“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.” Lords of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring.
When criticizing Tolkien, certain critics point to lack of character development as a means of dismissing the books. Another criticism also linked to that is that the characters seem to have too rosy a view of life and aren’t harsh enough to survive serious villainy. My view that Tolkien not only understood that view, but he refuted it with the character of Aragorn. Aragorn begins as Strider, a harsh rogue-like figure of questionable repute who is forced to emerge from the comforts of the shadows to assume a great responsibility in a time of turmoil, becoming the King who leads the united armies on Pellinor Fields.
Strider does not inspire much confidence in the Hobbits when he first appears. He wears the standard gear that I see frequently on the covers of Fantasy novels. Leather, blades, long cloak with a hood hiding his features. In another story he could easily pass for an assassin, a smuggler, or a bandit scoping out prey at the inn. He is, without a doubt, introduced as a rogue (not character class, sheesh). Frodo is nervous about him and Sam feels defensive. On my first reading, to be honest, I was apprehensive about the character when they met him in Butterbur’s Inn. His actions are vague and menacing when first introduced, and while this is easy to overlook after the fact, in any other series most readers would be guessing his allegiance. Interestingly, as part of my research I read a little blurb that Tolkien initially did not know what to do with Strider when he first wrote him.
Even after he is established as trustworthy, Strider is harsh, often criticizing the Hobbits. He seems to find them naive and burdensome, if amusing. His words to Frodo in particular are quite pointed, letting the Hobbit know how much danger his behaviour causes and how foolish his friends act. His only initial praise is reserved for Sam, who shows courage in standing up to him. In fact I would go so far as to say that Strider, early on at least, views the Hobbits with the same disdain that many of Tolkien’s critics do. It takes some time for them to win him over.
It is not until he faces down the ring-wraiths with a burning brand that we get a real glimpse of what is under the hood, so to speak.
After the Fellowship is formed, Strider emerges from the Shadows a little. He is referred to as Aragorn more and more, but the Hobbits still often call him Strider. We learn a bit about his past. He is still overshadowed by others in the Fellowship, and by people they meet like Elrond and Galadriel. He shows himself to be extremely capable, but is never really the “best” at anything in the group. Legolas shoots better and can walk on snow. Gimli is tougher. Boromir is stronger and more warlike. Gandalf is wiser. Frodo is more important. He does not really stand out among the Fellowship. Aragorn is revealed to be of noble lineage, but it is a troubled past. His ancestor, Isuldur, is the one who failed to destroy the ring, and is is significant that Aragorn is not offered a chance to atone for this directly; His lineage is great but tarnished.
And yet, when Gandalf falls in Moria, it is to Aragorn that he passes the mantle of leadership. Here is where the man who once hid his face in hood in Bree, not even revealing his true name, begins to shine. Aragorn shows leadership, keeping the fractured fellowship together as they flee from Moria. Significantly, he refuses the temptation of the ring, which shows him to be wiser than Isuldur. But, ultimately he fails at keeping the fellowship on course: Frodo and Sam part ways and Boromir is killed. Still after this failure, he does what any good leader does and picks up the pieces and moves on. He leads the defence of Helm’s Deep. He reforges the sword of his ancestors into Anduril. He assumes the mantle of Kingship, showing the banner of Gondor, his Kingdom, to the Dead Men of Dunharrow and holding them to their ancient oath. With each test passed he becomes a better and better leader. His final act in the war is to lead his army to the Black Gate to distract Sauron, risking his own life at the height of his power to aid Frodo and Sam in their own task. Interestingly as the bright king, he is using his light to help others find cover in the shadows he once traveled in, a point that deserves deeper analysis.
As Strider, Aragorn begins as an ambiguous figure. He is mysterious, and harsh, acting from the shadows and preferring stealth. He seems pretty grouchy about having to deal with the Hobbits, acting gruff and harsh. He slowly emerges from the shadows over the course of the trilogy. By the time he assumes centre stage in Return of the KIng he has assumed responsibility for not only his own actions but those of his people and his ancestors, calling upon ancient oaths and leading armies and helping right the wrong that Isuldur committed, He emergence from the shadows is based around his assumption of responsibility, in this he is presents a far different idea of the assassin-character or a shadow-knight like Batman who remain in darkness and hide from the consequences of their actions.