(Updated on 17/04/2023)
And we’re back. The Two Towers opens with one of the shortest chapters in the story, written in an age where summing up the previous section of the adventure was unheard of, thank God. After the drama of “The Breaking Of The Fellowship“, “The Departure Of Boromir” will give us the second major instance of loss in the story, but does so in an unexpected way.
Aragorn is on his own. Running off to find Frodo, the Fellowship’s leader is being indecisive again, caught between rushing to Amon Hen to, essentially, have a gawk, or go back the way he came. He’s also missing Sam, but that’s of minor importance, seemingly. The narratives have broken away, and as this chapter makes clear, from the very first line –“Aragorn sped on up the hill”- we aren’t going to be following Frodo to Mordor. That first line also reinforces the connection between the three constituent sections of The Lord Of The Rings, depicting a story that is simply continuing from its last point, and is not an entirely separate entity.
Running to the summit, Aragorn looks out, but in contrast to Frodo in the previous chapter, he sees nothing of any note. That was interesting, a way to separate the two characters effectively, making Frodo seem more important with his expansive vision, even it was mostly to do with the Ring. Busy discussing the situation with himself, Aragorn gets caught in the wrong place, as he hears fighting back the way he came. Oops. So, he’s lost the Ring-bearer, Sam and has left the rest of the Fellowship scattered, and now fighting breaks out while he’s having a look round elsewhere. Dear oh dear.
Boromir’s final fight is unseen, but clearly heroic, meant to be redemptive of course, but also a punishment, a purgatory to be endured having fallen into temptation. Aragorn can only enter the clearing where he lays after the fact, but it is clear that a terrible fight must have occurred: “…his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many
Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet“. Dying, the Gondorian admits what really happened with him and Frodo, feeling like he has failed his city, his last thoughts being of Minis Tirith. It’s a last confession and it is somewhat heartbreaking, the mighty warrior brought low not just by Orcs but by his own desire for what he couldn’t have. Boromir has been an interesting character to have along, but his death reinforces the nature of the story – sacrifice, redemption etc – while reminding us, like with Gandalf, that the stakes in this tale are high and not everyone is going to make it out alive. Also, simply put, following the events of the previous chapter Boromir no longer has a place in the story, and so he is written out. After a last smile “Boromir did not speak again”.
Aragorn continues to talk to himself over Boromir’s body, and it is a little concerning now as he starts to wallow in self-pity: “It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now?” You feel like telling him to get on with it. I suppose it gets worse when Gimli and Legolas show up from hunting Orcs themselves, meaning Aragorn is the odd one out, the King who missed the battle. As previously mentioned, Peter Jackson went in a very different direction for this moment, and while I would never expect Tolkien to be so bombastic in a verbal form, I have wondered why Aragorn is made to look like such an impotent figure at Amon Hen.
It is a messed up situation that the three find themselves in now, with a lack of information making any more treacherous. Go after the hobbits the Uruks took? Or not? A brief discussion on the nature of those orcs takes place, and it is kind of a neat moment, the trio going back and forth on the nature of orc symbols when confronted with a shield with a “S” on it. Aragorn starts his own little redemption here, as he begins to see things the others haven’t. He successfully deduces that the Orcs are from Isengard, not Mordor, which is the beginning of the proper story of this particular book, the fight against Saruman. These are his boys, and we’ll be seeing more of them later.
Boromir’s funeral is brief and poetic, the warrior being put out to sea like a Viking minus the pyre, complete with the weapons of his fallen foes being placed alongside him. It has been pointed out by many that it would be unlikely for the body to stay in the boat while going over the waterfall, but that’s only a minor distraction from what is supposed to be a hauntingly beautiful moment: “He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light“. It perhaps gets a little silly with the song, Aragorn and Legolas essentially free-styling a funeral dirge off the top of their heads, but it does all add to the effect of a major figure passing. I’m led to believe that this section owes a fair bit to a similar moment in Beowulf, and it does have that sort of epic feel to it.
Back at the boats, and Aragorn has his Horatio Caine sunglasses on (and off and on) again. Nice to see some of his Ranger training coming back into focus, as he examines the tracks, the missing packs and correctly deduces what happened at the boats, in that Frodo and Sam have made a break for it on their own. In fact, he’s acting not unlike Sam in the last chapter, figuring things out based on the facts at hand, and there are worse models to follow. Relieved of the burden of commanding the group as a whole, Aragorn is beginning to look good again, like a competent person as opposed to the reckless weakling of the last few chapters. It’s noted that he also keeps Boromir’s final confession to himself, tactfully. Revealing such an incident would change nothing other than tarnish Boromir in the eyes of the others, so it’s a respectful choice, though it will never get brought up by that character again. Only Frodo and Sam will relate the real story to Faramir, and beyond that Boromir’s memory is left as it is.
Aragorn makes his decision, choosing to go after Merry and Pippin: “And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day”. Foresight says it’s the right one, but you could argue that it isn’t at the time. Merry and Pippin are nice guys, but the Ring-bearer is the Ring-bearer. His is the most important part of the quest, and Aragorn decides to cut him loose here, sending him against the might of Mordor with just his gardener for company. Considering that Aragorn must be aware of the difficulties in just gaining access to Mordor, it’s a pivotal choice. In this decision, Aragorn decides that Frodo has it in him to get to Mordor, make it past the defences, and get to Mt Doom without his assistance. Much is left to fate in this moment, to the machinations of a higher power. But there is the example of Boromir fresh in the mind of Aragorn I suppose. Most crucially, things are going to go a lot better for Aragorn when he makes his own decisions without feeling the pressure of having to live up to Gandalf’s leadership.
The choice is made, and off the three hunters go, ticking all the racial boxes. The chase begins. “Dusk came. They passed away, grey shadows in a stony land.”
This chapter is one of the shortest in the story, a coda for The Fellowship of the Ring, and a set-up for The Two Towers. We’re heading towards the war proper now, and “The Departure Of Boromir” is little more than a appetiser in the larger narrative, a way to give Boromir his redemption and last moments, to set Aragorn up as a more capable individual and to set the remaining core of the Fellowship off on their new mission, a more direct one than before. And all in just a few pages, which at moments can appear unsatisfying. In comparison, the opening chapters of The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King are quite lengthy, and part of me has always thought that, at this point of writing the story, Tolkien might have been a bit impatient to get to the good stuff that is coming later in Book Three. It’s not a bad chapter, but is one of the more forgettable ones, often treated by readers as a hurdle to get over before we can turn into the politics and warfare in Rohan. For a writer who could often say a lot on any particular topic, the brevity of “The Departure Of Boromir” is practically unique.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.
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As far as pursuing the Orcs instead of Frodo, Aragorn is making the choice he does out of more than simple concern for the well being of Merry and Pippin. The Orcs are taking their captives straight to Isengard – or worse, Mordor – which would put the Hobbits in the hands of Saruman. From there it is almost certain that under pain of torture (or possibly even just the power of the Voice of the White Wizard) they would reveal all they know, which would be completely disastrous for the Quest. Aragorn has no way of knowing that the band of Orcs is going to be stopped by Eomer and his riders – in point of fact this only happened because Eomer defied the King/Wormtongue – or that Gandalf is hanging about. For all he knows he is the only one in a position to save them, so I would say from that perspective his choice is absolutely the correct one.
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