The Great River
There are some places that bring out a different side of a particular person experiencing them. An alumnus returning his alma mater and revisiting his old stomping grounds. A woman coming upon her hometown after a long period away. A dreamer who visits an exotic land often imagined but never seen with naked eye. The change in the person can take varying from: some combination of awe, excitement, nostalgia, and overwhelmedness. Yet, at the core, it is frequently a sense of fulfillment, of authentic living, of a part of oneself long hidden or unknown that the places bring back out into the sunlight. That aspect was always present in the person, but it took the location to surface it for observation by both self and others.
The Argonath is that location for Aragorn. As Frodo notes, under the shadows of these intimidating pillars Aragorn’s voice becomes strange, and though it is the same Ranger from the North sitting in the boat with him, in this place his form has changed: erect, proud, skillful, with a light in his eyes, kingly. It is implied that he has never seen this place before (he is unfamiliar with the river at this point, and he mentions his long-desire to see the Pillars of the Kings), but this is a location that has lingered in his dream nevertheless. It is a location that holds both his heritage and his future. It is a place of both inspiration and challenge. It is a feature of both passion and reflection. Though Aragorn has never seen the Argonath, it is nevertheless a place he is all too familiar with, and it has meaning because of that; Frodo, perhaps, has and will have a similar relationship with the Sea that he has never seen.
We who have been nourished by the stories of the Bible can also recall such places of unveiling: the locations of the Burning Bush, for example, or of the Transfiguration, or of the Last Supper. At each of these places occurred a moment of historic revelation, of a clear unveiling of some true thing. Yet in the likenesses of these places is their still power, for though most of us will never know these locations with our waking eyes, yet they still hold sway over our thoughts. They are like our Argonath, and we hold such a desire to look upon the likenesses of our ancestors and the kings of old. What Jew has not wondered at the overpowering sensation of taking off one’s sandals before the living fire of God? What Christian has not meditating on how he or she would have responded had Moses and Elijah appeared alongside the Transfigured Christ? What Catholic, not to exclude any others, has not dared to dream to stand in the shadows of that first Eucharist, and in the awe and wonder of that location found nothing to dread?
Place has purpose and meaning. Even when the events that transpired there have long since passed, the rocks and stones remember. It is why pilgrimages are popular, and why holy sites hold such sway over us. It is why a woman loves her hometown, a man his alma mater. It is why even having never seen a place before they can appear so real in our dreams and desires. And in such locations we can be transformed, and in gazing upon the likenesses of the kings of old, we too can feel like exiles return at last to our own lands.