Rangers are just a bunch of hunters, animals lovers, and park officers, aren’t they? Where could the history in this class really go? I originally thought that this would be a simple question, and would not have much depth, but I was grossly mistaken. Rangers go as far back as land ownership. As long as we designated ownership over a part of land, humans have always wanted to have someone patrolling it, making sure no one violates it!
The origins of the word and its use are nebulous, but it seems like it started as Regardatores, from the Charter of the Forest in 1217. I won’t delve much into the details, but what was important was that it distinguished land for the public, and land for the royalty. The contention over forest and land was as hot as oil is for people of our days: it was the prime resource for income! What I found was that the word “regard” was originally to inspect or keep order of a particular lot of land, so that your lot was still fruitful, and that no one was coming into it, taking your potential revenue. The people assigned these specific lots of lands were the Regardatores. These documents have gone through many revisions and edits, and it seems that, somewhere around 1314, the people assigned these tasks were given a sort of shorthand title as “Rangers”. A French word, “range” comes from keeping order, but of a specific area. It comes as no surprise that the original title was simply too long for routine use, and that a slang emerged for those that regard the ranges.
When I looked into the French rangers, it started to make sense why they were so necessary: most of the French borders rely on mountains. The Alps, Pyrenees, Jura mountains, Ardennes, Vosges, Massif Central, and many more litter the country. If you have people like the rangers protecting the borders of your country, it is more than likely that they will be needed at these naturally fortified positions. It would be the rangers job to patrol the border lines and ensure no one crosses it. Over time, the ranger would become familiar with the climate and routines of that region.
With that familiar knowledge comes a cost: you were likely in isolation. In times with little to no connection to the rest of the world, a mountain quite literally separated you from the globe. Cities within France were separated from the wild world past the mountains, and the person keeping a watchful eye on that border was the ranger. If you wanted to adventure out, to hunt, or explore the wild, you would likely hire their service, as they were most familiar with the borders! Having likely been in isolation for some time, the ranger would also not be as socialized as the civilian, so this might add to the intrigue and social awkwardness about the ranger. They would seem all the more unpredictable and wild, just like the rest of the world, the rangers were another animal of the wild outside world.
The primary resource of your lots of land were the crops and animals. Going hunting was quite the past time, and nobles wanted to ensure that you had something to hunt! As a rich noble, your ranger would ensure no one stole your game, and they could help teach you how to find it when you wanted to. Looking through artistic depictions, it is common to see someone herding animals like deer to be slaughtered, encouraging dogs to hunt down the prey, or leading a group of horses.
I imagine the ranger would then develop into two means of coping with animal hunting: seeing the animals as prey, or seeing them as another part of nature, like themselves. In games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), we see archetypes of the hunter and beast master become the dominant choices, and this makes sense. Rangers would have to cope with hunting and killing animals by either seeing them as some sort of living thing that is below them in nature, or connect with animals in terms of nature, living along with them. Anyone who has gone hiking can relate to the thrill of stumbling upon a wild animal, and retaining that experience for the rest of their life, perhaps expressing it in a painting or story. In a similar way, anyone who has gone hunting can relate to the anticipation and thrill of getting a kill, keeping a trophy of the adventure to be the center piece of your tale. I’m not interested in debating one as better than another, but I do think that these are two primary ways that a human, in a rangers position, would likely have to see animals.
Considering that rangers had to be able to exercise physical dominance over animals and humans in their ranges, they had to be rather deadly. Not only would they be the wild and unpredictable wards of woods, but they would have to be experts with weapons. They were the first line of defense for your border, and often by themselves or a small group.
One of the most famous group of rangers is in the 17th to 19th century, when North America was a fun time for violence and land disputes. As a ranger, if you weren’t working for the colonial government in the south, you were likely a hunter in the north. Both required a sense of wildness and violence in a foreign world, with developing contention over land ownership.
Knowlton’s Rangers were a group of soldiers for George Washington, and their duties were quite clear: maintain the borders and go on reconnaissance missions in New England, the north eastern tip of the United States. I think this is where the sense of elite soldiers originated, as they were given very specific and rather esoteric tasks to accomplish, often regarded as the first intelligence organization of the United States.
With the new world also came a lot more resources to take advantage of, namely animals like bison. People like William Cody would be hired to hunt for bison in a specific range, and to supply the nearby cities. If you were exceptionally good at it, you might get yourself a nickname like “Buffalo Bill”. Couple your hunting prowess with a performance show like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” and your name elevates to legend. Not only was Buffalo Bills hunting skills shown off, but the performance of his tales enhanced the sense of wild and dangerous adventures that someone going outside the safety of your borders might encounter.
So how does this all tie into a game like D&D? I think Tolkien helped bring us there, when he decided that the people who would protect various parts of Middle Earth were to be called Rangers. The two major groups, Rangers of the North and the Rangers of Ithilien, were organized by Dúnedain. Their duties were to primary keep order, and to guard these regions of the world. Thanks to the fame of these rangers, we now have the archetypes of rangers in games like D&D, where we find the wild and dangerous characters, who are connected to nature, and the world.
Aragorn, being a Ranger of the North, was a fantastic model Ranger. We first meet him as Strider, which is fitting because the word itself means to move and fight. Throughout the story we see him change from someone who fights with his identity in the world. Strider emerges into Aragorn, who is much easier to relate to, being a hopeful and optimistic person. He begins to find his place in the world, willing to lead and help others, thanks to the Fellowship. At first, it seems that his sense of being is entirely reliant on Elendil’s sword Narsil, believing that this will unify his people and perhaps his own sense of self. Having some connection to the Elves, and to the Dunedain, he also bears remarkable wisdom and magic. He heals Faramir, another fellow Ranger, and we begin to truly see a character emerge that can be a king: King Elessar Telcontar.
From an outsider to King, I think it easy to feel able to fantastize about being someone like Aragorn. We have all seen ourselves outside of society, slowly emerging into it, and hopefully one day becoming a notable figure within it.
The rangers grim appearance, affinity to animals, and mysterious behaviour feels like a direct reflection of the world itself. Through characters like Buffalo Bill and Aragorn, we now have this ranger archetype, who has seen the world that we haven’t. Yet, we want to explore the wild world, to see what adventures it holds for us, to take us from the safety of our borders, to grow and experience the world.