From chapter five of Book Two to chapter five of Book Three, Aragorn faces the severest test of his qualities as a leader. It is obvious that he had always looked to Gandalf as his mentor, and so the loss of Gandalf is a major challenge as well as a source of desperate grief. Throughout these chapters, in the successive twists of the story, a recurring word is hope: very often in a negative context.
Aragorn has no hesitation in taking up Gandalf’s role immediately after the latter’s fall from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; the company stand aghast, but he rallies them:
‘Come! I will lead you now!... We must obey his last command. Follow me!’ (II. v. 331)
From the comparative safety of the Dimrill Dale, he looks back.
‘Farewell, Gandalf!’ he cried. ‘Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?’ He turned to the Company. ‘We must do without hope,’ he said. ‘At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do.’ (II. vi. 333)
It is very telling that he wonders what hope of succeeding in the Quest they have without Gandalf, and that he answers ‘we must do without hope’. The next five chapters in which Aragorn features tell the story of how he leads his followers ‘without hope’. To begin with, the course is not hard: he knows that Gandalf would have taken them into Lothlórien, and it is a place in which he feels secure. He has the strength to overcome Boromir’s doubts about going there, and when faced with the problem of Gimli’s blindfolding, his solution shows the lateral thinking and humility which characterize the best leaders:
‘If I am still to lead this Company, you must do as I bid… We will all be blindfold.’ (II. vi. 347)
Though we are not told the effect on Aragorn of Galadriel’s qualified reassurance, her words have all the pithiness of Gandalf and are probably enough to restore a degree of hope to him for the duration of their stay in Lothlórien:
‘Your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true.’ (II. vii. 357)
But the prospect of leaving Lothlórien and taking the further road plunges Aragorn into doubt and worry. He makes no effort to conceal these feelings, when Celeborn asks:
‘Which shore will you now take?’
The others said nothing, and Aragorn looked doubtful and troubled. (II. viii. 367)
And when Celeborn offers the Company boats, his relief is only partly due to the relative ease and security of river travel:
The gift of boats comforted him much, not least because there would now be no need to decide his course for some days. (II. viii. 368)
A critic might well say that he is being merely reactive and unassertive. But Aragorn is accepting the guidance of his superiors in age, power, and wisdom; the right course to take in the world of Middle-earth and one not adhered to by Boromir, with fatal results. As leader, Aragorn permits open discussion of the Compamy’s future course; being undecided himself, he does not try to curtail dissent or impose a false unanimity.
For a long time they debated what they should do… They would have been willing to follow a leader over the River and into the shadow of Mordor; but Frodo spoke no word, and Aragorn was still divided in his mind. (II. viii. 368)
Aragorn’s dilemma (explained in the following paragraph) would be genuinely perplexing for any leader. While Gandalf was alive, his plan to go to Minas Tirith with Boromir was simple and needed only to concern himself; but it was not purely selfish, for he truly believed he had been called—that the hour of the heir of Elendil had come. But now the burden of Gandalf had been laid on him, and he could not forsake Frodo if he refused to go with Boromir.
The latter, alone of all the Fellowship, has thoughts only of Minas Tirith, and none of supporting Frodo:
‘I shall go to Minas Tirith, alone if need be…’ said Boromir.
Once launched on the Great River, Aragorn’s chance remarks reveal that his mood has reverted to that of the Dimrill Dale:
Winter is nearly gone. Time flows on to a spring of little hope. (II. ix. 389)
Accompanying this is his ongoing indecision:
‘We can, if we are making for Minas Tirith...but that is not yet agreed.’ (II. ix. 389)
But Aragorn’s very assertion of the unmade decision is a species of firmness. He is upholding the option of supporting Frodo through Mordor as his own duty, and possibly that of others, despite its apparent hopelessness.
The approach to the northern gates of Gondor strengthen Aragorn’s positive engagement with the duality of the future; he clearly trusts in the ancient inherent power of Amon Hen to give him direction, rather as Celeborn gave it:
‘I at least have a mind to stand in that high place again, before I decide my further course. There, maybe, we shall see some sign that will guide us.’ (II. ix. 389)
And again, Boromir’s intransigence is brought in as a foil to this determination:
Boromir held out long against this choice… (II. ix. 389)
Before they reach Amon Hen, however, the Argonath briefly reveal the true Aragorn to the others and, evidently to himself:
‘Fear not!’ he said. ‘Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old. Under their shadow, Elessar, the Elfstone.., heir of Elendil, has naught to dread!’
But at the same time these statues have the effect of stirring up his desire to go to Minas Tirith and hence of accentuating his ongoing tormenting uncertainty; it is revealing that at this point he wishes his mentor could be present to advise him and perhaps carry the burden of deciding:
Then the light of his eyes faded, and he spoke to himself: ‘Would that Gandalf were here! How my heart yearns for Minas Anor and the walls of my own city! But whither now shall I go?’ (II. ix. 393)
The chapter ends with arrival at Parth Galen and the place of decision.
They could go no further without choice between the east-way and the west. (II. ix. 394)
Aragorn’s attempt to guess why Frodo is so long away from the camp site reveals an impairment of insight owing to the understandable projection of his own torturous thoughts on to Frodo; it is significant that he once again wishes for Gandalf:
‘He is debating which course is the most desperate, I think,’ said Aragorn. ‘And well he may. It is now more hopeless than ever for the Company to go east… But Minas Tirith is no nearer to the Fire and the destruction of the Burden… Which way would any of us choose in Frodo’s place? I do not know. Now indeed we miss Gandalf most.’... (II. x. 402)
As we know, in contrast to Aragorn the leader, Sam the servant has complete insight into Frodo’s ordeal:
‘He isn’t hesitating about which way to go.’ (II. x. 403)
But as he is about to explain, the narrative lurches into strenuous action, and he gets no further. His noticing that Boromir has disappeared starts an avalanche of catastrophic events. Aragorn finds that he is denied the opportunity of making a calm decision between Minas Tirith and Mordor, as the Company apparently runs mad, effectively rejecting his leadership:
‘Wait a moment!’ cried Aragorn. ‘We must divide up into pairs and arrange—here, hold on! Wait!’ It was no good. They took no notice of him. (II. x. 404)
‘We shall all be scattered and lost,’ groaned Aragorn. (II. x. 405)
His cries and groans accurately attest his sense of utter failure as a leader. This is the nadir of his career.
In ironic contrast to the Ring-bearer’s panoramic view of world affairs from the high seat, Aragorn sees nothing from it—no sign to help him. We might even add that it was the Ring-bearer who had received advice from Gandalf, as a voice in his head from afar bidding him take off the Ring. Instead, Aragorn hears the sound of fighting, but reaches the scene too late to help: again a shaming outcome for a warrior whose duty is to support, and if necessary, die with his comrades. He laments:
‘Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss.’ (III. i. 413)
When Legolas and Gimli arrive, he berates himself in the same words.
‘All that I have done today has gone amiss. What is to be done now?’ (III. i. 414)
It is perhaps significant that when they find Merry and Pippin’s weapons, hope once more gets a mention:
If they still live, our friends are weaponless. I will take these things, hoping against hope, to give them back. (III. i. 415)
The New Testament phrase hoping against hope speaks eloquently of clinging to a hope that seems to fly in the face of all evidence or likelihood. But now the situation is clear. With the Mordor versus Minas Tirith decision already made without him, Aragorn’s power of decision-making returns (something could be said here about the part played by ill or evil fate, but it is beyond the scope of this piece):
‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!...My heart speaks clearly at last…’ (III. i. 419)
It is only because there’s a minuscule possibility that the hobbits can be found, alive or dead, that a clear path of duty is laid upon them. And with that knowledge, hope can again be mentioned. Aragorn will carry out this task to the end even if it turns out to be hopeless, and he is able effortlessly to carry his companions with him:
But come! With hope or without hope we will follow the trail of our enemies….We will make such a chase as shall be accounted a marvel… (III.i. 420)
Things still hang in the balance, however, and there are three more crisis points. The first comes when they have to decide whether to continue on the path by night or to rest, taking the risk that the orcs will get so far ahead that they will not be able to catch up with them.
‘We have come at last to a hard choice...Shall we rest by night, or shall we go on…?’ … ‘I said that it was a hard choice...How shall we end this debate?’ (III. ii. 425)
Aragorn remains painfully aware of what he believes are his past mistakes, even though the outcome will show that he made none. It is interesting that he associates these mistakes with arrival in his own realm, as if some vaingloriousness about entering it had skewed his judgement:
‘You give the choice to an ill chooser...Since we passed through the Argonath my choices have gone amiss.’ (III. ii. 426)
He makes his decision, but with a curious comment. Is he being dismissive? Is this minimizing the value of the chase, on which he entered with such gallantry?
‘Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe, which no choice of mine can mar or mend. Well, I have chosen.’ (III. ii. 426)
As things turn out, they seem to have failed. Their second crisis point comes when Legolas announces that the orcs are far out of range. These are the responses of the other two:
Gimli ground his teeth. ‘This is a bitter end to our hope and to all our toil!’ he said. ‘To hope, maybe, but not to toil,’ said Aragorn. ‘We shall not turn back here.’ (III. ii. 427)
Aragorn reveals again that the determination to carry out his duty to his comrades overrides any consideration of hope of success or anticipation of failure.
Interestingly, it is Legolas who speaks words of encouragement at this point:
‘Yet do not cast all hope away. Tomorrow is unknown. Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun.’ (III. ii. 429)
The third crisis comes at their meeting with the Rohirrim. Beforehand Aragorn’s mood remains grimly determined.
‘I did not say that we should hear good news,’ said Aragorn. ‘But evil or good we will await it here.’ (III. ii. 430)
In the face of Éomer’s assurances that there are no signs of the two lost hobbits, Aragorn again asserts his duty, associating it with the glimmer of hope that has kept him to it:
‘I cannot desert my friends while hope remains.’ ‘Hope does not remain,’ said Éomer.’ (III. ii. 437)
So much so that Éomer, urging haste and offering aid, finally seems to admit that they have a chance of success:
Every hour lessens your hope. (III. ii. 439)
In the dark time under the eaves of Fangorn, the fate of Gandalf is mentioned, and in speaking of Gandalf as mentor and counsellor Aragorn once again restates the philosophy that has guided him through the past few days:
‘The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,’ said Aragorn. ‘There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.’ (III. ii. 441)
And finally, some three chapters later, Aragorn is vindicated by the reappearance of Gandalf:
‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need!’ (III. v. 495)
What has happened is ‘beyond all hope’, taking up the recurrent theme of ‘doing without hope’, ‘hoping against hope’, ‘with hope or without hope’, and ‘to hope, maybe, but not to toil’.
The name given to Aragorn in childhood was of course Estel or ‘Hope’. Here is a subtle paradox. As leader, Aragorn adheres to something deeper than hope: his duty to his comrades, to be followed without regard to hope of success. In a tragic moment his mother Gilraen had said ‘I gave Hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself’. In a more positive way, even as he discounts hope for himself, by his determination to do his duty he gives it to others. He generates hope, instantiates hope, and is rewarded with renewed hope.
Page numbers from the 2005 edition.