Sacral Kingship: Aragorn as the Rightful and Sacrificial King in the Lord of the Rings

By Nikakis, Karen Simpson | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Sacral Kingship: Aragorn as the Rightful and Sacrificial King in the Lord of the Rings


Nikakis, Karen Simpson, Mythlore


IN DISCUSSING ARAGORN, Verlyn Flieger notes that:

   The concept of the king as healer derives from the early Celtic
   principle of sacral kingship, whereby the health and fertility of
   the land are dependent on the coming of the rightful king. Where
   there is no king, or where the king is infirm, the land also will
   be barren. (50)

The fact that Aragorn is a healer, both of his people and of the land, is an important motif of The Lord of the Rings [LotR] and emerges gradually as the narrative progresses. Aragorn tends Frodo after the attack at Weathertop (LotR I:12 192-94), Sam and Frodo after their escape from the mines of Moria (II:6 326-27), Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and others injured in combat, after the battle of the Pelennor Fields (V:8 844-53), and Frodo and Sam after the fall of Sauron (VI:4 931). Similarly, his ascension marks the end of the lands' despoiling, his resolve that Minas Ithil be "utterly destroyed" in order for the cleansing process to begin (VI:5 948), and the imposition of order on his realm (VI:7 971), all symbolized by the blossoming of the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain (VI:5 951). The notion of healing here is broad, and reflects Strathern and Stewart's definition of healing (as opposed to curing), namely that which refers to "the whole person or the whole body seen as an integrated system with both physical and spiritual components" (7).

Historically the principle of 'sacral kingship' went beyond the literal and metaphorical healing of lands and people, linking back to ancient fertility rites. The wholeness and health of the realm and its citizens actually required more than just the presence of the 'rightful' king, it required sacrifice from him. This paper will explore the nature of the sacrifice that Aragorn makes, as heir and king, in order to heal the lands of Middle-earth and its people, and how this sacrifice helps him assert his legitimacy as the rightful (or sacral) king.

One of Aragorn's most powerful sacrificial acts is not included in the narrative, but is outlined in the Appendices of The Return of the King. It is in the manner and timing of his death. In his definitive work The Golden Bough (first published in 1922), Frazer explores the nature of this type of kingly sacrifice at length. Historically, a broad range of cultures considered it to be extremely dangerous to allow a king to die of disease or old age. Simply put: "if the course of nature is dependent on the man-god's life, what catastrophes may not be expected from the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death?" (350) It was vital, then, that the king's soul not be weakened by disease; or lost--snatched by sorcerers or demons, or by refusing to return to a dying body. Killing the king ensured that his soul could be caught and transferred to a "suitable successor," before his "natural force was abated," ensuring "the world should not fall into decay with the decay of the man-god" (Frazer 350).

In this context, the inter-relationship between the ruler and the continuing fruitfulness of the earth goes beyond the metaphorical; the sacrifice of the ruler or (later) surrogate, was in fact, literal. Mircea Eliade notes that:

   A regeneration sacrifice is a ritual "repetition" of the Creation.
   The myth of creation includes the ritual (that is, violent) death
   of a primeval giant, from whose body the worlds were made, and
   plants grew. [...] The object in sacrificing a human victim for the
   regeneration of the force expressed in the harvest is to repeat the
   act of creation that first made grain to live. (346)

Thus the king's death might be self-inflicted, accepted without resistance, or imposed. Frazer outlines an example of a self-inflicted death, the practice of replacing the king in the Indian province of Quilacare, every twelve years:

   the king has a wooden scaffolding made, spread over with silken
   hangings: and on that day he goes to bathe at a tank with great
   ceremonies and sound of music, after that he comes to the idol and
   prays to it, and mounts on to the scaffolding, and there before all
   the people he takes some very sharp knives, and begins to cut off
   his nose, and then his ears, and his lips, and all his members, and
   as much flesh off himself as he can; and he throws it away very
   hurriedly until so much of his blood is spilled that he begins to
   faint, and then he cuts his throat himself. … 

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