Saturday, 28 March 2015

Aragorn, Arthur, Charlemagne and Sigurd - How Tolkien Crafted a King

Tolkien's RingI have recently been reading David Day's Tolkien's Ring which discussed a number of different cultures and myths from which Tolkien drew inspiration for his characters, stories and settings. I thought it would be interesting to share some of my newly gained insights with you and add my own thoughts to it. Most of the credit for this post goes to David Day so if you find it interesting, definitely consider picking up his book! One of the key characters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, who becomes King Elessar II in The Return of the King. From his introduction in the first book, it is clear that Aragorn is a royal figure, a man with power and a good heart. Even when the reader doesn't know much about him yet, he is a recognizable figure. The reason that readers can accept Aragorn as a leader so easily is because Tolkien consciously modeled him on both fiction and historical kings and heroes.

A key figure to whom Aragorn relates is King Arthur, one of the most famous kings of Britain, despite the fact that most of the Arthurian legends find their origin in France or Wales. Arthur is, as a child, fostered by a knight and therefore unawares of his royal birth. His pulling the sword out of the stone is what propels him into the courtly and martial world, where he then has to fulfill the role of king. Along the way he falls in love with a beautiful princess, Guinevere, and fights many wars. Similarly, Aragorn doesn't know about his heritage until the age of twenty, from which point on he spends much of his time considering and fearing his destiny. It is not until he is presented with Anduril, a sword forged from the shards of Narsil, his ancestor's weapon, that he truly accepts and takes on his role as king. These similarities in origin allow Aragorn to be immediately recognizable to the reader as an archetype. Here is a man who is noble and good by birth and upon whose shoulders rests a great responsibility. Another similarity between Arthur and Aragorn is that they have a wizard for a friend and counselor, Merlin and Gandalf respectively.

A different comparison can be made to the historical King Charlemagne, who himself was the source of many tales and legends shortly after his life time. Charlemagne started off as King of the Franks in 768, became King of the Lombards in 774 and then Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire in 800. He can be credited with uniting Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire and his rule led to a period of cultural and intellectual renaissance. Although the link may not be directly obvious, much of Aragorn's work is aimed towards reuniting the lands of man in Middle-Earth. He rules not only over Gondor but over the Reunited Kingdom, combining the two lands of  Arnor and Gondor. Tolkien himself pointed out that this link to Charlemagne was explicitly made by him. I personally believe that Tolkien used this comparison to comment on the nature of kingship, namely that it should lead to unification and cultural development. Interesting also is that Charlemagne himself had a counselor, similar to Arthur and Aragorn. However, as the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire he could naturally not have a wizard at his side so he contented himself with a clergyman. Besides this, Charlemagne also possessed a sword, similar in repute to Excalibur or Anduril.

If you thought that surely these two characters were enough to give Tolkien plenty of material to work with you were sorely mistaken. Tolkien drew inspiration not just from English and European history, but also from Germanic and Scandinavian literature. Key among the figures here is that of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. Although I will readily admit that Aragorn never slays a dragon, there are certain similarities between the two characters that cannot be overlooked. Sigurd is fostered by a smith, after his father's death, until he is old and strong enough to take on the world. He then receives the shards of his father's sword and has it reforged into Gram, a very powerful sword. With Gram he slays Fafnir the dragon before taking possession of the Nibelungen treasure. Already there are key cross-overs such as the forging of a sword and a heroic heritage. However, a key part of the story of Sigurd is related to the Rhine gold, a treasure which contains a cursed ring. This ring caused Fafnir to become a dragon, caused Regin, Sigurd's foster father, to plot his death and, as part of the treasure, causes great calamity for Sigurd and his relatives. Day's book, Tolkien's Ring, largely stressed the role of the ring within the Nibelungen-narrative and I definitely think it's key. However, I see another theme that is extant in both Sigurd and Aragorn's stories and that is the theme of destiny. Sigurd was the son of Sigmund, who was the son of Volsung, both great warriors who did many heroic deeds. Sigurd's destiny is very much set, he is part of a bigger play and has to fulfill his role in that. Tolkien shows us a similar dread of destiny in Aragorn. Knowing where he came from, and especially knowing about the failure of his ancestors to destroy evil, Aragorn is hesitant to accept his role as king.

What I hope this post has shown is how Tolkien drew inspiration from a variety of sources, only to create a single character. There are many more comparisons that can be made between these four figures and even more could be involved. The main reason I am interested in this personally is that this intricacy of Tolkien's writing is very much the reason why it has resonated for generations with readers. Tolkien keenly recognized archetypes from mythology and history and adapted them into his own narrative framework. His characters strike the reader as familiar and recognizable because they are part of the culture upon which modern day Europe is built. It is because of this feeling of familiarity that The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion have remained popular for this long and it is what sets it apart from most Fantasy writing.

What do you think? Do these comparisons strike you as reasonable? Do you have other characters of whom Aragorn, or any LotR character, reminds you?

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Thanks for sharing it. It's fascinating just how many sources of inspiration Tolkien drew from when creating his own world.

    Reading old European legends enhances the enjoyment of Tolkien for me. For example, Smaug's one weak spot reminds me very much of the tale of Roland and Ferragus from the Legends of Charlemagne.

    Ferragus was a giant with a single vital weak spot in the middle of his breast. In his story, however, he brags about his near invincibility to Roland and stupidly points out his own weakness. Tolkien definitely improved on that legend.