“You Have Conquered. Few Have Gained Such a Victory. Be at Peace!” Is Aragorn Just Being Kind to Boromir as He Dies?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.537-540

In Tolkien’s telling of the tale the whole of Boromir’s last fight takes place off stage and we are taken with Aragorn upon his pointless climb after Frodo up Amon Hen and then his equally pointless descent of the hill when he hears the horn of Boromir and realises that both Boromir and, probably, the hobbits are in need. At last he draws his bright sword, and crying out, Elendil! Elendil! he crashes through the trees.

But it is all too late. Aragorn finds Boromir “sitting with his back to a great tree” as if he was resting. His body is pierced by many orc arrows, his sword is broken near the hilt and his horn is cloven in two by his side.

Inger Edelfelt’s poignant depiction of the death of Boromir.

Boromir’s final words are both a report on how the hobbits have been taken by orcs and an admission of guilt.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

Anke Eissmann depicts the terrible moment in which Boromir comes to try to take the Ring.

Aragorn’s response is one of great, and gentle, kindness.

“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!”

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

Is Aragorn simply being kind to a dying man? One might begin to try to answer this question by saying that such kindness is never a simple matter. When we are with someone as they reach the moment in which they will cross the river, never to return, it is a deeply solemn affair. We are aware that a fellow human being is entering into a mystery about which we know almost nothing. If we are people of faith then we will have received from our traditions some sense of what awaits them and rightly we will seek to comfort the one who is dying with the confidence of that tradition but we all know that faith does not mean seeing. We may even receive some comfort from the dying. A good friend of my wife told me that when her mother was dying she began to speak with joy to the people who were waiting to greet her and our friend was, indeed, greatly comforted by this. But for all the comforts death remains a mystery.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end.”

But Aragorn’s words to Boromir are more than a matter of comfort, important though that is. They are a matter of truth. Boromir did conquer. Although he did try to take the Ring from Frodo, almost immediately after Frodo’s escape he became aware of what he had done and returned with bitter regret to the place where the rest of the Company were. He met Aragorn’s distress and anger without any attempt at self justification and upon Aragorn’s command to go after Merry and Pippin and to watch over them he did so without question and then gave his life in their defence when they were attacked and taken by the Uruk Hai of Isengard. One might think that for the heir of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest lords of Middle-earth, to give his life for hobbits, perhaps the least significant of its peoples, was a wasted gift, but doubtless Boromir remembered his words to Frodo, of his curse upon all halflings, and wished with all his heart to undo them, to pay a price for what he had sought to do.

Boromir’s deed in laying down his life for the hobbits was a victory over his desire, at all costs, to achieve greatness, to be the hero of Middle-earth and the Third Age. In itself this was a conquest. But it also achieved much in the task of the Fellowship. In taking Merry and Pippin the orcs believed that they had accomplished their mission to seize the halflings and so Frodo and Sam were able to make good their escape and to continue their journey to Mordor. Surely the fact that a great warrior was defending the hobbits convinced Uglûk and the Isengarders that they had done what they had been ordered to do. There was no need to hunt and kill anyone else. They could return to base. The lives of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were probably saved by this mistake. And surely there is something in Aragorn’s declaration that Minas Tirith would not fall that is linked to Boromir’s conquest. Just as the pity of Bilbo, when he did not begin his keeping of the Ring with the murder of Gollum, was to rule the fate of Middle-earth, might we not say that Boromir’s conquest over the corrupting power of the Ring in his own heart, expressed in his sacrifice for the hobbits and his truth telling to Aragorn, also rules the fate of his people?

I love this depiction of Boromir’s last moments. The picture is entitled ‘The Horn of Boromir’ by Matthew Stewart. Note the contrast between the fear on the faces of Merry and Pippin, the violence of the orcs, and the achievement of an inner peace shown upon the face of Boromir. He has conquered indeed.

Many thanks to Overly Devoted Archivist for letting me know about the source of the artwork. To find Matthew Stewart’s work please go to the comment below and click on the link there.

“The Nine Walkers Shall Be Set Against The Nine Riders That Are Evil.” Thoughts on the Power of Symbols in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269

I had intended to start blogging on The Two Towers this week but events in my islands have got me thinking a lot about the nature of power. It will be the subject of my sermon in the village parishes in the Shire, that I care for, tomorrow. The event, of course, to which I refer, is the death of Queen Elizabeth II and this Sunday, the 18th September, will be the eve of her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

I came across an interview with former President, Bill Clinton, on YouTube this last week about Queen Elizabeth. In this interview the question was raised as to why heads of state, including President Biden, from around the world are going to gather in London for the funeral of a woman who wielded very little power and was head of state of a country that also has no longer great geopolitical significance. For a moment, it seemed to me, the interview got a bit stuck until Clinton and his interviewer both agreed on the fact that Queen Elizabeth was “one helluva woman” and both laughed and the interview moved on.

Now, if there is someone who ought to know that power is not merely a matter of (to refer to Joseph Stalin’s crude comment about the Pope) how many army divisions someone has, it ought to be Bill Clinton. I remember once listening to two wise women discussing a fictional biography of Hillary Clinton and noted, with some fascination, that when they started to talk about Bill they were soon giggling like teenage girls. What, I wondered, as a mere male, causes that kind of reaction in normally mature women?

I think, by this point, we are beginning to see that there is more to power than mere strength and this is a major theme that runs through The Lord of the Rings. Right from the start of the Quest in Rivendell Elrond makes it clear that it will not be because of might that Sauron will be overthrown. “Had I a host of Elves in armour of the Elder Days,” he says, “it would avail little, save to arouse the power of Mordor.” For Boromir this very admission diminishes the value that he places upon Elrond and all that he represents. “The might of Elrond is in wisdom not in weapons,” he says, and it is quite clear that he regards weapons more highly than wisdom. How many divisions, he might ask, does Elrond have?

The Nine Walkers against the Nine Riders

Sauron would ask the same question and it was because of his understanding of power as a simple application of strength that he forged the One Ring in the first place. As the title of the current Amazon series tells us, it is a Ring of Power, of absolute Power. That is what makes it such a fearful thing but it also that which makes Sauron so vulnerable. For one thing he has no understanding of the power of something like friendship. To choose four hobbits to stand against the might of the Nazgûl would seem laughable to him. And as Gandalf says at the Council, “the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The very rejection of a certain kind of power is a key theme throughout The Lord of the Rings but Elrond shows that there is another kind of power, about which Sauron also has no understanding, and that is the power of symbol. All symbols point towards something else than themselves. They are, by their very nature, signposts. The Nazgûl are by their very nature simply themselves, men that have become wraiths whose power derives from the Ring of Power and the fear that this creates. The Nine Walkers represent utter freedom of choice. They do not stand against the Nazgûl by reason of enslavement. Nor apart perhaps for Gandalf, and maybe Aragorn, do they stand against them by reason of their wisdom and insight. Saruman will dismiss the hobbits as merely little creatures behaving like young lordlings who need a good lesson in the true nature of power. He has no understanding of the power of the hobbits’ love for one another either.

The Power of Friendship

Tolkien, to the best of my knowledge, makes no explicit reference anywhere to the power of archetype, something that the work of Carl Jung has helped us to understand much better, but I would argue it is this power, and the wielding of this power, that proves decisive in The Lord of the Rings. It is this power, I argue, that Queen Elizabeth instinctively understood throughout her long life. The archetypal power of kingship was granted to her at the intensely mystical ceremony of her coronation in 1952, the key moments of which took place under a canopy in secret away from the television cameras. What enabled her to channel that power so effectively was the deep humility that she gained through a lifetime’s practice of her Christian faith. She knew that power was not her own possession but a gift from the king of kings, so she did not reduce her role to mere crude mockery of that power. The pomp and ceremony never became vulgar but retained a remarkable purity of expression until the very end. Of course, she alone could not hold back the decline of the country over which she ruled. The problems concerning Britain’s political and economic frailty await both our new King and his government but, I would argue, it was that remarkable purity of Queen Elizabeth’s expression of archetypal power that is drawing about 100 heads of state to London this weekend. When we encounter real archetypal power at work we almost cannot help but be drawn towards it.

A short postscript… When I spoke of my village churches in the Shire I was referring to the English county of Worcestershire. Tolkien said of this county that it was “my Shire”, a place of “woods and fields and little rivers”. He loved it deeply and so do I.

“The Saxon King of Yours, Who Sits at Windsor, Now. Is There No Help in Him?” Thoughts on the British Monarchy from “That Hideous Strength” by C.S Lewis on the Death of Queen Elizabeth II.

That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis (Pan Books 1983) pp.286-294

The death of Queen Elizabeth II in this last week leaves a huge gap in my life and in the lives of many of her subjects. Her long reign means that you have to be a few years older than 70 to remember any other monarch and I have not reached that age yet. She was Queen for the whole of my life. That is until Thursday 8th September 2022. During her reign she graced our lives with her presence being a constant amidst all the grime of power politics. She was just there, and now she is with us no longer. May she rest in peace. May light perpetual shine upon her.

Her passing led me to think about a reference to monarchy and its significance in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis, a book first published in 1945 and written during the Second World War. At a time in which most people were thinking about the war with Nazi Germany Lewis was pondering other things. I regard this work as prophetic. Its themes are being enacted even now and will, I think, be so throughout this century.

The scene that I have been thinking about is a discussion between Elwin Ransom, Director of the Community of St Anne, and Merlin who has just emerged from the earth in Bragdon Wood after long centuries there. Merlin has learned that Ransom is the Pendragon and his true lord and has knelt before him and now they are engaged in debate about what to do with the N.I.C.E, the institute that seeks to harness the hideous strength in order to achieve absolute power.

As always, Alan Lee, penetrates to the essence of a character. This is his depiction of Merlin in Bragdon Wood.

Merlin was last above the earth in a time in which the king, Arthur son of Uther Pendragon, was both Lord of Britain and of Logres. They were one and the same thing, but this is the case no longer. Ransom is the Pendragon, Lord of Logres, but has no power in Britain. There is a king who, as Merlin says, “sits in Windsor”, and at the time in which Lewis wrote was King George VI, but he has no power in the spiritual conflict in which both Ransom and Merlin are involved.

It is this question of power that lies at the heart of the debate. Merlin, who has lived in earth for centuries and is of the earth in a way that few, if any of us are, even though we all come from the earth, argues that the N.I.C.E can be overcome by the power of earth. “You will need my commerce with field and water” he says, speaking of his power as a wizard that once he offered to Arthur. He speaks of an enchanted world that can be reawakened just as it was long years before. It reminds us of the last chapters of Prince Caspian in which the enchanted world is indeed reawakened to overthrow a tyranny, chapters that are particular favourites of mine among the Chronicles of Narnia.

Pauline Baynes’s classical depiction of the Maenads with Aslan, Lucy and Susan, from Prince Caspian by C.S Lewis. I wonder what Alan Lee would make of this scene. Probably a little more of the terror that Lucy feared that there might be without Aslan.

Ransom makes it clear to Merlin that they no longer live in the enchanted world that Merlin knew in the Age of Arthur and of Logres. Merlin is not permitted to awaken the spirit that lives in the earth. “It is in this age utterly unlawful.” But there is power and the power that will overcome the N.I.C.E is that of the angelic powers, the gods who rule the heavens. In Lewis’s mythical world they are named the Oyaresu. In Tolkien’s they are the Valar. They are the great archetypal powers who will break through into the ordinary world and throw down the tower that Nimrod builds in order to reach heaven.

In such a world, Lewis says, the king who sits at Windsor has no power, but he is still the king according to the order of Britain. He will be “crowned and anointed by the Archbishop” in Westminster Abbey in the coming year as every monarch has been in this land for a thousand years. The Britain over which he will reign is a weak and feeble thing compared to the land in which his mother became Queen in 1952. Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister. The current holder of that office is a negligible figure by comparison. But Charles is the king and I will be the king’s man having sworn an oath to serve him as a clerk in holy orders in the Church Established, by law, in this land. I will pray for him that “he, knowing whose minister he is, may above all things” seek God’s honour and glory. But like Ransom I look for another power to overcome evil in this land. I look for the euchatastrophe, for a moment when by dint of their inevitable hubris, the dark powers will pull down Deep Heaven and so overthrow themselves. And perhaps there will yet come a time in which Logres and Britain are reunited. I pray that this time will come.

They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven. The Fall of the Tower of Barad-dûr in The Lord of the Rings. Here the agents of the fall of the powers of evil are two impossibly small and unimportant figures.