Inspired by this post (and ready to take a break from my thesis), my wife and I watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy again this weekend and I was once more impressed by Peter Jackson’s films. He didn’t get everything right (it kills me that he left out the scouring of the Shire, though Return of the King was certainly long enough without it!), but he really captured the beauty and grandeur of Tolkien’s epic.
Still, one aspect of the storyline especially really doesn’t get the full treatment Tolkien intended. Flipping back through the books again, I can’t shake the brilliance of Tolkien’s presentation of Aragorn’s rise to kingship. Unlike Narnia, The Lord of the Rings is no allegory (Gandalf, Frodo—even Boromir in his own way—are each as much Christ figures as Aragorn is), but Tolkien’s depiction of Aragorn’s rise to kingship gives a masterful retelling of the incarnation, and actually fits with my reading of John even better than I had recalled.
In Tolkien’s vision, the Stewards are charged with the governance of the kingdom until the true king might reclaim his throne. Thus their duty, from the beginning, was intended to be temporary and provisional. But as the return of the king was long delayed, this perception changed. Arnor, the northern half of the kingdom, from which Aragorn derives, has long lost its grandeur and been reduced to humility. The Dúnedain (Elvish for “Men of the West”) are indeed the descendents of the kings from across the sea, but now most only know them as “rangers,” and see them as little more than vagrants. Few know of their long efforts to protect the free peoples of the North, and fewer still looked to their numbers for the return of the king.
Thus when the hobbits first meet Aragorn they have no idea of his true identity. He calls himself “Strider” and willingly risks his life to save them from the Nazgûl, without ever demanding their allegiance or even hinting at his lineage. But Tolkien himself hints at it. In fact, the quote on my About page is actually from Bilbo’s description of Aragorn, first seen in a letter Gandalf left for the hobbits:
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 shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
So it is throughout the trilogy, as Aragorn repeatedly puts aside his kingly rights to serve others. He is humble and weather-worn, hardly the picture of a king and lord of old. Thus when he does finally turn towards Minus Tirith, the very “city of the king,” we find that not all welcome, or even recognize, his coming. For the Stewards of Gondor (the southern half of the kingdom) are failing in their charge. Denethor has long overreached his authority as Steward, insisting: “the rule of Gondor… is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” Yet when the armies of Mordor close in and Denethor’s only remaining son and heir, Faramir, lays poisoned and dying, Denethor chooses rather to burn on a pyre with his son than take up his duty as Steward:
“I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.”
“What then would you have,” said Gandalf, “if your will could have its way?”
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my long-fathers before me: to be the Lord of this city in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”
“To me it would not seem that a Steward who faithfully surrenders his charge is diminished in love or in honour,” said Gandalf. “And at the least, you shall not rob your son of his choice while his death is still in doubt.”
In the end, however, Denethor takes his own life, a traitor and an upstart, but his abuse of the Stewardship is by no means Tolkien’s last word on the matter. For after defeating the army that Denethor so feared, Aragorn does enter Minus Tirith, not (at first) as its king, but in secret. Thus he goes to the houses of healing and takes up the care of Faramir himself (along with that of Éowyn and Merry, stricken after killing the king of the Nazgûl). And when Faramir is healed by his king, he does take his father’s place as Steward, and at the climax of The Return of the King (a role sadly cut from the film) it is Faramir who oversees Aragorn’s coronation. In a chapter titled “The Steward and the King,” Faramir meets Aragorn at the gate of Minus Tirith, kneels before him and says:
“The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office.” And he held out a white rod; but Aragorn took the rod and gave it back, saying: “That office is not ended, and it shall be thine and thy heirs’ as long as my line shall last. Do now thy office!”
Then Faramir stood up and spoke in a clear voice: “Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this Realm! Behold! One has come to claim the kingship at last. Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor, Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, the Elfstone, Elessar of the line of Valandil, Isildur’s son, Elendil’s son of Númenor. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?”
And all the host and all the people cried yea with one voice.
Faramir remained Steward even after the return of his king, and as such, he became the primary witness to Aragorn’s true identity. Far from a reduction in his role, Faramir was given yet greater honor, and made Prince of Ithilien (the land on the other side of the river, where he first met Frodo and Sam and “proved his quality” by overcoming the temptation of the Ring), and so he lived there with Lady Éowyn, always within sight of the city he loved and the king who had healed them.
And this, I think, is how John also understood the institutions of Judaism. His well-known vitriol against the leaders of “the Jews,” is not to be understood as a rejection of Judaism at all. It is rather to be explained by his deep sense of betrayal. As John understands them, Moses and his Torah, the Temple and its festivals and priesthood, these were all meant to be “witnesses” to Jesus, “stewards” if you will, who prepared the way for Israel’s true king. But Like Denethor, many of who currently held Jewish leadership rejected Jesus and so, from John’s perspective, failed their charge. Nevertheless, their status as witnesses was not undone either by Jesus’ coming or by their faithlessness. Indeed, John insists that even when the high priest himself conspires to kill Jesus, he cannot help but fulfill his duty as witness:
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. (11:49-52)
And so when we get to the crucifixion narrative, John (even more than the other Gospel writers), emphasizes that Jesus died as King of the Jews (19:18-22). In a Gospel that uses that phrase fully 25 times, mostly to refer to the Jewish institutions whose significance John has repeatedly claimed point to Jesus, the expression could not help but carry deep significance: In taking his rightful kingship, Jesus fulfills the “witness” of these figures and institutions, whose “stewardship” had prepared for his coming. Yet “stewards” they remain (like all the rest of us), and in that role they are not “replaced” by the king but “re-placed”–given a new and fuller role. The return of Israel’s king is thus not the end of her stewardship but its culmination.