Aragorn, as Isildur’s heir, was Chieftain of the Dúnedain and a Ranger of the North. A few Rangers, under Haralbad, make their appearance to help Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead and on to the Pelennor Fields, but apart from this, Tolkien has little to say about them. So what would an ordinary Ranger be like, especially before the days of the War of the Ring?
Who were the Rangers and how many were there?
There are a few details in Tolkien.
“Rangers – The Dúnedain of the North after the fall of the North Kingdom, secret guardians of Eriador” (Unfinished Tales, index)
” …the Dúnedain of the North, ……..a strange people wandering secretly in the wild, and other men knew not their homes nor the purpose of their journeys, and save in Imladris, in the House of Elrond, their ancestry was forgotten.” (Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age)
“When the kingdom ended the Dúnedain passed into the shadows and became a secret and wandering people, and their deeds and labours were seldom sung or recorded. Little is now remembered of them since Elrond departed….” (Lord of the Rings, Appendix A)
“in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree folk called them Rangers and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the language of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen.” (Lord of the Rings, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony)
When the Kingdom of Arnor was destroyed by Angmar in Third Age 1974, the survivors became wanderers. The Rangers were descendants of these people.
We do know, however, that this branch of the Dúnedain had survived for over a thousand years, as the events in Lord of the Rings started in Third Age 3018. The population of the Dúnedain must have been significant in order for them to survive, yet we know that there were comparatively few Rangers. The Rangers, therefore, must have been only part of the Dúnedain, a small, elite military force. These would be the symbol of the authority of the Kings of Arnor, maintaining Aragorn’s right to the sovereignty of the lost kingdom.
Halbarad had a company of 30: ” `I have thirty with me.’ said Halbarad `That is all of our kindred that could be gathered in haste; ‘ ” (Lord of the Rings, The Passing of the Grey Company). This suggests that there were 30 Rangers fairly close together, perhaps as a reserve protecting a base. It also implies that there were other Rangers spread out over Eriador, too far away to collect at short notice. There was another company guarding the Fords of Isen on the southern boundary of the Shire. When the Ringwraiths arrived there: “‘(The Nazgûl) came to Sarn Ford and the southernmost borders of the Shire. They found them guarded, for the Rangers barred their way…….some fled northward….Some still dared to bar the ford and held it while the day lasted “(Unfinished Tales, The Hunt for the Ring). This suggests perhaps another company of 30, some (about 10?) fleeing, leaving enough (about 20?) to hold off the Ringwraiths. There may have been other companies guarding Eriador from the Orcs and Goblins of the Misty Mountains, the western and northern borders of the Shire and some must have remained to protect their families. This may mean a total of perhaps 120-150 Rangers in companies of 30, some on duty in the wilds and some at a base: resting, protecting their families and acting as a reserve.
Where was this base?
The Dúnedain were initially wanderers, but cannot have maintained this for over 1000 years, especially as there were large areas where peaceful settlements did take place (Shire, Rohan, Gondor, etc). There were no cities such as Minas Tirith, or even Edoras, so this suggests a series of isolated farms or villages, with at least one base for the Rangers. We do have an idea where: “Tolkien actually made a note, now filed among his papers at Marquette University, which stated that Aragorn’s people lived in the Angle, between the Bruinen and Mitheithel rivers.” (Of thegns and kings and rangers and things: Michael Martinez)
The Angle was a secure area, protected by the River Mitheithel to the west, the River Bruinen to the south and east and wooded hills to the north (Atlas of Tolkien’s Middle Earth). It was also not too far from Imladris, which explains the connection between the Elves and the Dúnedain.
How were they used and what were their skills?
They would seem to be rather like modern Special Forces. They would act alone or in small groups as a reconnaissance force, watching for the presence and movement of hostiles. Much of the time they would be hidden ” ` I was behind the hedge this evening on the Road west of Bree..’ ” (Lord of the Rings, Strider), but their presence would be a deterrent and they could intercept and (if necessary) destroy small groups of enemies, or band together for larger actions. There would not, however, be enough to act as a conventional military force (except when allied with others, as at the Pelennor Fields)..
Their woodcraft would be considerable (especially as they lived longer than ordinary men). They were expert trackers (as Aragorn showed in the pursuit of Merry and Pippin) and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the language of beasts and birds. (op cit). To have enhanced senses is a common attribute of people who live closely with nature (e.g. Native Americans and Mountain Men) and is largely due to knowing what to look and listen for. Communication with beasts and birds may just be reacting to an understanding of the behaviour of creatures when danger threatens or may have been a “magical” skill, as with Gandalf and the eagles, Thorin and the ravens and Bard and the thrush. They were able to live off the land ” `There is food in the wild,’ said Strider; `berry, root and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need.’ ” (Lord of the Rings, A Knife in the Dark).
What did they look like?
Again, Tolkien gave a few clues.
Aragorn is described as wearing: “high boots of supple leather that fitted him well……A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark green cloth was drawn closely about him……he wore a hood that overshadowed his face;……..a shaggy head flecked with grey, and in a pale, stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.” (Lord of the Rings, Strider). When he leaves Imladris: “Aragorn had Anduril, but no other weapon, and he went forth clad only in rusty green and brown, as a Ranger in the wilderness.” (Lord of the Rings, The Ring Goes South).
As for Halbarad’s Rangers: “A little apart the Rangers sat, silent, in an ordered company, armed with spear and bow and sword. They were clad in cloaks of dark grey, and their hoods were cast now over helm and head. Their horses were strong and of proud bearing, but rough-haired;…….There was no gleam of stone or gold, nor any fair thing in all their gear or harness; nor did their riders bear any badge or token, save only that each cloak was pinned upon the left shoulder by a brooch of silver shaped like a rayed star.” (Lord of the Rings, The Passing of the Grey Company).
This makes sense for a body of men who may have to survive in small groups, or even alone, in hostile country. They wore comfortable clothes in green, brown and grey to provide camouflage. High, supple boots would keep them dry through bogs and streams, yet allow them to move quickly if necessary. They had cloaks and hoods to protect them from the weather and to hide their faces (like the masks of the Rangers of Ithilien and the cam-cream of modern soldiers – faces really stand out if not camouflaged). There were no bright ornaments on men or horses that might give their position away, except for the star brooch, which could be either a recognition feature or a badge of office when dealing with people. Essential weapons would be a sword (for close quarter fighting) and a bow (for long-range fighting against a superior enemy and for hunting). Aragorn did not wear a helm at Bree – they are heavy and uncomfortable and may have been kept at the base for use in more conventional fighting. The same could apply to a spear, which would be difficult to carry and use in undergrowth, where a single Ranger might hide. The horses were strong; Rangers would operate over a large area, so endurance would be more important than speed. A horse would also allow more supplies to be carried and a well-trained horse would act as an early warning while the Ranger slept.
What else would a Ranger carry?
It is interesting to speculate what an individual Ranger would carry, in addition to his weapons. Items could be replenished from base, but they would have to survive for long periods in the wild. Survival needs warmth, shelter, food and water. Lembas seems to be unknown in Imladris, or the Fellowship would have been given some there. The key would be to carry the minimum essential for survival without unnecessary encumbrance.
Spare cloak for warmth (possibly fur for winter). “Strider was content with a single cloak” (Lord of the Rings, A Knife in the Dark) implies he had another.
Knife, for butchering game, cutting wood for food and shelter, digging roots, eating food, last-ditch weapon, etc..
Whetstone (and oil?) for keeping sword and knife sharp and rust free.
Flint and steel for lighting fires (” `Rangers have been here lately. It is they who left the firewood behind.’ ” (Lord of the Rings, A Knife in the Dark)).
Water bottle, or more than one depending on the terrain and freedom of movement.
Needle and thread for mending clothes.
Hook and line for catching fish.
Twine for snares and repairs.
Salt (essential for human survival).
Additions may include the following.
Pan for cooking food that cannot be eaten raw (although many things can be roasted on a sharp stick).
Hatchet for cutting wood for shelter or fires (although fallen dead wood will give less smoke and leave fewer signs).
Tallow candle for light (e.g. in a cave) and to provide fat for frying (although a fire provides light and other cooking methods can be used).
Spare clothes so wet ones can be dried or badly torn ones replaced.
Bags for clothes, food and belongings.
Humans being what they are, you can be sure that individual Rangers will have a few extras for comfort, to relieve boredom, or as a reminder of home.