Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Confessions of a Macho Man

(#10 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien: Smut Peddler!")

Boromir is one of many characters in the Lord of the Rings well worth watching, and not just because he's interesting in his own right. For as we observe in the reactions of certain people to Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, Boromir walks among us. And not just the part of him that is envious of Aragorn and craves power and glory. I mean the other part: the part that can't stand even the thought of a powerful woman.

To be fair, Boromir's macho isn't entirely his fault. His mother died when he was young; he's spent his adulthood slaying monsters; his father has pushed him into the role of Gondor's savior. With this kind of background, it's small wonder he's never had the time or inclination to get to know women. (Hard for a fella to get a date while drenched in orc-blood.) Certainly the cause of True Love has gotten little encouragement from Boromir's stern, grim father, still in silent mourning for his long-dead wife. And Boromir's hostility to Galadriel is more than a response to deeply buried sexual drives, for he's so gynophobic he turns up his nose even at the harmless "old wives" who tell nursery-tales of Fangorn Forest.

It's interesting how many characters in the Lord of the Ribngs lead double lives. Gandalf appears to be a frail old man; Saruman appears to be kindly and wise; Aragorn appears to be a wandering scruffy. And Boromir? Listen to this descrip- tion from Appendix A: "Boromir was a great captain, and even the Witch King feared him. He was noble and fair of face, a man strong in body and in will." Sounds just like our man . . . except that this is a description of Boromir the First, a Gondorian general who died a half a millenium before the War of the Ring. Our Boromir is the second man in Gondor's history to bear the name, as Aragorn is the second Chieftain of the Dunadain to bear his. And what our Boromir shares with his long-ago relative--in addition to his qualities as a military leader, and a father also named Denethor--is suffering. "He received a Morgul-wound in that war which shortened his life, and he became shrunken with pain and died twelve years after his father." Boromir I is maimed physically; number II suffers emotional stunting, as Denethor II  seemed to foretell when he named him.

Boromir has a wounded heart, and it is this that makes him the outwardly tough, inwardly vulnerable man that he is. Macho doesn't come out of nowhere, as some feminists (Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanas, even Ursula Le Guin) seem to believe. Nor is it the fault of ideology, or the Y chromosome, or "testosterone poisoning" (an expression first made-up--as a joke--by Gloria Steinem). Macho has an emotional cause, and that cause is whatever awful thing it is that makes a man give up on love. Our intuitive knowledge of this cause is what allows us to feel sorry for Beowulf, Boromir, and Quaritch, even as we see that character is destiny and that their destiny is doom. Boromir's death-scene is genuinely moving, Aragorn's tears for him realistic and right (as Marion Zimmer Bradley recognized). It is easy to imagine Tolkien himself witnessing more than one such scene in the trenches of World War I. As Boromir floats off on his final journey we grieve with his companions, and wish him well.

And we can rest assured that his final journey will have a happy destination. Boromir's soul has been saved--and not just by his sacrifice for the sake of the hobbits. Aragorn is the last descendant of the kings of Numenor, who alone among the Men of Middle-earth had the authority "to call the One to witness." As the One is, in effect, the God of the Catholic Church, the kings of Numenor and their descendants are, in effect, priests. Thus, Aragorn is empowered to hear Boromir's confession ("I tried to take the Ring from Frodo. I have failed.") and to grant him absolution ("You have not failed. Be at peace!"). Boromir is well aware of Aragorn's status as priest-king (though those who haven't read Unfinished Tales may not be), and he dies with a smile, his tormented soul at ease at last.

Boromir's reactions to Galadriel are "realistic" in the sense the term is usually employed in modern fiction, and can serve us as a critique of the wall of separa- tion between "realistic" and "fantastic" literature. I've spent extra time on the poor guy to demonstrate that Tolkien is as ready to confront an Awful Truth of human sexuality as anyone working in the so-called mainstream--to wit, the Awful Truth of gynophobia. It's an truth all of us living under patriarchy have to confront at some point, and the guidance that Tolkien offers us on this subject can be profoundly useful. That the son of Denethor carries an aurochs horn and fights cave-trolls should not obscure for us a simple fact: Boromir is the kind of guy we could meet on any street, on any day.

Or, for that matter, the kind of gal. For if current events are any guide, men aren't the only ones who think we're supposed to be impressed by their ability to field- dress a moose. . . .

to be continued

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