The Glory of Repentance: Learning Courage and Hope from The Lord of the Rings

The following contains spoilers for those who have neither read nor seen The Lord of the Rings (specifically The Two Towers book, chapter one, or the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring).

Several weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about our favourite books, and the topic turned (as it often does with me) to The Lord of the Rings. Among us weremy friend Mike, and a nine-year-old girl named Beatrix, who has read both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Mike asked her what her favourite part of The Lord of the Rings was, and when she answered that it was the death of Boromir, I said it was the same for me. Mike said, ‘That’s so many people’s favourite part! What is it about that scene that people love so much?’ Bea and I turned to one another, and began to discuss it. I then had the humbling and inspiring experience of learning about Tolkien’s work from a girl less than half my age. We concluded that it was, in short, because of how wonderful was the redemption of Boromir. That he should fall so far, and yet rise so much higher in a few moments, inspires us with courage, hope, and love. 

The Courage to Repent

The arc of his story is one shorter than many of the other characters’ (both his character’s lifespan and the time the reader spends with him), yet for all this both the fall of his proud dignity and the fire of his valiant rising show forth with a greater brightness and glory. That a man so strong and brave should sway so easily before the Ring’s power both saddens and humbles the reader, who sees him amidst such great heroes who overcome hellish trials. We naturally place ourselves in the shoes of people in stories. We feel what they feel, and in our imaginations we experience what they experience—both their victories and their failures. And it is for this very reason that the reader is so inspired by Boromir’s conversion: For in Boromir he sees a greatness not of infallibility, but of strength and vigor with which he rises high from his great fall. Humbled upon seeing ourselves in his fall, we are thus lowered with him. And inspired by his courage, we feel his strength in our own hearts, and our souls are empowered to rise with him in overcoming our own obstacles in a great ascent to a nobler state. 

The Glorious Light of Hope

Boromir’s story gives not only courage, but hope. For the theme of his arc forms a gradual descent from honour in the eyes of his people, with his nadir made in the attempt to take the Ring for himself and overpower the weaker Frodo by force; yet the bottom of this decline, spent over several chapters, finds its rising in only a few moments. Formerly weak of will and tragic in fall, at the moment of his repentance he leaps to virtue! Repenting with weeping, he seeks Frodo to make amends; and finding Merry and Pippin and the threat of over 20 fighting Uruk-hai, he counts his life as nought for the sake of these little ones. Former pride aside, he calls for help with a terrible blast of the horn of Gondor, ‘and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.’1 Seeming unaided, yet he fights on, pierced with arrow after arrow, yet persisting till his sword was shattered ‘tween the might of his heart and the fury of his foes. It is not his success, but his valour, which gives hope. For upon seeing the successful we often begin to compare ourselves, and grow ashamed in a swell of pride, fearing and doubting that we could do such great feat. But when we see true valour, true courage, which perseveres when it is most difficult to hope and hopes when failure seems most certain, when all seems lost already—when we see the fire of a soul laying down his life for another without counting the cost—it is then that we see a light so great and feel a flame so bright that we are not only attracted to such a love, but we even believe it is real and possible to attain ourselves. Such is the power of presence of such a light of love. This is the love from the Cross, which beckons sinners, comforts the discouraged, and cheers the dying. Hope is the virtue which gives us strength and courage to desire that same fiery Light and even imitate it. For God’s beauty and majesty, which so inspire and attract the sinner and so terrify the proud, are not of human greatness; His is a greatness which makes itself little, which suffers, dies, and rises: for little ones and for sinners. We can share in this greatness of love, not through great acts which inspire the respect of the world, but through suffering, through falling and getting back up, in the self-forgetting effort of love. This is why Jesus told St. Faustina, ‘It is not for the success of a work, but for the suffering that I give reward.’2 And she wrote that ‘it is the effort alone which You eternally reward.’3 For ‘at the evening of life, we are judged on our love.’ (St. John of the Cross) 

‘Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.’

2 Timothy 2:3

It is in this light that Tolkien gave us Boromir’s story, whose last words I share with you now. Below is a portion of the first chapter of The Two Towers, in which Aragorn finds Boromir(in the book, Boromir’s final fight with the Uruk-hai is not portrayed; only the aftermath): 

‘A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet. 

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. 

“Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.” 

“No!” said Aragorn, taking hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” 

Boromir smiled. 

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn. 

But Boromir did not speak again.’ 

Why do we put off conversion? Why do we grow accustomed to gradual declines in virtue, and settle for a slow-paced repentance? For me, it is that I think God is depending on my success or my strength. No! It depends on the Love of the Cross. Jesus Crucified is our victory: He has borne our iniquities and weakness, and has conquered death by Death. In Him we have hope, with Him we can do all things. So He spoke: ‘In this world you will have trouble; but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.’4 God needs one thing: Our true desire for Him to do great things in and through us, which happens through friendship with Christ. And as we become like him, we become great like Him—yet true greatness is in love, and love bears difficulties and endures suffering for the sake of the other.5 It is true that we progress and grow, and must work steadily to overcome vice and acquire virtue. Yet this is done by humility, courage, and hope. Greatness is measured not in the falls, nor in the number of failures, but in how quickly we get back up. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘If at first we have failed to love, let us at least hasten to love in return.’ God is not depending on our perfection—we become perfect by depending on God. So the thief on the cross repented with such humility and trust in God’s love that Jesus said to Him, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’6 We must acknowledge our sin and weakness, and turn to God, trusting in Him to give us the grace we need each day, each hour, each moment. It is what He wants to do—He is merely waiting on our response to His love. Our response is a daily examination of conscience to repent from sin, daily meditation to learn from Jesus and receive His grace and strength, and a daily resolution to overcome sin and fight for virtue. And our weapons to fight sin in ourselves and to change the world: the daily Rosary, and our daily crosses, united to the Cross of Christ. 

‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

2 Timothy 4:7-8 
  1. The Two Towers, chapter 1. 
  2. Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, paragraph 90. 
  3. Diary, 1654. 
  4. John 16:33
  5. Romans 8:12-17; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
  6. Luke 23:43

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