Sunday, June 23, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: Strider

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I am older than I look. I might prove useful. You will have to leave the open road after tonight; for the horsemen will watch it night and day. You may escape from Bree, and be allowed to go forward while the Sun is up; but you won’t go far. They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.

Last time in the comments there were a couple of mentions that “Strider” marked a turning point in The Fellowship of the Ring, the shift from what Fyodor called “a dreamy hobbit road trip” to the main narrative. And as much as I liked Fellowship’s opening chapters, there is absolutely a new sense of urgency and momentum present in “Strider,” due in large part to the introduction of its titular character. Strider / Aragorn storms onto the stage, a breath of fresh air, and immediately steals the scene out from under the hobbits. He’s dangerous and unreadable, defined by an almost volatile moodiness that’s ages away from Viggo Mortensen’s solid, steady brooding. He knows what’s waiting out there, and he doesn’t mince words in letting the hobbits know how dangerous it is. His presence in the story yanks the hobbits back towards the danger of their situation and catapults the plot forward.

This chapter feels like the moment where the full weight of what the hobbits have undertaken comes into the light. So far the hobbits have proved to be remarkably adept at mentally avoiding the danger of their situation: despite being nearly eaten by a tree, murdered by a barrow-wight, and being regularly stalked by ominous cloaked horsemen, none of them seem that upset about it. I’ve been a bit hard on them at times for being flippant in situations where they should have been more careful: I’m looking at you, Table Dancing Frodo. But despite this, it’s a fitting attitude for the story. These hobbits are good at powering through danger mentally unscathed, even if that power comes in part from an unworldliness or denial. It’s a nice, low-key character note, and fits well with what we know of them. They’re cheerful and just not aware enough of the word to know how properly scared of it they should be.

But then Strider shows up, simply tells them how dangerous it is, and in doing so acts as the tonal fulcrum of the story. We’ve spent many chapters with magic lingering around the edges – in something as foreign and different as Bombadil or in something old and distant like the forest or the wights – that the central danger of the story, hanging around Frodo’s neck, often seems to fade to the back of the hobbits’ minds. Strider pulls it back to the front, and never pulls his punches. It’s a telling moment when Strider mentions that his appearance often makes people assume him dangerous or untrustworthy. Pippin, rather than engaging with Strider, immediately tries to lighten the mood and jokes that they’d all look a bit dirty and beat up after sleeping in some ditches. Another hobbit, or really any other character save Gandalf that we’ve met so far, would have returned a joke, or at least laughed. Strider stares him down and basically says “No, Pippin, you’d be fucking dead.” For better or worse, Strider showing up means that the hobbits are getting drafted into the major leagues.


Beyond his impact on the hobbits, Strider’s introduction is great in its own right. He’s competent, of course, acting in his role as the newest guide for the hobbits. But there’s also underlying strings of levity, kindness, fear, and bitterness, which make him an immediately interesting and layered character.

There’s a sense of cockiness to Strider when we first meet him. He’s almost playful in his first interactions with Frodo, watching the hobbits march themselves into trouble, fully aware of what they’re doing, and not doing anything to stop them. Even when he meets them in their rooms he’s in no rush to clarify who he is or what he’s doing. When Frodo asks him what he has to say to them, Strider simply says “Several things. But, of course, I have my price.” It’s a blatantly confrontational thing to say, and the reader gets the sense that Strider is enjoying stringing the hobbits along.

But his propensity for teasing the hobbits a bit is also paired with concern and the occasional glimpse of warmth. Despite leaving the hobbits to their own devices he also chastises them for being “much too careless” on their journey so far, and informs them that while they’re frightened, they are not frightened enough. He seems somewhat charmed by Sam’s initial refusal to trust him – Sam has a point, he notes, that he has some nerve to demand their trust immediately after telling them not to be so trusting. And after telling the hobbits that they can trust him simply because if he wanted to betray them, he would have done it long ago, he softens and he smiles: “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

At the same time, Strider never seems too competent or obvious. There are hints of fear and bitterness about him that I hadn’t remembered. The mention of Black Riders upsets him enough that the hobbits describe him as looking physically pained, and his description of them to Butterbur goes further than almost anything else so far in making them frightening. It’s a simple line, but powerful: “They come from Mordor,” said Strider in a low voice. “From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you.” The line itself has such a sense of rhythm and the blunt combination of simple clarity and the hint that there are layers of fear that Barliman could not understand makes the line quietly unsettling.

There’s also a hint of pettiness and loneliness about Strider that’s intriguing. Rangers are a people known for their long disappearances into the wilderness and staying at arm’s distance from the people in Bree. This seems to have done a bit of a number on Strider, who does not seem to be emotionally immune from this sense of distrust. When Barliman expresses doubts about “taking up with a Ranger,” Strider snaps back at him: “Then who would you take up with,” asked Strider. “A fat innkeeper who only remembers his own name because people shout it at him all day?” Earlier in the chapter he implies that Barliman didn’t like him much because of his “rascally look,” something that he seems genuinely concerned about. He admits to Frodo that he wanted to win the hobbits’ trust on his own: “I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship. But there, I believe my looks are against me.” This lead to one of the more interesting and muddled aspects of “Strider.”

Viggo Mortensen, the true embodiment of a man fair at heart and FOUL to look upon

All That is Gold Does Not Glitter

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 shadow shall spring,
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king

Strider is concerned about how his outward appearance is interpreted by others in a chapter that is already concerned with outward appearances and the value that ought to be allotted to them. It’s not a characteristic that I remembered in Strider / Aragorn. I tend to remember him as more unflappable, and concern for his appearance give a much more vulnerable and intimate shading to his character that I quite like. There’s a sense that false assumptions based on his appearance have been really damaging to Strider’s life, and that they’ve left him rather lonely.

And so the obvious point of the chapter, and Gandalf’s/Bilblo’s poem, seems to be that appearances deceive: gold doesn’t necessarily glitter, a bit of wandering doesn’t negate a sense of purpose. The language around Strider all circles back to the point that while he looks shady and untrustworthy, he’s an excellent, Gandalf-approved ally for the hobbits to have in their corner. When Sam mentions that “He come out of the Wild, and I never heard no good of such folk,” we’re supposed to eventually come to disagree with him. It even fits well with The Fellowship of the Ring up until this point, since so many beautiful things shifted so quickly into danger. The Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, despite their obvious dangers, also possessed beauty and a sort of seductive quality so common in the dangers of fairy tales. Strider immediately strikes the hobbits as dangerous and frightening, and the turn-around squares nicely with how danger has been portrayed in The Lord of the Rings up until this point.

Because of this, it bothers me all the more that in the rest of “Strider,” appearance and origin do seem to have some bearing on moral, internal value. Bill Ferny, who is working against the hobbits in Bree, is described as a “swarthy, sneering fellow.” A point against him is that he hangs out with “Southerners” and “not all those Southerners mean well.” There’s no turn around coming here: Bill is a Bad Guy, and this seems obvious to our protagonists when they look at him. Appearances deceive in Middle Earth, except when they don’t. This bummed me out, for obvious reasons as well as for the more flippant reason that it throws off the thematic balance of what is otherwise a very good chapter.

Final Comments

  • There’s a solid bit of unintentional comedy to be found here, as Strider on three separate occasions melts into the shadows of a room and waits for the perfect moment to jump in with a nice & dramatic interjection, like some kind of Tony Wonder of Middle Earth.
  • Poor Merry. After a nice run of level-headedness, he breaks his streak by wandering around Bree alone, after dark. You’re better than that, Merry! He’s rewarded for his poor judgment by meeting a Black Rider and having to hear about Strider’s character introduction second-hand. And at one point everyone except Barliman (OF ALL PEOPLE) forgets that Merry is missing.
  • Insult Showdown! Barliman on Gandalf: “He’s a bit hasty.” Gandalf on Barliman: “A worthy man, but his memory is like a lumber room: thing wanted always buried. If he forgets, I shall roast him.” Point Gandalf.
  • Gandalf has a stronger presence in this chapter than he has for quite some time, and it goes a bit of ways to make up for what seem to be some poor judgment calls back in “The Shadow of the Past” and “Three is Company.” We learn from Strider that Gandalf has kept a steady patrol on the borders of the Shire over the past several years, suggesting his plans aren’t all that ramshackle. Strider also makes the intriguing mention that “as a rule, [hobbits] can only see his jokes and toys.” I’m curious as to whether that’s a simple throwaway mention that the hobbits don’t have a full awareness of Gandalf’s capabilities, or if there is actually some kind of agreement in Middle Earth about who can witness power and magic, and under what circumstances. Anyone know?
  • I’ve always liked Tolkien’s little poem about Aragorn. It’s short and simple but has a nice sense of momentum and verve. An earlier version of it is published in The Treaty of Isengard:
    All that is gold does not glitter;
    all that is long does not last;
    All that is old does not wither;
    not all that is over is past.
    [A middle version of the poem added the second verse]
    Not all that have fallen are vanquished;
    a king may yet be without crown,
    A blade that was broken be brandished;
    and towers that were strong may fall down.
  • Prose Prize: I am older than I look. I might prove useful. You will have to leave the open road after tonight; for the horsemen will watch it night and day. You may escape from Bree, and be allowed to go forward while the Sun is up; but you won’t go far. They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Do you wish them to find you? They are terrible.
  • Art Credits: Top image is courtesy of Jian Guo. The middle image is courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Next Time: Weathertoooooooooop!

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