(Updated on 4/11/15)
After a succession of not so great chapters, “The Window On The West” has a great deal to do if it is going to get the narrative back on an entertaining track.
We open on a scene of interrogation as Faramir questions Frodo. It’s a small bit of a kickback to “The Council Of Elrond”, as Sam eavesdrops on an important meeting with his master at the heart of proceedings. We’ll just ignore how sleepy Sam basically missed the start of this whole discussion, and has had to come in with most of it finished. Then again, maybe it was all for the best.
This chapter is all about the Captain of Gondor. Faramir is a smart man, and it comes out in spades in this chapter, starting here. He asks the right questions, probes in the right way. Like a good lawyer, he knows the answers to some of the questions he asks before he gets them. Frodo is being largely evasive, obviously so, and there are gigantic, gaping holes in his story. He’s not so good at this kind of thing, is Frodo, who cannot bring himself to lie because he’s a hero of the story, and lacks the verbal wit to get out of this problem any other way. Faramir senses weakness, and presses.
The brief mention of Aragorn and his sword provokes a ripple of excitement in the group of men, drawing me back to my previous comments on Gondorian morale. Even the briefest hint of something like the heir of Elendil gets the soldiers excited, giving us an impression of an army that might be clutching at any straw that is offered. Sure they won yesterday, but that was just a skirmish.
Faramir drops the bombshell of Boromir’s death, which certainly takes Frodo by surprise. In keeping with my lawyer analogy, this is the smoking gun piece of evidence dropped by the prosecution. Sam’s intervention between the two provides some unexpected comic relief, but it’s just a brief respite from the continuing surprises, as Faramir tells us that Boromir was his brother.
Faramir is still showing off his intelligence and wisdom in the process. He takes Sam’s rather rude butting-in well and reacts in the correct way, staying calm and talking the batman down without anger. His comment that “Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago” is one that should cut Sam particularly deeply, considering how he has treated Gollum at points. Now, Faramir has someone he knows must have been involved with his brother, and he’s releasing the information he has gradually, trying to catch Frodo out. That Frodo is probably also trying to spare Gondor the details of Boromir’s betrayal should not escape notice either.
He then expands on Boromir and his “passing”, which appears to hit the “legendary hero” thing dead on, his death boat floating all the way to the sea. That he happens by his own brother is a bit strange, but this is epic fantasy, and that’s just what happens in that genre. I could talk about the traditional fraternal bond that other myths have explored, but it’s just a plot device here really.
Frodo, ever one to greet bad news in the most unproductive way possible, reacts to the possibility of the Fellowship being slaughtered as if his entire world has collapsed. His ongoing depression, fuelled by the Ring, is really becoming the central part of the character at this stage and it’ll be getting extreme before too long. Faramir is the smart one again, coming to the logical conclusion that Orcs hardly put Boromir in the boat. Then it’s time to move on, and he adopts somewhat of a “wait and see” approach, insisting on bringing the hobbits with him to a hiding place for a while before he actually decides what to do about them.
The actual situation is treated as not that bad, but it is quite serious. Frodo and Sam are strange creatures wondering about the territory of Mordor with no apparent purpose. Their story doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny and now Faramir knows that they were involved somewhat with his brother, who is dead in mysterious circumstances. The reader can have no real idea of Faramir’s actual persona yet, and considering how his brother turned out, this whole sequence can be viewed as quite tension filled. The Ring is back within reach of someone who could easily turn out just as bad as his elder sibling, or worse, having a host of men at his call.
It’s at this point that the Faramir character, one that is a bit divisive among the fandom, begins to tip a little into incredulity. He reveals that he knows an awful lot that he isn’t saying: too much really. He knows that Frodo must be carrying around some great “heirloom” of extraordinary power, that Boromir must have tried to take it from him by force, and that this somehow got his brother killed. How Faramir is able to jump to these apparent conclusions based on little more than intuition goes unexplained, and the reader seems to be expected to just go along with it.
A brief insight is given into Boromir, one of the last we will get, as Faramir relates a childhood desire of the man to change the Stewards, those men who rule Gondor in the absence of a King, into Kings themselves. Boromir, apparently, has always been a person with a thirst for power and I suppose it does make sense for Faramir, as someone who was very close to Boromir, to know this about his character. Indeed, Faramir’s mourning over his brother increases the humanity of that character, already seeming long past. This moment is also to set-up the direct contrast between Boromir and Faramir over the Ring.
Because Faramir rejects the temptation of the “heirloom”, in an important section, saying “I would not touch this thing if I saw it lying by the roadside”. This casual dismissal of the Ring touches some nerves for some. Bombadil did the same, but there is something obviously mystical about that character. Faramir treats it as if it is not the slightest bit attractive and he has no obvious powers. How can this mortal man treat it so lightly, when every other mortal man, bar Aragorn perhaps, does not?
Faramir is an odd character in that respect. Some dislike him for this reason, for his unexplained nobility of purpose, and I would tend to sympathise with this viewpoint. It simply makes little sense, given how terrified beings like Gandalf and Galadriel are of the thing, for Faramir to be able to resist it so easily. Speaking of Gandalf, he gets namedropped into the conversation here as well, and a point is made of comparing the wizard and the Gondorian Captain. I flash back to Gimli’s words: “Alike and yet unlike”. Faramir and Gandalf share many traits, and that will be an important plot point later in the book.
The group arrives at the refuge, the titular “window”. We’re back to more xenia as Faramir lays out the table for his guests. A brief moment illustrates something that we see little off in the epic, that being religion. It comes out of pre-dinner customs, as the Gondorians all take a moment to stare into the west, hands on heart. This apparent worship of Numenor and what lies beyond is rare to see in Middle-Earth, which lacks an obvious belief structure in the universes’ version of Gods. It’s not the only fantasy series to shy away from such aspects of daily life and this is just a rare little snippet of it. That being said, there is something just a little off about this scene, and the way Faramir gestures the hobbits to copy the men’s movements. It seems rather rude looking at it again, as much as any religious-esque action being gently forced on a guest.
Faramir gives us a primer on Gondor and Rohan (his description of loving their “fair women…golden-haired, bright-eyed and strong” is certainly a bit of foreshadowing), who are going through a long defeat of their own to match that of the elder races. Gondor was once the ideal Kingdom of law and order, but has fallen into dark times, a mirror of the Roman Empire as envisioned by Edward Gibbons. Rohan are their steadfast and loyal allies, allies that Faramir is careful to note became so under the rule of the Stewards, not the Kings. Gondor’s civilisation has grown lazy and weak in Faramir’s retelling, unable to stand-up to the spreading darkness as it did in the days of old: not unlike Boromir’s fate, in many ways. An obsession with prolonging life and creating a legacy that would bring some form of immortality is also evident:
“Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. “
Faramir also, interestingly, goes into his feelings of sadness as to how warriors and soldiers have becomes the ideal of Gondor, the truly treasured members of society, as warfare becomes never ceasing: “…we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end.” Later he will consider the Shire, with its love for peace and green gardens, as a place to be treasured. It’s not hard to see a certain amount of Mary Sueing going on in all that, with a post-war Tolkien, shaken of any vestiges of thinking war glorious from his time on the western front, creating a character who openly places peace above war and decries militarism, save in the case of fighting an enemy that cannot be resisted by any other means: not hard to see a Nazi Germany allegory there too, the spoken intent of the author aside.
From these passages I was reminded very much of the idealisation of soldiery evident in much of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, when such a profession was seen as the ultimate expression of masculinity and patriotism, feelings that surely must have influenced Tolkien, who lived through the horrors that such thinking birthed between 1914 and 1918. Perhaps Faramir, speaking of his reluctant acceptance of such a role, the soldier fighting only because he feels he must, is somewhat of a mouthpiece for Tolkien himself.
The conversation gets so friendly, that even Sam’s stupider side wants some time out of its box, as the hobbit blurts out the true nature of the “heirloom” under no pressure whatsoever: or maybe Faramir’s “good cop” routine after the earlier interrogation has simply come to its natural conclusion. While Sam’s distrust of Gollum is a part of his personality that is quite admirable, his trusting nature of anyone who is nice to him for more than five minutes is not. It follows a rambling and almost incoherent discerption of Galadriel, which sounds like the half-tipsy, half-unschooled musings of someone who doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about.
Faramir, from what we know about him and the way he describes it as the “ring of rings” – indicating prior knowledge – can’t be that surprised and shows “his quality”, calmly assuring them that he has no intention of taking it. Hmm.
Frodo gives in and simply lets Faramir know what he’s actually doing in the area, in an emotional moment:
“Frodo had felt himself trembling as the first shock of fear passed. Now a great weariness came down on him like a cloud. He could dissemble and resist no longer.
‘I was going to find a way into Mordor,’ he said faintly. `I was going to Gorgoroth. I must find the Mountain of Fire and cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. Gandalf said so. I do not think I shall ever get there.’”
Frodo seems actually happy to no longer have to hold such a secret back and, as if some terrible burden has been taken from him, falls asleep immediately after. The chapter ends with a nice moment between Sam and Faramir, as a grateful Sam commends him for his sense of honour. Just as well, considering how stunningly thick Sam has been.
Jackson’s film alters Faramir and the general plot here in a huge way. As discussed by the production team, many of them disliked the original Faramir character with a passion, for the reasons discussed above. As such, the decision was taken to focus more on the “younger son desperate to live up to his father’s expectations” aspect of the character. I tend to, in what is a rare occurrence, believe that this is a better way to portray the character than in the book. Faramir is simply a better character as he is shown onscreen, taking the hobbits against their will back to Gondor out of a misguided belief that he will win his father’s love, only to realise during an attack by Ringwraiths that the thing would destroy Gondor if he did so. His discovery of the Ring comes from an abused Gollum, rather than Sam’s stupidity, another improvement. And the comparison between him and Gandalf is explored thoroughly, with many lines from the book exchanged between the two. Tell that to the Tolkien purists though.
This chapter, while one where very little of major significance to the narrative occurs, is still an improvement on the few that have come before. While I have my issues with the Faramir character, and in the way that Sam is portrayed in this chapter, Faramir is overall a fascinating individual, and even Sam is bearable enough. Putting someone of Boromir’s bloodline back into the story pays dividends in terms of raising the tension level, at least on a short-term basis, and the back and forth between Frodo and Faramir is also a highlight. While the tension is largely relieved by the conclusion, and Faramir’s unlikely rejection of the evil the Ring inherently represents, we can still look forward to more intriguing plot threads in the not too distant future. Gollum’s absence – the only chapter in Book Four where he does not appear – does affect things more than we might have expected, and it will be good to have that third part of the trio back for the following outing.
Next up, water features!
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.