Back in the 1990s, Babylon 5 was one of my favorite TV shows. One of the recurring villains was Alfred Bester, a high-ranking member of the Psi Corps. In one episode, Bester pays a visit to Babylon 5, much to the dismay of the regular characters, and it turns out that whatever the threat in that episode was, Bester had been right about it. I don’t remember the details this many years later, but I’ve always remembered a comment from the show’s creator J. Michael Straczynski, that Bester had to be right about something or he’d lose credibility as a character.
My first reading of The Lord of the Rings was plagued by confusing Aragorn and Boromir. Having gotten them sorted out, I realized that I still have problems with Boromir because he fails the test that Bester passes: he’s (almost) never right about anything. Being a fictional character, of course, this isn’t his fault, but that of his author, and while Boromir will never be my favorite character, he deserves better from Tolkien—and by extension, so do we readers.
Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring from Frodo pushes Frodo into taking off on his own, breaking the Fellowship. It also demonstrates the Ring’s subtler powers of corruption, even on those who have never touched it. The Companions have been traveling in close proximity to the oh-so-desirable Ring, and if no one had given in to temptation, credibility would be strained for a different reason. It’s no surprise that Boromir snaps; Tolkien has been emphasizing Boromir’s flaws since his first appearance at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell.
It starts subtly enough: “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.” I don’t know if there is any significance to Boromir’s slight separation from the rest of the Council, but “proud” is a loaded adjective for Tolkien: not the kiss of death by itself, but it helps if there’s a worthier adjective nearby to counter it. A few pages later, Boromir expresses doubt over Aragorn’s identity and capabilities. Yes, this allows for a bit of back story about Aragorn’s lineage and history. But as Bilbo gets annoyed at Boromir for his doubts and Aragorn magnanimously forgives him then lectures him on what the Rangers do, the point is made: Boromir isn’t quite with the program. But why should he be? Aragorn doesn’t make a regal first impression unless he intends to: just ask the hobbits what they thought of him when they first met him at the Prancing Pony. Boromir has just spent almost four months on the road, traveling to a land so far distant that it’s practically legend to his people, and everyone in the Council except maybe Gandalf is a stranger to him. He doesn’t know them; he does know what the power of Mordor is like, since Minas Tirith has been defending against it for generations, and he barely survived a battle in Osgiliath. A few pages later, Boromir is arguing that the West should use the Ring against Sauron rather than destroy it. He’s hearing of many of the Ring’s powers for the first time, so it’s reasonable that he wouldn’t be instantly convinced that it couldn’t be used for good. He’s wrong, of course, which those of us who’ve been with Frodo from the beginning know, and so he is corrected. Not that the correction necessarily sinks in: “Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head.”
This sets the tone for the rest of Boromir’s…well, the rest of his life, as it turns out. Every time he offers an opinion, he misses the point and it’s obvious that he’s wrong about just about everything. When challenged, he backs down, but he doesn’t change his mind; he simply brings the argument up again later. (I suspect that Boromir’s worst sin up until he attempts to steal the Ring isn’t that he’s wrong, but that he continues to harbor doubt after he’s been corrected.) While still in Rivendell, he sounds his horn, and Elrond, sounding like an annoyed father speaking to a small child with a loud toy, suggests that he not do so again until he’s back in Gondor. The Companions frequently accuse him of not listening:
- “‘Things have changed since you came north, Boromir,’ answered Gandalf. ‘Did you not hear what I told you of Saruman?'”
- “‘Do you not know, Boromir, or do you choose to forget the North Stair, and the high seat upon Amon Hen, that were made in the days of the great kings?'”
- “‘Were you not at the Council?’ answered Frodo. ‘Because we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.’
In the end, the only time his experience benefits the Companions is when they’re attempting to climb Caradhras:
‘I will add a word of advice, if I may,’ said Boromir. ‘I was born under the shadow of the White Mountains and know something of journeys in the high places. We shall meet bitter cold, if no worse, before we come down on the other side. It will not help us to keep so secret that we are frozen to death. When we leave here, where there are still a few trees and bushes, each of us should carry a faggot of wood, as large as he can bear.’
Finally, he’s right: they do need to burn the wood to keep from freezing, and his size and strength prove to be useful when it comes time to force a path back through the snow.
Of course there are stubborn people in the world and in literature, people who do not learn from experience, people who will argue about everything. But they’re rarely wrong about everything. Boromir is dense to the point that it damages his credibility as a character. He hails from one of the more dangerous areas of Middle-earth. If his judgment had been always been this poor, I have trouble believing that he would have lived long enough to journey to Rivendell. It seems more likely that he would have done something foolish in battle and have been gutted by an orc years earlier. I’m inclined to think that up until he arrived at Rivendell, he was a competent fighter and capable of making decisions that wouldn’t get him killed. Tolkien has Boromir be wrong so often that it feels manipulative—I resent being told how to feel about a character.
Boromir is certainly necessary to the story. Someone (besides Gollum) has to be seduced by the Ring, and the mounting death toll reminds the reader that it’s possible that the quest will fail long before anyone sees Mordor. I get that Tolkien preferred characters who were clearly good or evil. Boromir has to be a mixture of both in order to function in his role in the story, which may have made him difficult to work with. But I think the book would have been stronger if Boromir had had more praiseworthy qualities and had been a more credible character overall; betrayal hits harder when it’s unexpected.