The Passing of the Grey Company
To possess a duty is to retain an obligation, a responsibility, a debt. Such duties appear in various spheres of life: a moral duty (“Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day”); a patriotic duty (such a willingness to take up arms to defend one’s homeland); a legal duty (such as service on a jury); a familial duty (to provide a proper upbringing for one’s child, or to care for one’s parents as they grow older); an occupational duty (a responsibility for a particular team, client, or product); others could be easily imagined. Duty holds one’s word or honor at risk, for to truly possess a duty requires a vow explicitly or implicitly be taken for its fulfillment, and places one in debt to the person or “representative” of persons to which one swears. Duty is a serious and dangerous matter, one considered too little and with insufficient weight in a post-honor age.
Aragorn has a duty: a duty to his kingdom, to his people, to his friends, to his long line of ancestors through which his kingship has descended. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, it is clear duty influences his actions and prods at his conscience, for after Gandalf’s fall, the duty of leading the Fellowship fell upon him. It was only after Frodo’s departure removed his obligation to the Ring-bearer did Aragorn feel free to pursue Merry and Pippin’s captors. And though Aragorn would certainly rather ride directly to war and to the liberation of his people at Minas Tirith, his comprehension of the logistics of the muster of Rohan obliged him to seek out the Paths of the Dead. Through it all, duty strengthens him – need shall drive him – and instills courage and discipline in those around him. It is a final test of his capacity to adhere to the duties and sacrifices of kingly leadership.
Éowyn has a duty: a duty to her family, to her people, to a charge and responsibility that has been laid upon her. Yet Éowyn resents the lesser duty, longing instead to embrace a greater personal sacrifice and therefore transfigure her “womanly” and “dry-nurse” responsibility into that of the duties of “glory” and of a “shieldmaiden.” Though she seeks to swear herself to Aragorn, he cannot accept her oath, for such an oath would make her former vows false and undermine her honor. Aragorn further sees that Éowyn’s desire to ride with him is mingled with romantic love, a love he can not reciprocate. He recognizes her character, her bravery, and her valiant heart, and holds it with high regards: though he must reject her pleas, he only does so in pain.
The Dead have a duty: a duty to their word, to their king, to their own selves now cursed. The fate of oathbreakers is made apparent: those who reject their duties, who betray the trust and honor placed upon them, are likely to become shades of themselves, ghosts that frighten away good-hearted and honest people from them. There are some duties that even death cannot nullify: death-bed promises to rectify a situation, fulfill an oath, offer some repentance, achieve some inner peace. The Dead cry out, “To fulfill our oath and have peace.” They seek proof that Aragorn can hold their oaths fulfilled (by banner in the books and by sword in the movies), and once satisfied, they recognize the authority. Duty has an internal logic to it.
Duty: a clarification of the heart and mind, an obligation that both limits and encourages, a debt that even death cannot at times invalidate. Musing on duty necessarily leads us to reflect on the duties in our own lives: no longer to kings and their heirs, but nevertheless to various authorities for various needs. Will we hold to our word in times of trouble, even if we experience the pains of Aragorn and Éowyn in doing so? Or will we betray our oaths and so become like the Dead, longing for such rectification from some unforeseen power before the end of time?
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Where We are Meant to Be”