In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment takes a look at the tragic tale of Boromir of Gondor, the bold son of Denethor who meets his end protecting Merry and Pippin from the Orcs of Saruman.
When faced with critics who accused The Lord of the Rings of being morally “simple-minded,” lacking in ethical complexity, Tolkien would point to Boromir as proof against such claims (Letters 197). Boromir, he argued, illustrates that even fundamentally good people have faults, make mistakes, and sometimes, are capable of great moral failings. But if this is true, then Boromir is also proof that those failings can be overcome, forgiven, and (in the heroic code of Middle-earth) paid for by self-sacrificial courage. The temptation of Boromir, his fall, and his redemption through his heroics and a sort of sacramental confession to Aragorn make for a powerful story, one that readers find hard to forget.
It is hardly surprising that Tolkien did not arrive at such a powerful narrative arc right away. The story of Boromir, like that of many other characters, was one that grew in the telling.
Boromir first arrives on the scene in a draft of the Council of Elrond. At this point he bears his own name (not always, as we have seen in this series, a guarantee), but he is said to be from the land of “Ond,” a precursor of Gondor. Here, Tolkien describes him as “a Man of noble face, but dark and sad” (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 395). This is, as we will see, not the only time Boromir is referred to as dark. That adjective ultimately is removed from the comparatively lengthy description we get in the published version of the Council of Elrond, but it shows up in most of Tolkien’s early conceptions of Boromir. (For example, one messenger is described as “ a dark Gondorian like Boromir” [The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 437].)
In this first draft, Elrond introduces Boromir to the Council, saying that he has arrived as a messenger on an errand, but what this errand is, and what message he bears, are not revealed in any of the first several drafts. As he does in the published version, Boromir pushes against Elrond’s insistence that the Ring cannot be used safely (RS 403-404), but he makes no great speeches, nor does he speak of any dream-vision. Naturally, too, Faramir does not appear in his conversation—at this point, the brother of Boromir does not exist. His father Denethor does not, either, at least in any certain terms. This is also true of the second major stage of drafting (TI 114). What does appear early on, however, is Boromir’s suspicion of Aragorn and Bilbo’s frustrated poetic response (TI 146).
Fascinatingly, Boromir was slated to be a member of the Fellowship from the beginning—in fact, in one early draft, the company was to be made solely of Boromir and five hobbits, before Gandalf announces that he will also be joining them. (I can just picture the impatient Man attempting to wrangle five complaining hobbits across the wide expanses, like something from one of those thought experiments where you replace everyone in a film with Muppets except for one character.) In this instance, Boromir’s strength is his most valuable – and perhaps only – asset. When he learns that the Man will be joining the Fellowship, Frodo’s response is to ask “What is to be the brains of the party? […] Boromir is only one of the Big Folk, and they are not as wise as hobbits.” Gandalf responds sharply that Boromir is strong and courageous, but that he also comes of an ancient and wise race, and Frodo would do better to show him more respect (RS 408). All the same, Gandalf seems to prove the hobbit’s point when he then announces that he will be accompanying them as the brains of the operation.
Despite all this, Boromir was once nearly dropped from the narrative. In a provisionary outline of what might come next in the tale, Tolkien proposed that Frodo might get kidnapped by a terrifying tree-giant named Treebeard, who (only perhaps) turns out to be not so bad, and who takes Frodo to Ond (Gondor), saving the hobbit quite a number of steps along the way. In this case, Tolkien wrote, “it will be better to have no Boromir in [the] party” (411). He doesn’t explain his reasoning, leaving it open to our speculation.
So: The original party that sets forth from Rivendell consists of Gandalf, Boromir, and five hobbits. By this point, Tolkien had decided that Boromir wasn’t just any messenger from the South: he was the son of the King of Ond (RS 411). Here we can see the first vestiges of the role of the Steward of Gondor developing alongside Aragorn’s growing importance in the story (at this point, however, Aragorn is still Trotter the mystery hobbit, and certainly not heir to the throne).
On the journey Boromir acts as rearguard, and says little. He carries no horn and no great shield. He plays only a small role, too, apart from the fact that he is obliged to clear the pass on Caradhras by himself (RS 425). Even in one later version, after Aragorn has become a Man, Boromir still takes up the duty of snow plow alone, leaving the rest of the Company standing around for a full hour before he returns (TI 170). In yet another version, in a heroically tough-guy fashion, Boromir is the only member of the Fellowship on foot: the hobbits all have ponies, and Gandalf his horse. The men of Ond, it is said, “did not ride horses” (RS 423).
In this same draft, it is Boromir who suggests that Gandalf melt a pathway through the snow (Legolas at this point was still “Galdor,” and was not a member of the party). “I can kindle fire not feed it,” snaps Gandalf. “What you want is a dragon not a wizard.” Boromir responds lightly that “a tame dragon would actually be more useful at the moment than a wild wizard,” and laughs. Predictably, Gandalf is quite annoyed, but by the time Boromir has orchestrated their harrowing escape from the snowfalls of Caradhras, he has cooled his head and treats the Man with more courtesy (RS 427). Here we learn that Boromir’s skills are innate: he “was ‘born a mountaineer’ in the Black Mountains” (RS 440; italics original).
The various manuscripts give us other small pictures of Boromir’s character. In Moria we learn he snores quite loudly (RS 457). He also tends to be more lighthearted and open to humor than he is in the published version; apart from the above dragon comment, he also smiles and laughs at Gandalf’s unsuccessful attempts to find the opening words to the door of Moria (RS 463). In these early tellings, too, Boromir is far less aloof and proud than he tends to be in the published The Lord of the Rings (see TI 122 for another example).
It’s not until after the second major draft of “The Council of Elrond” that Boromir’s story begins to be fleshed out. In an outline of the story going forward, Tolkien introduces the dream-vision that prompts Boromir’s journey. Here, it is only vaguely mentioned as a prophecy about a “Broken Sword”; the “wise men” of Ond “said that the Broken Sword was in Rivendell” (TI 116).
A few more false starts on Tolkien’s part brings us now to the fourth version of the Council. For the first time, Boromir is “from the city of Minas Tirith in the South” (TI 126), although that city is still in “the land of Ond” (TI 127). The long description of Boromir and his gear hasn’t materialized yet: he doesn’t even have his iconic horn and so of course says nothing about blowing one every time the Fellowship sets forth (TI 165). (The horn, for those who are interested, appears first in the third version of the flight across the Bridge in Moria; Tolkien inserts it in pencil, though there isn’t yet any indication that it’s anything special [TI 203].)
The idea of the dream as a poem also enters in the fourth major draft of “The Council of Elrond,” although, unfortunately, the very first version of this verse is lost (TI 127). Until this addition, Boromir offers no news to the Council, nor does he ever explain why he has come (TI 136). In that regard, then, this is a step forward in detailing the Man’s motivations and goals. His great speech about Gondor (here still Ond) also makes its first appearance in this draft. In substance it is very like the published version, though of course, he still doesn’t mention Faramir (that would have been a very late addition) (TI 128).
Essentially, what we see is the slow but certain development of a character’s complexity over time. Boromir isn’t—and never will be—one of the more fleshed-out characters in the tale. He simply doesn’t get enough time in the narrative. Compared to most of the other members of the Fellowship, Boromir spends very little time with the reader; we don’t get to know him as well as we’d like. In fact, it may be that we get to know him best by understanding Denethor and Faramir. But what we can see is Tolkien’s creative process at work, and I think that tells us quite a bit about Boromir that we wouldn’t otherwise know.
For instance, it is fascinating to watch his antagonism towards Aragorn heighten to a fever pitch and then be tempered by more complex emotions. At one point, he and Aragorn have a heated argument over how far they should follow the River, and which bank they should march on when they disembark (TI 358-359). It’s also said that “Boromir spoke strongly, urging ever the wisdom of strong wills, and weapons, and great plans he drew for alliances and victories to be, and the overthrow of Mordor” (TI 371). Aragorn is more cautious, and the men clash over their differences in strategy.
This opposition shows itself in more than just these minor details. In the “Sketch of Plot” that Tolkien wrote after drafting the Moria sequence, he indicates that “Boromir is secretly planning to use the Ring, since Gandalf is gone (TI 207; italics original). Thereafter we get the first indication in the outline that Boromir will attempt to take the Ring from Frodo, and Tolkien’s italicized phrase suggests that Gandalf’s presence did more to stall Boromir’s lust than Aragorn’s will. Boromir also chooses to lie blatantly to Aragorn about his dealings with Frodo. What those lies were, Tolkien wasn’t quite sure; at one point he suggested that “Boromir says [Frodo] has climbed a tree and will be coming back soon?” (TI 208). Naturally, this suggestion makes little sense given the nature of hobbits, and it does not reappear. Tolkien’s next explanation was that Boromir turned suspicions away from himself by suggesting that the Enemy lured Frodo away and sent a madness on him so that the Ring could be recovered by the Orc company (TI 328).
At this point, too, Boromir is shown to be dismissive of the Ring’s power of corruption. He argues, temptingly, that it would not be dangerous for him to use the Ring. It would not corrupt a “true Man” because only “those who deal in magic will use it for hidden power,” he insists. He or Aragorn, even, would simply use it as a warrior and a commander, for strength in battle and the charisma needed to lead men towards death (TI 326).
In this same “Sketch,” Boromir does not die in an attempt to save Merry and Pippin. Instead, he and Aragorn plan to go on to Minas Tirith after the four hobbits disappear. “Evil,” however, “has now hold of Boromir who is jealous of Aragorn.” After the Men return to their city, “Boromir deserts and sneaks off to Saruman, to get his help in becoming Lord of Minas Tirith” (TI 210). Surprisingly, this plot point stays in place for a while. Later, Boromir is said to be “enraged” when “the Lord of Minas Tirith is slain” and Aragorn is chosen to rule in his stead (TI 211). In this version, too, he defects to Saruman. Christopher Tolkien suggests that in this, Boromir may be “a faint adumbration of Wormtongue” (TI 214). This suggestion is fascinating, as it brings to our attention possible affinities between the heir to the stewardship of Minas Tirith and the power-hungry wizard. According to the outline, Boromir does not repent, but is “slain by Aragorn” (TI 212)!
There is no room for redemption and forgiveness in this version of Boromir. Rather, he serves only as Aragorn’s foil—a failed instance of what Aragorn strives to be. Boromir’s suspicion of Aragorn, his resistance to Aragorn’s leadership, and his inability to overcome his lust for the Ring are all reduced. We do not see a man in his own right, one who is dealing with bitter personal struggles of morality: we see a cheap and easy mirror of Aragorn’s righteousness and self-restraint.
None of that changes until Tolkien conceives of Boromir’s death. The idea appears first as little more than a brief note in an outline, but it quickly took root and grew into the tale we know form the published The Lord of the Rings (TI 375). A few pages later, Boromir’s boat funeral on the bank of the river also appears (TI 378). A few of the important markers of the scene aren’t yet present. For example, the companions do not sing a lament for their fallen hero (TI 384). Instead, Boromir is borne “out in the Great Sea; and the voices of a thousand seabirds lamented him upon the beaches of Belfalas” (TI 382). The sung lament is inserted later and on its own separate page—and originally, it was titled “The Lament of Denethor,” as if the companions were imagining the mourning of the father for his child. This is, I think, an element of pathos that softens Denethor’s character somewhat. The “Lament” was, after all, written during WWII, and it is not difficult to image Tolkien’s own feelings of sorrow and anxiety—with his own sons away on the field of battle, and every new day bringing with it the fear that he would continue to look for them but never see their return.
As I suggested above, we must understand Faramir and Denethor before we can truly understand Boromir. Faramir’s story provides Boromir’s with the context it needs, in the smaller details as well as the larger. The horn of Boromir takes on new significance in the drafts of the “Faramir” chapter, where it becomes an identifying feature of the missing warrior, “bound in silver, and written with his name” (The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 146; I understand this to mean that the horn was most likely a handsome and expensive gift, possibly even one given by Denethor).
And the developing family dynamic does a lot to explain Boromir’s specific struggles and actions. Tolkien often wrote that Denethor preferred Boromir over Faramir—that much is no secret. But in a few early drafts, we are told that Denethor doubted whether his eldest “was as strong in heart as [Faramir,” or “as trustworthy” (WR 328). Of course, as I wrote in my earlier explorations of Denethor and Faramir, Denethor’s willingness to acknowledge Boromir’s faults and his gentleness towards Faramir are slowly erased through a number of drafts, until finally he declares that Boromir would have brought the Ring to him, and would have remained loyal to Minas Tirith despite the lure of power (WR 333). I think this goes a long way towards explaining both Boromir’s pride and his clear anxiety over and feelings of personal responsibility for the fate of Minas Tirith.
Denethor’s unrealistic expectations broke his son. All throughout the published text, we see Boromir compensating and making excuses for anything that might be perceived of as a failure on his part. One example of this is his behavior in Lothlórien, where he insists that Galadriel is no more than a temptress who offers options that aren’t available in reality. His blustery denials and his pressuring of Frodo seem, to me, to be obvious signals that he might have failed the “test.” He is less hostile and suspicious in earlier versions, before his relationship with his father was clearly established (TI 248).
Boromir’s story is deeply sad. Anxious to prove to his overbearing father that he is in fact worthy of his pride, he sidelines his younger brother and leaves Minas Tirith without its captain to undertake a harrowing journey across Middle-earth. In a letter, Tolkien wrote that “When Boromir made his great journey from Gondor to Rivendell—the courage and hardihood required is not fully recognized in the narrative—the North-South Road no longer existed except for the crumbling remains of the causeways, by which a hazardous approach to Tharbad might be achieved, only to find ruins on dwindling mounds, and a dangerous ford formed by the ruins of the bridge, impassable if the river had not been there slow and shallow—but wide” (277). (In The Lord of the Rings, we’re told that Boromir loses his horse at Tharbad, evidence for the difficulty of the road he traveled.)
Following this exhausting journey, he has to participate in a council in which a great number of far-away people refuse him the use of the one thing (the one Ring) that would put his home beyond danger. His father’s expectations must have been weighty, pressing upon him at this moment, but he is shouted down at every turn, and made to look a fool. Then, he’s expected to turn right around and make the journey again, this time on foot, and thus slowly, all while the growing fear of Minas Tirith’s downfall looms over him like a shadow. The whole time, too, he must travel and sleep and fight and eat in the proximity of an object of immeasurable, lust-inspiring power, which also happens to be the thing that could save Gondor. And not only that! Beside him all the way is Aragorn, a ragged no-name out of nowhere, whose appearance in Minas Tirith will likely mean the loss of everything he and his father and brother have fought and worked for all their lives.
And then, he is mortally wounded, believing that he has not only failed in saving Merry and Pippin, but that he has also doomed the quest and Minas Tirith. Denethor’s pride and trust was for naught. Aragorn assures him that “few have gained such a victory” (LotR 414), but Boromir’s response—a smile —seems completely ambiguous to me. I cannot say with any surety whether I think he believed Aragorn or was merely ironically grateful for the other man’s attempt at comfort. But if there is one light in the shadows of Boromir’s story, it is that the river and his boat take him out to the Great Sea, where we may hope that his body drifted into the West.
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who has been abundantly encouraged and inspired by the examples and influence of Tolkien’s characters. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!