I was re-watching The Fellowship of the Ring the other day when I saw two scenes that reminded me that building a character, like building a world, is a matter of detail.
The first scene was this one:
I suspect that Aragorn was an archetype long before Tolkien wrote him; he’s certainly become one since. He is the hard-bitten ranger, living on the edge of civilization, capable of – and more comfortable – surviving in the wilderness rather than in the society of his fellows.
Such characters are usually abrasive (they live as they do because they don’t like other people), and have nothing but contempt for the soft ways of civilization-dwellers. Sometimes, they’re so eager to point out the weakness of others that you begin to think they have something to prove. A good example is Quint from Jaws, who is so used to being looked down upon by the people of Amity village, that he disdains Hooper’s “city hands” pre-emptively, creating needless tension with a man who could have been his ally until they reconcile in the “scar comparison” scene.
That’s not what we see here. It’s obvious that Aragorn has never heard of “second breakfast”, and he clearly considers the idea ridiculous.
As one would expect from the hard-bitten ranger, he gets the “soft” city folk moving. The situation is urgent, after all. To their credit, the hobbits (who are, as anyone who has read Tolkien knows, about as soft as a steel bar with a bit of padding on it) pack up and start off again with a minimum of complaint. We’ve seen this scene a million times.
But then Aragorn tosses apples back to them.
He keeps the hobbits moving because it’s necessary; the Nazgul are after them. But he’ll do what he can to accommodate their needs and make them comfortable. This is not someone who resents “soft city folk”. Moreover, he’s a helpful person in general, not the abrasive jerkass that is your average Hard-Bitten Ranger.
The second scene is somewhat like it:
In almost any other story, the hard-bitten ranger would say “Stay here, I know what he needs,” insisting on taking care of the problem himself.
Aragorn, however, knows that Sam is a gardener, and chooses to respect and trust Sam’s expertise. Often, it is a point of significant character development for both parties when the Ranger finally asks for help from the civilian – it means that the ranger has learned to trust, while the civilian has developed skills worth trusting.
In contrast, Aragorn has the humility to ask for help, and he lacks the defensive distrust that has become such a stereotypical part of his fictional descendants. Perhaps he never had it, having grown up among essentially well-intentioned people. Or maybe his actual age of 87 years has given him some maturity.
See how that works? Just two scenes – two moments in two scenes – have told us some very important things about this character, and led us to ask some very important questions about him.
Detail. It’s the key to everything.