Monday, September 7, 2015

Become Who You Were Born to Be: Destiny in "The Return of the King"

I have been thinking about destiny lately.

I don't mean that in a self-centered protagonistic sense. I mostly mean it in a Lord of the Rings sense.

My Grandfather says that The Lord of the Rings is mostly a profound moral work because of its sense of Providence--the idea that individuals are being led forward by a powerful force for good, that leads them to final endings of goodness despite travelling through dark clouds and moments of grief. Along the way, so many characters find that they were made for something greater than they knew. That they had a destiny.

I don't know if I've got one of those. Of course my clinical mind wants to reject the idea, looking around at how normal my surroundings are. How there are no meteoric rises to being wonderful or powerful, how it's all just one little step at a time. I imagine you think similarly--you sometimes dream of wonderful things, but can feel held back by a world that has no interest in you, or by the (perhaps) truthful evaluation that some of your dreams are ridiculous and improbable.

If you're interested in reading that your wildest dreams will come true and exactly as you planned it, you won't find it in this article. The destiny I see in the universe is hidden, does a wonderful job of making itself invisible, and sometimes only is visible to others. But I do believe that we have incredible capacities as individuals, for caring, for strength, for inspiration. And that kind of destiny--unexpected, beautiful, personal--is all over The Lord of the Rings, and particularly The Return of the King. And I think it can teach us something about our own destiny.

Here goes:

Aragorn's journey in The Lord of the Rings is so well-worn to us that every step of it seems natural. Somehow, the fact that the pipe-smoking, black-hooded ranger who heals with a weed called Kingsfoil is a logical person to magically become the King of Gondor, Leader of the Armies of the West. But taking away the deep cultural impact that the series has had on us, Aragorn becomes a dark, fascinating figure and a powerful archetype for destiny, and nowhere is his personal transformation and character power clearer than in his eponymous film: The Return of the King.

Before the films, Aragorn was a ranger. To claim that he was a wastrel and an evader is not a wholly accurate portrayal, but there is a sense that he faces up against smaller challenges rather than great ones. As will be mentioned later, he even suggests to Sauron that he has hidden from him. Though he knew what he was destined to be, there is evidence that Aragorn stood on the sidelines, hanging back out of fear, apprehension, or doubt.

Late one night at the Rohan encampment, Elrond comes to Aragorn with a warning and a gift. The warning is that they will be outnumbered by the secret fleet Sauron has enlisted, and that Aragorn needs to find more troops. When Aragorn expresses doubt that he will be able to inspire the army that might be able to help them, Elrond shows Aragorn the gift he's brought, saying "They will answer to the King of Gondor."

The gift is a new sword, called Anduril, reforged from the broken shards of his ancestral line's sword. Elrond hands Aragorn the sword and says:

"Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be."

With these words, Aragorn reaches a turning point in a transformation that began when he agreed to help Gandalf lead the Hobbits to Rivendell, that continued when he joined the Fellowship, and that grew to maturity.

Aragorn's transition to kinghood presents some fascinating ideas about destiny:

1. Aragorn both honors and defies his family by taking on his role.

   The family of Kings is not without their shames or problems. Isildur, Aragorn's forebear, defeated Sauron but eventually succumbed to the temptation of the ring. That long line of crowns and swords that came in the generations before Aragorn was poisoned by greed and selfishness. No doubt part of Aragorn's hesitation was the knowledge that he, too, was subject to temptation.
   (Arguably, his temperance saved him from a similar fate. Would it have been better to have a hero boldly barreling in, assuming he would be unshakable? Isn't that what happened to Boromir?)
    But Aragorn honors the family line. The symbol of their greatness, the sword, is reforged to serve his reign.
     For those among us who come from families with difficulties, is it necessary to split completely from what fostered us? or is there a way of taking the good shards of a broken thing and improving it?
     Embracing destiny is not, as many assume, simply an arrogant "self-making". Aragorn has no fantasies about this. He graciously accepts the help given him and the traditions given him by his royal line. He sees their flaws clearly enough to avoid their mistakes. With the help of the past and hope in the future, he generates something new.

2. He cares deeply about others while avoiding a savior complex.

   Aragorn's relationship with Eowyn (who I'll talk about at length later in this commentary) teaches another fascinating lesson about his destiny.
   In the key conversation with Elrond, they recite a shared bit of Elven lore: "I give hope to men. I keep none for myself." This mantra could turn Aragorn into an overreaching self-destroyer, trying so hard to make everyone happy that he can't, in the end, do anything. But Aragorn sees limits. He understand the value of the feelings of others, encouraging but not making them dependent upon him.
    During The Two Towers, Eowyn, niece of Theoden, falls in love with Aragorn. He is encouraging to her, believes in her strength, and goodness, but has no interest in her romantically.
    When he leaves for the Dimholt Road after his conversation with Elrond, Eowyn confronts Aragorn. He asks her why she's come, and she answers "Do you not know?"
    A man with a savior complex, or a man who thinks any greatness involves sexual prowess or treating romantic success as some kind of badge of honor, might prolong her interest. Kiss her and ride off, or more than that. But Aragorn is honest, clear, and caring:
    "It is but a shadow and a thought that you love. I cannot give you what you seek. I have wished you joy since I first saw you."
    A person with a destiny, according to this example, doesn't consider the love of others as his highest reward, but for them to be free and happy as possible.

3. Aragorn fearlessly faces up to his past and possibilities of failure.

      In another key scene from Return of the King, Aragorn makes contact with Sauron. He goes into the king's chamber in Minas Tirith and uses a black seerstone like a crystal ball to communicate with the Lord of Darkness.
     When he lifts the stone and sees Sauron, he says, defiant despite his reasons for fear:
     "Long have you hunted me. Long have I eluded you. No more."
    In this moment Aragorn faces up against his fears of the past and of the future.
    Aragorn believes that who he is, now, is enough. He has faith that even the difficulties of his past have made him who he is and will lead him down a similar path for the future. Facing his destiny isn't a calloused sense that "I am what I am and I won't change". Instead it's a developed something, a musculature that is inherently good. Whatever changes happen, a man has the discipline to hold to what he knows his good. The actor who played Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen, kept this motto on his mirror: "Adapt and overcome."
    In his final speech at the Black Gate he reiterates this idea:
    "A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship--an hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down--but it is not this day!"
    In the Aragorn archetype of destiny, there is no time like the present.

Aragorn is the archetypal hero: a man who comes from ignorance and weakness and, via his honor and resourcefulness, achieves a destiny that allows him to save others.

Admittedly, however, Aragorn was in a logical and systemic position to be placed in his position. Despite his apparent worthiness, "destiny" may have had nothing to do with it. And at least judging on the type of government kingship entails, it's unreasonable to think that all of us are going to be Aragorns, living up to some kingly destiny.

I think many people do have kingly destinies--incredible futures that will involve them changing the world in some large and institutional way. But for many others, I think Eowyn elucidates some important principles of destiny.

Eowyn is a proper feminist character. When Aragorn asks her what she fears, she says "A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all change of doing great deeds is beyond all thought or desire." A daughter of the House of Rohan, Aragorn assures her she will do things of value, but in a moment of crisis he warns her: "There may come a time for valor without renown."

For many people (both men and women) without an obvious a chance of open power as Aragorn, this idea can give either encouragement or bitterness. But here are three reasons that I think Eowyn is as incredible a hero as Aragorn:

1. Eowyn challenges the boundaries of her society without ire for those in charge.

    Feeling marginalized can often be a prerequisite for striking out against those with power. Throwing fits, getting newspapers to write scathing articles about your enemies, name-calling, etc. It's a well-worn story that rarely does much besides make people angry at each other.
    Eowyn has a clear vision of her destiny: to fight and defend the people she cares about. Even in a society where she doesn't necessarily have a chance to do so, she manages to do so without such conflict. She surreptitiously joins the ranks of her Uncle's army, marches to war with the rest, and helps as much as she can in their effort. Did she have to deceive to do it? Yes. Did she make an incredible difference? Absolutely.
    In many cases, careful combat against institutionalized evil seems justified. But these people are her family, her people. Would Eowyn really want to tear down her own city because of some tapestries on the wall or some of the stones in the foundation? Instead, her actions honor her people and allow her to help in the way that she intends to. She didn't lose vision of her destiny simply because other people told her she couldn't achieve it.
     As a woman, Eowyn creatively seeks opportunities to give her destiny voice, and with equal creativity finds her way around cultural barriers that might stop her from meeting it.

2. Eowyn saves others.

     Eowyn's relationship with Theoden and the events at Pelennor Fields are a reminder that destiny can often be more meaningful, and incredible when it revolves around individuals than it might be when it ends with fame, fortune, or power.
     It should be noted that Aragorn barely saves anyone in the Lord of the Rings films, and sometimes with a bit of drama. He mostly saves Frodo from Weathertop, he serves as a messenger before Helm's Deep, and coincidentally stops Eowyn from dying during Pelennor Fields. But Eowyn's personal defense of Theoden is one of the most stirring events in the books.
    During their fight with the orcs, the King of the Nazgul, the Witch-King, riding a freaky dragon thing, screeches down out of the sky, grabs Theoden and horse in one mouthful, swings them around and slams them down on the ground. (We're assuming a broken back for Theoden, if not much worse.)
    He is about to suffer a shameful, torturous death, when Eowyn, in disguise as a man, steps in between them.

    The Witch-King laughs. When he was a mortal man it was predicted that he would never be killed by a living man, and so he is all confidence. This is the creature which, moments before, broke Gandalf's staff. To say that he's powerful is an incredible understatement.
    Eowyn, meanwhile, is horseless, armed with a completely regular sword. Unlike many others, she has no real titles to defend her. She professes that she will "hinder" the Witch-King. What uncertain language! Is she doubtful of her own strength?
    But from nowhere! and from no one but herself, she takes courage. She "laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.
    "'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn am I, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and my kin...I will smite you if you touch him.'


    "The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith was silent, as if in sudden doubt. ... [T]he helm of secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears gleamed in them. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes."
     Almost as remarkable as her courage and her love, Eowyn fights the Witch-King. "A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly" that felled the beast. The Rider's mace shatters her shield and her arm, but given a moment to find the last of her strength, she stabs him through the face and destroys him.
    In the book Eowyn collapses immediately and misses Theoden's death, but in an inspired choice, in the film Eowyn is able to be the recipient of her uncle's gratitude.

    She refuses to believe he is dying, insisting "I am going to save you."
    With a grim smile, he answers "You already did."
    If, in whatever judgment is to come, there is some scale of who matters and who doesn't in life, I think it's rather clear to everyone that it isn't based on fame or accolades. In that scale, Eowyn's destiny is just as heroic as Aragorn's. For some, she may seem to be defined by her boldness and defiance of the tradition she lives in. But even if those barriers were taken away, she would be defined by her love and loyalty to the people around her. The greatest destiny of all is to save others.

3. Eowyn accepts healing from others.

    Lastly, here's a minor anecdote from Eowyn, which I think makes her an interesting archetype: her experience in the Houses of Healing. After the battle with the Witch-King, Eowyn spends most of the book out of commission, overcoming the wounds she suffered. She incidentally meets Faramir here.
    But I was interested to see, and this is in the book as well, that Aragorn is the one who heals Eowyn. The little weed "kingsfoil" is actually a powerful healing agent, and he uses it as one of the powers he has been granted as a part of his role and destiny.

    I think it's important to realize that Eowyn doesn't begrudge this. No matter who we are or aren't, it is valuable to take advantage of and be appreciative of the destiny others have that we do not. Often, seeing the glory showered on others by fate (or whatever resembles it in the universe) we can feel bitter that we don't have such things. But in my experience, the world is brimming with Providence. Destiny becomes an interweaving fabric of acts performed by the many.

In conclusion, Eowyn is a boss, with a message about destiny that any of us can hold onto. Whether or not we are assigned some position of importance by the winds of fate, our influence can be monumental.

Even if I've focused on two characters, and the division has been mostly about gender, the idea of destiny is not so divided. Many women will be in places of prominence when men will not, and vice versa.

But I am still struck by the phrase of Elrond's.

Become who you were born to be.

In terms of fame or power, we can't really know what we were born to be. But that's not really what matters. What matters is not the quality of our lives but the quality of ourselves.

I think all of us, in some small sense, know what lies within us. I think all of us know the avenues we can begin to explore that will make us what we truly can be. You were born to do it, but you have the choice to become.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.