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Concerning Boromir

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.

Outside Lothlórien

Feeling ambitious this year, I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. I read it for the first time when I was 15 or 16. I liked it, and yet I also remember it as a struggle to get through. Over the years, I’ve told myself so many times that it was a struggle, and that the language was archaic, and that there were scarcely any women in the story, and so on, that what I told myself about the book replaced most of my actual memories. I’ve never convinced myself to try it again until now, thirty years after that first reading—I’ve always worried that if I tried to reread it, I might not like it as much as I did in high school. But I want to read some longer works this year, I really have been meaning to reread it ever since I saw the movies, and now I have it as an e-book, sparing me from hauling a 4 lb. 12 oz. (2.2 kg) tome around.

I’d forgotten almost every detail of the book, starting with the fact that it begins with a 15-page essay on hobbit culture. Part of this essay sums up what the reader needs to know about the Ring from The Hobbit, but most of it is just Tolkien having fun with world-building. It’s probably good that he wrote the book when he did; I’m having the hardest time imagining a modern publisher letting him begin with something with so little action. I doubt this essay grabbed my attention as a teenager, so I was happy to discover that I was enjoying it as an anthropological piece. Most of it, anyway. No matter at what age I read this book, I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in a history of smoking.

My frustration at distinguishing somewhat similar characters is one of my strongest memories from my first reading. Merry and Pippin never felt all that distinct to me. Mostly they were the hobbits who weren’t Frodo and Sam, and they tended to blend into a unit: Merry-and-Pippin. The Men fared little better. I wasn’t particularly fond of either Aragorn or Boromir, but Aragorn  did have the advantage of having a head start of several chapters on Boromir, allowing me to get some sense of him as a character. I ended up thinking of them as Aragorn and Not-Aragorn. Plus, of course, the Elf and the Dwarf (no further characterization needed, apparently).

I am definitely doing better at differentiating those characters this time around. The movies are due much of the credit for this. I’ve never been good at turning written descriptions into mental images, and that is exactly what the movies have done. Now I “know” what Aragorn and Boromir look like, I hear everyone’s dialogue in different voices as I read (with a curious silence for Glorfindel, Tom Bombadil, and other characters who didn’t make it into the movies), and I have a sense of the scenery. And this time around, I know that telling the characters apart is going to be a challenge, so I’m actively looking for the little details that distinguish them from each other. Merry is the worldliest of the hobbits to begin with, the one who organized the plan to help Frodo and Sam sneak out of the Shire, and who noticed on his own that Bilbo had a magical Ring and what that might mean. He doesn’t come across as being as young and impetuous as Pippin. As for the Men—well, they really are different. Aragorn is solitary (by nature? by circumstance?), but must work with a group, and now I’m seeing his struggles with leadership after Moria. Boromir? More of a team player, preferring to speak of the Men of Minas Tirith rather than his own accomplishments. (Other thoughts on him will have to wait for another post.) And, well, I won’t have to distinguish him from Aragorn for much longer. Gimli, too, has nuances to his character that I didn’t remember from the first reading. Alas, the fact of being an Elf seems to be all the character development that Tolkien thought Legolas needed. Still, most of LOTR is left; there’s still time for him and the others to reveal more about themselves.

Even if the movies had never existed, having already read the book helps tremendously. I’m not used to fiction that reveals more on a second reading; this may encourage me to reread more. With a sense of the bigger picture, I can see how smaller scenes fit together. Now I see Tolkien is foreshadowing Gollum’s return—I probably forgot all about Frodo’s glimpses of pale eyes by the time he finally appears. Knowing that Boromir will eventually succumb to the temptation of the Ring, I’m paying more attention to what he says, looking for those first signs of weakness. Furthermore, knowing that Gondor will be important later on, I’m paying more attention to what Boromir and everyone else says about it, and am trying to understand the general political situation in Middle-earth—I’m sure I let most of that go sailing over my head way back when!

So here I am, outside Lothlórien, as the Company prepares to enter the Elven city. I dimly recall these will be the last peaceful moments for the rest of the quest. I’m going to try to see if I can tell a difference between the culture of Lothlórien and that of Rivendell—I may fault Tolkien’s development of individual characters, but he’s great with entire peoples. In my first reading, this was about the last bit of the story I enjoyed, since after the Company splits up, I found it even harder to keep track of what was going on, and where it was happening. I’m hoping that this too is clearer on a second reading.