Monday 6 December 2021

Is Aragorn more like King Arthur, or Alfred the Great?

The episode when Aragorn carelessly burns the lembas while sheltering in Lothlorien, and is scolded by an elf maiden 

Is Aragorn more like King Arthur, or Alfred the Great? Of course, he does not have to be like either! 

But there are zillions of people who have drawn a parallel between Aragorn and King Arthur (e.g. 288,000 Google entries pair these names!) - but I can't myself see much resemblance except that they are both Kings - and both Good Kings, at that. 

The main similarity is that both were aided by a wizard - and Gandalf is (obviously) derived from Merlin; as are all modern wizards. But Gandalf and Merlin are not very alike - in particular Gandalf is much more Good than Merlin; whose main intervention was originally (in Geoffrey of Monmouth) to enable Uther to commit adultery. 

And this matter of Goodness is what also distinguishes Aragorn from Arthur; because Arthur is quite flawed as both Man and King (in most versions of the story) - and his only major prowess is generalship (as a single combat fighter he is exceeded by several knights, notably Lancelot). 

By contrast, we know that Aragorn is among the best Men of all time - intelligent, wise, learned, a healer, skilled at tracking, hardy, a great fighter; and possessing a will strong enough to wrest control of the Orthanc palantir from Sauron. We confidently expect he will be the same as a King. 

On this basis, it is probably closer to the mark to consider Alfred the Great as a closer equivalent to Aragorn; since Alfred seems to have been both an exemplary individual; and more of an all-rounder than Arthur. 

Alfred was apparently not only an inspiring leader and excellent general, but also a major administrator and lawyer; scholar and author; and a deep and devout Christian. 

Alfred also has a very roughly analogous trajectory from being reduced almost to a 'ranger', hiding on the 'island' of Athelney in the Somerset boglands, before a 'return of the King' to reclaim his kingdom (about half of what is now England) from The Danes.   

I don't suppose that Tolkien seriously based the character of Aragorn on any particular historical or mythical model - especially considering that Aragorn developed narratively, by increments, from a brown-skinned hobbit-in-clogs called Trotter

But, in character, Aragorn seems more like Alfred than anyone else. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! In comparison to those "288,000 Google entries", I can't immediately think of anyone having discussed Aragorn and Alfred, while your points are well made.

I remember Tolkien discussing Chesterton's 'Ballad of the White Horse', but have not paused to go looking up the references. But it would be interesting to compare Chesterton's Alfred, there, Charles Williams's Arthur and Merlin in the first couple poems in Taliessin through Logres, and Aragorn and Gandalf. E.g., how 'Alfredy' (and even maybe especially not unlike Chesterton's Alfred) is Williams's pre-'Crowning of Arthur' Arthur? And, what of Tolkien's own poetic 'Fall of Arthur' Arthur - another interesting 'version' to compare... With Williams, you cannot tell whether his Merlin has the creepy Uther-facilitating aspect or not. Maybe Williams's young Arthur and Merlin are what-they-could-have-been-like. And maybe Tolkien's LotR Aragorn and Gandalf are something analogous - something positive with which to compare and contrast the Malory ones as helpful wizard and worthy heir. Mirrors of kingship and wizardship?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

"And maybe Tolkien's LotR Aragorn and Gandalf are something analogous - something positive with which to compare and contrast the Malory ones as helpful wizard and worthy heir. Mirrors of kingship and wizardship?"

Yes, that is certainly how I would regard Tolkien's 'versions' of the archetypes.

Although 'in universe' Tolkien's examples came *before* Arthur and Merlin! - so from this angle A&M might be regarded as later, inferior, somewhat corrupted or degenerate spiritual-descendants of Aragorn and Gandalf - which yet still embodied and reflected some of the purer glory of the originals.

M said...

Part of the Arthurian legend is that he will return.

Aragorn has more than a little of the "Arthur returned" (and purified?) vibe about him, which may be the reason for some of those Google results.

Bruce Charlton said...

@M - I don't dispute that there are similarities. But I do dispute that there was significant influence running from Arthur to Aragorn - aside from the 'good kind' archetype.

Brick Hardslab said...

Aragorn was always in best of health. And would never have burned the bread. He was too familiar with an empty belly to waste food. Certainly, Alfred was Great but perhaps in different ways than Aragorn.