Let’s talk about Boromir.
Character profile: an upstanding man of Gondor, oldest son of the steward Denethor, in line for the position himself after his father’s death. Personally volunteered to be part of the Fellowship and protected the Ring as promised for most of his time as part of it – fighting Orcs in Moria, carrying the Hobbits down Caradhras when they met terrible snow, even sacrificing his own life in defending Merry and Pippin. By almost any measure, Boromir was every bit the noblest example of the race of Men that his father thought him to be: trustworthy, loyal, courageous.
But that’s really not how we talk about Boromir, no? Boromir’s weakness to the power of the Ring is the moment that defines him as a character for most readers. It contributes significantly to the dissolution of the Fellowship itself. Words like loyalty fit Boromir awkwardly; he is not often remembered as a character who can be trusted.
I consider this exchange particularly revealing:
” ‘I think I know already what counsel you would give, Boromir,’ said Frodo. ‘And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.’
‘Warning? Warning against what?’ said Boromir sharply.
‘…Against – well, if it must be said, against trust in the strength and truth of men.’
[The next is found in a lengthy defense, made by Boromir, of doing brave things no one else is willing to do:]
‘…True-hearted men, they will not be corrupted.'”
It’s important to note that Boromir, as far as he was concerned, never actually stopped being the good man of Gondor. He never stopped having noble intentions or believing he was doing the right thing.
Instead, he made the mistake of believing that his goodness made him incapable of being corrupted, of being harmful to the cause, of being prey to other forces.
Boromir is dangerous because of pride, certainly, but pride of a specific kind: he thinks he’s unequivocally good and well-meaning, and doesn’t bother to monitor his actions for the possibility that they might become otherwise. His danger, however, doesn’t end there. Note his reaction when Frodo betrays concern about Boromir’s sudden change in demeanor:
‘Why are you so unfriendly?’ said Boromir. ‘I am a true man, neither thief nor tracker. I need your Ring: that you know now; but I give you my word that I do not desire to keep it. Will you not at least let me make trial of my plan? Lend me the Ring!’
Boromir is affronted at Frodo’s fear, but worse, he attempts to use that affront to change Frodo’s mind – he is, after all, a ‘true man’. Who could argue with him? Boromir has proven his bona fides as a trustworthy fighter and companion for several hundred pages worth of story at this point.
Let’s imagine that Boromir lives today. Boromir would still be a good guy who did good things. No, an incredibly good guy, working hard for justice. He would still be a loyal friend, a trustworthy person, a person actively invested in good causes he believes in.
That might let him imagine that if someone felt bothered by something he did, it was probably their problem. He might think that it’s impossible for him to do things that any friend would read as threatening or harmful. He might even think that it’s impossible that he would be actually guilty of harmful, threatening, or harassing behavior.
That’s not ideal, because if the person he’s with gives him the impression that they’re uncomfortable, he should stop – he shouldn’t tell them that he thinks they’re over-reacting. If he’s accused of something he doesn’t think he could be guilty of, he should reflect, self-examine, and give the other person space. If the other person doesn’t want Boromir to take something of theirs, he really shouldn’t try to talk them into doing it for several pages, after reminding them of what a good person he is and how their words have therefore offended him.
He did, though. And believe me – Boromir is still, by every other measure, an incredibly good person.
People who consider themselves good people are unlikely to mistreat others on purpose. We would do well to remember, though, that if we make someone feel bad for being honest about how we made them feel, we make it a lot easier for someone with worse intentions. We’re reminding them that our conception of ourselves as good people takes precedence over their real feelings in the moment. In the future, in a situation with someone genuinely threatening, they will remember being punished for being honest about their fear. They may even take the chance that this person is as good as we claimed we were, because after all, we didn’t hurt them.
We should be cognizant of how harmful bias about our own goodness can be, not only because goodness doesn’t mean we’re incapable of bad, but because of the chilling effect such attitudes can have on problems we care about. This behavior weakens people’s inclination to give voice to issues, both as they happen privately and in seeking to solve them publicly.
Being a good person for more than five hundred pages didn’t make it impossible for Boromir to screw up an entire quest in five.
Don’t be like Boromir.