Aragorn, values, and leadership

Estimated reading time 10 mins.

The game day speech is a tough one. The epic battle speech is an even greater challenge. A leader has to assure his troops–calming their faulty nerves and relieving their anxieties and fears–while at once rousing their courage, passion, and determination to their fullest capacity just prior to the plunge. Aragorn nails his at the Black Gate of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 

It is among many lines and speeches that can move me greatly throughout the trilogy, but it acquires its own magnitude given the circumstances under which it is delivered. Most audiences are properly uplifted, and many people regard this as one of the great epic battle speeches on film. But what makes it so convincing and powerful? Many have made their analyses, and while a few have hit well–in my view–in explaining some aspects, I haven’t yet read any which completely expresses my own take. For that, it is still worth making my own comment.

It is impossible to appreciate any speech outside the context in which it is given. Here, we must understand that the soldiers know what they are doing there. It’s not as if the king has summoned them for a cause they don’t know nor have an interest in but are nonetheless charged to fight the mightiest foe in the universe. Armies of this enemy have already destroyed many cities and villages, and will continue to run amok over their own homes and families until there is nothing left of the world of men.

They now stand at the gate of the heart of all the evil that threatens them. The battle ahead is a terrifying prospect, one of almost certain death, and they might wonder whether it really has to be today that a stand is made, or whether they might do better to regroup.

For Aragorn and the leadership, they know that the only hope for any of them is Frodo getting through Mordor to Mount Doom and destroying the ring. And for this, they must distract Sauron’s attention and resources toward the gate. This battle is not to be won but is rather a ploy of misdirection, a time-buying operation–and a suicide mission.

Hold your ground! Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,

While Aragorn is a king, most stock images one might associate with that title don’t apply to him. He has never sat on a throne, worn a crown, nor “ruled” anybody. He has been a soldier, a swashbuckling man of action, and his reputation for being among the very bravest and best of warriors in the direst of battles and other harrowing situations is well-earned. He is a legend. And while it might have invoked the pride of the men to some degree to be referred to as “Sons of Gondor and Rohan,” to be addressed on equal terms with such a man would have made each stand in that moment beyond his full height.

In sports, when your best player acknowledges your contribution or makes you feel visible to him in any way, it is very encouraging, and you are motivated to give up even more to help him succeed. And here, the soldiers can sense that “my brothers” is not mere lip service. They know he has fought at the front of any and all battles, alongside men such as they. And because he genuinely does view himself not as a lord, but as no more nor less a man than they, sharing the same values as they, sharing the same goal as they, his delivery is sincere–and they believe it.

They are at first in their own isolated and dazed world, watching a great man on a horse as if from a distance, and with the drop of his tone at the words “my brothers,” the distance is bridged, and in that instant, the address becomes an intimate one, as they all now feel like brothers. Watching, I can feel my own heart swell a little as if I were one of them.

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.

Aragorn further connects to the men, acknowledging their fears and his own. They don’t have to believe that Aragorn is distinguished in battle because he feels no fear and is thus something different than they. This does not degrade himself, causing them to lose confidence in their captain and thus their chances. Rather, it induces them to search for some other attribute which is the cause of his obvious distinction and to think that perhaps they might also aspire to achieve it.

A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.

Having now understood that fear is common to all present–even Aragorn–the men have just started to bring forth their courage. Aragorn refers to it, tying it together with friendship and fellowship. Having also just established strong feelings of their own brotherhood, the men would repel at the idea of forsaking those bonds. They are obliged to keep up their newfound courage.

But beyond the fellowship of the present company, there are their own friends to consider. Allowing one’s courage to fail here means deserting those whom one loves–one’s friends. In that moment, each man might have images of loved ones flashing through their minds and what it would mean to abandon them to a fate of terror at the hands of a force he might confront here and now.

Would any man challenged with this image dare allow his courage to fail? “Not this day.” It is a compelling mantra.

An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
This day we fight!!

Aragorn presses the issue, elaborating the image. Wolves seek to devour your loved ones and destroy everything men have built. It will be shattered, crashed, in ruins, the age of men obliterated from history. Or…?

By this time, a man would be in such a rebellious rage that he would accept any alternative. “It is not this day.” The words refocus that energy and remind them of an outlet. You may fight.

By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

This is the most important part of the speech. While the previous words have been effective in stoking courage and inciting a fury inside the hearts of the soldiers, it is this which supplies the rest with meaning.While Aragorn is addressing a group of men, it is here that he first seems to speak to each individual man. He appeals to each’s personal worldly values, to each man’s selfish interest in meeting death. He does not call upon their “duty” or beseech them to fight for “something greater than themselves.” Nor does he ask them to fight for “God,” “the Gods,” or some otherworldly motive. He bids them fight for what they hold dear in this life here and now.

I find it utterly unconvincing when a commander in a movie shouts “For the King!” or “For England!,” etc. and everyone screams as in a morally righteous frenzy. I’ll admit cases where some context is set in which the fighters love their king for some previously established reason or that their country represents freedom versus tyranny, etc. But even then, that concept is often vaguely defined and detached from the actual individuals who must do the fighting. Most often, such disinterested motivations are just taken for granted as values.

The same day I started to write this post, I heard the Feist song “Monarch” on my headphones, and a few lines jumped out at me as I was thinking of this issue. They’re too apt not to mention here:

I don’t give a care for the crown or the shield
I will not protect you
Happily yield to the one who makes me come undone

People are motivated to act to gain and protect values, things they care about. In her song, while she won’t fight for the crown, she will “yield,” i.e. surrender or submit, to “the one who makes me come undone.” This refers to the person who makes her lose her composure or self-control, likely a lover. She will yield, i.e. give of herself–and happily–for this person. People of genuine values and integrity will give up most anything for that which they love, but they will not fight for things which are of no selfish interest to them.

Good leaders know this. Aragorn implores the men “by all they hold dear” to stand and fight. In that moment, I can imagine thoughts of loved ones flashing through the soldiers’ heads. I stand with them and think of all I hold dear. I imagine my wife, my family, my friends, the things I love to do, the innocence and potential of children I don’t know, the limitless challenges and pleasures of life, the goodness of life–the life I love. I am now faced with the prospect of having hideous monsters annihilate all of that, after leaving those I love to experience the terror of gruesome beasts slaughtering them.

I am also faced with the prospect of confronting the horrible demons here and now, likely to die. Set against the first, it is a welcome alternative.

But I would not be moved to face such horror with courage if I was entreated to fight “for my king” or “for my God.” But for “all I hold dear on this good Earth?” Taking that seriously and seeing clearly what it means, the fury built up would now be focused under a fierce passion, conviction, and determination. My courage is now replete, and I fear nothing. I am only waiting for Aragorn to give the word.

But he does not give one. As mentioned above, one of the main reasons Aragorn’s words hit with sincerity to the men is because his reputation has been built upon his walking the walk rather than his talking the talk. He is a man of action who fears to let those he loves down more than he fears death. And what he does next speaks with more force than any words he has or might have uttered.

Everyone is charged but restrained. The atmosphere is tense, as the dreadful and colossal enemy stands across the field in front of the Black Gate. Aragorn does not look around, “Okay, on the count of three, let’s do this. One…two…” He does not even yell “Charge!” or any kind of unleashing final rally cry.

After a brief, dramatic, and seemingly private exchange with Sauron himself, and then a quiet word to his close friends, two words containing chapters of meaning, “For Frodo,” he charges off on his own toward the immense army. The silence amid tens of thousands of warriors adds to the drama, as only the rushing feet and flapping cape of this solitary and sublime figure can be heard.

It is a glorious spectacle, and it embodies all of what Aragorn and leadership are about.

It is a few seconds before anyone follows him. It is no hesitation from fear, but only that everyone is stunned with awe at this magnificent feat. My own heart, watching as if I were one in the ranks, bursts through my plate armor out past him, and I suppose it is the same for the soldiers. And after Merry and Pippin break the paralysis by sprinting out in a roar, only the most cowardly subhuman would be able to resist flying out with all courage and conviction–to death.

It takes three long movies before one can get all this out of the scene, and my words would fall embarrassingly flat watching a clip without any context. The depth of the characters, friendships, and the stakes built up masterfully over time are what give every word, look, movement, or frame power and meaning.

For myself, because I know the movies so well, simply by watching a clip, I can breathe in the full context of what I’ve said here if I choose to get into it. And when I do choose to, my heart and eyes well up at the expression of such brotherhood and fighting for human values, and at the heroic sight of Aragorn.

Enjoy the speech and rush together, for what it’s worth here.

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