Saturday, July 25, 2009

Boromir

... is my favorite character from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. He is not born with supernatural abilities allowing him to live for centuries or walk through a blizzard as if a snowshoe hare, nor does his lineage secure him membership among the company of kings. The keenness of his martial skills clearly have an innate basis, but it is only in combination with his indefatigable dedication to his craft, today known perhaps as the management of violence, that he is Gondor's greatest fighter. Despite regularly emphasizing the importance of nature and challenging the cultural aggrandizement of nurture, the only trait that impresses me more than diligence is discipline. The evidence for the argument that these sorts of attributes may be no less the products of a person's genetic makeup than his height or his intelligence is growing by the day, but when my disbelief is suspended in the realm of fantasy, they seem freely adopted, not shuffled out.

Speaking of discipline, Boromir has it as well. There is no indication that he has any romantic interests at all, though as the virile, assertive field commander of the most powerful country opposing Sauron, he is an 'alpha' by just about every measure. But just as he will not take part in the sort of political jockeying that nearly destroys Rohan from within, women are a distraction he cannot afford to indulge in. Since he was a young man, Gondor has perpetually been in a state of arms. For king (acting and otherwise) and country he has unflinchingly devoted himself to the cause.

But he tried to forcibly steal the Ring from Frodo. Where is the discipline, let alone the honor, in that? Faramir restrained himself, after all. From the nearly omniscient perspective of the reader, charging the elder brother with treason is understandable. In Boromir's eyes, though, the situation is inane. Here is the single most powerful artifact in all of Middle Earth*, entrusted to a wobbly hobbit who hardly inspires confidence. The ringwraiths are after it, and at the time of the attempted theft, it has nearly been coughed up on multiple occasions. One bad break and it's lost forever. Worse, rather than heading to the only remaining obstacle in Sauron's path, Minas Tirith, Frodo appears determined to deliver the Ring directly to Mordor. Gandalf, who epitomizes the recurring folly of withholding information that crops up repeatedly throughout the world of fiction, doesn't address Boromir's concerns when he should. And why rely on the putative wisdom of Elrond and his council? The elves are AWOL in the fight for Middle Earth. Indeed, benighted humanoid flight is the name of the game for all of the alliance's inhabitants save the humans, and at this point even Rohan's assistance is up in the air.

Boromir has fought on the front lines for decades and although he has seen his share of victories in battle, slowly but steadily the war for Middle Earth is being lost. In this context, his desperation for a gamechanger is not only comprehendable, it is admirable.

When he meets his demise, the untimely rashness of the ring grab is made clear to him. By startling Frodo, he has in part caused the fellowship to be scattered at the most inopportune time. The horn of Gondor isn't enough to re-congeal it in time, and so as he has done all of his life, Boromir draws steel against impossible. This time the outcome is fatal. But as Aragorn watches the life slip away from Gondor's native son, he seems to finally assume the fiery determination required of Middle Earth's savior-king.

I've finally read The Hobbit and LoTR over the last couple of months and am currently taking in Peter Jackson's movies in a piecemeal fashion, so feel free to indulge me with criticism of my take or with analyses of your own on a favorite character in the comments.

* For all the hype, the Ring demonstrates only one ability--it makes its wearer invisible to most mortal creatures. Neat, but not exactly akin to a modern day weapon of mass destruction. I suppose we'll never really know what all the fuss was about. Keeping Sauron 'alive' was potent enough, I suppose.

18 comments:

Sam said...

What Boromir fails to realize is that the ring is not just an inanimate object; it has a will of its own. It knows Sauron is its master and will betray its wielder until it reaches its true master. As Gandalf says, he would take the ring from a desire to do good, but the ring would corrupt him, eventually making him as evil as Sauron. Isildur no doubt reacted the same way as Boromir: why destroy something that, if in the right hands, could do so much good? But it corrupted him and betrayed him, just as it would do to Boromir.

bgc said...

AE said: "But as Aragorn watches the life slip away from Gondor's native son, he seems to finally assume the fiery determination required of Middle Earth's savior-king."

That was the movie, not the book - but certainly it was one of the very best bits of a superb movie.

The rather feeble (advisory) efforts of the elves in the War of the Ring (in the book) is one of the unremarked aspects which becomes more understandable as you fill in the back-story.

By this time in the history of middle earth, the immortal elves had become wearily detached from everyday life - living almost entirely in the wistful contemplation of memories (elven memories being much more vivid than human memories).

The elves were torm between a love of decaying middle earth (where they were the highest form of life) and the unchanging perfection of the undying lands (where they were the lowest form of life - coming below the gods (Valar) and angels (maia)).

High elves eventually returned to the undying lands - wood elves (etc) stayed and dwindled into the creatures of folklore.

I've been reading Tolkien for 35 years on and off, and find him inexhaustible. Tolkien was actually a genius (of extremely high intelligence) and he poured most of the efforts of his long life into his fantasy world (significantly neglecting his job as one of the top Professors in Oxford, which at the time was the top university in the world for liberal arts and humanities).

Vast ability and Herculean effort over many decades - plus his great wisdom and humanity - is why Tolkien's is the greatest fantasy by such a large margin. And why it will never be surpassed.

Anonymous said...

The actor that plays Boromir (Sean Bean) has signed on to play the lead in a new HBO fantasy series A Game of Thrones based on the best-selling books.

David said...

Nice post :) Boromir is pretty cool. That new Sean Bean series sounds neat - I look forward to seeing it.

Anonymous said...

The power of the ring is something that is too great for a hobbit to wield, one of the 'great' people of Middle Earth, Galadriel, Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond or Denethor (who is not done justice by his onscreen persona)they would have the power to wield power over Saurons slaves, the ringwraiths, orcs and other nasties, the original powers would also become more potent, Galadriels 'witchcraft', Elronds mind control, Gandalf's 'magic' or Sarumans 'charisma'.

A commoner like you or me would have a hard time doing anything but showing ourselves up with the ring, by the time we had learned anything we would be mincemeat, or at best we would become like Gollum!

bgc said...

Anon said: "The power of the ring is something that is too great for a hobbit to wield, one of the 'great' people of Middle Earth, Galadriel, Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond or Denethor ... would have the power to wield power over Saurons slaves, the ringwraiths, orcs and other nasties, ..."

True - the ring could only be wielded by one of 'The Wise'; and from this perspective Bormoir probably would _not_ have been able to wield the ring. Among the men who would have been able to wield the ring are indeed Denethor, Bormoir's brother Faramir, Aragorn - of course, and the Gondorian Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth (a minor Numenorean character with additionally some elvish ancestry - albeit wood elf!).

It seems that only men of Numenorean ancestry have the kind of 'magic' which would enable them to control the ring (the seven Ringwraiths were originally evil Numenoreans).

Numenoreans were men that - at the beginning of the Second Age - were enhanced (by the Gods) with a threefold longer lifespan, greater height and strength and greater 'wisdom'.

Wisdom seems to mean both 'IQ' and a kind of magical strength of mind or the ability to daunt and dominate others. Wisdom doesn't necessarily giving the right answers or being good, since both Sauruman and Celeborn (Galadriel's Grey Elf husband) are described as 'wise' when Sauruman is evil and Celeborn is mistaken or narrow-minded in almost every statement he makes!

The wisest-ever human (albeit an elf human) was Feanor, who was the greatest ever craftsman and intellectual but eventually evil and crazily wrong about almost everything.

Audacious Epigone said...

Sam,

I've not read The Silmarillion, so I might be off base, but did the Ring actually corrupt Isildur, or did it just make him reckless? The latter is the impression I get from the book's appendix and Jackson's movie adaptation. And all in all, it served Bilbo pretty well.

Given Smeagol's fate, it's hard to disagree regarding the betrayal, so it's reasonable to assume that Gondor would've been the worse if Boromir had taken it. Still seems like Gandalf or Elrond could've been a little more explicit about that to Boromir though. As a reader sympathetic to Boromir, I couldn't help but feel he was in some way betrayed by the fellowship.

BGC,

As I watch the movies, I'm able to identify discrepancies with the book initially, but after that point, the two seem to conflate in my head.

Is the contingent sent to Helm's Deep in the movie comprised of wood elves, then? Their decline in even the half century between the Hobbit and LoTR is precipitous--so much so that Peter Jackson thought it needed a reworking (I've not started Return of the King yet, so if Imrahil is left out, I guess it could be seen as more a reshuffling that a substantive change in the elvish position, although I don't recall the extent of Imrahil's elvish ancestry, thinking it's about the same as Aragorn's).

Skimming some of the Wikipedia articles on Tolkien's subsequent filling out of the fantasy universe, it strikes me as dipping pretty heavily into the metaphysical, something that tends to disagree with me. Still worth tackling, since Middle Earth is arguably now part of occidental mythology?

bgc said...

AE - there is as much in Tolkien's world as you want to go look for. And don't rush it - follow your nose. I haven't yet read all of it, and I have been reading for a long time; because there is so much to consider, and so much to re-read.

It is the nearest thing to an alternative universe, and as such can become a major tool of thought, or alternative reality - especially for moral issues.

Think about Mencius Moldbug of Unqualified Reservations - probably the most deeply original, comprehensive and hard-nosed blogger I know of (for all his atheistic faults!) - MM has a Tolkien reference in almost all his postings; I recognize him as someone who uses Tolkien's universe as a tool for thought. Or it can be escape, or it can be enjoyment - or all.

Anonymous said...

"The wisest-ever human (albeit an elf human) was Feanor, who was the greatest ever craftsman and intellectual but eventually evil and crazily wrong about almost everything."

feanor did not have a drop of human blood. he was pure elven and among the first or second generation of elves. in addition, he was one of (if not the) most powerful elves to have ever lived. he died fighting an entire squad of balrogs.

bgc:
"The elves were torm between a love of decaying middle earth (where they were the highest form of life) and the unchanging perfection of the undying lands (where they were the lowest form of life - coming below the gods (Valar) and angels (maia))."

exactly right. you and epigone really nailed your description of the elves's situation. in addition, they caused a lot of the problems in middle earth that humans had to deal with. another thing, even if the vala were irritated with the elves's reaction to the silmarillions being taken, they had no business not rectifying the situation- if only for the sake of the innocent humans who would later be affected.

in essence, the vala seemed totally content to let a bunch of innocent, rag tag humans and outcast elves deal with the most powerful and most evil vala by themselves. this realization really highlights other questions in life, like the existence of a benevolent, all powerful God and the existence of evil. the greek philospher epicureus raises these issues, too.

finally, for all this crap about how both 'gifts' among elves and humans given by illuvatar (sic?) were good, why is it that elves could 'exchange' their gift of immortality whereas humans couldn't? also, humans should have had full disclosure of what their 'gift' would ultimately entail. not telling them about what may (or may not) await them after their mortal lives are over is a dereliciton in divine responsibility. clearly, the eleves got the better end of the stick. for all their myriad failings, humans have quite legitimate reasons to be annoyed with illuvatar (sic?), the vala and elves.

finally, to all you people who think i'm taking this stuff too seriously, i think not. when i first read the books, i liked it as emblematic of the height of fantasy fiction. the dragons, the orcs, the elves... it was all cool. when i understood more of life and the basic dostoevsky type religious questions the books raise, i realized how shafted humans were in the novels and how this mirrors our modern day plight. great post.

bgc said...

Anon - you might be interested by a piece I wrote on one of Tolkien's little known stories, which was eventually published many years after he died by his son:

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2008/09/tolkiens-marring-of-men.html

I called elves 'human' because, although immortal, in a biological sense, elves are actually the same species: they can breed with Men and have fertile young.

Audacious Epigone said...

Guys,

As someone just getting into Tolkien, I created this post in hopes of generating an edifying discussion. Thanks for exceeding my expectations!

Anonymous said...

D&D is racist!!

sykes.1 said...

I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in the Ballantine pirate version around 1965, and have reread it periodically ever since. I regard it as one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century.

If anyone is interested in the many symbols and allegories in the book, read Fleming Rutledge's "The Battle for Middle-earth." You're in for a treat.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I'm impressed with the vast Middle Earth knowledge the readers of this blog have. I certainly consider the books to be classics but most of the stuff discussed here passed me by during my readings.

Regarding the last paragraph about the lack of the ring's demonstrated powers: This reminds me of the time I used the golden bracelet in Dragon Quest 4 during the brief period it's in the inventory to try to evolve Princess Alena into an Esturk-like monster. Not surprisingly, it had no effect. I guess evil artifacts of power are of little use to ordinary folk.

Audacious Epigone said...

Jokah,

You should've tried to equip it on Brey. Taking out six sand worms at once is a task surpassing the abilities of any mere human!

Anonymous said...

It is annoying that in the movie Aragorn becomes a warrior, which he was not in the book. In the book Aragorn was a woodsmen and a skilled fighter but not a warrior like Boromir.
Secondly, Gimli, who is the greatest fighter of the fellowship (except perhaps for Boromir) becomes comedic relief. In the book it was emphasised that Gimli was valiant and sturdy and a warrior surpassing Legolas.
Indeed, it was emphasised that dwarf armies were the most feared to meet in battle.

Anonymous said...

The Ring is 'the Ring of Gyges' from Plato. It does invisibility, yes, but only as the start of a parable of absolute personal power over everyone else.

What if Gyges were here, wearing his Ring, and making you write this post?

It's also a reduction to the absurd of a conspiracy theory.
Bruce

Anonymous said...

For all the hype, the Ring demonstrates only one ability--it makes its wearer invisible to most mortal creatures. Neat, but not exactly akin to a modern day weapon of mass destruction.

After watching the movie, my buddy - not really a LOTR fan, much more of an RPGer - commented somewhat disdainfully that Gandalf's staff didn't really seem to "do anything", and the battle at the bridge of Khazad Dum was "just a shouting match". Guess he was expecting a lot more AD&D type action - prismatic sprays, fireballs, etc.