“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.
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.
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.
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.