Those of you who have been paying attention during the podcasts so far have probably noticed that the passages I am often drawn to (or at least the ones I’m drawn to discuss) are the ones that strongly illustrate some of Tolkien’s most recurrent themes: hope and despair, temptation and fall, isolation and teamwork, and so on. Well, today’s Prancing Pony Pondering is no different. Today, I want to look at the theme of humility and pride by looking into the last moments of the life of Boromir.
We begin, then, where Book Three of The Lord of the Rings (in The Two Towers) begins, with Chapter 1: The Departure of Boromir.
A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.
Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. ‘They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.’ He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again.
‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’
‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!’
‘Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?’ said Aragorn.
But Boromir did not speak again.
It is easy, at times, to view Boromir as a miniature, or at least temporary, villain. The sometimes-uncouth warrior, not skilled in diplomacy (or tact), desperate to save his beloved city, perhaps regardless of the cost to the rest of the Free Peoples. The son of a very ambitious man whom we later learn has been corrupted by his use of the Palantír of Minas Tirith. The man described as “proud… [and] often rash” by his brother, who nevertheless loved him deeply and knew him best. And, after all, he did try to take the Ring from Frodo.
In Tolkien’s world, it is rare indeed for a character not to be given an opportunity to repent — that is, to acknowledge and renounce the wrong that he has done, then seek to right it as best as possible. From before the creation of Arda all the way to the Third Age — from Melkor to Fëanor, Sauron to Gollum — every character has had a chance. In fact, I can’t think of a single character who has not been presented with at least an implied opportunity to repent of their wrongs. In most cases, there are multiple opportunities.
The difficulty with such a choice is that
it takes great humility to repent —
to freely admit that what one has done is wrong.
Boromir takes great advantage of his opportunity, when it comes. “Twenty at least lay there” — a score of orcs, including some of the hulking Uruk-hai, lay dead at his hand. He has fought valiantly, trying to protect Merry and Pippin. He has willingly sacrificed his life, rather than running away and leaving the hobbits to be killed or captured.
The difficulty a person faces in making such a choice is that it takes great humility to repent — to freely admit that what one has done is wrong. And then it takes great courage to sacrifice one’s life for the lives of others. More than courage, even — selflessness. Boromir demonstrated these in large measure in that glade near Parth Galen. And what did it gain him? Well, as Aragorn said, “Few have gained such a victory.” But Gandalf says it even better in Chapter 5 (The White Rider) when he says:
Poor Boromir! I could not see what happened to him. It was a sore trial for such a man: a warrior, and a lord of men. Galadriel told me that he was in peril. But he escaped in the end. I am glad. It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir’s sake.
A victory? An escape? But he’s dead — winners don’t die, right? How can you escape when you’re “pierced with many… arrows”? Ah, but this is Tolkien, remember — the victory is a moral victory, a victory that demonstrates that the Ring did not, in the end, gain domination over Boromir. The Ring may have won the battle with Boromir, but Boromir won the war. And Boromir’s escape was an escape from peril — the peril of the Ring to his very soul. Recall if you will that the gift of Ilúvatar to Men is to “die indeed, and leave the world” — as Aragorn tells Arwen, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” Though we are given only possible glimpses of the afterlife of Men (with no certainty), it is not an unreasonable assumption to believe that Boromir’s repentance and sacrifice — both borne of humility — are, indeed, a victory of the most eternal kind. Gandalf’s words of ‘escape’ certainly seem to imply as much.
Contrast this with the opportunity that another antagonist squanders. In Chapter 10, The Voice of Saruman, the wizard is trapped in his tower and confronted by Gandalf (and the rag-tag accompanying him). Gandalf tells him, “But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? …. Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?”
A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.
Despite committing acts of great evil, Saruman is given the opportunity go freely — truly free, at that. Powerless, yes: no staff, no Key of Orthanc (at least temporarily), but “free from bond, of chain or command”, to go wherever he chooses. But in order to do this, he must show what?
Sadly, as we see, “pride and hate” had conquered Saruman and he refused.
Even later, in The Scouring of the Shire (Book Six, Chapter 8), Frodo says of Saruman that “He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.” In other words, Saruman is given still more chances to humble himself and repent. But when his death finds him shortly after, we see what the Powers think of those who do not show humility:
… about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.
Both Boromir and Saruman sought the Ring for themselves. But as the stories of these two characters have demonstrated, two things are true: we will have opportunities to repent of our wrongs and seek to redress them, but those chances are necessarily finite in number and will end with, if not before, our death. May the difference between the deaths of these two characters — and what appears to have happened to them after their deaths — inspire us to do the right thing when presented with an opportunity to humble ourselves and repent.