Boromir the Misunderstood Hero: A Fallen Man Finds Reconciling Grace

BOROMIR THE MISUNDERSTOOD HERO: A FALLEN MAN FINDS RECONCILING GRACE

By Martina Juričková, November 19, 2016

Word Count: 6484

Summary: A new look at Boromir as a misunderstood hero.

 

Image result for boromir
Image credit: New Line Cinema

 

    Tolkien’s most famous novel The Lord of the Rings displays a multitude of characters, but probably no other of them is as controversial as Boromir. Many readers hold the view that Boromir was the only one truly complex character in this mostly strictly polarized novel. They think that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is an almost purely black-and-white universe, meaning that the characters are designed as either definitely good or definitely bad and it is impossible for them to turn to the other side. Tolkien gained much criticism especially for the fact that the leading good characters, such as Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond or Galadriel, or even the minor ones, like Sam, so easily resist the temptation to take the Ring for their own and become its new master.

     Personally, I do not agree with this opinion; instead, I believe that under closer inspection the “genuinely” good characters are more ambiguous than they seem. Nonetheless, in all of this Boromir appears to be an exception, according to the critical readers. He had equally strong good and bad sides of his personality. Though primarily representing the good side, he is much more tempted by the Ring than anybody else, save Gollum (but he was obviously an evil character), from the very first moment he entered the story, and in the end he succumbed to it. Because of this some readers consider him a negative character. But because for the most part of his “in-story” time he honestly and faithfully supported Frodo’s quest, except for the one fail at the end which he even regretted, others consider him a good character. For them he represents a good gone bad. However, the truth seems to be somewhere in between.

     In order to inspect Boromir’s role1 in this work and make the nature of this character clearer it is needed to examine his morality and the motivation of his actions. In concord with Tolkien’s own understanding of The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Carpenter, 2006, p. 172) this paper examines Boromir’s morality in the light of Christian teaching about it; particularly the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas about virtue and vice which are the primary markers of goodness and badness in human’s character.2

Boromir’s relationship with Frodo

     Doubtless, the determination of Boromir’s nature and role depends mostly on his relation to Frodo the Ring-bearer, whom the culmination of Boromir’s internal conflict affected the most. Although the acquaintanceship between Frodo and Boromir was brief in existence, lasting only for four months, a time period spread over nine chapters of The Fellowship of the Rings, it played an important role in the plot development. Their acquaintance turned into the kind of friendship based on necessity, or obligation, when Boromir was appointed one of the members of the Fellowship as a representative of the race of Men because for the most part he had a common road with Frodo. In fact, Boromir was never secretive about his intention to go back home to Minas Tirith and willed to follow the Fellowship only as long as they were going the same direction.

     But back to the beginning of their relationship. Frodo and Boromir first met at Elrond’s council on the 25th of October described in Book II, Chapter 2. This chapter like the rest of the novel is written using a third person omniscient narrator, but in places providing the thoughts and insights of Frodo’s, so the reader gets the impression as if he was watching the scene from Frodo’s perspective. So it is that the first description of Boromir the readers get is through Frodo’s eyes. 

     “And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance.” (LotR, II, ii, 240, my emphasis) 

     It shows Boromir as a noble man; even his clothing hints that in his homeland he is a renowned and highly esteemed person. Indeed, he was the eldest son of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, supposed to take the seat of his father after his death, and the greatest warrior of his country. But what is interesting is the use of the adjective proud; all the more that it is used with his person two more times throughout this chapter: 

     “[…] at once Boromir stood up, tall and proud, before them.

     “ʻI was not sent to beg any boon, but to seek only the meaning of a riddle,ʼ answered Boromir proudly.” (LotR, II, ii, 245; 247) 

     Also several more times later: when Aragorn sang about his “head so proud” after his death, and Frodo recalled that he hardly saved himself and the Ring from his “proud grasp” when speaking to Faramir, who remembered his brother as “the proud and fearless, often rash, ever anxious for the victory of Minas Tirith (and his own glory therein),” (LotR, p. 418, 665, 671, my emphasis). No other character was attributed this quality so often, save his father Denethor, whom Boromir resembled the most in temper.

     It is strange that Tolkien emphasized this particular personal trait of Boromir from his first introduction (three times in the span of seven pages) and along with the description of his behaviour during the council thus shaped the readers’ perception of him in a rather negative way, making them suspicious of his intentions. Tolkien did not do this at the introduction of other characters. If not immediately presenting them as genuinely good or bad, he usually introduced them as ambivalent characters, such as Aragorn or Faramir3, until their true nature was revealed, but without strong accent of any specific trait. Not even Denethor was presented in such a suspecting manner, though not described as the most righteous person either.

     In his work Tolkien seems to be using pride in a very general sense, when it has neither positive nor negative connotation as such, not in its specific meaning as a sin. So he often employed it to denote a legitimate esteem, praiseworthiness, and nobility. In a way, this is also true for Boromir – he was a High Warden and a Captain-General of noble lineage, and as such he was well aware of his strength and all the creditable deeds he performed to ensure the safety of his country. And he had a strong sense of justice.

     At the council he was quick to set all the rumours about Gondor and its allies right and to explain what the situation was like in there. He did not suffer the valiance of his people being underrated and demanded that everyone recognized it and gave him and his people the respect they deserved. It saddened him that Gondor was getting so little thanks from other nations despite the fact that they always bore the first assaults from Mordor. To his credit he also eagerly defended the reputation of Rohirrim against the lie that they pay tribute to Sauron in horses.

     However, in Boromir’s case the negative sense of pride is strengthened by his overall behaviour. While all the above mentioned is true, his talk at the council also revealed that he thought maybe too highly of himself and his people, unaware or even ignorant of what was going on in the rest of Middle-earth. He named himself as one of the last four remaining after the battle of Osgiliath’s bridge, though a few still fought on to defend the west shore of the city. And when his brother and later also he received the strange riddle in their dreams, Boromir insisted on going to Rivendell for aid even though Faramir volunteered for it first. He thought the journey too dangerous and his brother too incompetent to manage it. Boromir was more self-regarding, as Frodo remarked when he met Faramir and compared them (LotR, IV, v, 665).

     Regarding his people, Boromir ascribed to them a high place among the nations of Middle-earth based on their descent, from which they derived their power, majesty and superiority. He said: “Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Númenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten,” (LotR, II, ii, 245, my emphasis). Oddly enough, here again Boromir himself mentioned the pride of his ancestors, naming it as a good quality. However, the comparison with Númenorians here is unfortunate, because it was their pride that led them to destruction.

     As for his talk, Boromir spoke self-confidently, but in the manner of his speech there could be felt a silent remonstrance towards the elves for not offering Gondor any direct help in their fight with Sauron’s servants. In comparison, Aragorn spoke more calmly, gently and humbly, and did not boast about his and the Dúnedain’s fight with the enemies, even though they had longer experience with it and had done even more for the safety of Middle-earth than the Gondorians, for no thanks at all, and so would deserve more recognition.

     As Boromir confessed few months later to Celeborn, he had little knowledge of the lands beyond Rohan (LotR, II, vi, 374), but at the council he talked as if he knew well the situation abroad. In his version, the rest of Middle-earth lived in peace and safety because Gondor was holding back all the evil coming from Mordor. Additionally, although he was aware that Gondor needed military aid, he was too proud – now in the negative sense – to ask for help, as can be seen from the third quote on the pre-previous page. It would be beneath the dignity of Gondorian men, and he underscores this by saying: “For though I do not ask for aid, we need it,” (LotR, II, ii, 268).

     Moreover, Boromir was even ignorant of the history of his own forefathers – until the council he had no idea that Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand and took it for himself. If he was surprised to learn this, all the more surprised was he to learn that Aragorn was Isildur’s heir with a rightful claim on Gondor’s kingship; and even more, to find out that the ring was now in Frodo’s keeping. Interestingly, he did not question Aragorn’s descent and his claim on the throne much; he was content with the sight of Isildur’s broken sword.

     However, when Frodo showed the Ring, “Boromir’s eyes glinted,” (LotR, II, ii, 247). A glint of eye is often a symbol of lust or improper desire, so already the suspicion about his unvirtuousness starts to seem valid. And this doubt gets confirmed when, after hearing Gandalf’s account of Saruman’s treachery, he confessed that he believed Saruman was right about the Ring: that it was a gift and they should use it to overcome Sauron. He was unable or unwilling to understand the danger of using it, and took no heed of Elrond’s words that the “very desire of [the Ring] corrupts the heart,” (LotR, II, ii, 267).

     He believed in military power, because that is all he knew and could do; so he could not imagine that the Dark Lord could be destroyed any other way, except by his own dark devices. Therefore, he was distrustful of the opinions and advice of all the fair, mighty people at the council (not to mention his natural misgivings about Elves, who were the most numerous there, and their leaders, such as Galadriel). He was obviously imprudent. He thought it folly to destroy the Ring. But because he was the only one there who thought so, he succumbed and did not argue about it anymore.

     Well, such was Frodo’s first encounter with Boromir. They were probably in no closer contact until the Fellowship set off from Rivendell exactly two months after the council.4 And since afterwards Boromir behaved really friendly, the readers’ suspicion is given away for some time. He was truly concerned about the hobbits’ wellbeing during the snowstorm at Caradhras. He was the one who insisted on taking some firewood with them, and it proved a very clever advice, and when the snow covered them it was again he who, being broader and stronger in build, led the way through the drifts to make a path for the others and helped to carry the hobbits on his back (LotR, II, iii, 292).

     His distrust of authorities was displayed again only when they reached the Gates of Moria and Gandalf struggled to open it. He did not want to go through the mines. Then, out of nervosity and disgust of that place, Boromir threw a stone into the lake, which might have been the primary cause that roused the tentacled water monster. Upon this, Frodo admonished Boromir not to disturb the water, which was their first direct engagement with each other. But once they entered Moria, he could do no other than to obey and follow the wizard. Soon he set all his misgivings aside for a time and fought valiantly when the orcs attacked them, and even stood at the wizard’s side with Aragorn unwilling to let him face the Balrog alone.

     However, Boromir’s misgivings returned as soon as he learnt that they headed to Lothlórien, Galadriel’s realm, which he believed to be a perilous land which none can pass unscathed (LotR, II, vi, 338). Aragorn corrected him that a better word would be unchanged, and ensured him that only those need to fear it who bear some evil in them, by which he foreshadows what is going to happen. And indeed, from that time on Boromir’s behaviour seems to have changed and the readers’ suspicion about his trustworthiness increases. After the meeting with Galadriel, Boromir confessed that he felt exceedingly strange and uneasy under her stare. It seemed to him as if “she was tempting [him], and offering what she pretended to have the power to give,” (LotR, II, vii, 358), which he undoubtedly thought just some kind of witchcraft. He did not tell what the temptation was in his case; instead, he pressed Frodo to reveal his.

     Ever since their stay in Lothlórien, Boromir became riveted on going home to Minas Tirith and he made it known to everybody, along with his regret that he was not the leader of the company and so he could not order the others to come with him. Whenever the debate turned to what course they should take, he made it clear that he thought the journey to Mordor a sheer folly and he presented the way to Gondor as the best one in his opinion, even though no one really asked for his advice. And always when saying this he fixed his eyes on Frodo as if he was silently trying to persuade him to agree with his choice. But it was during the farewell with Galadriel and Celeborn when he nearly made a slip and revealed his true thinking. He said: 

     “[…] if you wish to destroy the armed might of the Dark Lord, then it is folly to go without force into his domain; and folly to throw away.ʼ He paused suddenly, as if he had become aware that he was speaking his thoughts aloud. ʻIt would be folly to throw lives away, I mean,ʼ he ended.” (LotR, II, viii, 369, my emphasis) 

     That moment Frodo caught a strange glance in Boromir’s eyes, and he realized that he was going to say something else than he eventually did. What he really meant was that it would be a folly to throw away the Ring, not the lives of people.

     As they were nearing the decision point, even other members of the Fellowship noticed that Boromir grew still more and more restless. While they were sailing down the Anduin, he often muttered to himself, bit his nails, “sometimes seizing a paddle and driving [his] boat close” to the one in which Frodo was sitting. Again a queer gleam in his eyes as he was gazing at Frodo is mentioned here (LotR, II, ix, 382).

     But the relationship between Frodo and Boromir reached its climax at Amon Hen when it was time for them to definitely decide what course to take further (LotR, II, x, 396-400 [All the following quotes are from this span, unless indicated otherwise.]). Frodo was granted some time alone for thinking. He left their camp, but while all the others respected his privacy and did not look to see where he went, Boromir stared at him intently. After some time, unnoticed by the others, he left the camp too and followed Frodo. When he came across him in the wood, it is reported that Frodo had a strange feeling as if some unfriendly eyes were upon him. He was quite surprised to find out that it was only Boromir, “his face smiling and kind.”

     Boromir spoke to him in a friendly manner offering him some advice. Frodo’s reply indicates that at that time he still trusted this man, even though he refused his aid politely. He spoke to him openly about his fear and was even honest about his doubts regarding the strength and sincerity of Men. This only induced Boromir into a more passive-aggressive way of persuasion. A remarkable feature of his speech here is the negative formulation of questions: 

      “Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly? Will you not take mine [counsel]? Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? Could I not have a sight of [the Ring] again? May I not even speak of it?” (my emphasis). 

     That is a very polite way to ask about problematic things, appealing to the addressee’s emotions, but at the same time implying rather false niceness. Except for the first and the last question, this sentence structure does not sound very natural; it seems as if he was trying somehow to manipulate Frodo into saying what he wanted to hear. And it would seem harmless enough, were his inquiries not accompanied again with the strange gleam of eye. This series of questions Frodo countered in a similar manner, asking: “Were you not at the Council?” This question sounds more natural. Apart from the unusual sentence structure, Boromir’s anxiety is here accentuated also by use of such phrases as: he spoke sharply; he walked impatiently. And his nervosity graduates – at first he spoke kindly, but then ever more loudly, until his speech turned into a cry.

     Boromir claimed that he doubted whether the wise, who advised destroying the Ring, are not merely timid, by which he proposed to interchange virtue by vice. Proudly and with much certainty he claimed that true-hearted Men, like those of Minas Tirith, and he was one of them, “will not be corrupted”, which in the light of oncoming events sounds vaingloriously and absolutely untrue. But even Aquinas states that such is often the way with fallen, wicked people that they do not see their own wickedness. They think themselves flawless and tend to judge others according to themselves, without realizing their misconception. That is, they mistake the virtue of others for vice, or at least think it a folly, because they believe others would behave like them (Aquinas). And that was the exact problem with Boromir. He thought himself incorruptible, but his own words convicted him of the opposite.

     Revealing his real intentions, Boromir fell into a manner of speech similar to Gollum’s. For a while he was speaking as if to himself, forgetting about Frodo’s presence, again using the negative question formulation: “What could not a warrior do […]? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir?” He even used the very same phrases Gollum did. He named the Ring “a gift”. Gollum called the Ring his gift saying he got it as a present from his friend Déagol, whom in fact he killed in order to take the Ring from him. And Bilbo too lied about the Ring being “a parting gift from Gollum”, while in truth Gollum never intended to give it to anyone. That is sign enough that Boromir submitted himself to the temptation of the Ring and was already corrupted. He threw away all his reason and did not hide anymore that he wanted the Ring, needed it and with its power hoped to become a new king.

     But then he became aware that he was speaking his mind aloud and suddenly remembering Frodo, he turned to him and addressed him “my friend”. It is as if he were trying to ensure both Frodo and himself about the goodness of his intentions; that what he planned to do was only for the hobbit’s benefit because he cared about him, wishing to make him see it through his eyes. Frodo’s answer to this shows that even after the revelation of Boromir’s true hopes he still treated him with respect, and believed that the man has enough strength of will to withstand the temptation and enough clear sense to understand the peril. However, Boromir was still determined not to understand the danger of using the Ring and could not even realize the danger of desiring it. He mistook the hobbit’s acknowledgement of his point of view for agreement. “His eyes were shining and his face eager” with excitement that Frodo would come with him to Minas Tirith.

     When Frodo made it clear that he would not do so, he continued to persuade him, first in a kind manner. When speaking to him Boromir caught Frodo’s shoulder “in friendly fashion”, but the hobbit felt his hand “trembling with suppressed excitement”. This reveals that Boromir was leading some inner fight as to whether to retain the nice face and talk Frodo over by reason or use his strength to make him agree. By this time he was still struggling to control himself and balance the two inclinations. Yet this idea made Frodo withdraw from him, which angered Boromir. His tone changed. “Why are you so unfriendly?” he asked Frodo. Just like it was said formerly, he was trying to hide the truth about himself by ascribing to Frodo the negative characteristic he himself bore. Furthermore, he said: “I give you my word that I do not desire to keep [the Ring],” only to borrow it. But his word, the word of a faithful Gondorian man, could no longer be trusted, as he was not able to recognize what a big influence the Ring already had over him.

     After Frodo’s resolute NO, something broke in Boromir. His anger burst out. He cursed the hobbit and finally fully revealed his desire that he wished to possess the Ring because it should anyways have been his by ancestral right. Then, when he saw Frodo started to fear him, he calmed down for a moment, speaking in a softer voice and addressing Frodo as “my friend” again, trying to restore his dignity. But as it did not work he changed his manner again mid-speech. Madness entirely overtook him; his face “hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes”, and he attacked Frodo. The hobbit only managed to escape his rage by putting on the Ring and disappearing. Consequently, Boromir cursed him again, calling him trickster, which in this context is in meaning equal to traitor, while in fact, it was Boromir who betrayed his promise to protect the Ring-bearer and help him destroy the Ring. The fury left him only after he tripped and fell to the ground, and then he fully realized the terribleness of his recent deed. Immediately he regretted it and cried but he could not take it back.

     This incident happened on the 26th of February. Assuming that Frodo’s friendship with Boromir actually started on the day they left Rivendell, this event marks its end, making it last for only two months; that is exactly the half-time of their acquaintanceship. Nevertheless, it proved to be a crucial turning point in the plot development as it prompted Frodo to action – to set on the journey to Mordor right then and alone, ere the Ring might have a chance to cause any more harm to the other members of the Fellowship. 

Interpretation

     Now, the principal question is whether the relationship between Frodo and Boromir was friendship at all. It is obvious that neither of them actively sought this relationship, but being bound to travel together they merely adjusted to the situation and in time, necessarily, certain bonds developed between them. Well, at least on Frodo’s part it developed into a friendship. He declared so to Faramir, although hesitating for a moment when he remembered that they parted in a most unfriendly manner (LotR, IV, v, 664).

     Indeed, it can be perceived that until the attack on Amon Hen the hobbit considered Boromir his friend; despite certain misgivings he still treated him respectfully, appreciated his aid and the brave deeds he had done for the protection of the Fellowship till then, and he spoke to him about his feelings without fear that Boromir might take advantage over him using his strength. And the news of the man’s death made him really sorrowful. But the best sign of his true friendliness is Frodo’s ability to forgive Boromir the attack, thus showing the virtue of understanding and mercy. Frodo knew that the whole situation was rather out of Boromir’s will and control and he acted impulsively and unreasonably, being under the influence of the Ring.

     But in Boromir’s case it was not so clear-cut. At the beginning he behaved very suspiciously, but then for the most part of the journey he appeared as an honest man and friend, until in the end he lapsed into vice. Many Tolkien’s critics claim that Boromir is the only one truly “three-dimensional” character (J. Evans, in Chance, p. 212) with complex personality. He was essentially a good character, but not as inexplicably resistant to evil and the temptation of the Ring as the other members of the Fellowship. Throughout the quest he showed both positive and negative traits. His positive traits include that he never lied, although he did not always tell the whole truth, and he was able to hold to his word.

     However, he obviously missed prudence, temperance, and humility. Instead, he was rather prideful and ignorant. And unfortunately, towards the end his bad side prevailed and he became all the more greedy, envious of Frodo’s possession. He started to think evil of Frodo, let himself be overcome by unjust anger that resulted in strife and a betrayal of the hobbit’s trust in him. So as for Boromir’s relationship with Frodo, at the beginning he might not have intended him any harm and his friendliness was not faked. It was only after Galadriel’s trial that he realized the true desire of his heart, but being too self-confident to admit it could corrupt him, he began to succumb to the vice and gradually even his friendship turned into a false one.

     In order to better understand Boromir’s motivation it is needed to have a look at his former life and upbringing. As Chance (p. 212) notes, Boromir was just another one in “a long lineage of ʻcapable but flawed ruler[s]ʼ”, the Stewards of Gondor. He was the older son of Denethor; preferred by his father over his brother, because he was much like him in looks and pride; however, the noble blood which ran almost true in Denethor did not run in him. He was favoured by his father so much that Denethor wished that Faramir had died in his stead. Boromir delighted in arms; he was “fearless and strong, but car[ed] little for lore, save the tales of old battles,” (LotR, Appendix A, I, iv, 1056).  

     He thought that no one in Gondor could rival him in courage; he often sought glory in danger without purpose and it irked him when he had to flee from his enemies. He always happened to be in the forefront of the numerous fights at the borders of his country, leading the most persistent Gondorian armies. He loved his country dearly and did everything to protect it, but it seems that he also engaged in the battles for self-promotion and praise. Suspectedly, it might have been even his predominant motivation.

     It was partially the effect of his father’s excessive favour, which one might say, spoiled him. As a result he thought highly of himself and became vainglorious. But it must be admitted that he worked hard on building his fame, and so to a certain extent his pride was justifiable. It was “consistent with his status as a nobleman and seasoned warrior: he [knew] his own worth and this [was] not simply based on his high birth but on his experience and achievements,” (Forest-Hill, p. 78). The problem was that he started to feel superior to those less vigorous. Lynn Forest-Hill (2008) defined Boromir’s major flaw in terms of medieval ofermod, that is sinful pride, and traced its source to warrior ethos. He performed heroic deeds for the sake of heroism itself, yet this is not really a praiseworthy kind of heroism.

     This gives rise to another question: What made him yearn for fame so much? No doubt, he was already getting more than enough (although maybe undeserved) praise just because of his noble lineage and high social rank. Also, there was no need for him to display any special bravery in order to gain the Stewardship after Denethor, as it was inherited from father to son, nor to prove he was worth it; for in Gondor there had been many a less capable ruler before.  Yet, the answer to this question may be found in his name. Boromir was named after the eleventh Steward of Gondor, a great warrior who lived about 500 years earlier. Boromir I.’s greatest achievement was that he regained Ithilien from orcs’ occupation (LotR, Appendix A, I, iv, 1053). Most likely Boromir II. (of the Fellowship) wanted to equal his ancestor in deeds and prove he was worth bearing that name.

     Apart from the pride, Boromir was also a reckless and masterful man used to getting what he desired. Faramir recollected that from early childhood Boromir was curious about how much time needed to pass from the last king’s death for the steward to become the new king, and he was disappointed to learn that something of the kind was practically impossible in Gondor. So when he found out about the Ring he saw it as a great tool with the help of which he could beat the Dark Lord, ensure the victory of Minas Tirith, for which he was ever anxious, and make himself the new king. All the time he travelled with the Fellowship he struggled between his desire for glory and power and his reputation as a man loyal to his friends and allies. As Gandalf remarked, “[i]t was a sore trial” for such an ambitious man (LotR, III, v, 496), which his good self could hardly win.

     Soon after the events on Amon Hen, Boromir died. It may seem that his death was an inevitable consequence of his treachery. There are those who believe that when something bad happens in a person’s life, it is a punishment for their sins. However, neither the Bible nor any official theological teaching claims that the punishment has to come immediately after the vicious act. Aquinas confirms that while no sin remains unpunished, whether the soul will receive its penalty during its earthly life or after death5, and to what extent the unpleasant happenings during one’s life are consequential to one’s deeds, that only God knows (Aquinas 1999).

     Even Lynn Forest-Hill (2008) points out that Boromir’s death did not occur immediately after his attempt to take the Ring from Frodo, and so should not be considered as its direct effect. In fact, there happened one important thing between these two events which can be understood as yet another image of Christian practice in Tolkien’s fantasy. Speaking about sin, vice, and its aftermath, it reminds one of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Soon after the attack, Boromir returned to the camp. He admitted that he encountered Frodo, urged him to come with him to Gondor, then got angry and scared him. This can be viewed as the act of confession of the sinner. Then came Aragorn who took the role of a priest and imposed a deed of atonement on him – to guard Merry and Pippin and protect them from the orcs.

     This Boromir accepted willingly and with humility. He went and faced alone about a hundred orcs in battle, this time not in eagerness for glory but from deep concern for his friends’ safety. He did not even mind losing his life for them, which is a sign of his betterment. Even though he failed and did not save the hobbits, his death was an act of virtue, which helped him erase his previous vicious act, rather than a punishment for it. When Aragorn returned to him, Boromir truly repented, saying: “I am sorry. I have paid.[…] I have failed,” (LotR, III, i, 414). Deep-hearted contrition and the act of penance completed his confession, so he could have been freed from his sin for good. The signs of this forgiveness were Aragorn’s “priestly” act of “taking his hand and kissing his brow” and his words: “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!” (ibid).

     By the victory here is not meant Boromir’s obviously unsuccessful fight with orcs, but his overcoming of his evil side. And the last sentence really recalls a part of the formula of absolution as used during the Sacrament: “…may God give you pardon and peace.”6 Also, many priests use the same or similar phrase (Go in peace!) to part with the sinner after the whole Sacrament of Reconciliation is over. That Boromir gained peace of soul is indicated by Faramir’s description – when he saw Boromir’s body he noticed that “[h]is face was more beautiful even than in life” as if “he died well, achieving some good thing,” (LotR, IV, v, 669).

     According to Lynn Forest-Hill, in his final moments Boromir undergoes the greatest personality change of all the characters (and fastest as well; it took him only one day, while some other characters took nearly the course of the whole book, and some did not achieve it at all). In her wording, he turned from a flawed military leader and a perfect image of the Anglo-Saxon “doomed man” into a humble and obedient man and a Christian warrior hero. His death represents possibly Tolkien’s best expression of “transition and reconciliation between the pagan heroic spirit and the doctrines of Christianity,” (Forest-Hill, p. 82).

     This change is even reflected in the title of the first chapter of the third book, The Departure of Boromir. Instead of “the death of Boromir” Tolkien used the word departure as it better captures the reality of death as believed by Christians. Because for them the death does not mean the end of the life; death is only a transition from one form of life into another – from earthly and physical into an exclusively spiritual one. So although Boromir’s body died, his soul was actually resurrected through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be able to continue its living in terms of Christian belief. His spirit, now relieved of his sins and with regained peace, only exited his body and “departed” to the other-world.

     With this in mind, it is clear that Boromir embodied the Fallen Man; that is Man who is affected by the aftermaths of the first sin of the first people Adam and Eve in Paradise. As a result of their failure every Man is sinful by nature, for they bear the ancestral sin, and thus are inclined to the temptation of the evil (Catechism, Section Two, Chapter One). But they are not hopeless, for the mercy of God is great if they seek His forgiveness. Tolkien was much concerned with this problem and elaborated it in his writings (Carpenter, p. 147). In The Lord of the Rings the best and most explicit example of the nature of Fallen Man was Boromir and his main role as a book character was to point out the blessing and grace a sinful man receives when he confesses his sins and honestly repents them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

***

NOTES

    What many readers appreciate about Tolkien’s stories is that he wrote his characters to be believable and life-like. Tolkien himself said that to him it felt as if he was only recording a history of something that has once ago really happened. Obviously, that is not true. Nonetheless, in this work I will treat Boromir the same way, as if he were a real person. It may be an unusual approach in critical analysis and I am aware this paper may not justify high academic standards in every aspect. But I chose it to provide a different point of view; to approach it from the perspective of a reader who tends to get absorbed by the story and live with and in it.

    The philosophy of Aquinas (who was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1567) was established as the principal philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church in 1917 by the Code of Canon Law. So naturally, Tolkien as a deep believer could not have remained uninfluenced by it. He is known to have possessed a copy of his Summa Theologica. Reportedly, Tolkien’s notes and marks scribbled at the edges of some pages in his copy of Summa Theologica show that he most definitely read it and contemplated the ideas found there. Moreover, his self-commentary accompanying the manuscript of Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth indicates that he was indeed considering the application of some Aquinas’ ideas to his stories. Also, several Tolkien scholars, including Alison Milbank, Brad Birzer, and Brian Davies, pointed out that Tolkien’s work involves a lot of implicit Thomistic philosophy (Manni; Shippey, 2014; McIntosh, 2009).

    Aragorn was introduced as a mysterious wanderer, ill-looking but not really frightening. Faramir, though soon revealed as Boromir’s brother was presented as a wise and just captain.

    The book does not mention their interaction as Tolkien contracted the two-month period to a one-line note, not commenting on what the hobbits were doing all the days in Rivendell. He only mentioned the last few days between the setup of the Fellowhip and their departure. But that does not mean Frodo and Boromir did not meet during that time. But I assume that because Tolkien did not write about it, their eventual meetings were not significant for the development of the story or their relationship.

    That regards only the punishment imposed by God, which usually comes in the form of natural casualties, not the punishment imposed on a man by another man based on civil law.

    Those were Gandalf’s words upon learning Boromir’s story, and I am convinced this is what those words were supposed to mean.

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39 thoughts on “Boromir the Misunderstood Hero: A Fallen Man Finds Reconciling Grace

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  1. Thank you so much for this fine essay on Boromir. I particularly appreciated your depiction of Boromir’s journey from pagan hero to Christian knight on that fateful day near the Falls of Rauros. It is a remarkable victory; perhaps one of the most remarkable in Tolkien’s story and I am convinced that it plays a decisive role in the eventual victory over Sauron.

    Alison Milbank shows that Tolkien was indeed a Catholic theologian in her excellent study, “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians”. I happen to believe that he was among the finest of English theologians in the 20th century and that most of the best English theology has been done in imaginative writing, in poetry, drama and storytelling. We will see the fruit of his labour as this 21st century unfolds. That is my belief and prayer.

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  2. Love what you said about Boromir’s repentance and his happy death, freed from sin. He is now free to enter the halls of waiting in a state of grace until the harrowing of hell freed all souls in Sheol.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie

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  3. Boromir is the embodiment of the weaknesses of the human race, and a precise example of why a human wasn’t chosen to possess or carry the Ring to its destination. The Council knew it would be a bad idea. How easily the Ring influenced Boromir, who started with good intentions, was to show the reader how it played out with Isildur to start with (history repeats itself), and also show us what Aragorn was afraid of. Boromir didn’t understand the power the Ring could have over him, but Aragorn did. Faramir understood, and I think was stronger than his brother for recognizing it for what it was, and understanding his own limitations. I think that is what Boromir represents in the story: what can happen when someone fails to admit one’s own limitations and assumes that they have the will to overcome something much more powerful then themselves. He is no villain. He did not have evil in his heart. He was a hero, but with a tragic weakness, and ended up redeeming himself.

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  4. Boromir is the human example of what temptation of power can do to someone, yet also shows the power of (Christian inspired) redemption through his sacrifice for Pippin and Merry later.

    With another different example, Gollum is the hobbit example of what people who get obsessed/addicted with precious objects or power can become capable of and driven to.

    Both are tragic heroes, because their original form is positive, but by the introduction of the same thing, power, it can have multiple faceted ways of turning anyone into a villain, even if only temporary.

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  5. Boromir was tempted by the opportunity to do evil to achieve what he believed was good. He recanted before he died, saying he was overwhelmed. This recognition is worthy, but his lack of moral strength is not that of a hero, and he knew it. He didn’t overcome temptation, it was removed from him. Boromir suggested using the ring at the Council of Elrond, and had the peril explained to him by Gandalf and Elrond. He was tempted when he picked up the ring, but then gave it back to Frodo (a great scene from which the photo above is taken, played for all it was worth by Sean Bean whose performance caught the fact that he had to live up to his vision of himself as hero in front of the companions.) Boromir was tempted again at the mirror of Galadriel, where he failed in that he blamed her rather than recognizing that the mirror reflected his desire. The third time, he tried to take the ring by force from Frodo, who used it to escape. Boromir did not “overcome … obstacles and temptations;” he continued to lust after power, three times. He was saved the first time by his own pride, he failed the second trial of the mirror, and Frodo stopped him from possessing the ring that would have possessed him utterly, as in the case of the Nine Dark Riders. Not to diminish Boromir’s selfless death, giving his life to protect the Hobbits, however, essentially he is a failed or fallen hero, unlike his brother Faramir who saw the temptation clearly and rejected it entirely — “I would not pick it up…” which was exactly what Boromir did. The extent of Boromir’s failure was the more egregious in that he was the older and favoured brother. He took the quest at least in part out of pride in his own abilities and heritage. As with his father the Steward of Gondor, pride overcame duty. The real hero is Faramir, who saw the temptation of evil for what it was. Tolkien’s moral hierarchy is clear: though Boromir is noble, admirable, appealing, strong, privileged and brave, he fails to resist temptation that his brother Faramir recognized immediately. Boromir also fails his duty. Faramir knows that his father the Steward has sent him on a ‘Forlorn Hope’ that is ill-advised and futile, but he goes anyway, discharging the duty of obedience almost to the point of death, from which he was saved by Gandalf and healed by Aragorn. Despite having suffered from Boromir’s failure, Frodo trusts his brother Faramir, recognizing what Sam calls his “quality.” So: Boromir, failed hero; Faramir, true hero.

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  6. We usually think of a hero in simplistic, black-and-white characteristics. In the case of Boromir, its a bit more complex, which makes him more interesting. His chief concern is the safety and security of his city and people. As mentioned throughout the LOTR, this is the way the ring ensnares those individuals: they would start out with the noblest intentions (think of the scene with Galadriel, Frodo and Sam at her “mirror”). Boromir gives in, if only briefly, to the calling of the ring. But he quickly repents, and ends up sacrificing himself for the sake of the two young hobbits.

    There are numerous examples in various literatures of the flawed, tragic hero. But in the end, my opinion is he was a hero. After all, isn’t a true hero defined not solely by his/her courage, but how they overcome the obstacles and temptations placed in their path?

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  7. He underestimated the power of the Ring. He saw it as the answer to the problems facing Gondor, not as the artifact of Evil that it was.

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  8. This is interesting. I have a hard time with the good/evil aspect of Tolkiens work. Seems to me that what builds my appriciation of it is that there are no purely good or evil characters but plenty of good or bad choices. Different fates and situations. The fellowship is required to make good choices often and they often do. But they need each other to be able to do so and so the finer point to me is that they do not succeed on account of being born good or powerful beyond comprehension but rather on their abilitiy to trust one another and to rely on the strength of their relationships. Boromir along with Gandalf and Frodo seem to me to be the ones with the hardest task upon them as the tale begins. Tolkien is very skillful in his way of portraying difficulties to overcome. The ruthlessness of life fall upon them all at some point and they make different choices and have to take chanses. I keep going back to the line:
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    That agrees with my view of dealing with your place in time and life and I dont think of the story as a story of extraordinary people (Even though it could be argued for that that a lot of them are) as much as a point in time of Middle Earth where Tolkien shows us how something extraordinary took place.

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  9. Oh definitely a hero… Boromir should not be judged on one rash action where he was perverted by the ring. He was a hero to his countrymen.

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  10. If he were to be judged an anti-hero based on his attempt to wrest the ring from Frodo, then we must classify Frodo as an anti-hero as well since in the end Frodo opted to claim the ring for himself.

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  11. I understand Boromir so much better at 40 than I did at 20. He is a defeated man, trudging through a state of endless conflict. He fails in his most important task, yet at the end, after all of his struggle, he is there to fulfill his duty. Every hero has a tragic flaw, hubris or jealousy or a heel. Boromir’s was not that he was weak so much as that he was worn and weakened. Still, he got up from his failure and succeeded in protecting the hobbits and furthering the mission.

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  12. I always took Boromir as the Tragic Flawed Hero. He made a big mistake and fell into temptation, but in the end redeemed himself with valour.

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  13. Anti-hero doesnt mean he is a villain, it means he is a hero but without the typical heroic traits of chivalry, charisma and suckle-ness.

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  14. Boromir was a victim of the power of the ring and his desire to please his father. The ring drove him mad. He was a hero in the end as he overcame the power to fight to the death against the orcs.

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  15. Boromir was a ‘Flawed Hero’ who chased Frodo away from the rest of the Fellowship. By doing that, he saves the others from temptation and puts Frodo on the ‘Best Path’ to complete the quest.

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  16. In the end Boromir died a Hero, protecting Frodo and Sam, despite his momentary temptation to take the Ring. Boromir was just another mind that the Ring tried to corrupt and ultimately failed to do so. Only Frodo ultimately choose to claim the Rings power for himself in the end and only Gollum biting it off his finger saved the day.

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  17. Two major themes in Tolkien’s works are the danger of possession of material things and the danger of pride. Danger of possession (in this case obviously the desire to possess) and pride (Faramir says of his brother that he was ever eager for the glory of Gondor and his own glory therein) are the reasons he had to die. But like all of Tolkien’s characters that are flawed in this way (except the completely evil) he died a heroic and redemptive death.

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  18. He reminds me of the quote from Edmund Pevensie: “But even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.” If he had survived I think his story would have alot more meaning than some of the others in that he was not only tempted but fell to that temptation and then came back to redeem himself. He would know better than anyone else not only power of the ring to corrupt but also the power of good for redemption.

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  19. A flawed hero but a hero nonetheless. He made his peace with Aragon under the tree and paid for his brief treachery. I always had a soft spot for Boromir. There are reflections of his character in all of us.

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  20. Boromir is undeniably one of my favorite characters. Growing up, I hated him because he attacked frodo and all that, and being young, I never understood the real reason why he attacked frodo I just figured he was a bad guy… But as I got older… With me being 17 years old today, I realized that Boromir is actually a really incredible character. His constant struggle to fight the blanket temptation that the ring throws on him… His personal job to impress his father… His bravery and dedication… I wish he had lived to see the fourth age.

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  21. The evil of the ring took over his mind and reasoning to make him think he could do good with it. In the end good prevailed and he tried to protect the hobbits from the orcs in my mind that makes him a hero even if a little late.

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  22. Boromir wanted the power of the ring for his failing kingdom. He felt a great burden to defend Gondor. The ring (in his presence) was just too much to resist. He was a noble man who did something out of his character. The warning signs were evident at the Counsel of Elrond.

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  23. For me there were hints of Boromir’s weaknesses all through the fellowship of the ring and also in Frodo and Sam’s interaction with Faramir.

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  24. I think he was a tragic hero. He was corrupted by the ring but redeemed himself in the end. Merry and Pippin would’ve died if not for him.

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  25. In my opinion he was “US” . We oftenlike to think of ourselves as Frodo or Aragorn, overcoming evil and being a hero, but in the end most of us are Boromir.

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  26. Boromir was a hero. To the people of Gondor and particularly to the people of Minas Tirith. Tolkien portrays him as a valiant man with a desperate need. He MUST save his people from Sauron. The Ring offers him that power. But in the end….in defense of Merry and Pippin, he shows his true greatness and abilities. When he admits to Aragorn of what he had tried to do he shows his honor and character. Boromir is definitely a hero, worthy of Gondor.

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  27. It’s curious that Boromir might be more accurately described as a ‘hero’ than Aragorn, in a more traditional sense of the word. He is, as his insightful brother notes, motivated not (only) by the desire to do good, but by the desire to win glory doing so. He’s a hero in the mould of Achilles, who chose everlasting fame in return for an early death. He does not (just) want to defeat Sauron, he wants to be the one to defeat him.

    That is, I think, an important part of his character. He didn’t just succumb to temptation in a neutral way, but had very specific flaws not shared to the same degree by many other members of the fellowship. He’s not a type example of humanity in general, or even of an ‘everyman’ (his ambitions are distinctly aristocratic), but of one _type_ of human. A common enough type which we can sympathize with and pity — he’s one of my own favourite characters — but at the same time, I think his genuinely harmful sense of ambition and desire for personal glory shouldn’t be dismissed too easily as just the way people are. They’re natural enough impulses, but they’re ones that Boromir fully embraced and does not seem to have even tried to overcome until the very end.

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  28. I think that it’s how even good men, great men, can be corrupted. And they can be corrupted by what they think is good.

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  29. People say Tolkien didn’t know how to write complex characters but the existence of men such as boromir and Turin prove them wrong.

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