Aragorn: Heir to Gondor's Throne or Not?
"Gondor Has No King"
Aragorn, the hero of The Return of the King, the final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor—or is he?
Peter Jackson's films simplified and changed Aragorn's backstory to make Gondor's politics easy for movie audiences to understand. In fact, he was neither a "king in exile" nor a "usurper" (as Denethor thought) but something in between, with a long and tangled history behind his claim. This lens examines Aragorn's claim to the throne of Gondor and explains what that whole "only a Ranger" business is about.
Aragorn's Claim: The Super Short Version
A Brief History of the Third Age of Middle-earth
- At the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth, there were TWO kingdoms of Men: Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south.
- High King Elendil ruled in Arnor. His sons Isildur and Anárion ruled jointly in Gondor, under his authority.
- After Elendil and Anárion were killed in the Last Alliance, Isildur became High King and headed to Arnor in his father's place. Isildur confirmed Anárion's son Meneldil as King of Gondor.
- But after Isildur's death, in practice, Arnor and Gondor became separate kingdoms. Heirs of Isildur ruled Arnor; heirs of Anárion ruled Gondor.
- Aragorn was a descendant of Isildur, and thus heir to the (now lost) kingdom of Arnor. The question was, could he claim Gondor?
He Just Can't Wait to Be King!
Changes Between Book and Film
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril 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, Dúnadan, 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!"
(Aragorn's first encounter with Ãomer, The Two Towers)
In the books, Aragorn is confident that he is the rightful heir and has spent decades preparing to claim the crown. He's explored many lands in disguise, serving in both Rohan and Gondor as a captain of Men, sizing up Mordor's defenses, and helping Minas Tirith against its enemies. Before setting out from Rivendell with Frodo, Aragorn has Narsil reforged and names it Andúril, Flame of the West. His sword shows he means to take back more than simply a "shard" of Elendil's realm; Aragorn wants all of it, both kingdoms reunited! However, he knows that he has to prove himself worthy of his heritage; he can't just waltz into Minas Tirith and claim the throne.
Aragorn has an extra incentive. Tolkien's Elrond is a lot more generous than Peter Jackson's. Elrond is distressed at the idea of losing his daughter and worried that Arwen would find mortality bitter in the end. Yet when he learns that she returns Aragorn's love, Elrond has this to say to the man whom he's raised as his foster-son:
"Maybe it has been appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor."
(Appendices, Return of the King)
Elrond aids Aragorn in his quest, believing in him when few others do. It's a far cry from that "Men are weak" nonsense.
The films turn Aragorn into a reluctant hero and Elrond into a cynical grouch, in order to introduce more levels of conflict—as if Aragorn didn't have enough troubles just defeating Sauron and dealing with Denethor!
Crash Course: The History of Middle-earth
The Extended Edition
The movies didn't have time to explain Aragorn's heritage. It's a fascinating story. So let's look back at the history of Middle-earth, and see why Gondor had lost its king, and why the heir was hiding under Elrond's roof!
Seven thousand years before Aragorn's day, Elves and Men were fighting a foe MUCH bigger than Sauron. Sauron was originally just Morgoth's flunky, as Saruman later became his. Morgoth was wiping out the Elven-kingdoms. The Valar wouldn't do squat because the Elves had rebelled against them and come back to Middle-Earth, murdering their kinfolk on the way. The Valar said, "Well, if you're going to be like that—good riddance!" But Morgoth was a Vala—a fallen angel, essentially—too powerful to defeat.
Finally, Eärendil and his wife Elwing, who both had mixed elf-human ancestry, used the power of Eärendil's star (a jewel called a Silmaril) to get past the cloaking device the Valar had put around the Undying Lands. Eärendil Half-elven begged for mercy on behalf of both races. The Valar relented and helped finish off Morgoth (Sauron slunk away to hide). The Valar told the Elves, "Come back now; we forgive you!" and created a wonderful island for the Edain (Men) who had helped the Elves. This island was Númenor, halfway between the Undying Lands and Middle-earth.
Eärendil and Elwing were forbidden to return to Middle-earth. Instead, the Valar decided to count them as honorary Elves (they may have been mortal until then). They gave Eärendil a magic ship that sailed the sky each night, so he could bring hope to Middle-Earth with the light of the Silmaril. His sons Elrond and Elros were given a choice: become Elves, which meant that they must someday give up Middle Earth and sail to the Undying Lands, or remain mortal, with a lifespan several times that of ordinary Edain. Elrond cast his lot with the Elves. His brother Elros became the first King of Númenor.
Númenor prospered, blessed by the Valar and the Elves. Over the centuries, however, Men grew to resent the Elves' immortality. The kings hated Elros' choice, which was irrevocable. Finally, Sauron weaseled his way into the court of the king and whispered that anyone who went to the Undying Lands would be immortal—the Valar were keeping them away lest they become more powerful than the gods! Persuaded by Sauron, the King of Númenor broke the Valar's Ban and took a war-fleet to the Undying Lands, where he and his armies received a rude welcome in the form of several mountains being dropped on their heads. The Valar took back their gift and sank Númenor.
A few Númenoreans loyal to the Valar survived, sailing back to Middle-earth on the winds of the cataclysm. Their leader was Elendil, descended from King Elros' great-great-granddaughter. His oldest son Isildur saved a seedling of the White Tree of Númenor (a gift of the Elves) and planted it at his new capital in Middle-Earth. Isildur and Anárion founded Gondor in the south, where their ships had washed up, while their father Elendil became High King over them and ruled Arnor in the north. Remember the enormous statues of the Argonath? That's Isildur and Anárion, joint rulers of Gondor, whose cities were Minas Anor (later Minas Tirith) and Minas Ithil (later Minas Morgul, captured by Sauron).
Meanwhile, Sauron was running amuck across Middle-earth, giving their friends the Elves fits. So they formed the Last Alliance. By the end of the war, Elendil and Anárion were dead, the Elves' High King Gil-Galad was dead, there weren't enough Elves left in Middle-earth to need a king, and Isildur had two kingdoms to worry about.
Tolkien's version of Isildur was not a fool nor evil. Elrond thought keeping the Ring was dangerous, but even he did not realize Sauron might return. While debating the issue at the bottom of Mt. Doom, nowhere near the fire chamber, Isildur declared that the Ring was a "weregild" for his father and brother. (In medieval tradition, a weregild is a blood-price, a precious treasure given in recompense for slain relatives. It's a sacred tradition, like honoring a white flag of truce.) Elrond, who knew what it was like to lose a father and brother, respected this and let the matter drop.
To his chagrin, Isildur soon realized Elrond was right about the Ring: there was something creepy about it. On the way back to his father's kingdom in the north, Isildur headed towards Rivendell to seek Elrond's advice. En route, Isildur was ambushed and killed (and did NOT abandon his men). In the books, Isildur is remembered as a hero, and Aragorn is proud to be his heir.
Arvedui, Last King of Arnor
And the Rise of the Stewards of Gondor
Before Isildur's death, he entrusted the throne of Gondor to his nephew, Meneldil. Isildur's young son Valandil, who was sheltered in Rivendell during the war, became King of Arnor (he ought to have been High King since Isildur and Elendil had been, but it seems that the High King experiment fizzled away with Isildur's passing). For over a thousand years, the two kingdoms prospered.
Then the North came under attack by the Witch-King, an evil Númenórean who had pledged himself to Sauron and received a Ring turning him into a wraith. Meanwhile, Gondor was beset by various barbarian invasions plus a plague. Orcs and trolls reappeared and caused havoc. Sauron had not yet openly returned, but his servants were beginning to divide and conquer his old enemies. Worse, most Men no longer trusted Elves, who by this time barely had enough folk left to defend their remaining strongholds.
In 1944, King Ondoher of Gondor and his sons were slain. King Arvedui of Arnor, who had married Ondoher's daughter, applied to Gondor for the crown as Isildur's heir and father of Ondoher's grandson, who would thus be heir to both realms. The Council of Gondor refused him, saying:
"The crown of royalty of Gondor belongs solely to the heirs of Meneldil, son of Anárion, to whom Isildur relinquished this realm. In Gondor this heritage is reckoned through the sons only; and we have not heard that the law is otherwise in Arnor."
(Appendices, Return of the King)
Instead, the throne of Gondor was given to a distant cousin of the king, who happened to be a popular and successful captain of Gondor's armies. Shortly afterward, King Arvedui himself was killed, and the last remnants of Arnor destroyed. A generation later, Gondor lost its king, who rashly answered the Witch-king's challenge to come to Minas Morgul for a one-on-one duel. Before he left, he entrusted the rule of Gondor to his steward until he returned. No heir with a strong enough claim could be found, so the Stewards became the rulers of Gondor.
Arvedui and his kingdom had been wiped out, but his son Aranarth had survived. Aranarth and the last survivors of Arnor, the Rangers or Dúnedain ("Men of the West"), continued to fight Sauron's servants in secret with the help of the Elves. Elrond continued to shelter and tutor the descendants of his brother Elros, the last of whom was Aragorn.
It was hard enough for Aragorn the Ranger to prove he was the bonafide heir of Arvedui, whose kingdom had been destroyed a thousand years earlier. Elrond could confirm his identity, having remained an ally to the Heirs of Isildur during their centuries of obscurity, but even his word might not be enough. Even though Gondor's line had died out, Denethor could point to the Council's ruling—valid or not—to deny Aragorn the kingship.
For Further Reading
- Online Discussion Thread: "Isildur: High King? Meneldir: Power-Hungry?"
Credit where due: Members of the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza, especially EldarionKing, have critiqued this article and begged to differ with me on a few points.
The Problem With Denethor
Last Steward of the House of Anárion
Tolkien's Denethor was not a crazy old coot: He was a formidable military commander who'd been holding the forces of Mordor at bay all his life. He did not sacrifice his sons needlessly, though he sent Faramir out to hold Osgiliath's defenses as long as possible before it fell, in order to buy time for the Riders of Rohan to arrive. In the books, Denethor ordered the Beacons to be lit.
However, Denethor was none too happy about Aragorn. He knew who he was, despite Gandalf's attempts to conceal his identity:
"Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this hafling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity!"
(The Pyre of Denethor, Return of the King)
Until Faramir was brought back to the city dying, Denethor was under strain but not insane. He was simply a cynic. He saw Gandalf pulling Théoden's strings (or so it appeared) and assumed that the wizard was trying to put a puppet on the throne of Gondor, too.
Worse, there was bad blood between Aragorn and Denethor. Aragorn, gifted with long life like his ancestors, was Denethor's age. As a young man, he had served in disguise in Gondor, rising up through the ranks and becoming the right-hand man of Ecthelion the Steward. Ecthelion favored Aragorn over his own son! Back then, Denethor had shrewdly guessed the true identity of his hated rival. From Denethor's point of view, if the threat of Mordor wasn't bad enough, Aragorn was waiting in the wings to sail in, "save" Minas Tirith, and claim the crown, after Denethor had spent his life and sons to protect his city!
So Denethor had more than one reason to be angry when Faramir showed himself "lordly and generous" by letting Frodo take the Ring to Mordor. It was galling enough that Faramir had followed Gandalf's daft plan and sent the Ring straight to the Enemy. Even worse, if by some miracle Gandalf's scheme worked, Faramir would want to be "lordly and generous" and hand the throne on a silver platter to Gandalf's puppet! Denethor did not kill Faramir for that reason—he looked into the Palantír while Faramir lay dying, saw signs that Sauron's victory was certain, and lost all hope—but it certainly made him cranky.
Faramir acted just as his father had predicted, tossing the Council of Gondor's ruling aside. His first act as Steward was to invite Aragorn to claim the crown. In Faramir's mind, the King had returned.
Aragorn's Coronation Prayer
Translation of the Elvish
Aragorn's song at his coronation is a line of Quenya (ancient Elvish) from the books:
Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said:
"Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!"
And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind:
"Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world."
(The Steward and the King, Return of the King)
Arwen's theme was snippets of Sindarin Elvish (the tongue still spoken) put together by a modern linguist based on Tolkien's writings. It's a translation of a line from the "Lay of Leithian," a poem about Arwen's distant ancestor Lúthien who married a mortal man:
elvanui the Elven-fair
elleth alfirin immortal elf-maiden
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© 2009 tinw