Aragorn is the greatest man of his age in Tolkien’s masterpiece. He is a skilled and experienced tracker, educated in the House of Elrond, the commander of the Northern Men called Dunedain, and the lost heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Boromir is a good man, a man of valor and honor. However, Aragorn is a great man; a man of wisdom and power. Aragorn’s wisdom transcends that of a man at arms, and yet he fights like a whirlwind. And finally, he bears Anduril, the Flame of the West and the symbol of a new beginning forged on a foundation of the past.
Despite all of this, Aragorn serves. Everything he reaches for in Lord of the Rings is motivated by a need that must be filled. The Shards of Narsil are reforged in Rivendell, because soon Gondor would need her King. No matter the task in the novel, Aragorn is not above it. On Caradhras, he is a shovel, plowing a way through for the hobbits. In the forest, he is a tracker, covering many miles more than his companions in search of safe passage. In the Mines of Moria, he is a sword, putting himself between his friends and danger. In Helm’s Deep, he is a Lord, rallying the men of Rohan to courage and pushing them to the edge of their skill.
After all this and more, it is in his challenge of Sauron for the Palantir that Aragorn truly steps into his own. At first, such a move would seem needlessly reckless, for even Gandalf would not do such a thing. However, the fog of war drove Isildur’s Heir to find the answers he needed with the only tool he had at hand. This is where the Son of Arathorn really shines, showing just how well he understands his particular situation. Not only does he wrench the Palantir away from Sauron’s control, but he also successfully uses himself as bait. This gambit, which is certainly an enormous risk, is all that allows the Ringbearer to cross into Mordor undetected.
Leaning on Gandalf’s wisdom, Aragorn goads the Dark Lord into striking too soon, before his full strength has been gathered. He shows Sauron Anduril, and the White Tree, and reveals himself; the Deceiver certainly remembers the line of Elendil. This revelation focuses all of what Sauron has mustered in the South on Minas Tirith and the lands around it. As Gandalf correctly points out earlier, if the Dark Lord had simply remained focused on his own lands, he would have found Frodo easily. Instead, he allows the Heir of Isildur to distract him, capturing his heart with fear. And so, rather than hiding from the Dark Lord’s gaze, the bringer of Hope inverts that gaze’s usefulness, turning it to his own advantage. It’s a stroke of genius; a bold gambit completed by the greatest man of his age.
It is in Aragorn that we find leadership founded on service and self-sacrifice, rather than demands and self-aggrandizement. He puts himself in harm’s way regularly, but is also willing to put his hands to less brutish work in the Houses of Healing. The Son of Arathorn, despite holding the highest title in Middle Earth, regards Gandalf as his leader and sets his own life and needs aside to serve the needs of the Ringbearer. That is how he finds himself marching on the Black Gate, playing a role to the end, hoping to hold the Enemy’s gaze as long as he possibly can.
Without Aragorn, Frodo doesn’t make it to Rivendell, nor does he make it Emyn Muil. Without Aragorn, Frodo never makes it into Mordor, but is instead found by the unencumbered Eye of Sauron and tortured to death. Without Aragorn, there is no new beginning forged out of the old and no hope for Middle Earth.
Estel, the bringer of Hope, is a stark contrast with many of the leaders in our time. We find ourselves excusing their behavior because they, at least verbally, endorse a specific ideology. We lower the standards of acceptable conduct for them, convinced that they cannot be held to the same moral benchmark to which we hold our neighbors. We should not be surprised at the results. Perhaps we would do well to assess our leaders by the Aragorn standard. Perhaps we can insist on their service rather than allowing them to serve themselves. Perhaps we can expect wisdom, rather than hope for it. And finally, perhaps we can expect self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement.
What sort of power serves? What sort of glory rolls in the dirt? The sort that changes the world.