The Fellowship of the Ring: The Great River
The company travels from Lorien to the falls of Rauros over 10 days. During that time Gollum creeps around, they are set upon by orcs and a dark enemy, and they enter the ancient realm of kings. Along the way Aragorn wrestles with indecision: which road must the company take, east to the mountain of fire or west, to the the white city?
The tenth day of their journey was over. Wilderland was behind them. They could go no further without choice between the east-way and the west. The last stage of the Quest was before them.
Calling, duty, and indecision
Decisiveness is held up as an essential quality of leadership. But on re-reading I noticed that Aragorn has been wrestling with indecision through several chapters. The elves of Lothlórien, wise as they are, cannot, or perhaps will not. offer any certainty. Leadership of the company fell to him, adding to the doubt which has plagued him since before Rivendell.
What does Aragorn’s indecision say about his leadership? Something positive, I think. Since the loss of Gandalf in Moria, Aragorn’s role in the company has become complicated. Since Rivendell, it was clear that Aragorn would return to Minas Tirith and claim the kingship. He already carries Andúril, the reforged blade that cut the Ring from Sauron, and the narrator declares that “Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor.” But his calling is beset by an unexpected duty: shepherding the Ring-bearer.
Add to this Aragorn’s fear of his own weakness as regards the power of the Ring and it becomes obvious why indecision sets in. Does he keep the company together by convincing Frodo to come to Minas Tirith, to Boromir’s pleasure and in answer to the call of his birthright? Should he turn away from the need of Gondor and its people and take Frodo to Mordor? In either case, ought he proceed in power or in secret, and what of the company?
With no clear, or clearly wise, answer to these questions Aragorn does the wisest thing possible: he waits.
Deciding to be undecided
The first thing Aragorn does is take counsel. More importantly, he listens to the reasoning behind each of the companions’ position. Boromir will go no further than the falls before striking out for his city, “alone, if [his] help has not earned him companionship.” The hobbits will follow Frodo, because that is why they set out. And as for Frodo, he would rather follow Aragorn, and this divides Aragorn further.
But Aragorn knows he does not know, that he can’t see all the roads before him, much less the ends of those roads. His wisdom is knowing he is not wise—even the great are small in the wide world. This is beautifully illustrated in the passage of the Gates of Argonath, the mountain-high likenesses of Elendil and Isildur.
Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skilful stokes; his good was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king return from exile to his own land.
And after declaring how he has nothing to fear from the gaze of the old kings, he recognizes the competing reality of his frailty:
‘Would that Gandalf were here! How my heart yearns for Minas Anor and the walls of my own city! But wither now shall I go?’
So Aragorn delays until he can delay no longer. There we find the real lesson, which is sometimes we do not decide. Before the company can vote on a course of action, everything falls apart. In the next (and final) chapter, The Breaking of the Fellowship, the the power to choose rightly is taken away from Aragorn. The Ring, working in Boromir, puts pressure on the existing divisions in the fellowship. Boromir tries to take the Ring, Frodo flees, and orcs attack. Boromir is killed and Merry and Pippin are captured; the landscape of choice is transformed.
In the end, Aragorn must make a choice but it is a much easier one, and it is one that takes an honest accounting of his own weaknesses.
Reading Middle-earth is back from a summer hiatus and, as autumn blows in, you can expect more posts. We’re almost finished with The Fellowship of the Ring—hooray for milestones!