First of Their Kind, A Review

First of Their Kind seeks to explore the emergence of synthetic intelligence from the perspective of the emergent intelligence itself. I’ve not read any book which takes such an angle, so the premise piqued my interest from the start. I’ll break this review up into spoiler and non-spoiler sections. That way, if you want to read my opinions about specific things and berate me for them, you have the freedom to do so.

Non-spoiler

Set in the late twenty-first century, First of Their Kind follows the “birth” and life of a synthetic intelligence created by Dr. Wallace Theren. The novel’s slow start makes sense given the subject matter, as we experience with Test Forty-Three what it’s like to grow from awareness to interaction to sentience. In the future, it might make better sense to break up some of the scenes into their own chapters. The entire novel feels like it’s missing a few chapter breaks, if for no other reason than to give the reader a breather to take everything in.

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My Impressions

The Good

The singular use of “they.” At first, reading a sentence using they in this way can be jarring. It feels… wrong for some reason. However, once you get past that, it feels natural. Most of the time, the singular they works well. I was only confused occasionally when multiple people had entered a conversation. Then, parsing whether they was plural or singular pulled me out of the moment. Those times were few and far between, however, and in general I liked it. The choice made a lot of sense for Theren, as they wished to make a statement about their own nature with the change of pronoun. As you read the review, you’ll notice that I used the singular “they” in keeping with Theren’s wishes.

Synthetic Intelligence has never quite looked the way it does in Mr. Travenor’s novel, and I am grateful. No psycho murderbots or strange contrivances. Just a new lifeform taking those first furtive steps into existence. First of Their Kind is a capable exploration of what it might be like inside the mind of a synthetic entity, even if it stumbles at times.

Theren is more real than most of the humans in the book, for better or worse, and has real motivations that don’t revolve around killing or enslaving all the humans. Imagine that. When I first encountered Theren, I immediately thought of Data from Star Trek the Next Generation. As an aside, you aren’t really a sci fi nerd unless you’ve watched at least a few of those episodes. Theren breaks from Data’s mold as the novel progresses however, carving out their own niche and refusing to become more human on purpose. The novel works as an interesting thought experiment about the nature of emergent properties from non-organic substances.

Time and thought went into the world building. From the rules governing Theren’s existence to a vision of the world in the future, the attention to detail is obvious. I don’t share Mr. Tavenor’s beliefs about the nature of our time, and so I don’t think the future he casts is particularly realistic. However, he clearly did his best to think his own view through well enough to look ahead and develop the implications.

The climax is good, but for different reasons than you might expect. I’ll not discuss that in detail here. Suffice to say, Mr. Tavenor shifted my perception of this book in the last twenty odd pages. If you want to read more, scroll down to the spoilers section.

The Meh

The writing became clunky at times, especially while it delivered exposition. Large sections of introspection slowed the pace down more than I would like, and at times the side characters felt too flat or too much like characters rather than people.  I would have preferred a smoother delivery system for the world building.

Monologues. Sometimes the characters talk too much, especially when the philosophy comes out. It makes sense for synthetic characters to discuss the mechanics of emotion, but too much of that can bog things down a bit.

The forces of antagonism don’t feel personal, even though Theren’s life could be at stake.

Spoiler Free Conclusion

If you’re a science fiction person, pick this book up. It’s got soul, it’s earnest and grows on you with time. The world building is good, the characters are interesting and the thought provoking conversations can become engrossing. At times the delivery is a little clunky, but the content is good enough to make the read worth it.

 

SPOILERS  

 

What Worked

Jill

I like Jill. The second successful synthetic intelligence began her life as Test Forty-Four, but soon developed her own consciousness as Theren did. A father-daughter dynamic never emerged between them, despite Theren’s hand in her creation. Jill develops more quickly than Theren, likely due to their assistance. Her distinctiveness is highlighted when compared with Theren, as she wishes to be more human than her senior companion. Her own balance of wonder and cynicism is accentuated by her unique ability to create multiple perspectives simultaneously; something Theren never thought to try.

This ability lends itself well to writing and a great many other things. After the chase scene, the two SIs develop the ability to perform multiple functions at the same time with equal skill and attention. Many humans would commit crimes to possess such a power, and Jill does it with ease. Jill’s novel does well, but she spends much of her time tracking the anti-synth leader Michael through Virtual.

Jill develops a strange fascination with humans that differs from Theren’s. She wishes to be one of them, to be like them after a fashion; to be loved by them even. This desire pushes her to endanger the lives of her creators near the end of the novel. This plays well into the unspoken question that rears its head at the end: What happens when the needs of a synthetic clash with the needs of a human? When people speak of their fear over synthetic/alien life forms, that question is at the root of their fear.

Theren

Theren works because they’re simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, intelligent and foolish. All the power over a digital world is realized in Test Forty-Three, as the Virtual world that lays over the physical world of the future is fully malleable in their hands. Virtual stores and environments melt at their command; there is no software that Theren could not master. At the same time, in the physical world, Theren is not a murder bot. In fact, Theren’s Synthetic Neural Framework must remain intact for them to survive. This counterbalance of vulnerability and power plays an important role in the novel, and not only for the plot. Theren has real limitations associated with their nature and they must work to overcome them while relying on their human creators. The juxtaposition created as a result simultaneously emphasizes the relationship between Theren’s human and synthetic natures.

Theren’s intelligence is on display often. They routinely follow patterns and behaviors back to the source with ease. They deduce facts while playing chess and holding a press conference all at once. However, that considerable intelligence is subverted regularly by their naivety. Firstly, Theren incorrectly believes that reason will win over irrational individuals. Secondly, they incorrectly believe that creating more SIs will improve their relationship with their detractors. Theren illustrates the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

While good natured, Theren has flaws beyond a lack of wisdom. They struggle with self-indulgence through much of the novel as they grow into maturity, learning what it means to exit. This classic flaw of the visionary finds other forms of expression in Theren’s life especially in the way they treat others. For example, Theren celebrates an important moment in Jill’s life not for her sake, but for the sake of their quest to legitimize SIs to humanity.

All in all, Theren is delightful and frustrating, brilliant and tedious. They are alive and real.

 

What didn’t work

Synthetic Intelligence is good for society…

I lost count how often someone in the novel mentioned what a boon synthetic intelligence is to the world. Everyone and their mom, with a few notable exceptions, thinks Theren is the best thing since sliced bread, even the Texan who thought the world isn’t ready for them. However, if you read this book, can you name one important thing Theren does for humankind? And no, existing doesn’t count. Theren’s major accomplishment is creating another version of themself, but

The book runs laps around the world asserting the value of synthetic intelligence, but never actually shows its value beyond emotional attachment. Theren doesn’t win anyone over with their behavior, and neither does Jill. No one acquainted with the project seems to express any misgivings whatsoever. For a little while, I thought Simon, the project’s chief benefactor, kept his distance over his misgivings. When his true motivation was revealed, I was a little disappointed. Simon could have been an interesting voice of friendly dissent; instead he is a sympathetic extra.

Why is every critic a bigot or a moron?

This leads me to my other problem: Theren has no credible detractors. Plenty of people object to Theren’s existence, but they’re depicted in masses of incoherent blathering more often than anything else. The few individuals who object to Theren do so on what I see as bigoted grounds. They prattle on and on about souls and how Theren is a threat to humanity, without ever touching on the practical and legitimate reasons to worry about synthetic intelligence.

It is Jill, Theren’s sister SI, who ultimately puts her finger on the question that drives the fear of her kind: What happens when a robot’s needs come into conflict with a human’s needs? Mr. Tavenor’s novel demonstrates why we shouldn’t give Theren the benefit of the doubt while its many characters shout that we should. See my conclusion for why this could actually be a strength of the novel depending on the interpretation and Mr. Tavenor’s intentions.

Michael

I was never impressed by the villains in this novel. They never seemed dangerous to me, which makes the end of the book a bit jarring. Michael’s motivation is unclear; I still have no idea why he did what he did. The ending in particular is perplexing rather than intriguing. Because we aren’t privy to Michael’s life at all, we aren’t aware of any sort of inner conflict that could foreshadow his choice at the end. As it stands, it feels like a deus ex machina.

Conclusion

If my suspicions are correct, C.D. Tavenor has created something special. The entire novel is full of people who either hate Theren because they’re an “abomination” or love them because they exist. No one asks the only important question: Can we trust a synthetic intelligence to put our needs ahead of theirs? Theren’s and Jill’s behavior says no. Their willingness to endanger human lives to advance their own cause undermines the benefit of the doubt they enjoyed to that point.

Depending on your interpretation, the irrationality of Theren’s critics could be an asset. It depends on whether or not you think Theren is a reliable narrator. Based on the entire novel, I don’t think they are. This is the something special Mr. Tavenor hides in plain sight. He plays on our tendency to assume a synthetic intelligence would see the world as it is. It’s a clever move and he deserves a lot of credit for it. The book takes on a new dimension when you remove the assumption of objectivity from your reading of Theren’s perspective.

All things considered, this is a good read. It’s a book that looks even better after a week of thought on it. Give it a try, and you won’t be disappointed.

Eowyn; Love over Death, Light over Darkness

One of the great themes in Tolkien’s work is the emphasis on a love for growing things over and against destruction. Much of Galadriel’s power is in her grace and beauty, even as she uses her magic to protect the borders of Lothlorien. Rivendell is respected because it is a center of learning and healing. The hands of the King are healing hands. The only race that can destroy the Ring is the race which loves comfort and gardening above all others.

There are enough deeds of valor and skill in battle during Tolkien’s work to fill the thousand pages of text with ease. However, they are often painted as a necessary means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves. This is one of the great achievements of the Lord of the Rings, and I’ve seen other novels execute this successfully as well. It manages to glorify its characters without glorifying violence.

Enter Eowyn, a quintessential strong female character. When we first encounter her in Meduseld, she seems a cold, sad beauty. Tolkien does well to give us a hint at her character through her behavior over her dialogue. His emphasis on her coldness, on her cool looks and quiet stances, give us a sense of an aloof, unhappy woman. She doesn’t say much early, but the striking image of her standing in chainmail watching the men ride to war stays with me even now.



Miranda Otto breathes life into Eowyn on the big screen. “…fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.”

Miranda Otto breathes life into Eowyn on the big screen. “…fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.”


We get a good feel for her motivations upon Aragorn’s return from Helm’s Deep. When the fair Lady receives him, she’s taken aback by his choice of roads; the Paths of the Dead. The phrase immediately garners dread for all involved, and Aragorn’s purpose in going there shoves his true motivations against Eowyn’s. Her attempts at dissuading Aragorn from his purpose are understandable, given the lore surrounding his choice. However, it’s how the conversation progresses that reveals much.



Twice Eowyn appeals to his sense of glory, that he and his men will be wasted by seeking the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn’s choice perhaps strikes her particularly close to the heart because she herself feels wasted in her station. She wishes to ride to war and wield death in her hands, but Theoden gives her charge of the people instead. From Eowyn’s point of view, she lives in a cage, which she fears more than pain or death. Her role, given to her by virtue of her gender, is ill given and ill born. In response to Aragorn’s appeal to duty, she replies, “Too often I have heard of duty. But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?”



Eowyn’s question is really a door to a world of paradox and contradiction. Aragorn’s response, “Few can do so with honor,” highlights the nature of the morally ambiguous realm of self-determination. Eowyn’s question is a fair one, and yet Aragorn’s response is fair as well. Where do we find the balance between who we are and what is required of us? Developing the answer to that question can be exceptionally difficult when we hold the wrong things to our self-identity.



In this exchange at Edoras, it seems that Eowyn and Aragorn are talking past each other. From my point of view, Eowyn’s less than positive view of her assigned role and the role of women in general appears to be at the heart of this miscommunication. Aragorn’s reason for taking the Paths of the Dead is not about what he can gain for himself, but how he can best serve his people. Eowyn’s desire for war is the result of an erroneous view of the merits of violence and destruction. She is driven by a thirst for renown and glory, to make a name for herself among the great. Of course, she wishes to serve her people, but she feels wasted in her current station because she has wrapped her identity up in killing, even though she has never killed before.

“I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly.”

“I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly.”

In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, this scene takes place in a different context, but Aragorn’s response to Eowyn’s final plea demonstrates the filmmaker’s understanding of his source material. “It is but a shadow and a thought that you love. I cannot give you what you seek.” These words encapsulate what the Shieldmaiden of Rohan truly desires even as she throws herself at the feet of Isildur’s Heir. She never loved him, but instead loved what he represented. As an aside, scenes like this one in the movie adaptations are why they remain one of the greatest works of cinema I’ve ever seen.

Upon Aragorn’s final rejection, Eowyn slides into a depression, which fuels her decision to act on her desires. What’s fascinating about Tolkien’s approach here, is that he doesn’t take the predictable route with this move. Eowyn is not bursting with excitement at finally having her chance to fight. Instead, she had “the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.” It seems to me that Eowyn is in mourning here, perhaps forlorn at Aragorn’s rejection. As we read through her story, this assumption seems to be accurate at this point. After we’ve read all of her story, however, we may want to revisit this with a bit more nuance.

Finally, we come to the thing Eowyn is best remembered for; the Witch-King of Angmar. Good fiction doesn’t preach. Instead, it cracks open ideas and lets you explore. If Tolkien had wanted to preach about feminism or anti feminism, his approach to this scene would have looked a bit different. Instead, he remains focused on this other question: “May I not spend my life as I choose?” For although Eowyn abandons her station, even if she left someone behind to oversee matters, she brings down the leader of the Nazgul. It is one of the greatest scenes in the book, and it made for one of the greatest scenes in the trilogy adaptation.



“Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible.”

“Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible.”

What makes the scene truly beautiful is Eowyn’s motivation, which stands in stark contrast to her reasons for leaving to begin with. It is her love for Theoden, not her thirst for glory or her desire to find death, that plants her feet before the greatest of the Nine. This encounter ties into one of the more prominent themes in the Lord of the Rings: the truest power in a person is in who they are rather than in what they can do. I appreciate the confidence in her approach to the witch-king, who was probably used to cowering victims rather than defiant combatants. As another aside, and at the risk of blaspheming, I preferred Eowyn’s farewell with Theoden in the movie to what happened in the novel. I shed tears in that moment, as did many others I know.

When Eowyn awakens in the Houses of Healing, she should feel gratified and vindicated for her deed. If Tolkien were a good feminist, he would even include some minor character (not Faramir of course) who would chastise her, despite her achievement, for defying what is proper. Instead, Eowyn is still full of dark thoughts, and the wound in her soul, inflicted by Aragorn rather than the Witch-King, pulled her heart toward death once again. “And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.” Some people might point to this and see strength. I do not. The damage Aragorn’s rejection cut her deeply, not because of him, but because she didn’t understand why she was precious. She still believed that her identity was wrapped up in destruction.

It is here, in the Houses of Healing, that Eowyn finally becomes whole, and it took a different kind of man to nudge her in the right direction. Faramir’s best traits lie not in war but in leadership and wisdom. That is why he could say no to the ring when his brother could not. It is his love and his presence that help Eowyn find the other part of her identity: healer and nurturer. The reason Aragorn’s rejection had stung so deeply was that Eowyn had already rejected important parts of her identity. When Isildur’s Heir turned her down, the only portion of Eowyn’s identity she would allow to see daylight was ground into the dirt. Aragorn could see what was truly precious about Eowyn, just as he knew what was precious about himself. That was what he meant when he said he didn’t want to waste what was precious on war.



“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

This is the power behind Tolkien’s work. He manages to glorify and lift his characters up without glorifying violence, even in a book filled with it. Eowyn recovers from the wound to her heart by becoming a whole person rather than just a girl with a sword. She reverses her earlier opinions about healing and nurturing, realizing that she had disparaged an important part of herself.  It is Faramir that opens the door, but the Lady of Rohan walked through it. And so, we come to the end of Eowyn’s personal journey. Our lives are our own, and yet we have a responsibility to be what those around us need us to be. Violence and war are not good things, but sometimes might be necessary. That is why an identity which revolves around those things eventually shows itself to be vacuous. Eowyn, in the Houses of Healing, found herself when she embraced what her people needed from her.

People, not power, are ends in and of themselves. True greatness can be found in what we create, rather than in what we destroy. The Ents rise up and crush Saruman. His marriage to destruction cannot save him from the power of Life. The gardeners take the ring to Mordor. Faramir, the lover of beauty and wisdom, is a better man than Boromir, the lover of power and battle. Gimli is enchanted by Galadriel, because beauty is found in many and sometimes terrifying forms. And Eowyn becomes whole by embracing the value of creation and renewal.

When fictional characters have only one defining trait, they are as flat as real people who suffer from the same malady. We are more than our careers, more than what we own or what movies we like. We are more than our physical gifts, more than our backgrounds, more than our skin color or ethnicity. The course of our lives, while often set within certain parameters by our circumstances, can be driven by our choices. Our true identities can be found in the balance between our desires and our responsibilities. When we remember that, who we truly are will come to life.

 

 

Aragorn: Leaders Know their Role

Aragorn is the greatest man of his age in Tolkien’s masterpiece. He is a skilled and experienced tracker, educated in the House of Elrond, the commander of the Northern Men called Dunedain, and the lost heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Boromir is a good man, a man of valor and honor. However, Aragorn is a great man; a man of wisdom and power. Aragorn’s wisdom transcends that of a man at arms, and yet he fights like a whirlwind. And finally, he bears Anduril, the Flame of the West and the symbol of a new beginning forged on a foundation of the past.



“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost. The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king.”.

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost. The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king.”.


Despite all of this, Aragorn serves. Everything he reaches for in Lord of the Rings is motivated by a need that must be filled. The Shards of Narsil are reforged in Rivendell, because soon Gondor would need her King. No matter the task in the novel, Aragorn is not above it. On Caradhras, he is a shovel, plowing a way through for the hobbits. In the forest, he is a tracker, covering many miles more than his companions in search of safe passage. In the Mines of Moria, he is a sword, putting himself between his friends and danger. In Helm’s Deep, he is a Lord, rallying the men of Rohan to courage and pushing them to the edge of their skill.

After all this and more, it is in his challenge of Sauron for the Palantir that Aragorn truly steps into his own. At first, such a move would seem needlessly reckless, for even Gandalf would not do such a thing. However, the fog of war drove Isildur’s Heir to find the answers he needed with the only tool he had at hand. This is where the Son of Arathorn really shines, showing just how well he understands his particular situation. Not only does he wrench the Palantir away from Sauron’s control, but he also successfully uses himself as bait. This gambit, which is certainly an enormous risk, is all that allows the Ringbearer to cross into Mordor undetected.

The inscription reads: “I am Anduril who was Narsil, the sword of Elendil. Let the thralls of Mordor flee me.”

The inscription reads: “I am Anduril who was Narsil, the sword of Elendil. Let the thralls of Mordor flee me.”


Leaning on Gandalf’s wisdom, Aragorn goads the Dark Lord into striking too soon, before his full strength has been gathered. He shows Sauron Anduril, and the White Tree, and reveals himself; the Deceiver certainly remembers the line of Elendil. This revelation focuses all of what Sauron has mustered in the South on Minas Tirith and the lands around it. As Gandalf correctly points out earlier, if the Dark Lord had simply remained focused on his own lands, he would have found Frodo easily. Instead, he allows the Heir of Isildur to distract him, capturing his heart with fear. And so, rather than hiding from the Dark Lord’s gaze, the bringer of Hope inverts that gaze’s usefulness, turning it to his own advantage. It’s a stroke of genius; a bold gambit completed by the greatest man of his age.



“Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. the right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough- barely.”

“Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. the right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough- barely.”



It is in Aragorn that we find leadership founded on service and self-sacrifice, rather than demands and self-aggrandizement. He puts himself in harm’s way regularly, but is also willing to put his hands to less brutish work in the Houses of Healing. The Son of Arathorn, despite holding the highest title in Middle Earth, regards Gandalf as his leader and sets his own life and needs aside to serve the needs of the Ringbearer. That is how he finds himself marching on the Black Gate, playing a role to the end, hoping to hold the Enemy’s gaze as long as he possibly can.

Without Aragorn, Frodo doesn’t make it to Rivendell, nor does he make it Emyn Muil. Without Aragorn, Frodo never makes it into Mordor, but is instead found by the unencumbered Eye of Sauron and tortured to death. Without Aragorn, there is no new beginning forged out of the old and no hope for Middle Earth.


“Yes, Sam, Strider,” said Aragorn. “It is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me? A long way for us all, but yours has been the darkest road.”

“Yes, Sam, Strider,” said Aragorn. “It is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me? A long way for us all, but yours has been the darkest road.”

Estel, the bringer of Hope, is a stark contrast with many of the leaders in our time. We find ourselves excusing their behavior because they, at least verbally, endorse a specific ideology. We lower the standards of acceptable conduct for them, convinced that they cannot be held to the same moral benchmark to which we hold our neighbors. We should not be surprised at the results. Perhaps we would do well to assess our leaders by the Aragorn standard. Perhaps we can insist on their service rather than allowing them to serve themselves. Perhaps we can expect wisdom, rather than hope for it. And finally, perhaps we can expect self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement.

What sort of power serves? What sort of glory rolls in the dirt? The sort that changes the world.

Boromir is a Good Man

“Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.” -Bob Ingersoll, 1884.

The Lord of the Rings has long held a special place in my heart. It is the second fantasy novel I’ve ever read, and still my favorite single work by any author. Tolkien’s treatment of the One Ring is a primary reason for my affection, as it calls out the darkest parts of everyone it encounters. The Ring, not Sauron, is the chief villain of Tolkien’s novel, as it is the malevolence that challenges the characters most personally. The Ring, wielding its seductive promises of power and pleasure, woos the darkest and most sinister parts of Tolkien’s characters to the surface. Who would have guessed such a vicious creature could be hiding inside Bilbo Baggins? Gandalf the Grey willingly stood against the Balrog, a spirit whose power rivaled his own, but would not dare touch Isildur’s Bane for longer than a few moments. The Ring calls to some through their sense of frustration and entitlement, as it did Gollum. To ensnare others, it takes a more insidious road through their pity and sense of purpose, offering power to change the world.


“The One Ring, not Sauron, is the chief villain of Tolkien’s novel…”

“The One Ring, not Sauron, is the chief villain of Tolkien’s novel…”


Boromir, son of Denethor, is one of the Great Captains of the West, the greatest warrior Gondor has to offer, and a good honorable man of fortitude. He is, in many ways, the icon of human prowess and nobility as it stands against the Powers of the East. Boromir travels the world alone looking for the answer to his warning dream. He finds it, although not in the form he expects, in Rivendell. Boromir at first expresses no opinion about the fate of the Ring during the discussion. He does, however, join the Company as it travels to destroy it. Through much of Tolkien’s tale, or at least the part Boromir lives through, the man of Gondor is quiet about the Ring, making his presence felt in the party through other means. It is Boromir and Aragorn who do much of the heavy lifting through this part of the journey. They defend the hobbits from the wolf-like wargs, the watcher in the water near Moria, and the orcs of Khazad-dum. Indeed, Boromir does not even shy away from the Balrog, and it’s only Gandalf’s clever move that keeps him from charging the thing.

We gain no hint of what the Ring is doing to Boromir specifically, even if we know that it is certainly doing its best to wear the Company down over time. Samwise believes Boromir desired the Ring as early as Lothlorien, but we have no indication that Boromir specifically would be its next victim. And herein lies the truest power the Ring; to turn a man against himself, against his friends. The first hint you get of Boromir’s true character is far more subtle than you’d expect. It’s in the Council of Elrond chapter, when Boromir tells everyone assembled that he and Gondor had been keeping them all safe singlehandedly. Through the course of the story, until the Breaking of the Fellowship, I’d regarded Boromir as a good man, but not as good as Aragorn. He seems a little too proud, and just a little too confident in himself and his own people.

boromir.jpg



The Breaking of the Fellowship is when we see what the Ring is truly capable of, and when we learn what’s truly in Boromir’s heart. Here, Boromir is twisted into a caricature of himself as the Ring completes its claim on his mind. Not once does Boromir discuss running off to Mordor, but instead is convinced that the Ring would help him defeat Mordor and become a king. As we read the progression in the scene, we can get a sense for how quickly Boromir’s desires intensify. He starts with simply a concern for Frodo and the need of his own people. In the end, he’s raving about how the Ring should be his, and Frodo should step aside.

“’Come, come my friend!’ said Boromir in a softer voice. ‘Why not get rid of it? Why not be free of your doubt and fear? You can lay the blame on me, if you will. You can say that I was too strong and took it by force. For I am too strong for you, halfling,’ he cried.”

This chilling moment displays all the dark angst within Boromir as he loses himself to his own desires. His initial intentions did not lead him to the promised result. It is here that we can see ourselves if we dare to look closely enough. The siren call of power, whether it be the ballot box, or a hired position, is among the most dangerous things a person will ever hear in this life. If we listen to its promises, we believe its lies, and we reach for all the things we’ve secretly desired in life, believing we can escape any consequences. The French and Bolshevik Revolutions demonstrate how pernicious the call to power can be, as the conquering oppressed became a caricature of their former oppressors. Paris and Moscow ran red with the blood of thousands upon thousands, and in many cases for no other reason than vengeance. The initial desire, to throw off the boot of the tyrant, was a noble one. However, as the revolutions churned onward, the rush of power flooded into the hearts of the victors, transforming them into jackals.


French Revolution.jpg

No one, including Sam, ultimately blames Boromir for succumbing to the Ring, except for Boromir himself. They regard him as a good man who was defeated by a supreme evil. For all their military power, it was not Sauron or Saruman who broke the Fellowship. It was the Ring. Boromir, when reaching for the promise of unchecked power, turned on his friends. He lost himself to his perceived need, branding everyone a fool but himself. We see this sort of behavior often in our time, especially in political discourse.

Those whom we elect to public office assure us that our interests are in their hearts. However, we would do well to remember that FDR threw thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps, destroyed thousands upon thousands of pork, and burned tens of thousands of acres of crops. He did so to raise prices in a time when everyone was broke. We should remember that Andrew Jackson marched the Cherokee to death, that Mao killed tens of thousand of his own people pursuing his “Great Leap Forward,” and Bush invaded Iraq to end terrorism.

Boromir found a measure of redemption when he came to his senses. He died defending Merry and Pippin from Saruman’s Uruk-Hai, and confessed his transgression to the one man he respected above all. Aragorn challenged Sauron directly, the only character in the story to do so, and defeated him. Gandalf threw his designs against the Dark Lord and outwitted him. Frodo, albeit with some “help,” destroyed the Ring. He carried it all the way to Mount Doom. People were made to be good, but we can be twisted into tools of evil. The most dangerous foe most people will ever face is in the mirror. However, if we learn how to put that person to death, we can find something better and greater to serve than power or desire.