Welcome, as always, dear readers.
I’ve just finished teaching The Odyssey once more and, because it’s such a complex work (after all, it’s made up of a number of songs by a number of singers over generations, all then put together as a single poem in the Hellenistic world), that I always find new things to think about.
This time, I began with a recurring difficulty for Odysseus.
In the 19 years he’s been away from home, he’s had no end of other difficulties, beginning with the demand by Agamemnon that he join the expedition against Troy.
He tried to dodge that by pretending to be mad, plowing the beach, but that attempt was scuttled by someone almost as clever as he, Palamedes, who placed the infant Telemachos on the beach in front of the plow and, when Odysseus swerved to avoid him, Odysseus, clearly sane, was then forced to join the other Greeks.
After ten years and the final fall of Troy,
Odysseus’ problems had just begun, including such as the Lotos-eaters (although he himself did not indulge),
a very large humanoid with a taste for human flesh,
almost becoming pork luncheon meat,
visiting the dead in the Otherworld,
avoiding Sirens (while still listening to them),
and the twin dangers of snaky Scylla and shaky Charybdis,
as well as being shipwrecked not once, but twice.
Even when he reaches home, he will have to confront over 100 suitors, all pursuing his wife.
But, besides those problems, he has another: proving to people that he is who he says he is.
This shouldn’t be surprising, of course. After all, he’s been gone almost 20 years, so he’s a little like Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle,
who fell into a deep sleep after drinking heavily during a game of bowls with some strange little men
and woke up 20 years later, only to find that the world had changed significantly, from the days of King George to those of George Washington. People in his village think that he’s strange, if not mad, and his sanity is no longer doubted only when two elderly locals identify him.
(If you don’t know this story, here’s Arthur Rackham’s beautifully-illustrated version from 1905 for you: https://archive.org/details/ripvanwinkle00irvirich or, if you’d prefer, here’s N.C. Wyeth’s equally beautiful 1921 edition: https://archive.org/details/ripvanwinkle00irvi I can’t resist adding this, which is the frontispiece to the Wyeth.)
For Odysseus, now back on his home island, and because he is potentially in great danger from those suitors, even if he has the goddess Athena on his side,
just revealing his identity is tricky, but proving it depends mainly upon two things: his ability to remember the past and to encourage others to do the same, and a deep scar he had received as a young man in a boar hunt with his grandfather, Autolycus.
For his wife, Penelope, there is one more proof: a very special bed he once made for them, which included part of an olive tree as a bedpost.
(This is someone’s clever modern reconstruction.)
Although he hasn’t been asleep or away from home for twenty years, Aragorn
(An Alan Lee illustration, at the moment when Eowyn gives Aragorn what’s called a “stirrup cup”.)
would appear to have a similar problem of identification, but with a twist. Unlike Rip van Winkle, who is a nobody, and more like Odysseus, who is the headman of Ithaka, if he is really who he says he is, he has a claim to the throne of Gondor, which has been vacant for 969 years. But how to prove that?
He has Gandalf’s backing, of course,
(I would be glad to credit the author of this very good portrait, but the signature is just too small to read, unfortunately!)
who knows his—and his people’s—history, as he says to Frodo:
“ ‘But there are few left in Middle-earth like Aragorn son of Arathorn. The race of the Kings from over the Sea is nearly at an end. It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure.’
‘Do you really mean that Strider is one of the people of the old Kings?’ said Frodo in wonder. ‘I thought they had all vanished long ago. I thought he was only a Ranger.’
‘Only a Ranger!’ cried Gandalf. ‘My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)
Gandalf’s word alone would never be enough, however, as the bitter words of Denethor much later in the story—though clearly poisoned by Sauron through the palantir—show us:
“Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies…With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor”)
Aragorn, however, has a series of other proofs at hand.
First, he has the sword of Elendil, Narsil, broken under him when he was killed at the siege of the Barad-dur,
and which is the subject of a kind of prophecy made in a dream more than once to Faramir and once to Boromir, in which “I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying:
‘Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.’ “
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
Aragorn then immediately confirms the first half of this prophecy:
“ ‘And here in the house of Elrond more shall be made clear to you,’ said Aragorn, standing up. He cast his sword upon the table that stood before Elrond, and the blade was in two pieces. ‘Here is the Sword that was Broken!’ he said.
‘And who are you, and what have you to do with Minas Tirith?’ asked Boromir, looking in wonder at the lean face of the Ranger in his weather-stained cloak.
‘He is Aragorn son of Arathorn,’ said Elrond; ‘and he is descended through many fathers from Isildur Elendil’s son of Minas Ithil…’ “
The second proof lies in his claim on the palantir tossed from Orthanc
“ ‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face…
‘You forget to whom you speak,’ said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted…’Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and strength to use it…’ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”)
The third proof is derived from the first and second. When Aragorn used the palantir to contact Sauron, he never spoke, but:
“ ‘And he beheld me. Yes, Master Gimli, he saw me, but in other guise than you see me here…To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. ..Sauron had not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.’ “
And by Sauron’s reaction, it would seem that Aragorn’s claim to be the rightful king is confirmed: by the enemy.
The fourth proof is also confirmed by others. In one of the grimmest chapters, for me, of the whole story, Aragorn and his company ride The Paths of the Dead and, deep in the mountain, Aragorn summons the Oath-Breakers, who had deserted Isildur and were cursed by him never to find peace until called upon once more to fulfill their oath. Aragorn claims their aid, saying:
“ ‘The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.’ “
The dead follow him, sweeping down upon the fleet of the Corsairs, and, again, that they do so, confirms once more Aragorn’s claim.
There may be other details throughout the text I haven’t thought of—there often are!—but I want to conclude with perhaps the gentlest proof.
In the chapter entitled “The Houses of Healing”, Faramir, Eowyn, and Merry all lie at the point of death—and all are saved by Aragorn, and here is a final confirmation as Gandalf says:
“ ‘Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spake Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” ‘ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 8, “The Houses of Healing”)
Proof enough for me.
Thanks for reading, as ever.
Let us all hope for healing in this troubled time,
And know that, as always, there’s