1. Aragorn and the Arthurian Myth.
If King Arthur hadn't been given that name, he may have been called Aragorn, or King Elessar. By this I mean it doesn't really mind who came first, for none of them would surely be the origin of the story of a great king, extremely kind to his people, surrounded by faithful knights who were true friends rather than servants, in an idealistic kingdom of peace with neither corruption nor crime. A king descending from a great race, chosen in a ritual of authenticity (be it pulling a sword out of a stone or carrying a standard) and of course advised by a wise man.
Although they obtain it in different ways, the sword is for Arthur as well as for Aragorn a warranty of the legitimacy of their kingdoms. As the writings over the blade of Excalibur say, only he who handled the sword could be king, so he who possessed it would have all the privileges as a ruler. In the film there is a stronger bond of meaning between Excalibur and the old Nársil: in Peter Jackson's film, the king of the dead asks Aragorn for a proof that he has the right to claim the oath, and so he shows again the blade that once was broken. We can read and check that Tolkien didn't use Andúril as a proof when Aragorn talks to the spectres, but when he, Gimli and Legolas first meet the Riders of Rohan, so Jackson, though not exactly by words, might have surely moved it to a more dramatical moment:
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. 'Elendil!' he cried. 'I am Aragorn son of Arathorn and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil's son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!'
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, 423
And now the script for the film when dealing with the King of the Dead (KD stands for King of the Dead, A for Aragorn and G for Gimli):
KD: Who enters my domain?
A: One who will have your allegiance
KD: The Dead do not suffer the living to pass.
A: You will suffer me.
[King of the Dead laughs]
KD: The way is shut. It was made by those who are dead. And the Dead keep it. The way is shut. Now you must die.
A: I summon you to fulfill your oath.
KD: None but the king of Gondor may command me.
[Aragorn shows up his sword and holds it near his forefront. The king of the Dead draws his and strikes a blow. Aragorn stops it]
KD: That line was broken.
[Aragorn grasps the king by his throat]
A: It has been remade. Fight for us and regain your honour. What say you? What say you?
G: You waste your time, Aragorn. They had no honour in life, they have none now in death.
A: I am Isildur's heir. Fight for me and I will hold your oaths fulfilled. What say you?
Jackson's Return of the King, The King of the Dead scene
In the book, Aragorn introduces himself as Elessar, Isildur's heir, from the top of a hill (and not inside a cave like in the film), and displays a black backgrounded standard which apparently contains no sign, but it actually has the White Tree and the Stars of Gondor carved upon it (In the film both the standard and the sword are delivered at the same time, that is to say, in the camp before heading on to the Paths of the Dead)
1.1 Some mythological and literary similarities: Aragorn, Ivanhoe, Arthur &
Aragorn, descendant of Isildur and heir to the throne of Gondor, remains
anonimous under the looks of a ranger, Strider, a wandering hunter, apparently
unprovided of goods and titles, exhiled at his own will. Can an errand king
survive as a huntsman and lead his country to glory again? It is not an alien
topic within English Middle-Age literature. On the Historia Regum Britanniae,
Geoffrey of Monmouth narrates the exhile of king Cadwallader after completely
losing Britain. Graeme Fife sums up the feelings of Cadwallader for a missing
king, in this case for Arthur, able to lead his people, and at the same time his
concern for the survival of someone worth it:
"Now, wept Cadwallader aboard his ship of exhile, only a huntsman could survive in the desolation that Britain had become, shorn of crops and fruit; always supposing that a huntsman would choose to dwell in such a sorry wasteland. Gone the days but recently past when a king of Britain stood heroically at the head of his army in defiance of the invading Saxon hordes, drove them back on their heels and preserved Britain free for the British."
Fife, The Themes Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 22
A warrior king, worth his throne for his fighting spirit and leadership
abilities. The first time Aragorn is 'formally' introduced, Gandalf says about
him that he is the
greatest traveller and huntsman in this age of the world. So, who else but
the greatest hunter and direct heir to the lineage of Gondor to be the king of a
sorry wasteland? Aragorn restitutes kingship for Gondor
(ruled by stewards at that time), y lo ocupa merecidamente after leading to
victory a group of representatives from every one of the races of Middle Earth,
who finally become his most loyal companions. Just like
Arthur in Camelot together with his knights of the Round Table, the charisma of
a firm and fair leader gathers around it the best champions.
Robert Wace, a canon from Bayeux, translated to Norman French the Historia Regnum Britanniae under the shape of a poem. Years later, Layamon, a clergyman from Worcester, turned the poem into Middle English. Concerning Arthur's childhood, both versions state the following:
"So soon as he came on earth, elves took him; they enchanted the child with magic most strong, they gave him might to be the best of all knights; they gave him another thing, that he should be a rich king; they gave him the third, that he should live long; they gave to him the prince virtues most good, so that he was most generous of all men alive"
Fife, The Themes
Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 27
Here the analogy between Arthur and Aragorn is clearly noticeable: a king bred and grown up by elves, brave, long-lived and deeply generous. Aragorn is grown up by the Elf-lord Elrond and taught under elvish wisdom at Rivendel, he lives for 210 years and his generosity and valour are such that even being a royal heir, he offers his life to such an (apparently) insignificant creature as a hobbit.
About a century before Tolkien, another English Middle-Age History lover and writer, Sir Walter Scott, introduced Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe by the title of Disinherited Knight, a homeless joust-contestant, a wandering and ragged character undercovering a noble knight, son of Cedric The Saxon.
As far as could be judged of a man sheathed in armour, the new adventurer did not greatly exceed the middle size, and seemed to be rather slender than strongly made. His suit of armour was formed of steel, richly inlaid with gold, and the device on his shield was a young oak-tree pulled up by the roots, with the Spanish word Desdichado, signifying Disinherited.
Scott, Ivanhoe, 131
Despite the fate of each character is completely different at the end (Aragorn becomes king of Gondor and Wilfred of Ivanhoe starts serving Richard I) they both appear under a veil of humbleness and nobility, hiding a hero so great that he is only comparable to a king. Whether Tolkien was inspired by Scott or not, that is unknown, but they both may have been inspired by Greek mythology. Homer, in his Odissey, tells how Odysseus is introduced again by Minerva in Ithaca, transformed into a vagabond who finally gets back his wife, his palace and his kingdom.
I will begin by disguising you so that no human being shall know you; I will cover your body with wrinkles; you shall lose all your yellow hair; I will clothe you in a garment that shall fill all who see it with loathing; I will blear your fine eyes for you, and make you an unseemly object in the sight of the suitors, of your wife, and of the son whom you left behind you.
Homer, Odyssey, Chapter XIII
And that is very similar to the way Aragorn is presented as Strider, though he is more a hunter than a beggar:
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, 153
And finally, Scott's lost prodigal son, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, returned to England as a pilgrim from the Holy Land:
These two dignified persons were followed by their respective attendants, and at a more humble distance by their guide, whose figure had nothing more remarkable than it derived from the usual weeds of a pilgrim. A cloak or mantle of coarse black serge, enveloped his whole body. It was in shape something like the cloak of a modern hussar, having similar flaps for covering the arms, and was called a Sclaveyn, or Sclavonian. Coarse sandals, bound with thongs, on his bare feet; a broad and shadowy hat, with cockle-shells stitched on its brim, and a long staff shod with iron, to the upper end of which was attached a branch of palm, completed the palmer's attire.
Scott, Ivanhoe, 54
The feeling Strider transmits is that of a man who stood aside from power as he saw it was a source of failure and evil. Aragorn fears the Fall, the Sin of his ancestors. But to prove a good king he must take the responsibility of power, of ruling people in a fair way. He must take part in a challenging adventure in the 'Perilous Realm'. To a certain extent he looks as human and 'weak' as Ivanhoe does.
So turning back to the model, the Arthur Tolkien wanted for England may have existed as such for a while
within the original legend, and may have been to some extent similar to Nordic
champions, or to Beowulf himself. The problem became when the legend of King
Arthur turned into a 'franchise', and started being slowly replaced by blurry
imitations of his adventures, adequate adaptations to the legendarium and
mythology of each country. Needless to say, the 'chansons du geste' were the
most likely genre to inherit the Arthurian Tradition, feedbacking this tradition with 'literary
perversions' and putting it back into England again. As post-Hastings, and
consequently Norman-imported, the 'filtered' Arthur Pendragon may logically have
proven a poor inspiration for Tolkien, but at the same time may have awoken in
him the desire to 'meet' the pre-Hastings Arthur or revisit the legend and bring
it back. Tolkien's biography shows how the TCBS gave birth to and witnessed the
comeback, in case it had ever existed, of a true English mythology, or more
exactly of an actual traditional epic-literature.
1.2 A Little Note on the Origins and Nature of King Arthur
Geoffrey wrote his chronicle, much as the Roman poet (Virgil) had done, for royal masters; in his case the Norman conquerors of England. [...] Of course, by the time Geoffrey wrote the Historia, Britain, as such, no longer existed. The Normans conquered an island renamed England five hundred years before by the invading Saxons. But the old Romano-Celtic word for the island worked, even for Geoffrey's Norman readers, as a poignant talisman of former greatness. [...] Like the Roman Emperors they artfully emulated, mediaeval kings craved a solid gold genealogy. [...] So, Geoffrey provided the Norman overlords of England with a direct blood-link to the selfsame royal house. Thereby he gave them scriptural authority, written approval for their soveregnity over the recently acquired domain known in former times as Greater Britain. But of all the kings in his book, it was the freedom fighter Arthur who stirred the Norman blood, caught their imagination. [...] Arthur was, pre-eminently, a winner.
Fife, The Themes
Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 10
Whatever his original intention in writing the Historia, Geoffrey had introduced
to European culture and literature a king who stood head and shoulders above the
rest. For, where the other kings of Britain paraded in the Historia made
apparently small, if any, impression on its readers, the hitherto obscure Arthur
established himself almost instantly as the king. Why?
There are two probable answers. First, Arthur's story had been part of an oral tradition of bardic romance amongst the surviving Celts or Greater Britain (Wales and Cornwall), for centuries, Geoffrey certainly didn't invent Arthur. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that his account it was that gave startling birth to the Arthurian legend as we know it.
Fife, The Themes
Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 11
So the first literary written model for the Arthurian legend, according to Fife,
was Geoffrey of Monmouth, a post-Hastings writer consequently at the service of
Norman rulers. And not only he transformed the story of Arthur into the Norman
taste, but he also legitimised the Norman rule by means of the Historia. But
even immediately after him the legend was still cursed to remain as un-English
Within twenty years, certainly in 1155, part of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia had been adapted and loosely translated from erudite Latin into more readily accesible Norman french by a native of Jersey, one Robert Wace, canon of Bayeux. Accesible to the Norman conquerors, that is, if not to the English conquered.
Fife, The Themes
Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 27
Did Arthur include any previous model?
Arthur was an archetypal Celt; that is overcharged with imagination and emotion, pronge to large swings of temperament, from reckless confidence to utter despair. To his fellow countrymen, the Combrogi, he stood for complete victory even when victory had evaporated. On this his legend is founded. As Chrétien (de Troyes) puts it, he is the King; when he has spoken he does not go back on his word. He leads the hunt; his court is the gathering place of good, brave and stalwart knights, of fair and noble daughters of kings. For, besides generalship and personal strength, Arthur boasts the peculiar virtue of the greatest Celtic heroes: charm or glamour, a magical power casting a spell of absolute loyalty and devotion.
Fife, The Themes Behind the Legends: Arthur the King, 15
Why that deep insight on the literary validity of King Arthur? One more reason to determine why Aragorn is not a direct impersonation of Arthur nor a 'fix' for him. If the source wasn't pure it surely lost interest for Tolkien, as his revisitations as a recoverer were mostly from 'true-myth' for (metaphorically speaking) he was not a re-builder but a 'guide' through the original ruins with an updated discourse. He was the one to defend the ruins (as such) of Beowulf for a proper criticism instead of rebuilding it stone by stone (Tolkien, The Monsters & The Critics, 7-8)
Despite Tolkien had been aware of this sources, the main iconic figure of King Arthur had already weakened the very exact moment the legend got in touch with continental 'chansons de geste' (mostly French) Tolkien may have considered 'Chevaliers' as too much 'idealized' characters overloaded with Romanticism, that is to say, prodigious knights with nothing to prove. King Arthur ceased to be a human, a mortal, to be the wisest, most brave, fairest king ever known, just for the sake of it. This 'super-powering' put him automatically out of the 'Perilous Realm', for Arthur's idealistic perfection is the loss of all his greatness as he would never face the possibility of the Fall to prove himself, in contrast to Aragorn.
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