best king.
Alright that’s enough rambling for now. Someday I might do a series of posts about why I didn’t like the entire LOTR movie trilogy but there’s so many issues that it’s a bit daunting and I really should focus on my own stories, so updates to this are going to be few and far between.