There are few better executed half hours of film than the closing act of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring. Based off the ending of Book II and the opening of Book III of The Lord Of The Rings (corresponding to the end of Fellowship and the opening of The Two Towers in the text), the Battle of Parth Galen and the Breaking of the Fellowship is by turns poignant and epic, a climactic melange of bravery, betrayal, and steadfast moral resolve in the face of an overwhelming burden that must be carried alone. Yet besides the structure of the piece, which condenses and elaborates the two chapters “The Breaking Of The Fellowship” and “The Departure Of Boromir” from the text, the tone of Jackson’s depiction is altogether different from Tolkien’s source material.
I am endlessly skeptical of committed Tolkien fans (whose bread and butter seems to consist in flinging vitriol at the least departure from Tolkien’s prose) and do not view either depiction of these fictional events as precisely better than the other. I am not a Catholic, and thus uninterested in debating the finer points of Tolkien’s embedded religious symbolism. As for the purists, they are a noxious rabble as fell as any Uruk-hai, and they may take their reactionary criticisms and loathsome politics back to the pits of Barad-dûr and Orthanc that spawned them. My interest in discussing the end of The Fellowship Of The Ring lies elsewhere. For the two depictions of these critical events in the course of the Quest reveals much about the story each author was attempting to tell.
The simple difference in the Breaking of the Fellowship between mediums is tone. By tone I mean the overall thematic delivery of the action, not just the “feel” of the events, because in each case this feeling is used to different narrative ends to frame the consequences the Breaking will have later in the story. In the film, the Breaking is filled with valor. It is heroic and redemptive. In the text, the Breaking is eucatastrophic and elegiac, a hopeless-seeming disaster that threatens to zap the courage of all involved. In both cases, the outcome is the same: Boromir’s betrayal resolves Frodo to take on the burden of destroying the One Ring alone, while the capture of Merry and Pippin diverts the rest of the Fellowship to Fangorn and Rohan, and thence to Gondor to rally the Men of the West against Mordor. The Breaking in the book is somber and eucatastrophic (a term Tolkien coined)1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucatastrophe. It is a working of the will of Eru Iluvatar [i.e. God] that sets in motion long term Good out of the short term occurrence of Evil. Tolkien stated in an interview that the thrust of the book was the theme of death and immortality2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Aragorn_and_Arwen#cite_note-Letters_#186-30 Cited at the end of the section “Love and Death”, and much of its emotional core in my opinion consists in the deep sense of faith which pervades it, a faith rendered secular by Tolkien’s dislike of preachiness and allegory, and thus accessible to an atheist such as myself with no love for Christianity. Around this theme of Providence, and of the Fool’s Hope offered by faith which God will ultimately prove wise, the Breaking adopts an elegiac tone to heighten the desperation of the heroes in preparation for the eventual eucatastrophic victory which will follow in the end.
This tone is that of Beowulf, the great epic which Tolkien taught as a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, and whose final movement, the death and burial of its titular hero, informs much of the Breaking, down to the details of the funeral of Boromir. Beowulf’s ending is extremely bleak, foretelling the downfall of his nation, the Geats, to invasion and slavery. Tolkien mirrors this bleakness in Frodo’s vision on the Hill of Seeing, Amon Hen, which, together with the funeral of Boromir, provides something like the ending to Beowulf in reverse, with the heroic death and burial of Boromir following the grim vision of Frodo, a vision that has not yet happened and which will ultimately prove disconnected from feats of arms and the deaths of heroes that are powerless to prevent it:
“Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly…All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion. Then turning South again he beheld Minas Tirith…Hope leaped in his heart. But against Minas Tirith was set another fortress, greater and more strong. It passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath, the grinning gates of Minas Morgul, and the haunted Mountains, and it looked upon Gorgoroth, the valley of terror in the Land of Mordor. Darkness lay there under the sun…” (The Lord Of The Rings 400-401).
Subsequently, of course, Frodo resolves to go to Mordor alone, but his use of the Ring to escape from the maddened Boromir draws Saruman’s Uruk-hai, and Boromir is slain. Tolkien, in an influential 1936 essay that challenged the Beowulf criticism of his contemporaries, disputed the notion of Beowulf as an “epic” poem in the conventional sense, claiming it was a “heroic-elegiac” work centered on accepting mortality3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf:_The_Monsters_and_the_Critics. In many respects, the mood and framing of the Breaking and the Departure Of Boromir is similar to that of the eponymous hero’s death in Beowulf. After Beowulf is slain saving the Geats from a dragon which has been wreaking havoc across their country, his retainer Wiglaf prefaces his command to the people to ready Beowulf’s funeral by reminding them of “the old strife”, between them and their neighbors, the Franks and Swedes, who can be expected to swiftly declare war against them now that their hero is fallen. After relaying the history of the feud in detail, Wiglaf concludes
“Sad-hearted, the Geats
Must now wander new worlds,
Stripped of inheritance in strange countries,
Now that their leader has laid down laughter.
Now our hands must wake to morning spears
And battle-beasts, not sweet harp music.
The dark raven shall sing its feasting song,
Tell the ravenous eagle how men tasted,
When he and the hungry wolf plundered corpses.”4Beowulf, lines 3019-3027, translated by Craig Williamson.
In both instances, the fall of a national hero is juxtaposed against the coming downfall of the Kingdom he represents. Viewers of only the theatrical versions of the Jackson film adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings may be confused by this designation of Boromir as a “national hero”, but in both the novel and the extended cuts of the film this is established as very much the case. In the novel it is said of Boromir by Éomer that,
“Great harm is this death to Minas Tirith, and to us all. That was a worthy man! All spoke his praise. He came seldom to the Mark [i.e. Rohan], for he was ever in the wars on the East-borders; but I have seen him. More like to the swift sons of Eorl than to the grave Men of Gondor he seemed to me, and likely to prove a great captain of his people when his time came.” (The Lord Of The Rings 436)”
And a similar message is conveyed in a flashback inserted into The Two Towers: Extended Edition film, set just after the Men of Gondor have recaptured Osgiliath under his command. The similarities continue in the funeral of Boromir on the falls of Rauros, where Aragorn and Legolas sing over the boat-coffin of Boromir in a manner reminiscent to the Anglo-Saxon keening found in Beowulf in its conclusion, and the manner of burial itself is a reference to the bier of Scyld Scefing (another warrior king) described earlier in the poem:
“Sad in spirit, they mourned their prince;
Likewise a lonely old woman of the Geats,
With her hair bound up, wove a sad lament
For her fallen lord, sang ofte of old feuds
Bound to fester, a fearful strife,
The invasion of enemies, the slaughter of troops,
Slavery and shame…
…Then around Beowulf’s barrow twelve
Battle-warriors rode, mourning their prince,
Keening for the king, shaping their praise
For a precious man. They spoke of sorrow,
They sang of courage, of great words and deeds,
Weaving glory with a weft of power.” (Beowulf 3149-3155; 3169-3175)
As so, Aragorn sings:
‘Beneath Amon Hen I heard his cry. There many foes he fought.
His cloven shield, his broken sword, they to the water brought.
His head so proud, his face so fair, his limbs they laid to rest;
And Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, bore him upon his breast.’
‘O Boromir! The Tower of Guard shall ever Northward gaze,
To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days.’ (The Lord Of The Rings 418)
As the Three Hunters walk into the woods to pursue Saruman’s Uruk-hai, the mood is somber near to the point of despair, and Aragorn is shown to be troubled by his failure to save Boromir for days afterward in the chapter “The Riders Of Rohan”5The Lord Of The Rings 426, which corresponds to the opening of the The Two Towers film adaptation.
That is not the story Jackson chose to tell. In a film adaptation which emphasises the action-adventure elements of the novel, eliding a climactic battle would have performed poorly onscreen. Worse still, strict fidelity to the elegiac tone of the book, in which the Quest has reached a point that seems to be hopeless, would leave an audience unfamiliar with the novel feeling dejected and less likely to return for the second installment. Thirdly, such an ending would conflict with key changes to character arcs to lessen the one-dimensionality of Tolkien’s heroes and, lastly, it would have conflicted with the director and the reader audience’s knowledge that the Breaking of the Fellowship was actually a good thing. In a sense, the redemptive and triumphalist air of the ending of the film reinforces and reflects the hopefulness of the saga as a whole by downplaying the elegiac elements of the Breaking.
This is accomplished in numerous ways. First, the characters of Argaron and Boromir are modified. Aragon’s psyche is charged with doubt over assuming the throne of Gondor, and unlike in the book, he explicitly refuses Elrond’s plea to reforge Elendil’s sword Narsil as Anduril in preparation for the assumption of Kingship. In the scene in the Extended Edition where this conversation occurs, Aragorn says of the throne of Gondor, “I do not want that power. I have never wanted it.” This complements an earlier scene retained though slightly shortened in the theatrical version wherein, after Arwen assures him, “You are Isildur’s heir, not Isildur himself”, Aragorn replies, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness”. Thus the forging of Anduril is delayed until The Return Of The King, where Elrond brings Aragorn Anduril to aid him in the summoning of the Dead Men of Dunharrow.
Likewise, Boromir is different: swaggering, arrogant, and openly hostile to Aragorn’s assumption of kingship in a manner alien to his book counterpart. After disrespecting the relict of Narsil amidst palpable tension with Aragorn, Boromir contemptuously dismisses Aragorn as a mere “Ranger from the North” and declares “Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king!” at the Council of Elrond. His temptation by the ring and internal desperation is heightened, with several unsubtle hints as to the threat he poses strewn throughout the movie. At one point, during the failed crossing of Caradhras, Frodo drops the Ring in the snow, and dialogue he utters at Parth Galen in the book about the suffering they endure for “such a little thing” is transposed to this scene6The Lord Of The Rings 397-398. He is shown to be visibly under the Ring’s power and requires Aragorn to rouse him back to sanity and return the Ring. Immediately after, a quick shot shows Aragorn’s hand resting on his sword hilt, prepared to kill Boromir if need be. Later, just before the landing at Parth Galen, after Boromir rages about taking the Ring to Gondor one last time, Aragorn snaps, “I would not take the Ring within a hundred leagues of your city”. As the only Men in the company, they are foils. Both are brave warriors, but Aragorn is wise, reserved, and steadfast while Boromir is arrogant, swaggering, but ultimately desperate and despairing. Yet they are still brothers in arms, personal animosity aside, and in brief instances their antagonism is undercut. For one, during the Chamber of Mazarbul/Tomb of Balin fight, Aragorn throws a knife to slay a Goblin just before Boromir is killed, acknowledging him with a nod. Later, in their most substantial moment before Parth Galen, Boromir opens up to Aragorn in Lothlórien,
“My father is a noble man, but his rule is failing, and our people lose heart. He looks to me to make things right, and I would do it. I would see the glory of Gondor restored.”
He then speaks of the glory of the White Tower of Ecthelion and says to Aragorn that “one day our paths will lead us there, and the Tower Guard will raise the cry that the lords of Gondor have returned”, explicitly acknowledging Aragorn as his noble peer. Their arc of reconciliation ends with Boromir’s death, where in solem last words he acknowledges Aragorn’s birthright by saying, “I would have followed you my brother…my captain…my king”. This also begins Aragorn’s arc towards the assumption of kingship when he promises Boromir, “I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you, I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” In this version, Boromir’s last stand is not just a tragic sacrifice, but the beginning of Aragorn’s acceptance of his destiny and responsibility to lead the Free Men of Middle-Earth. To this end, not only is the dialogue of Boromir’s death altered7The Lord Of The Rings 414, but key facts of the battle itself. In the novel, Aragorn misses the battle while searching for Frodo atop Amon Hen. When he hears the horn blowing, he rushes to Boromir’s aid only to find the battle over8The Lord Of The Rings 413-414. In the film, he actually finds Frodo at Amon Hen (discussed below), and engages with the Uruk-hai to cover Frodo’s escape. By the time the horn is heard, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are deep in battle, and rush down the hill to aid Boromir. Aragorn outraces his friends and personally slays the Uruk-hai chieftain to avenge Boromir. Boromir’s heroism is shown on screen as he fights desperately to defend Merry and Pippin, slaying many Uruk-hai even as he is shot down. All this violence, elided in the book, increases the drama and heroism of the Battle of the Amon Hen and Parth Galen far beyond the somber disaster of Tolkien’s portrayal, and Howard Shore’s magnificent score, full of epic horns, drums, and choral harmonies increases the thrill, as always.
There is considerable difference also in Frodo’s decision and his scene with Sam on the riverbank, as well as the remaining company’s resolution to rescue Merry and Pippin after Boromir’s funeral. Aragorn, as noted above, never finds Frodo on Amon Hen nor gives him his blessing to continue the Quest alone in the text. Merry and Pippin do not create a distraction for Frodo to escape the pursuing Uruk-hai. Most importantly of all, the boat scene between Frodo and Sam, in keeping with the general presentation of their friendship in the film, is far more emotional than its counterpart in the novel. In the book, while there is a moment of intensity when Sam nearly drowns, the argument over his accompanying Frodo occurs after he has been rescued. The dialogue has a bantering nature. “Of all the confounded nuisances you are the worst, Sam!” he says at one point. This is nothing like the film, where the lines “I’m going to Mordor [alone]” and their reply “Of course you are. And I’m coming with you” occur in a desperate argument while Sam is still wading out to reach the boat. Sam reiterates his promise to Gandalf ( “Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee) almost in tears, and the two embrace, in keeping with the films’ essentially queer-coded take on their relationship. Tolkien described in a private letter:
“My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”[T 16] and elsewhere: “Sam was cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo. He did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master.”[T 17]9https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samwise_Gamgee
Elsewhere, John Garth, Tolkien’s biographer, noted
“The relationship between Frodo and Sam closely reflects the hierarchy of an officer and his servant [in the First World War]. Officers had a university education and a middle-class background. Working-class men stayed at the rank of private or at best sergeant. A social gulf divides the literate, leisured Frodo from his former gardener, now responsible for wake-up calls, cooking and packing… Tolkien maps the gradual breakdown of restraint [through prolonged peril] until Sam can take Frodo in his arms and call him “Mr Frodo, my dear.””10https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samwise_Gamgee
These class differences are largely erased in the film, where Frodo and Sam’s camaraderie is established outright and they are shown to socialize regularly in the extended version of the first film, despite Sam nominally being Frodo’s employee. Sam does not fulfill the same menial responsibilities such as cooking and packing for the other hobbits he is seen performing for Frodo and Pippin as they leave the Shire11The Lord Of The Rings 72, and his friendship with Frodo is much closer to the unspoken homoeroticism of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad12https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achilles_and_Patroclus As the article notes, the nature of the relationship between the two characters was debated by critics in antiquity, though most critics agreed that, even if was entirely chaste, their relationship was equal to erotic love in feeling. This is the case in the Jackson trilogy, which acknowledges Sam’s heterosexuality and marriage to Rosie Cotton, but portrays an emotional bond between him and Frodo with deeply homoerotic overtones. than that in Tolkein’s actual prose.
As the film closes, Aragorn rouses Legolas and Gimli to “Hunt some Orc”, the trio rush heroically into the woods to rescue their friends, and Shore’s magnificent “The Road Goes Ever On” piece swells in a crescendo of strings before ebbing into the heartfelt Shire flute motif. Frodo and Sam head down into the maze of the Emyn Muil and a boys choir hums the motif as the screen fades to black and the credits roll. It is hard to understate the beauty of these last six minutes of the film, with their painful sense of loss, triumph, love, and courage in the face of adversity. I was six years old when I first watched these scenes on Christmas Day 2001, and in a sense I have never stopped watching them. They have inspired some of my best poetry, and I listen to the piece that scores them, “The Road Goes Ever On” every single day. I have found in the Shire motif and the heroic redemption of that score a window into my lost innocence, of my childhood as it was before the horrors of emotional abuse and sexual assault threw me down a twenty year well of post traumatic stress that I am still climbing my way out of as doggedly as Frodo crawling up the slopes of Mount Doom after his strength has left him. This is not Tolkien’s ending. This is not a lament. It is the purest affirmation of the human spirit ever put to film. And it is greater.
Below I’ve attached a link to my previously published poem “Shire Music”, as well as a newer work, “The Time That is Given To Me”.
Give to me now, O halfling melodist,
Wherever your heartbroken reed may blow,
In tremor beyond all fruitless words
The sanctity to remember and pretend
That I, in my righteous gall, might have spared you
This burden unbearable that degrades.
Now we are far from the light of the Valar.
Beyond all human subscript of grief.
The Time That Is Given To Me
Here the vessel and the oar are gathered.
Vacant, I stare into the depths of the wild
Where, Robbed of breath by the heart-rending flood,
The woods of the far bank wind into Hell.
Many have fallen in my defense, they
Who passed on the bridge through shadow and flame
Or fell on the hillside, pierced by the bolts
Of servants of the Enemy, and breathed their last.
Now is the trial and I must confront it;
Now is the hour given to decide
If I shall stand here muted and frozen
Or carry my burden still unto death.
Long since the knife had twisted away innocence,
Long ‘fore the mirror burned in my sight
The dreadful path and price of reckoning,
I knew this moment and hour would come.
I am old as dust and infantilized.
Mine is the sword unsharpened and unkeen;
For all my life has passed to high Summer
Fenced within Winter shadows and iron.
Others partook of love and fellowship;
I was given an indelible shame,
A throat enclosed in leaden constriction
Mute as the grave, treacherous as the sea.
I have borne the blade of defilement
And passed half dead to the realm of the wraiths
Consumed with rage, combustion, and madness;
Turning on the throats of my friends with a sword.
I have grown slimy and weak in exile,
Drowned in the slaughter of the Gladden fields,
Power and birthright slipped from my finger
Casting me down to a watery death.
Naked in the dark, naked in the dark
Enraged and degenerate; burnt with oil
To wring from my lips a tortured confession,
The thralls of the Enemy had their will;
But though my sword shatter at Bruinen
Beneath the tenor of ear-rending screams,
I will defy them fearless and upright.
Into the eye of the Devil I spit.
Let us be off! Let us be rid of it!
This torment swung from a deadening chain!
For my purpose holds to drive, though bloodied,
Into the uttermost chasm of fire;
And though these shores wander towards Gorgoroth
Fenced by the towers of torment and doom,
My fate is fixed. I will rise to meet it.
I will avail the time that is given to me.