What kind of novelist writes his worst prose and also his best prose when he writes about warrior heroes? Surely a novelist who suffers from hardened indifference to the turgidities of obsolete heroic ideals and at the same time feels genuine longing to be the kind of person who can be moved by such ideals. Both tendencies are at work in the lengthy descriptions of cardboard warriors such as the Riders of Rohan:
Now the cries of clear strong voices came ringing over the fields. Suddenly they swept up with a noise like thunder, and the foremost horseman swerved, passing by the foot of the hill, and leading the host back southward along the western skirts of the downs. After him they rode: a long line of mail-clad men, swift, shining, fell and fair to look upon.
Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed; their grey coats glistened, their long tails flowed in the wind, their manes were braided on their proud necks. The Men that rode them matched them well: tall and long-limbed; their hair, flaxen-pale, flowed under their light helms, and streamed in long braids behind them; their faces were stern and keen. In their hands were tall spears of ash, painted shields were slung at their backs, long swords were at their belts, their burnished skirts of mail hung down upon their knees. (Pp.33-34)
Clear, strong, swift, shining, fell, of great stature, strong and clean-limbed, flaxen-pale, tall, long-limbed, stern, keen: the adjectives pile up to depict a one-dimensional blond purity, driven by certainty of purpose and unquestioning loyalty, without inner struggle, without any experience of even the grime of exertion. If these were elves, one might accept this portrayal — but elves are interesting by virtue of their long perspective on history. These Riders are made of sparkly cardboard, and the reader can sicken of too much martial nobility. Tolkien’s prose here, which consists of long lists of attributes without his usual rhythmic finesse, also betrays a lack of interest: perfunctory exposition, because he knows that before he sets in the foreground the far more interesting heroism of hobbits, he needs to get the conventional martial types out of the way first.
The more developed versions of these types are Aragorn and Boromir. The former takes a long time to come into his own, and when he announces himself to the Riders the prose turns from cardboard to cartoonish:
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!’
Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Éomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown. (P.36)
At moments like this the reader yearns for powerful artistic economy: it would have been stronger if suggested and not described, and the attempt to describe weakens severely the attempt at expressing moral force, which a reader can imagine better than an author could describe. Part of what makes it weak is the presupposition that majesty must be recognized by such obvious signs, whereas true nobility is usually not at all manifested so stereotypically — for instance, in hobbits. The paragraphs just quoted might have been laudable in a twelve-year-old; indeed, perhaps what we get in the first half of The Two Towers is something resembling a child’s view of adult activity, which is a necessarily one-sided view because the child has no experience of the struggles and agonies underneath the calm adult surface.
Yet in spite of the generally two-dimensional portrayal of warriors in this book, something astonishing happens around the death of Boromir. This was the hero that nobody much liked: the typical truculent, resentful, competitive, boastful pagan warrior whose flawed character contrasted with Aragorn’s intelligent, self-effacing nobility. No reader is ever surprised when Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo. It is striking too that Tolkien doesn’t describe Boromir’s final battle with the orcs, because this would have been a chance to ennoble him through witnessing his martial prowess and courage. Instead, Aragorn finds him after the battle, dying, and Boromir confesses that he tried to get the Ring from Frodo and repents the attempt. He tells Aragorn to save Minas Tirith because I have failed:
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!’ (P.16)
At first we cannot help but be puzzled at this reaction: Why is Aragorn suddenly so affectionate to someone he has hitherto disliked and distrusted, and why does he tell him he has “conquered” when plainly the orcs have killed him and the trouble has only just begun? Aragorn must be responding to a moral conquest, or self-conquest. Tolkien doesn’t spell it out here, and his tact — remarkable in an author capable of saying so much! — draws the reader into an intimacy with the two warriors. Aragorn will remain a distant, shadowy figure to a reader who cannot pause and consider what lies behind rhe words. Here, he is admiring Boromir for his act of confession — not only for the confessing of a terrible moral failure, but for confessing it to his rival, with the risk that the rival might spread the news and tarnish the failed hero’s name to posterity. A real warrior is not afraid to manifest himself, and Boromir has just shown the highest courage in not hiding his one shameful deed. Aragorn is also deeply touched that Boromir has trusted him with this. At this moment, what is realized is a bonding through vulnerability, contrition, admiration. Boromir and Aragorn could be each other, and the death of Boromir frees Aragorn to become the king he should be. Tolkien’s prose in this little exchange has delicacy and density, in contrast to the two passages quoted earlier. It is as if he is unconvinced by all the glory and manliness, but convinced by the hero’s vast capacity for trust, respect, tenderness, and moral courage — qualities deeper than mere fighting confidence.
This is a book in which choices are made on every page, and after Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have had a brief discussion of alternatives and settle on a funeral boat, the preparations are made without deliberation: the heroes just know what to do, and there is a ceremonial rightness about each detail of the funeral. They go about composing each detail with care and affection, partly from knowing what they themslves might want for their own funerals, but more from knowing what is right for Boromir because each of them could have been him and might have failed in the same way. It is this empathy and imaginative reach into each other’s hearts that distinguishes the Tolkien hero from a mere fighting machine, and the precise ceremonial sensibility that arises from such a heart elevates all the participants into a harmony of action that draws even landscape and light into heroic ritual:
Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.
Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.
For a while the three companions remained silent, gazing after him. (P.19)
Read aloud, this is a passage of transcendent power: the visual and aural perceptiveness, the modulation of long and short sentences, the falling cadence of the last two sentences — everything is perfect, every detail placed where it should be. The effect is of a Wagnerian death set in a Albert Bierstadt painting, in which the sunlight, rocks, and trees all come together in a magnificent ceremony of living and dying. The golden light and illuminated fume from the waters are the mystery of life itself, yet the rocks and trees keep their own colors and shapes, as in the Bierstadt painting above. Tolkien’s landscapes are almost never like the following Bierstad painting, where everything is engulfed with light in a mystical swallowing.
Tolkien’s landscapes are mountains and plains heroically elevated, and his warriors are attuned to them; they are not mystical landscapes in which everything melts into one light. His warriors remain themselves, different, irreducible, yet capable of singing together and for a friend.
More than anything he says or does, it is Boromir’s funeral that makes us love him. Why is that? His death awakens something in his comrades, the knowledge of the vivid proximity of death for all of them, the respect and affection for one who perishes fighting — but above all, we are swept with him in the descending sun and the descending current until he is gently absorbed into the “golden light.” I think we love him because nature seems to love him; the good embraces her own, and we are persuaded by the music of the scene to look on him with grace and generosity as his comrades do. But Aragorn knows more than the others do, and the gift to his former rival of a perfect funeral is the act of a truly heroic soul, who can love the mysterious persistence of goodness amid so much temptation and weakness. Rauros roared on unchanging.