Hardly the action-packed final act of the film but the final chapter of Fellowship is a troll hoard of Tolkien’s big themes.
It’s time to decide the company’s course and, in the end, choices are made. None of the choices are wholly individual, or entirely successful. The best laid plans... as they say!
The art of self-seduction
Boromir is not an evil villain but his desires are disordered. He loves the wrong things too much, like glory, otherwise he is a good man—brave, capable, and respected. In spite of these good qualities, vanity is his greatest vice and not a well-hidden one.
When Boromir approaches Frodo in the woods around Parth Galen, he offers help; he doesn’t begin by asking for anything. What he offers, for readers at least, is a lesson in moral self-seduction. Boromir offers what pretends to be good counsel but is, in truth, naked self-justification. There must be a rational argument for breaking his oath, the only problem is Boromir’s argument is wrong. But he does an effective job of convincing himself nonetheless.
First, Boromir offers help and comfort to Frodo. But when Frodo voices his doubt about faith in the strength of men, Boromir immediately raises a grievance. “Yet that strength has long protected you,” he says, “far away in your little country, though you knew it not.” Frodo owes Boromir a hearing, and maybe much more, in Boromir’s mind.
Boromir also asks to see the Ring—now that they’re on the subject—and minimizes its importance. He laments that they “suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing,” and feigns disinterest when Frodo keeps it hidden: “As you wish, I care not.” Then the man presents his proposal.
For you seem ever to think only of its power in the hands of the Enemy: of its evil uses not of its good. The world is changing, you say. Minas Tirith will fall, if the Ring lasts. But why? Certainly, if the Ring were with the Enemy. But why, if it were with us?
Only men can accomplish the task at hand; only Boromir is worthy: “We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause,” he argues. But then he descends into a self-aggrandizing monologue that sees himself as glorious victor over the Dark Lord, “himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.”
Now Boromir’s desire is laid bare and he makes his request: if Frodo would but lend him the Ring. When Frodo refuses, Boromir turns to demands and threats, the most sinister of which is the offer to spare Frodo conscience.
‘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.’
Then Boromir abandons all pretence of friendship and loyalty—he will take what he needs, what he deserves. Boromir successfully convinces himself that his selfish desire is just and right.
And so the fellowship is broken.
Other powers at work
Tolkien’s work has always employed unseen powers. The Lord of the Rings is a deeply religious work, it nevertheless contains no mention of God. The Ring, to our eyes as it was to Boromir’s, is “so small a thing,” seemingly without the instrumental power of a nuclear bomb (which Tolkien emphatically denied it represented). Instead, it is Power, at once tangible and intangible and a force of corruption, whether through the slow waste of obsession or the fires of conquest.
The Ring is an evil that represents Evil itself. But it is not the only power at work in Middle-earth. Does its corrupting influence break the fellowship? Yes, but just as certainly as the ring works its will, another will strives against it.
In The Hobbit this is presented by the workings of Providence. Gandalf tells Bilbo that he was meant to find the Ring, and later tells Frodo in The Shadow of the Past that this was not meant by the maker of the Ring. This long thread of Providence is woven through Bilbo’s life and continues into Frodo’s. He is just a small hobbit in the wide world, yet his part to play remains. There is a hand at work in Middle-earth, invisible and inscrutable, and the Voice Frodo hears upon Amon Hen speaks for it.
When Frodo is set upon by the Eye of Sauron, drawn close by the ancient Seat of Seeing, readers get one of the few glimpses of the cosmic war being waged for Middle-earth. Here is the danger Frodo feared, even if he never fully understood it under his hill at Bag End.
The Eye draws near:
He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so.
I am thankful for the power that calls me to account and which, for my good, names me a fool when I am foolish. I am thankful for the power that sets me on a quest I lack the strength to perfectly accomplish.
But I am more thankful still that I see more clearly, however dark the glass remains, than Frodo.
This is the end of Book Two of The Lord of Rings which completes The Fellowship of the Ring. Like Frodo and Sam, I will not rest long before continuing on the journey. The fellowship is broken but the bonds of friendship remain and the Quest is more urgent than ever. Keep reading Middle-earth with me as I continue blogging through The Two Towers.