Wisdom is not about having all the answers. As we experience the sorrows and joys of life, we remain filled with as many questions as answers. Perhaps the questions aren’t intellectual as much as they are emotional—a longing for a lost time of contentment, a time of security and peacefulness that wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have been.
Maybe that moment in time that we long for didn’t shine with the golden glow that the mirror of memory now gives it. Nevertheless, we hope to feel that innocent happiness that we will never experience again.
Wisdom—a word that represents so many things. In a mentor, it’s an implied knowledge of a fundamental human truth: naïve enjoyment of life is gone forever, and accepting its loss makes us feel old. Experience makes us wiser and can change us in two ways. We can become hardened and callous as a form of self-preservation. Conversely, we can become gentler, more understanding of human frailty.
Tolkien took much of the philosophy for his world of Middle Earth and the character of Aragorn from the 6th-century poem, The Wanderer. As a Professor of Anglo Saxon Studies at Oxford, he had translated it into modern English and had a deep connection to the epic story told in the poem.
In that poem, the speaker reflects upon his life while spending years in exile. He considers what he has lost but goes beyond his personal sorrow. For this reason, some scholars consider The Wanderer a “wisdom poem.” The speaker tells us that the disintegration of earthly glory is inescapable, supporting the medieval Christian view of the underlying theme: salvation through faith in God.
The sense of loss and resulting strength that the protagonist in The Wanderer offers us is reflected most strongly in the way Tolkien portrays Aragorn. He is wise as a mentor, more approachable than Gandalf, and is relatable because he has suffered many losses. Aragorn has spent most of his life wandering and fighting to protect people who look upon him with disdain. Now, as he approaches middle-age, he “looks foul but feels fair.”
An excellent short talk on the original medieval poem can be found on YouTube here: WANDERER | The Profound Anglo-Saxon Poem that Tolkien Used in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The first scene where Aragorn is introduced adds a new character into the mix, a man of mystery and one who feels a little dangerous. Yet, we sense there is more to him than we see in the dark, smoky taproom of the Prancing Pony. Aragorn is only known as Strider, and in that role, he offers them the information they need.
In that chapter, titled “Strider,” Frodo reads Gandalf’s letter. Having read it, Frodo says, “I think one of his (Sauron’s) spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”
“I see,” laughed Strider. “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”
In the scene at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn is quoting a poem that is later revealed to reference him as the Heir of Isildur. He is the prophesied king who will once again wield the Blade that was Broken. These are wise words from a poem-within-the-story, a signature literary device Tolkien used regularly.
“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.”
By quoting those words, Strider (Aragorn) cautions Frodo to look beyond the surface and see the strength that lies beneath. He also implies that the converse can be true, that beauty can disguise what is evil.
In Aragorn, we have a mentor who is later revealed to be the heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Yet, he may as well be heir of nothing, for all the good it does him in the first half of his life. He leads the Rangers, the Dúnedain of the North, the descendants of his ancestor’s knights. The respectable landlord of the Prancing Pony looks down on him, seeing Aragorn as little more than a vagrant.
In the guise of Strider, Aragorn is a good mentor from the first moment we meet him. This is because he is shown as having history. While the history is only implied, and Frodo knows nothing about him, he knows Strider is a friend of Gandalf. Frodo senses the knowledge that Strider possesses, the wisdom he has to offer. Frodo feels he can trust Strider’s guidance, even when he disagrees with him.
When we create a mentor character, we must give the reader reasons to believe in them as having wisdom our protagonist needs. Strider arrives in his first scene with the impact of unspoken history, an immediate sense that here is a person who has seen much and survived many things.
Here is a person who knows what secret Frodo carries but won’t try to steal it. He understands the comfortable life Frodo has sacrificed to take the Ring to Rivendell and knows what the hobbit faces further down the road. Here is a person who genuinely wants to help Frodo escape the Black Riders.
At the outset, when we find Strider in the Prancing Pony observing Frodo making his worst blunder, we feel there is more to this unkempt vagrant than we see on the surface.
As I create my mentors, I hope to convey a sense that they have history without beating the reader over the head with it. I want to evoke a feeling of rightness, that this person knows things we don’t, that this person has knowledge our protagonist must gain.
Creating a mentor with depth and a sense of history without dumping info is tricky. This is where getting good insights from my writing group really comes into play. Their thoughts and opinions nudge my creative mind to find solutions for rewriting muddy characterizations and confusing passages.
Hopefully, their insights will guide me to write memorable narratives filled with characters who leave an impact.
Credits and Attributions:
Quote from The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Illustrated edition (February 15, 2012); Fair Use.
Wikipedia contributors, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Two_Towers&oldid=1018153423 (accessed April 18, 2021).
Wikipedia contributors, “The Two Towers” first edition book cover, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Two_Towers&oldid=1006164402 (accessed April 18, 2021).