Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings ahead!
Boromir is easy to hate on. As the only member of the Fellowship to succumb to the Ring and attempt to take it from Frodo, he seems, at first glance, to be nothing but a villain and traitor. His fall has made him, in my experience, one of the most despised characters in The Lord of the Rings. And yet, if we read closely, his character is not so black. Rather than a villain, Boromir is nothing more than a man, one who possesses qualities both good and bad. He fails, but then he repents. He is more like an Everyman than many readers care to admit.
Unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s films have done little to improve Boromir’s image. Instead, they portray him as a lout, needlessly aggressive and somewhat stupid. His introduction at the Council of Elrond shows him tactlessly shouting, “It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor!” It is a jarring moment that suggests that Boromir does not understand the gravity of the situation, even though everyone around him seems to. It also suggests that he is power hungry from the start. Notably, this line occurs in Tolkien’s text only at the moment of Boromir’s fall.
In the book, Boromir does suggest at the Council, “Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say.” This may be a warning sign that Boromir’s martial spirit and pride will be his downfall, but his proposal is not presented as any sillier than the proposals to carry the Ring over the sea, to toss it into the sea, or to give it to Bombadil. It is rather expected that a meeting will see various ideas proposed, considered, and rejected–and Boromir quietly (if “doubtfully”) accepts Elrond’s explanation that the Ring must not be used. He returns immediately to his main objective, to seek the answer to the riddle in his brother’s dream and to suggest that the Sword-that-was-Broken could come to Gondor. He is proud, yes, and not particularly learned in comparison to the Elves, but he is still respectful and respected. He is not, as in Jackson’s version, all wrong from the start.
If we return to Tolkien’s text, we can see that Boromir is a man respected by his country and their allies, by the Council, and by the Fellowship. He is welcomed at the Council by Elrond and stands as an emissary for Gondor. In his beginning boast to the Council, we learn of his valiant defense of Ithilien with Faramir (only four survived the battle), of his 110-day journey (alone) to Imladris, and of Gondor’s long struggle against Mordor; he is clearly a valiant man, one whom others depend upon and follow. When Eomer hears of his death, he cries out sadly, “Great harm is this death to Minas Tirith, and to us all. That was a worthy man! All spoke his praise.” His courage becomes even more evident during the journey of the Fellowship. When the company is almost defeated upon Caradhras, it is Boromir and Aragorn who make a path back to safety and then carry the Hobbits down the mountain. When Gandalf stands alone upon the bridge in Moria, it is Boromir and Aragorn who return to stand with him. Boromir more than earns his place in the Fellowship.
Of course, Boromir is flawed. It is his pride, evident from the start, that is his downfall. He begins, as we noted, by boasting of his feats of arms to the Council. He seems bitter that Gondor’s struggle is unacknowledged and repeatedly returns to their wars. He is focused on returning to Minas Tirith and taking Arargorn with him, regardless of where Frodo goes. His pride leads him to believe that the wise who reject the Ring are merely “timid” and he insists that “true-hearted men, they will not be corrupted” (and clearly means himself). He believes so whole-heartedly in his cause that he allows his love for his city and his belief in his own superiority to lead him astray. He ends trying to attack his own friend–an act that would hitherto have been unthinkable for a man of war, a man who knows just how much loyalty means.
This moment is not meant to illustrate Boromir as a villain. Rather, it illustrates just how easy it is to give into temptation. Boromir does not begin as evil; he begins with a smaller flaw that he allows to grow until it consumes him. He is right; the wise are timid. They are so timid, that they flee from temptation when they see it, because they know exactly how easy it is to give in during a moment of weakness. Boromir, however, is so convinced of his goodness, so convinced he will do only the right thing, that he walks right into temptation and shakes it by the hand. And he does so, not because he desires evil, but because he desires something good: the defense of his city. He chooses, not evil, but what seems to him to be a greater good than marching the Ring straight into Sauron’s hands. No one should hate or insult Boromir. Rather, they should pity him, for Boromir in his weakness represents us all.
Tolkien, however, offers us hope after the fall. Immediately after springing after Frodo, Boromir cries out, “What have I said? What have I done?” (Quite aptly, his conversion comes after he literally picks himself up from falling over a rock.) He calls for Frodo to return, saying, “A madness took me.” He knows what he has done is wrong . He seeks to repair the harm he has caused by attempting to get Frodo back to safety, and he returns to the camp “grim and sad.” I do not think he is grim because of Frodo’s choice, but because he is weighing what he has done in his heart. He knows he has betrayed the Fellowship and he knows that he has failed. His sense of guilt is so great that, when questioned by Aragorn, he will at first only admit that he tried to persuade Frodo to go to Minas Tirith and that he believes Frodo put on the Ring.
Boromir, however, admits his full guilt before his death, telling Aragorn, “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo. I am sorry….I have failed.” In return, he receives forgiveness from his king, who replies, “No! You have conquered….Be at peace.” Tolkien does not allow Boromir’s one moment of failure to define him. Rather, he reminds us, through Aragorn, of Boromir’s brave deeds and of his selflessness in defending the Hobbits unto death. His memory is then preserved by Aragorn, who does not immediately tell the others of Boromir’s betrayal. When Legolas suggests that Frodo perhaps fled from Orcs, Aragorn only answers, “He fled, certainly, but not, I think, from Orcs.” The final word in the lament for Boromir is not of “Boromir the Faithless” but of “Boromir the Bold.”
Boromir’s story is important because it reminds us that a person is not defined by a single action or a single failure. Boromir, it is true, was proud, and that lead him into error. But still he possessed valuable qualities and performed many deeds that saved lives–ultimately at the cost of his own. He also ensured the ultimate success of Frodo’s quest by his actions on Caradhras and in Moria. Far from being a villain, Boromir is a multi-faceted character, one who could have risen to greatness if he had had time to learn humility. In his capacity for great good and great harm, Boromir is extraordinarily ordinary.