I once looked on Boromir as a mere cautionary character, the only companion in the Fellowship imperfect enough to desire the Ring. This does him an injustice, and I have come to understand, even admire the fallen hero.
Many ancient and epic tales share a type of hero: a strong, fearless, leader among men doomed by fate or hubris to fall. He may die a strong youth like Achilles or a frail, old man like Beowulf; he may live on as a shell of himself like Oedipus; he may descend to villainy like Macbeth or be redeemed like Samson. The manifold examples teach different things, but they all warn against trusting too much in youth, strength, or even wisdom. Heroes are a great blessing to mankind. Their courage and strength are to be admired, esteemed, and imitated, but they are never to be worshiped.
Boromir is the tragic hero in The Lord of the Rings. Though a minor character, he completes the traditional epic hero’s arc, following greatness with greatness until his pride perverts him and he becomes the most imminent danger to Frodo and the Quest. Yet he is redeemed, giving his blood to save the innocent.
A hero is unrivaled in strength. Whether by bloodline, magic, or the blessings of the gods, he surpasses other mortals. Achilles is invulnerable except for his infamous heel; Beowulf is stronger than a monster that can carry half a dozen men at once; Samson can tear down a building. Along with Aragorn, Boromir is one of the two greatest men alive on Middle Earth because they share the blood of Númenor.
In describing firsthand Mordor’s assault on Gondor, Boromir reveals his own skill in battle. He, with his brother, defended Osgiliath until its last bridge fell, when they escaped by swimming across the river. He explains that Mordor succeeded because they had a new, dark captain that inspired terror and despair in even the boldest men. Boromir resisted the Witch King’s influence because of his Númenorian bloodline and because of his own great valor.
Boromir uses this strength to serve the Fellowship. Through six-foot snowdrifts atop Caradhras, he shovels a path for the smaller members of the party. In Moria’s Chamber of Records, he bars the door against a cave troll and helps the party escape hordes of orcs. He unwillingly flees the Balrog, and he and Aragorn would not have fled at all if there hadn’t been the hobbits to protect (Two Towers 684). In his final battle, he single-handedly kills two dozen orcs before dying, even as his sword is breaking and his body is shot with arrows. That is amazing, and drives home the tragedy that they would not have this fighter with them on Pelennor Fields.
Heroes battle on a grand scale. Just as they fight monsters, not mere men, so they save countries, not just individuals. Beowulf has the Danes, Arthur has Britain, Achilles has the Greeks, Hector has the Trojans, Samson has the Israelites, and Boromir has Gondor.
Let us try to regard Gondor as its proud citizens do. The first five chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring teach us to love the Shire almost as the Hobbits do, so we understand that Frodo’s first simple goal is to remove the dangerous Ring from its borders. Likewise, we sympathize when Sam wants to return home after looking in the Mirror of Galadriel. Boromir’s desire to save Gondor is not so different.
Gondor, though fallen from its former glory, is a great nation, and Boromir is its greatest hero. Set aside his haughty tone and listen to his description of the kingdom that guards the rest of the West from Mordor’s encroachment.
“For few, I deem, know of our deeds, and therefore guess little of their peril, if we should fail at last. Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Numenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West…. But still we fight on, holding all the west shores of Anduin; and those who shelter behind us give us praise, if they hear our name: much praise but little help. Only from Rohan now will any men ride to us when we call” (Fellowship 246).
He is ignorant of how the elves, wizards, and the Dunadan have also fought evil, but he is right that Gondor has borne the main assault from Mordor. He is also right that this assault will continue. Sauron hates and fears Gondor. He will send his army there first. If Gondor falls, the rest of the West will follow quickly.
Being a true man of Gondor is a strength and a weakness. He focuses on Gondor’s needs first, and he does not heed warnings from the rest of the Council. He hopes that Isildur’s Bane will be Gondor’s Boon, giving them the strength they need to finally defeat Mordor. Instead of destroying the Ring, he urges that they wield it.
“The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!” (268)
Thus, though Boromir is a paragon of patriotic virtue, his love of country gives him a simplistic, shortsighted outlook.
Where Aragorn is the perfect hero whose strength is matched by his faith and virtue, Boromir’s pride sets up his downfall. He believes in ancient lore enough to seek the counsel of the Wise, but he does not embrace their answers. This arrogance is typical of the epic hero, who boasts of his conquests and dismisses the weak, the old, and the unworthy.
Though he submits to the Council’s decision, he does not trust their reasoning. Present trials have distanced Gondor from its past, and Boromir has little faith in the impact of ancient lore on current events. He calls the Ring Isildur’s Bane but doubts its danger to the good-intentioned and the strong. He half-trusts Aragorn’s lineage. The physical sword of Elendil and the prophetic dream he and Faramir shared reassure him, but they do not guide him.
He also trusts less in fate than the others do: where Gandalf says Frodo was meant to bear the Ring, Boromir sees it as an accident. The plan to destroy it sounds dangerous and insane, akin to sending a weak courier into the heart of North Korea with our nuclear missile plans. Like the Enemy, Boromir has too much common sense to accept the “folly” of marching right into Mordor with the Ring.
The tragic hero usually goes wrong when he grasps at power, immortality, or wealth that is not meant for him. He defies the gods or God and ignores warnings, forgetting that he is not the source of his own greatness. Samson tells Delilah the secret of his strength. Beowulf goes after a marauding dragon for its treasure, not to protect his people. Arthur, uniter of Britain, lets rivalry fragment his kingdom until he can only bring a weak force against his enemies. Boromir grasps at the Ring. He defies warnings and lore that tell him the foe is beyond him. He lets himself wonder what would happen if he used the Ring.
This is understandable due to something the book explains but the movies leave unclear*: only Frodo is told to take Ring to Mordor. Elrond explicitly tells the rest of them that they can turn from that path at any time. “The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows” (Fellowship 281).
Boromir plans to lend his strength on his way home to Gondor, and then he will return to his people. In fact, Aragorn plans to accompany him there and take his place as king**: “The Sword-that-was-Broken shall be re-forged ere I set out to war. But your road and our road lie together for many hundreds of miles. Therefore Boromir will also be in the Company” (Fellowship 276). Neither Boromir nor Aragorn plan to go to Mordor.
Gandalf’s death in Moria changes things. Aragorn assumes leadership of the quest, and he is slow to decide that he must accompany Frodo to Mordor instead of continuing to Gondor. This leaves things ambiguous enough that Boromir can imagine the Ring coming to Gondor, where perhaps they could be persuaded to abandon the quest to Mordor. In Lothlorien, he sees clearly his desire to take the Ring for himself.
His hopes are finally dashed when they enter Gondor’s northernmost borders and the decision is put to Frodo. Frodo decides that he must take the Ring to Mordor. Then the months of brooding pour out of Boromir. Why couldn’t the Ring save Gondor? “What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or, if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!” (401). He does what no other character has yet done. He tries to take the Ring from Frodo. The ambition-ruined hero becomes a villain.
Though not all heroes are redeemed, many are. The God or gods forgive them and grant them immortality or glory. The hero’s death is as important as his victories; it can be more of a victory than a defeat. First, it is insulting to the hero if a mere mortal defeats him, so it usually takes a monster to overcome him. In the final moments, his mixed motives should be corrected. Beowulf and Arthur forget their petty greed and jealousy, respectively, to think of their kingdoms’ futures. Samson kills more Philistines through his death than he had in life. However far he has fallen, the dying man is every inch the hero he should always have been.
Boromir does not die a villain. By grace and craft Frodo escapes, and Boromir comes to his senses to redeem himself. He slays Uruk-hai and falls trying to save Merry and Pippin. He dies within the ancient borders of Gondor, defending his homeland and the vulnerable within it from evil hordes. He is a hero restored.
When Aragorn finds him, he has been pierced by many arrows. His sword has been broken, and the Horn of Gondor lies in two pieces beside him. The warrior’s body and equipment are broken, but two dozen slain orcs are piled around him. Boromir confesses trying to take the Ring. “I have paid,” he says, indicating both his wounds and the orcs. He says he failed, but Aragorn says, “No! You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” and Boromir smiles and dies (416).
Why does Aragorn say, “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory,” if Merry and Pippin were captured? It’s more than a tribute to Boromir’s skill as a warrior, great though it was. Aragorn is talking about Boromir’s escape from the Ring. All who wield the Ring become servants of Morgoth. It was a mercy to Isildur that he died before he had carried it long, and a still greater blessing to Boromir that he never touches it at all. Gandalf says later,
“Poor Boromir! I could not see what happened to him. [The temptation of the Ring] 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” (500).
The astute reader will point out that Boromir can’t take any credit for escaping. If Frodo hadn’t evaded him, he would have taken the Ring. He needed help…as Frodo himself will need Gollum’s help to destroy the Ring. In the heart of Mount Doom, Frodo takes the Ring for himself. Gollum bites it from his hand and falls into the abyss, and Middle Earth is saved.
Both instances use Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe,” which he defines in his essay “On Fairy Stories” as “sudden and miraculous grace” that “denies universal final defeat” (22). This is why it’s important that Gollum fall into the volcano, seemingly by chance. The powers that meant for Frodo to have the Ring let Gollum fall in. There’s no need for Frodo to push him.
Another eucatastrophe saves Boromir. When Frodo first escapes, Boromir stomps around, cursing the halflings, before tripping over a stone and face-planting. A moment later, he begins to weep over his folly. “What have I said? What have I done? Frodo, Frodo! Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!” (Fellowship 403). Frodo’s escape prevents Boromir’s descent to Hell, but tripping on that stone brings him to repentance. Finally, his attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin redeems him. The same power that put a stone beneath his foot to trip him made sure that those two young hobbits would be on the quest, “if only for Boromir’s sake.”
The eucatastrophe is not without its pain. Frodo loses his finger; Boromir, his life. Yet both escape with their souls. A hero who triumphs with external help is no less a victor. As a devout Catholic, Tolkien could say with St. Paul that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Lest we still doubt that Boromir is redeemed, we’ll end with his funeral. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas mourn him and arrange him in a boat with the elven cloak beneath his head, the golden belt from Lorien around waist, his helm beside him, his horn and sword on his lap, and his enemies’ swords at his feet (Fellowship 419). When Faramir later sees his brother drift past in the boat, everything has stayed in the boat except the horn, which washed ashore in pieces. Boromir continues to float out into the Great Sea, which might bear him even to Valinor, though Tolkien does not say so.
As Faramir says, “Whether he erred or no, of this I am sure: he died well, achieving some good thing. His face was more beautiful even than in life” (Two Towers 676).
*Also, the movies shuffle around his lines dangerously. In the book, he does not call the Ring “a gift to the foes of Mordor” until he tries to take it from Frodo. The movie has him declare this line to the Council. There’s also no “Gondor needs no king” rubbish in the book. Boromir doubts Aragorn but would never oppose the return of the king. Presenting him that way makes one seriously question Elrond and Gandalf’s wisdom in letting him come along.
Although Boromir is written differently in the movie, Sean Bean was one of the best casting decisions in a trilogy full of excellent casting. He is fearsome, charming, good-natured, and proud all at once. He loves the hobbits and has a sense of humor. His death is one of the most moving in cinematic history. Period. “My brother. My captain. My king.”
**Yeah, Book-Aragorn doesn’t have an existential crisis about putting aside the Ranger and becoming who he was born to be. Adding that dimension gives him a chance to grow, but I still like reminding myself that that was Jackson, not Tolkien.
Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. Catholic Biblical Association, 1965.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the first part of The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
—. “On Fairy Stories.” 1947.
—. The Two Towers: Being the second part of The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.