By This Sword, I Rule!
Like Howard's warrior-kings, Conan and Kull, Aragorn was descended of an "Atlantean" people. Kull was, in fact, an Atlantean, forced into exile. He and Conan left their barbarian peoples and raised themselves up to be kings. Aragorn also left his homeland (Eriador) and raised himself up to be king (of both Gondor and Arnor).
But there the resemblance ends, or becomes only superficial. Howard celebrated the raw, primitive strength of the uncorrupted barbarian. Tolkien celebrated the sophisticated wisdom derived from the decline and fall of several civilizations. But both writers conveyed a sense of power through their characters which evokes a symmetry of passion.
That passion heats the conflict of praise and ridicule. The characters are treated with great respect by some writers, and deep irritation and annoyance by others. Conan has been compared to cardboard drivel. Aragorn has been compared to a noble horse.
It is the barbarian aspect of each character which most intrigues the reader, and both Conan and Aragorn became archetypes or full stereotypes for action/ adventure heroes and characters. They are primal characterizations because each in his own way achieves a sohistication which his predecessors lacked (Kull stories predate Conan stories by several years, and Aragorn owes something to Beren, who first appeared in Tolkien's stories almost 20 years before Howard wrote his final Conan story).
Neither author lived long enough to see how his literary achievement would be directed toward the mass market, and I suppose that is a saving grace for each. Would they have been appalled to see bad actors scampering across rocky sets in cheap movie after cheap movie, hacking and slashing at rubber monsters or slavering over naked women who seem to only know how to scream?
Although the Kull/Conan mystique focuses on barbarian fury, Aragorn is the first Ranger. All Rangers are judged against him, and all trackers, too. Even Norda, the Empress' tracker in the recent "Dungeons and Dragons" movie, owes something to Aragorn's reserved composure, all-knowing foresight, and supreme competence in the skills of the hunter. When Aragorn expresses doubt about himself, he is not concerned with whether he can track a few dozen Orcs trampling up the countryside. He wonders if he is capable of making the right choices when all his choices seem to go wrong. Norda, in scenes cut from the movie, expresses similar doubts about her own choices, but remains unquestioned in her tracking skills.
Aragorn's rangers sometimes strike me as a caricature of Robin Hood's merry men, twisted into a serene nobility. There is no Little John in Aragorn's tale of outlawry, but Halbarad might have made an interesting Will Stutley. Legolas could have joined the fun as Will Scarlet, a bit effete but strong and deadly. Gimli would have to serve as Friar Tuck, deadly with a blade, quick to hoist a giblet and top it off with a flagon of wine. In public the Rangers of Eriador seem to have been rather stoic and quiet, but I'm sure they ripped up a tavern or two. The Forsaken Inn may owe its name to Arathorn II's bachelor party, for all we know.
When Robin blows his horn, the merry men come running with weapons ready, and they are a deadly force to be reckoned with when their rage is ignited. So, too, are the Dunedain who ride to Aragorn's aid in answer to his unvoiced need. Kull had his Red Slayers and Conan had his reiver buddies, but Aragorn had 30 Rangers.
One of the most memorable moments for me in a Kull story came in the fragment where Kull leads his bodyguards (400 strong) to the river Styx. There the ancient ferryman warns them that whomever crosses will not return. He tells of a mighty army, thousands strong, which crossed the river. The battle they engaged in with unnamed foes could be heard for miles and lasted for days. And then there was silence. Kull did the honorable thing. He offered to let anyone who was afraid to stay behind, but none of his guards were willing to desert him. He could only praise them by saying, "Ye are men."
Aragorn, in a Kull-like fashion, led his thirty lucky guys through the Paths of the Dead. They, too, refused to abandon their leader. It's just hard to imagine a city guy, even Boromir, commanding that kind of love and respect from his soldiers. And Boromir was no sloucher, either. When he showed up at Rivendell, he had been in the wild for months. He must have looked pretty rough, even if the Elf maidens did give him a quick shave and haircut before the big council. So Boromir at the very least achieved Honorary Barbarian status.
And yet, there is a problem with drawing a barbarian analogy for Tolkien's Dunedain. They may not have lived in cities any longer, but they had not abandoned civilization. Civilization had withered away around them, but they preserved its best qualities. The unsophisticated Rohirrim seemed like rustic boys next to Aragorn's small company of Eriadorian Rangers.
The real barbarians in Tolkien's stories are usually referred to summarily, or stand off-stage. These are the Easterlings, members of nameless tribes with unstipulated customs. Now, some people might be quick to point out that the Northmen are barbarians, too. Well, yes and no. What is a barbarian? In the classical sense, a barbarian was an outsider. Kull and Conan were both outsiders in the cultures they came to govern. The fact they wore funny clothes, spoke strangely, and could kill five times as many men as the next guy were only the trappings of their barbarism. At the core of their nature, they were both at odds with the way civilized people behaved.
Tolkien's Northmen were not only comfortable with the Dunedain, they intermarried with them freely, and even helped set matters straight in Gondor (more than once). And they had their own cities, such as Lake-town, Dale, Edoras, and Aldburg. Some people even argue that Framsburg must have been a city, since it was large enough or memorable enough to warrant both a name and a mark on the map.
But the Easterlings represent barbarism as the Biblical writers perceived it. They used the Greek word "barbarian" to denote people who did not speak Greek. The Easterlings do not speak Sindarin, the language of sophisticated culture, nor Westron, the language of Dunadan imperial prestige. There may be Easterlings who know enough Westron to communicate in it, but they are Easterlings and it is Westron, the language of the West. Easterlings are so foreign, that it seems only two of their words were preserved in the histories: variag and khand.
In the ancient world, language was a powerful tool of the state. Citizens could be separated from foreigners quickly based on who spoke what language. And language was also used to establish sacred power, and to record the traditions of the local cultures. A people who did not write were unsophisticated. A people who spoke or even wrote a foreign language were outsiders, not as important as those who spoke the true mother tongue. When Rome imposed its rule across the Mediterranean world, Latin became an important language, although Greek ultimately prevailed in the east.
Tolkien also uses language to separate the locals from the foreigners. The Noldor, who fall into savagry and decadence, become outlaws and foreigners in their exile. In order to live among the Sindar, they are forced to adopt the language of the Sindar. The loss of their mother tongue is a mark of their shame, and in fact a sign of the supremacy of the Sindar in Beleriand. The Noldor built most of the cities of stone, and all the great fortresses outside of Doriath, but they were still foreigners, and not all of the Sindar appreciated them.
Like the Noldor in Beleriand, Aragorn's people were exiles who had returned to Middle-earth. They settled among their less sophisticated cousins but the Dunedain-in-Exile benefitted from a reversal in fortunes. Numenor had become the dominant power in Middle-earth, and civilization was conveyed to Men in Middle-earth by the Numenoreans. Hence, it was the Numenorean Adunaic tongue which spread far and wide and became the symbol of civilization.
Aragorn certainly spoke Westron well, but he also knew Sindarin and spoke it like a native. In their turn, the Sindar had become the outsiders to most peoples. Gondor alone among the nations of late Third Age Middle-earth retained widespread knowledge of Sindarin. As Quenya before it, Sindarin became little more than a language of lore for the Dunedain. They preserved it rather than enriched it. They elected not to expand it.
In Tolkien's world, words are accompanied by actions. In Howard's world, actions are accompanied by words. When the blodd-stained Kull breaks the stone tablets with the Valusia laws, he raises his axe above his head and cries out, "By this axe, I rule!" When Aragorn reveals his true heritage to Eomer and the Rohirrim, rattling off his list of names and titles, he whips out his sword and cries, "Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again!"
Like Kull and Conan, Aragorn comes barging into Gondorian society from outside, disrupting politics and displacing local leaders. Denethor is offended at the thought of giving up his Stewardship to "such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity". Even when he is presented with the opportunity to enter the city as a victorious captain of war, Aragorn elects instead to remain outside as "a Captain of the Rangers, who are unused to cities and houses of stone." And with that he orders his banner furled and he removes the Star of the North.
It remains for Aragorn to assume command of Gondor's armies before he can formally claim its crown. Although he wins over the people quickly, they need a warrior-king, not a gentle-spoken philosopher-king. Aragorn proves he knows languages and lore, but his words are overshadowed by his deeds. He is brave and strong, but he must also be decisive.
It is a part of the barbarian mystique that, whereas a civilized man will ponder the meanings of words and prophecies, a barbarian will stride forward and slice the knot which has perplexed the civilized world for centuries. It requires a Macedonian king to spread Greek civilization across half the known world. It takes a northern Dunadan king to lead Gondor to victory in its wars with the east. Whereas Denethor and his captains sit in their towers and try to figure out how long they can last against the assaults of Mordor, Aragorn charges through the Paths of the Dead, recruits a phantom army, and uses that to overwhelm the forces of Gondor's enemies.
So Tolkien presents us two faces of barbarism: the pure barbarian, untainted or justified by long privation, and the corrupt barbarian, lost in evil and darkness. It is the pure barbarian who represents the best of the romantic ideas once embodied by civilization. His barbarism is the barbarism of the outsider. He is not a savage or virulent foe come to sack and pillage the cities of the coast. He is a savior come to fulfill the ancient prophecies. His strength is pure and his heart is noble.
Barbarians are sometimes credited with reinvigorating decadent civilizations. And Aragorn is the Renewer. He initiates a period of renewed growth and vigor in Gondorian and Arnorian society. He infuses the Dunedain with new blood, too, by marrying Arwen, the Half-elven princess whose own people have been relegated to the status of barbarians.
Tolkien's barbarians, therefore, serve much the same purpose as Howard's barbarians. And undoubtedly both writers recognized the pitfalls of civilization, and appreciated how barbarism represents more than just a convenient foil for civilization. Barbarism is a constant new source of growth and vitality. As time saps the strength of the Roman legions, barbarians restore their power. And as time wears down Gondor's armies, forcing retreats from Mordor, Enedwaith, and Calenardhon, the Northmen arrive to take up the slack.
As Howard's Conan sought adventure in Aquilonia, Aragorn came from the barbaric north to adventure in the Gondorian south, and years later he claimed the throne of Gondor. Like Howard's Kull, Aragorn came from the sea to claim that throne. And just as Alexander sparked a Greek renaissance, Aragorn revitalized Gondor and carried its culture to foreign lands, including his own. Aragorn was a man of actions as well as words.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.