As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on Aragorn, who shows some parallels with the Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald of Northumbria, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor…
Aragorn and Oswald of Northumbria (604-642): Exiles reclaiming their throne
Two years ago, the Daily Mail ran an article with the following headline: “Amazing story of the Anglo-Saxon warrior saint whose struggle to claim his rightful place as king inspired Tolkien’s Aragorn”. That Anglo-Saxon warrior saint was Oswald of Northumbria and, indeed, there is at least one striking parallel between Aragorn and Oswald: they were both kings in exile.
Long story short: Aragorn belonged to the line of Isildur, High King of Gondor and Arnor; Isildur’s brother Anarion inherited Gondor, while the line of Isildur continued to rule the Northern kingdom of Arnor; Arnor eventually falls into ruin and the descendants of Isildur become kings in exile; the line of Anarion dies out and the stewards (like Denethor) take over Gondor. In The Return of the King, Aragorn returns to Gondor to take up the crown, defeating the evil forces of Sauron in the process.
Oswald of Northumbria’s story is equally heroic. He had spent most of his youth in exile in Scotland, where he lived from the age of twelve. His exile began when his father Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria (or: Bernicia and Deira) had been killed and his uncle Edwin had taken to the throne of Northumbria. Only after his uncle Edwin and his brother Eanfrith were both killed by the pagan Cadwallon, did Oswald return to Northumbria in 634 to claim his birthright: the crown of Northumbria. He erected a wooden cross in a field near Hexham (now Heavenfield) and vanquished Cadwallon and his pagan army. Oswald is remembered as a saint because he was instrumental for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the North (granting the isle of Lindisfarne to the Irish missionary Aidan). He would die eight years later, by the hand of the pagan Penda in the year 642.
So is there any truth to the title of the Daily Mail’s headline? Yes: both Aragorn and Oswald were exiles reclaiming their thrones, but Oswald was by no means the only Anglo-Saxon king in exile. In fact, Aragorn shows more parallels with two other ostracized early medieval English kings: Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor.
Aragorn and Alfred the Great (849-899): Meeting up at a stone
As user Giaconda commented on my blog The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power, there is an interesting parallel between Alfred the Great (849-899) and Aragorn, which concerns meeting up at a stone.
In 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, was forced to flee into the Somerset marshes, after having been ambushed in Chippenham by the Vikings. A few months later, Alfred rallied a great force of Anglo-Saxon warriors, whom he met at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s Stone), somewhere near Edington. The battle of Edington was gloriously won by Alfred, forcing the Danesto accept a peace treaty. Egbert’s stone bears the name of Alfred’s grandfather Egbert, king of Wessex (802-839).
Aragorn, prior to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (where Théoden gets killed by the lord of the Nazgul), ventures onto the ‘Paths of the Dead’ to recruit the Oathbreakers (a.k.a. the King of the Dead and the men of Dunharrow). These men had been cursed by Aragorn’s forefather Isildur, because they had broken their vow to aid Isildur in battle against Sauron. That particular vow had been made on..dum-dum-dum…the ‘Stone of Erech’, which had been brought to Gondor by Isildur himself. It is at this very ‘Stone of Erech’ that Aragorn meets the Oathbreakers, who then help Isildur’s heir to destroy the ships of Sauron’s allies from the south. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Aragorn and Edward the Confessor (1003-1066): The hands of a king are the hands of a healer
Another exiled Anglo-Saxon king to whom Aragorn bears some similarity is Edward the Confessor.
Edward had spent much of his life as an exile at the court of Normandy, since a Viking king named Cnut had killed his half-brother Edmund Ironside and had occupied the throne of England between 1016 and 1035 (to add insult to injury, Cnut also married Edward’s mother!). Still, Edward was able to reclaim the throne of England,even though the manner in which he did so was not particularly heroic: he was invited back to England by Cnut’s son Harthacnut in 1041 and, when Harthacnut died a year later (he reportedly drank himself to death at a wedding!), Edward became king of England in 1042. Soon after his death in 1066, Edward the Confessor was revered as a saint and it was claimed that he had ‘the royal touch’: the ability to cure people by touching them with his hand (e.g., the eleventh-century Vita Ædwardi Regis relates how the water with which Edward had rinsed his hands restores a blind man’s sight).
Guess who also had ‘the king’s touch’? That’s right: Aragorn. When Aragorn enters Gondor after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he visits the Houses of Healing. One of its nurses remembers an old saying “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. Aragorn arrives just in time to tend to FaramirFaramir and Éowynn, both suffering from the Black Shadow. He heals them both with the help of his hands and some crushed and boiled Athelas or Kingsfoil, revealing that he is the rightful king.
Aragorn may be the rightful king of Gondor, he certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in Anglo-Saxon England!
[in retrospect: the Daily Mail article dealt with a new biography of Oswald of Northumbria, entitled “The King in the North” and, no doubt, the title’s reference to Game of Thrones and the article’s link between Oswald and Aragorn were intended to boost sales!].