“[Y]ou are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”
Aragorn pays this homage to Gandalf in Book III, Chapter 5, revealing much about what leadership and warfare mean in this novel. The struggle between good and evil is clearly no conventional military encounter, as Aragorn makes no mention of the number of troops on the field, their weaponry, or their deployment in battle lines. The fact that the Enemy has eight more military commanders than his own army does not trouble Aragorn in the slightest. The traditional concerns of warriors appear to be of no interest to him. The war between the West and Sauron is a higher sort of struggle, requiring spiritual rather than material forces. It is a highly symbolic war, which explains why Aragorn calls the West’s effective leader, Gandalf, not just a captain but a “banner” as well. It is unusual for a single person to be described as a banner, as banners advertise the abstract emblems or causes for which an army or other group is fighting. But, in fact, Gandalf is his own emblem, as he is fighting for good and is himself a powerful symbol of good.
The quotation also reveals much about what inspires trust in Gandalf’s followers. There is no mention of the wizard’s military skill or brilliance at tactical maneuvers. What seems to inspire Aragorn the most is that Gandalf “has passed through the fire and the abyss.” In this regard, personal suffering defines a great leader. Gandalf’s fire-tempered resolve and will are what will terrify his enemies, says Aragorn—not the wizard’s talents at warfare. This characterization is a psychological benchmark by which to judge a good commander, but it is precisely the point of the entire novel, which values spiritual ideals of goodness and fellowship over outward accomplishments. Tolkien’s tale emphasizes that one’s inner life and personality determine one’s success far more than external achievements—or, rather, they make those achievements possible. The highly developed inner spirit that Gandalf displays is enough to command the servitude of even a great leader such as Aragorn.