I wanted an excuse to have a closer look at the original character archetypes, and needing somewhere to start, I’ve plumped for the Ranger (partly as I’m playing one in a 1st ed AD&D campaign at the moment).
The Ranger has been there from the early days, a fighter subtype with specialisations in woodlore, survival, tracking, hunting and various other backwoods skills, as well as a dedication to keeping the wilderness free of humanoid aggression. Tall order. Typically the outsider with a rugged individualist twist, the Ranger is perhaps most akin to the lone gun-slinging hero of the Western or the hero-type of a Robin Hood (the ranger as iconoclast). The lone ranger?
Linked in some ways to the Druid, through a fundamental respect for nature, there are also some interesting diversions – so that unlike the Druid, Rangers need make no pretence at neutrality, but were seen as basically of good alignment, and capable of adopting a cause or even becoming a gun (bow?) for hire. The ranger also offers distinct flavour – a skill with herbal lore and healing, a provider for companions in wilderness settings, a capable guide, one who can ‘read’ nature and perhaps communicate with animals, a stealthy bowman with even a capacity for a little magic. The ranger as mysterious protector, or wild-father removing our existential anxiety, at least momentarily, partly through practical action.
The origin points for such a character are no doubt many and varied (and I’d like to know more of the specific detail, so this is the right place to be asking!), Aragorn being perhaps the most obvious, but the roots go much deeper than Tolkein, I’d suggest. The Woodsman is a common enough figure in many a legend or fairy tale, and often represents some aspect of solo warrior maleness – the one who thrives in the wilds, more often than not, alone. Perhaps a frightening figure, perhaps an ally – certainly capable of a sullen look, and a strong arm. There are whispers too, around the archetype, of more ancient nature-heroes, of Orion (or Artemis or Diana) the hunter, Cernunnos, the Green Man, Kidr himself, and so on. The ranger as alchemical agent, greening the narrative, with inflections of stewardship, a kind of sheriff of the landbase, ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (as Dylan Thomas put it).
There are many tensions in the archetype – whom does the ranger serve, being chief among them. And in our contemporary world, where climate chaos and fear of vast and rapid planetary scaled change, as well as various compensatory idealisms and a sense of urban alienation from nature, all plug into the way our fantasy rangers form and grow in their stories. The ranger as eco-activist, or strong advocate for rewilding. It is in these partialities and particulars that any specific ranger (as character) comes fully into being. How to reconcile the divergent pulls from ‘protect the human’ to ‘manage the woods’? How to address the goblin menace or stem the kobold plague, whilst honouring the basic commitment to wild life? Whither the ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ of deep ecology in the face of a blood-thirsty ogre? And come to think of it, isn’t the very notion of stewardship itself loaded with assumptions and judgements – as if nature required a (demi)-human level of awareness to see it run its affairs ‘properly’? These fault lines and cracks though do not serve to weaken the appeal of the ranger as a character class (or as a hero) – indeed, the struggling, conflicted (anti)-hero is often the more interesting and well rounded figure; and anyway, the margins of fantasy and so-called reality, of play and ‘the real world’ are always the most fecund and diversified of niches (just as in nature the margins between ecosystems or subsystems are the most biodiverse – don’t believe me? go and look at the sea-shore between tides, or a pond edge, or the hedgerows between fields, or a forest clearing… these are places where the action is turned right up). The ranger as an expression of the liminal – of the in-betweenness of character, place or thing.
A final thought, as this ramble is already much longer than I’d anticipated (sorry) – a word in support of the idea, borrowed from ecopsychology, of the ‘natural self’ (or ecological self as it is also referred to) – that basic sanity or ‘ground of being’ out of which our personhood grows and which, when allowed to develop, inheres in a deeply felt imaginal and embodied relationship with the natural (or ‘more than human’) world. Our own urbanised, alienated, technotopian, abstracted selves often display huge distortions of this ground (the white man’s burden, the basic and well explored pathology of our sense of separateness from one another, and the world around us) and much that is broken in our contemporary lives (and world) can be usefully viewed from this perspective. However, in fantasy generally, and in roleplaying in particular, there is an opportunity for a certain freedom to be generated around these kinds of states – and I would like to suggest, there is a great deal of authenticity and validity possible in this healing play. The ranger as a FRPG archetype is one very responsive and refined tool for working with the grain of a new, emerging ‘healing fiction’ (as James Hillman would call it). The ranger as leader, not leader with all the answers, but leader with resilience, skill and integrity – and a dose of pragmatic adaptability. I’d be interested to hear of any other ranger themes, and indeed whether looking at character archetypes in this way is remotely interesting or useful to others – as I said at the outset, I feel some more brewing.