The Departure of Boromir
When I analysed the final chapter of Fellowship, I mentioned the look-ahead Tolkien provided. In harmony with this, The Two Towers opens with a synopsis, which I am going to ignore. My one-volume edition omits both. No need to say more about it, except that it may have been the first part of the book I read. How this came about will be explained in its own section.
The chapter itself seems to be the shortest of all the narrative chapters.[A] Seven pages in my edition, and about 3400 words; as against Tolkien’s average of some 7500.[B]
Someone asked on Quora why it was even a chapter. To me, this is because of the six-book structure that Tolkien intended, and the trilogy structure of most publications. Books 1 and 2 assemble the Fellowship: the survivors are not reunited until late in Book 6. Book 4 tells of Frodo and Sam after their separation: Books 3 and 5 tells of the other five survivors.
The chapter opens with Boromir still alive. The first-time reader knows only that Frodo and Sam have set off, and intend not to be followed. Now we see things from Aragorn’s viewpoint. He successfully tracks Frodo, but without encountering him. Works out that he went up Amon Hen, and then down again. And then what?
He tries sitting in the High Seat, but nothing much happens for him:
“Then sitting in the high seat he looked out. But the sun seemed darkened, and the world dim and remote. He turned from the North back again to North, and saw nothing save the distant hills, unless it were that far away he could see again a great bird like an eagle high in the air, descending slowly in wide circles down towards the earth.”
That eagle has been sent by the returned Gandalf to observe them, we later learn. But Aragorn is given no guidance. All that happens it that he hears Boromir’s horn, and tells himself off for getting everything wrong:
“’Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?’”
As I said in the last chapter-study, his intentions are being thwarted. But it is all part of the strange run of fate that will bring victory in the end. Or will if he makes the right choices at many critical points. The first of these is deciding not follow Frodo, but to seek to rescue the other hobbits.
For Tolkien, it is necessary for heroes to stay modest, as Frodo and Sam will until the very end for Frodo. As Boromir does not and Faramir does. As Aragorn manages, as written by Tolkien. I largely agree with him, except I do not believe in any Divine Will having intentions for us.
The tale proceeds as Tolkien intended it. Rather than vanquish an improbable number of orcs, as in the film, Aragorn descends to find them dead or gone – orcs seem to care nothing for those who ought to be their comrades. Much later, Sam will hear the incidental news that the orcs living next to Shelob do not take the minor risk of rescuing a living web-bound ‘friend’ whom Shelob had perhaps forgotten about
The dead orcs are casually abandoned as the litter of war. Much as the dead of trench warfare often lay unburied for a long time until there was a mutual agreement for a cease-fire to bury them. As Tolkien says elsewhere, orcs and the other higher evil creatures show an aspect of human nature. You could see them as beings who ‘wear their souls on the outside’.[C]
I found a good discussion of this on the web:
“Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and Lewis, an agnostic at the time, frequently debated religion and the role of mythology. Unlike Lewis, who tended to dismiss myths and fairy tales, Tolkien firmly believed that they have moral and spiritual value. Said Tolkien, “The imagined beings have their inside on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the Universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?”
“If that sounds overly simple and sententious, consider the point C. S. Lewis once made, asking why Tolkien should have chosen to point morals in such extravagant fantasy:
“‘Because, I take it… the real life of men is of that mystical and heroic quality… The imagined beings have their inside on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the Universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?’”[D]
Here, Aragorn has reason to think he is losing the fight. He finds Boromir dying:
“’Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’
“’No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!’
Aragorn is perhaps bending the truth to comfort a brave dying man. I can’t see anything very moral in Boromir’s last stand. He just does what he’s always done, fight orcs. He confesses and symbolically hands over to Aragorn when he has nothing left to lose.
Aragorn is joined by Gimli and Legolas, who have been fighting orcs elsewhere. But then he realises he has made another error:
“I sent him to follow Merry and Pippin; but I did not ask him if Frodo or Sam were with him: not until it was too late. All that I have done today has gone amiss. What is to be done now?’
“’First we must tend the fallen,’ said Legolas. ‘We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul Orcs.’
“’But we must be swift,’ said Gimli. ‘He would not wish us to linger. We must follow the Orcs, if there is hope that any of our Company are living prisoners.’
“’But we do not know whether the Ring-bearer is with them or not ‘ said Aragorn. ‘Are we to abandon him? Must we not seek him first? An evil choice is now before us!’”
They accept a moral obligation to dispose decently of Boromir’s body. Sensibly, they choose a boat to send down the Falls of Rauros.
They find signs – the orcs did not keep the knives that Galadriel gave the Merry and Pippin, and which they used against the orcs, we later learn.
There are no other clues. Orcs would also have hated the phial with the light of Earendil’s Star, but they were under orders not to search and would not have found it, had Frodo been carrying it. We are also not told whether he was carrying Sting, an even more potent elven blade that Orcs would avoid. But he might have been captured without drawing it.
Not all weapons have a moral alignment. Legolas takes orc arrows, having used up many of his own.
Meantime Aragorn notices that the orcs are diverse:
“Aragorn looked on the slain, and he said: ‘Here lie many that are not folk of Mordor. Some are from the North, from the Misty Mountains, if I know anything of Orcs and their kinds. And here are others strange to me. Their gear is not after the manner of Orcs at all!’
“There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands. They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs: and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men. Upon their shields they bore a strange device: a small white hand in the centre of a black field; on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal.
“’I have not seen these tokens before,’ said Aragorn. ‘What do they mean?’
“’S is for Sauron,’ said Gimli. ‘That is easy to read.’
“’Nay!’ said Legolas. ‘Sauron does not use the Elf-runes.’
“’Neither does he use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken,’ said Aragorn. ‘And he does not use white. The Orcs in the service of Barad-dûr use the sign of the Red Eye.’ He stood for a moment in thought. ‘S is for Saruman, I guess,’”
The being known to elves and ordinary men as Sauron does not call himself that – it means ‘foul’ or ‘abominable’, after all. The orcs use other names, mostly The Great Eye. But this will be contradicted later by the self-described Mouth of Sauron, which I can only see as another glitch. But the notion of looking for signs and reading them is sensible, and probably arises out of what Tolkien would have learned in Trench Warfare. Soldiers normally learn a lot about their actual and potential enemies.
Leaving aside the puzzle of three different types of orcs working together, Legolas and Gimli go to collect the boats. They bring back two and reporting the third is missing. The obvious deduction that Frodo has gone is not made till later.
Ignoring the urgency of their two possible missions, they take time to make a dignified ceremony with poetic tributes. Not what happens in real war, as Tolkien would have known very well from his time in the trenches. Probably what he thought should have happened.
I also found the verses weak – the least interesting he ever published. Everyone else also neglects them, as far as I know.
This done, Aragorn checks where they left the boats. The orcs had somehow missed it. And been content with just two hobbits when they should know there were four. I’d call that a plot weakness.
Only now do they conclude that Frodo and Sam left in the missing boat. We also learn that Aragorn does not share all he knows:
“What he thought was the cause of Frodo’s sudden resolve and flight Aragorn did not say. The last words of Boromir he long kept secret.”
He’s aware that Boromir could go as far as theft and violence to get the ring: something not obvious to the others. But assessing Boromir is worth a section in itself: one I will add later.
He’d presumably not know that Galadriel admitted to Frodo that the lure of the One Ring made her think of robbing her guest, a worse crime than regular theft. But to me, it seems he no longer fully trusts himself. His stated reasons I can’t agree with:
“’I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!’”
If Aragorn were not scared that he might be tempted by the One Ring, he could have followed Frodo and soon caught up with him. And might have asked Legolas and Gimli to go after the other two hobbits, which is anyway a hopeless quest and does not in fact succeed. Or you could say he dimly perceives how Fate is shaping his role. Otherwise helping Frodo succeed in his Quest should come first, harsh though the choice is.
Regardless, they decide on a swift pursuit of the orcs. But they are not wasteful with gear that they will probably never use again:
“They drew up the last boat and carried it to the trees. They laid beneath it such of their goods as they did not need and could not carry away.”
They then set off after the orcs:
“There they picked up the trail of the Orcs. It needed little skill to find.
“’No other folk make such a trampling,’ said Legolas. ‘It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way.’
“’But they go with a great speed for all that,’ said Aragorn, ‘and they do not tire.”
As is normal in Tolkien – and often true in real life – the evil are unhappy in their evil. Only Smaug seemed to be enjoying himself, and he also makes foolish errors. You might add Saruman before his defeat, though we don’t see him in the book as we do in the film. But he is newly fallen into evil, and might be expected to still find it sweet.
The Three set off on what will be an epic chase, with Aragorn leading:
“Like a deer he sprang away. Through the trees he sped. On and on he led them, tireless and swift, now that his mind was at last made up. The woods about the lake they left behind. Long slopes they climbed, dark, hard-edged against the sky already red with sunset. Dusk came. They passed away, grey shadows in a stony land.”
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[C] http://forum.barrowdowns.com/archive/index.php/t-11536.html, attributed to C. S. Lewis. Their reference came up blank.