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Looking at Boromir with the Left Eye of a Tolkien Fan and the Right Eye of Aristotle
by D. Marshal Alexis

"‘Why are you so unfriendly?’ said Boromir. ‘ I am a true man, neither thief nor tracker. I need your ring: that you know now; but I give my word that I do not desire to keep it. Will you not at least let me make trial of my plan? Lend me the Ring!’

‘No! No!’ cried Frodo. ‘The council laid it upon me to bear it.’ ‘It is by our own folly that the Enemy will defeat us,’ cried Boromir. ‘How it angers me! Fool!! Obstinate fool! Running willfully to death and ruining our cause. If any mortals have claim to the Ring it is the men of Numenor, and not halflings. It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!’

Frodo did not answer, but moved away till the great flat stone stood between them. ‘Come, come, my friend!’ said Boromir in a softer voice. ‘Why not get rid of it? Why not be free of 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; and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed, a raging fire was in his eyes.’" (Tolkien, Fellowship 390)

This is the infamous moment when Boromir yields to the seduction of the ring. Anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings can remember this very vivid portrayal of the affects the powers of the ring have on even the most heroic of individuals. But what was the reasoning for Boromir’s behavior at Amon Hen? If it were pure lust for the ring itself, then Boromir’s desire would have been no different then Gollum’s. However, one knows that Boromir spent far less time in the rings’ presence then Gollum did, inducing one to attribute Boromir’s behavior to a much more complex yearning for the ring.

The process of how these original desires eventually lead to a characters ultimate fate are begun to be explained in Aristotle’s Poetics.

Aristotle’s book not only deals with the sequence of desire to action and from action to outcome, it also deals with almost all aspects of a tragedy. When reading the Poetics, I was struck by how strongly Aristotle’s view of a tragic character resembled Tolkien’s Boromir. From his social standing to his hybris and anagnorisis, and even to certain aspects of the story he comes from, the character of Boromir corresponds almost exactly to the idea of Aristotle’s tragic character. But before a description of the character of Boromir, according to Aristotle, can be understood, one must be given a synopsis of the Poetics.

The Poetics is in actuality is not a book written by Aristotle for publication, yet a complication of notes that have been organized over the years. Whether Aristotle himself did this, or if someone else arranged it is unclear. From these though, a patchwork of notes create a very hard to understand and sometimes even unclear notion of the aspects dealing with a wide variety of topics. Aristotle touches upon everything from the basic concepts of tragedy to diction, and from the best kinds of tragic plot to comparisons between an epic and a tragedy. He even deals with comedy and the origins of poetry. However, in dealing with the analysis of Boromir as a tragic character, one needs only to focus on a few certain sections and some miscellaneous excerpts. Furthermore, in the sections dealing with analysis of tragedy, Aristotle is trying to deal with tragic stories. Examples of these are the stories of Oedipus, or of Lynceus. In these stories, the plot is based upon the character’s downfall. We, however, are dealing with one characters’ downfall from greatness within this course of a much larger story, or epic.

In the poetics, Aristotle analysizes the epic much in the same way he analysizes tragedies. He breaks them down, looks at how each is constructed, and determines weak and strong points in their plots, which is what he believes to be the most important part of any tragedy.

Now anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings will not argue about whether it is an epic or not, but in the poetics, Aristotle analysis’s the epic separately and in contrast to the tragedy. So, for the purposes of this paper we will keep separate Aristotle’s analysis of an epic form his analysis of certain aspects of a tragedy, which we want to use. The reason for this is that we are focusing on Boromir’s character and not the story told in The Lord of the Rings itself, which could easily take up more then just one paper. With all that said, let us now begin to learn how to look at a tragedy, or in our case Boromir’s own tragedy within the scope of The Lord of the Rings.

First of all, the purpose of a tragedy is to evoke fear and pity from the audience. In his own words, Aristotle states, " I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us." (Heath, 21) Aristotle believed that an audience chose to see and like a tragedy because it evoked such a strong emotional rush in them it cleared them of these emotions and they felt relief from it. This is called katharsis, and this is what Aristotle believed to be the purpose of tragedy. People felt pity for the suffering character because they understood his actions; they felt fear because they could see themselves making the same mistakes. "How many of you wouldn’t mind having that golden ring outside the Playboy mansion"? Aristotle spelled out the ideal situations that the characters were involved in and characteristics each needed to have. "The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitations. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen under going a change from good fortune to bad fortune- this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune- this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving suffer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke neither pity nor fear." (Heath, 20-1) Therefore, a tragic character has to experience a change of some sort in order to be a tragic character. But what is the best form of tragic character? " We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these*. (*The forms of characters explained in the previous example from Aristotle.) This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune, which he undergoes, is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind. He is one of those people who are held in great esteem and enjoy great fortune, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and distinguished men from that kind of family" (Heath, 21)

So let us examine Boromir to see how well he fits these characteristics. The person is "not outstanding in moral excellence or justice." Boromir, although a great man, gives little heed to the council’s advice on how to deal with the ring and what should ultimately be done with it. He later even thinks of them as foolish. He readily trusts strength and might to careful judgment. "The change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error." Boromir does not try to take the ring the moment he meets Frodo. Rather his error (or hamartia which will be explained later) results from underestimation of the evil power in the ring and not heeding the council’s advice, as well as his intense yearning to help the city and people he loves. This seduction that he experiences happens to all, no matter their strength. Gandalf himself dares not even touch the ring. "’ No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.’" (Tolkien, Fellowship 61) Also stated previously in the poetics was, " He is one of those people who are held in great esteem and enjoy great fortune." Heir to the Steward of Gondor, First born of Denethor, proud warrior and hero of many, Boromir was of the great in Middle-Earth during the time of the War of the Ring. Because of this I believe Tolkien chose him to yield to the temptation of the Ring to show the reader that anyone will fall victim to the Ring, regardless of background; a point spoken by the wise many times in The Lord of the Rings. Aristotle continued by saying, "Necessarily, we are concerned with interactions between people who are closely connected with each other, or between enemies, or between neutrals. If enemy acts on enemy, there is nothing pitiable either in the action itself or in it imminence, except in respect of the actual suffering in itself. Likewise with neutrals. What one should look for is a situation in which sufferings arise within close relationships, e.g. brother kills brother, son father, mother son, or son mother- or is on the verge of killing them, or does something else of the same kind." (Heath, 23) Aristotle instructs us to "look for situations in which sufferings arise within close relationships." Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Legolas, Gimli, and finally Boromir, nine individuals whose fellowship was wrought with the hope of the world, were chosen to be the only hope of the free peoples of Middle-Earth. Even though the personification of Sauron’s evil walked with them, they were to be a group chosen to be able to deal with it until their errand was completed. Although the time that each knew the other members of the group varied, the importance of their task proved to be the perfect fertilizer for the seeds of friendship. An example of this would be how the indifferences of the races shriveled when put when in this situation. Legolas, an elf, and Gimli, a dwarf grew to be very close during the course of their travel. So the relationship between Boromir and Frodo, or even Boromir and the rest of the group could easily relate to Aristotle’s point about the relationship of the closeness characters. Frodo and Boromir, although not as close as Legolas and Gimli, had mutual closeness even as the lust for the ring grew in the son of Denethor, for it was Boromir who awoke Frodo from his dreaming and plucked him from freezing on Caradhras. "A great sleepiness came over Frodo; he felt himself sinking fast into a warm and hazy dream. He thought a fire was heating his toes, and out of the shadows on the other side of the hearth he heard Bilbo’s voice speaking. I don’t think much of your diary, he said. Snowstorms on January the twelfth: there was no need to come back to report that! But I wanted rest and sleep, Bilbo, Frodo answered with an effort when he felt himself shaken, and he came back painfully to wakefulness. Boromir had lifted him off the ground out of a nest of snow. ‘This will be the death of the halflings, Gandalf,’ said Boromir. ‘It is useless to sit here until the snow goes over our heads. We must do something to save ourselves.’" (Tolkien, Fellowship 282)

Let us continue to look at the characteristics of a tragic individual by focusing on four important traits. Quoting Aristotle,

  1. First and foremost, goodness. As was said earlier, speech or action will possess character if it discloses the nature of a deliberate choice; the character is good if the choice is good. This is possible in each class of person: there is such a thing as a good woman and a good slave, even though one of these is perhaps deficient and the other generally speaking inferior.
  2. Secondly, Appropriateness: it is possible for the character to be courageous, but for this to be an inappropriate way for woman to display courage or cleverness.
  3. Thirdly, likeness; this is not the same as making character good and appropriate, as has already been stated.
  4. Fourthly, consistency: even if the subject of the imitation is inconsistent, and that is the kind of character that is presumed, it should nevertheless be consistently inconsistent." (Heath, 24)

Boromir is very much in tune with this description. By goodness Aristotle means, what is right for each kind of person. Boromir does something that would not be expected from his type of background. For appropriateness, it means there are different types of appropriateness. The character should possess a good level of this. Boromir shows this by repenting during his death scene, being the man he truly is and admitting his folly. Likeness, means "like ourselves." He is a mortal man who wants power; this is a very basic desire that everyone can relate to no matter what his or her background is. Consistency, which is explained well enough above, is exemplified in Boromir during his gradual succumbing to the ring in a very consistence course or manner. These characteristics are merely what is more of what to be looked for in a tragic character.

Now, with this in mind, one can now chart our individual’s fall using Aristotle’s view of a tragic character.

Aristotle believed the cause of a characters fall stemmed initially from an excessive passion. (For examples right now, the stories of Oedipus and Ajax will be used. These are two very common tragic stories, yet still to long to explain in detail.) Oedipus’ excessive passion was his pursuit of the truth; Ajax’s was revenge. This excessive passion Aristotle called hybris. Because this excessive passion is not what is considered "appropriate" for the character, (appropriate, as in the way that was explained on page 8) a mistake is made that is detrimental to him or her. This mistake or error is called a hamartia. With Oedipus, his hamartia was repeatedly asking the person who knew his identity until he got an answer, which turned out to be that he had killed his father and married his mother. Ajax’s error occurred when he killed animals he believed to be Odysseus and disgraced himself. After the hamartia occurs, the character encounters a reversal of fortune. His or her present luck begins to change directly from the mistake. This reversal of fortune is known as a peripeteia. Ajax’s reversal begins as soon as he comes out of his madness and has to deal with the anger of his fellow men; Oedipus’ reversal begins with the answer to his question. For the character to be truly tragic he or she must realize his or her own reversal of fortune (peripeteia) is due to an excessive passion (hybris). This final stage is the anagnorisis or recognition. Aristotle believed "recognition is best when it occurs simultaneously with a reversal, like the one in the Oedipus." (Heath, 19) Recognition occurred with Ajax when he gave his false speech and in his mind decided suicide was the correct path to take. Oedipus’ recognition, like Aristotle himself stated as the best form, occurred at the same time as his reversal. This is the best because it causes such an emotional shock not only for the character but for the audience as well.

Finally, one can begin to look at how Boromir’s fate was played our under these terms. We must take all that has been discussed of character and use it in this classification. (Personally, this part is what I believe helped me to understand Boromir better and give me a deeper understanding of what Tolkien was doing with him.)

Boromir was a proud and mighty man, truly one of the most valiant from the line of Numenor. This prestige sets him up perfectly for a tragic fall. When one is trying to determine what Boromir’s hybris was, not one but many things may have contributed. Boromir loved his people and city very much. Many times did he try to urge the fellowship and others to turn to Minas Tirith. There the power of the ring would be utilized. At the council of Elrond he first brought forth this idea. " He was fingering his great horn and frowning. At length he spoke. ‘ I do not understand all this,’ he said. ‘Saruman is a traitor, but did he not have a glimpse of wisdom? Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem.

‘ 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!’" (Tolkien, Fellowship 260-1) Gandalf and Elrond then explained to Boromir why this could not be done. However, Boromir eventually began to distrust or disregard this advice. "’Were you not at the council?’ answered Frodo. ‘Because we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.’ Boromir got up and walked around impariently. ‘So you go on,’ he cried. ‘Gandalf, Elrond-all these folk have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. (Tolkien, Fellowship 389-90)

Boromir’s underestimation of the evil power in the ring, his hesitance to heed the advice of the council, and the love he had for his people and his city are what combined together to form his hybris or excessive passion. From this excessive passion, a mistake is made. Hamartia. Boromir’s hamartia, like his hubris, was complex. It was his thinking that the ring will help him defend Minas Tirith and his people as well as the action of trying to take the ring from Frodo. This is a very complex hamartia because it consisted of a thought and a behavior. I believe this gives the character more realism and depth.

The resulting situation of Boromir’s mistake is the peripeteia. By trying to take the Ring, Boromir scares Frodo and unintentionally causes the breaking of the fellowship. The bewildered Boromir quickly regains his composure, and this is when his anagnorisis occurs. As Frodo disappeared, he states, "what have I done? Frodo, Frodo! Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!" (Tolkien, Fellowship 390) Furthermore, saying to Aragorn in the beginning of The Two Towers, "’I tried to take the ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid. Go to Minas Tirith and save my people.’" (Tolkien, Towers 404) Thus in his last statements, Boromir reinforces the basis for his hybris and what led him down the path of doom.

In conclusion, the tragic character of Boromir is a very complex topic. Tragic characters consist of many specifics, which make them better or worse according to Aristotle. Everything from a character's relationships with others, to when the recognition of his or her mistake occurs affects not only the character but also the story itself. In the context in which we have examined Boromir, everything from social standing to his anagnorisis fits Aristotle’s idea of tragic character ideally. However, much of what has been discussed is from a certain point of view. Many of the ideas purposed in this paper, although backed up by passages, are still very open to interpretation. Whether these ideas, which comprise the basic argument for this paper are strong is also very open to interpretation, but something that is not open to interpretation is the ability of Tolkien to create such amazing and memorable characters and Aristotle’s lasting ability to scrutinize them.

\[ Tolkien \]

Works Cited

Heath, Malcolm. Aristotle Poetics. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
---. The Two Towers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

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