Why is Aragorn Such a Loser?
Movie Aragorn, that is.
Of all of the missteps in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the portrayal of Aragorn might be the worst. It causes the trilogy to tumble down the staircase, cracking its head on every single step before it reaches the bottom. Sure, it’s still dressed in magnificent robes and still speaks with a certain eloquence.
But after that tumble, everyone in the room is already snickering.
A lot of people have complained about how the LOTR films did Faramir dirty, sacrificing his noble character for a few cheap moments of conflict. But that’s nothing compared to what the films did to Aragorn. The butchery of Faramir, while misguided, still showed a certain understanding. Jackson was a chef trying to get certain ingredients to work a certain way. He failed, but it was an honest attempt.
The treatment of Aragorn, however, shows a builder’s complete lack of understanding of the blueprints. Instead of a bathroom, he installed a broom closet, and instead of a functional door, he painted one on the wall. The audience is left in the position of Wile E. Coyote, trying to open a door that doesn’t exist, banging their noses into solid wood over and over.
The Character Arc No One Needed and No One Asked For
Aragorn from the books has no character arc. Strider from Fellowship of the Ring is largely the same as the newly crowned King Aragorn of Return of the King. The ranger from the north who protects the borders of civilization is the same king-in-waiting who walked the paths of the dead. Strider knows who he is and is looking for the best opportunity to claim his birthright.
Aragorn from the movies is a sniveling shadow. He is full of self-doubt, questioning his destiny, and needs pep talks from Arwen. Movie Aragorn slinks off, thinking he is not worthy of Arwen’s devotion. Elrond doesn’t even want him as a son-in-law.
When Aragorn of the movies gets to Rohan, there is no immediate recognition of his gravitas and kingliness because he has none. He leads Ewoyn along in a cruel joke, though his heart obviously belongs to another. Always indecisive is movie Aragorn.
Jackson begins Aragorn is a lower place so he has room to grow and rise throughout the story. But that’s not what we needed from Aragorn. There are plenty of other characters who change and grow.
Aragorn was not supposed to have character growth. It already happened by the time The Lord of the Rings begins. His growth is done. It happened decades ago.
Rather, the story acts as a revelation to the other characters and to the reader of who Aragorn really is and has always been ever since we met him at The Prancing Pony. Aragorn is the king. He knows it. Gradually, the other characters come to know it as well.
Gandalf and Legolas are the only ones who already know, but even Legolas is taken aback when the truth is made incarnate before his eyes.
By giving Aragorn a character arc, the movies remove one of the pillars of the story and replace it with bags of sand. It sort of works. The structure holds. But wow, it looks ugly and leans a little too much to one side.
The Revelation of the King
Let’s compare a few scenes. There are more, but these will serve to prove the point.
When Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas stumble upon the Riders of Rohan, Eomer demands to know who he is and at whose command they come to hunt orcs in his land.
“I serve no man,” said Aragorn.
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Anduril 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, Dunadan, 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!”
Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Eomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.
Eomer stepped back and a look of awe was in his face. He cast down his proud eyes.
Here, Aragorn carries himself in such a way that no one can deny his nobility and greatness. The same scene in the movies carries no such gravitas. Aragorn is just another weary traveler.
Let’s move on to Aragorn’s wrestling with Sauron over the Palantir. In the movie of Return of the King, Pippin looks at the seeing stone. Aragorn rushes in to help and faints after grasping the stone for a time.
In the book, during the muster of Rohan, Legolas notices that Aragorn is weary and a shadow has covered him. He asks him what has happened since last they met.
“A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,” answered Aragorn. “I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc.”
“You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!” exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. “Did you say aught to — him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.”
Gimli is, of course, referring to Sauron. Even Gandalf feared to test wills with the Dark Lord by looking into the Palantir. But notice how Aragorn replies.
“You forget to whom you speak,” said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. “What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? Nay, Gimli,” he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has labored in sleepless pain for many nights. “Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough — barely.”
He drew a deep breath. “It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me. […] To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now.”
Aragorn willingly underwent a contest of wills with Sauron, the Dark Lord…and won. He took control of the Palantir and, in doing so, reclaimed what was rightfully his. Remember that even Gandalf was afraid to try.
In the Extended Edition of the film, we do get a scene where Aragorn confronts Sauron through the Palantir, but all he does is show off his new sword and then gets spooked by the images shown to him by Sauron. Aragorn does not wrest the Stone back to use for his own purposes. There is no recognition of his kingly rights, and at best, the battle of wills is a draw.
Finally, toward the end when Aragorn is crowned. In the movies, the hobbits make to bow, but Aragorn tells them “My friends, you bow to no one.” This is an astounding misunderstanding of kingship and the throne. Of course the hobbits would bow to the king. They are his subjects.
In the book, Aragorn takes Frodo and Sam and sets the hobbits on his newly established throne.
…he turned to the men and captains who stood by and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying: “Praise them with great praise!”
And that makes all the difference.
A Defense Against Worse
In comparison to the Aragorn of the books, the Aragorn of the movies is a loser who doesn’t even understand what kingship and authority mean. I do give Jackson some slack because to portray Aragorn from the books accurately would take a perfect confluence of casting, acting, and writing, with maybe a smidge of alchemy or magic. Probably impossible.
But he could have gotten closer.
There is one good thing that comes from the pale shadow of the movies. The image looks close enough to the original that it will be a long, long time before anyone attempts more movie adaptions. For that, we can be thankful. An Aragorn that suited the proclivities of the “current year” would be insufferable and border on blasphemous.
Based on The Rings of Power, we know things could be so, so much worse.
M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.