It is absolutely no surprise to me that the Men of Middle-earth are kind, loyal, stubborn, quiet, and noble. For all the eternal grace of the elves, the iron will of the dwarves, the soft joy of the hobbits, and the subtle power of the wizards, it’s still the Men that we come back to again and again. And perhaps it’s that I’m reading Tolkien and the Great War right now, delving back into his friendship with the TCBS, with Gilson, Smith, and Wiseman and how they went from ruling Oxford like kings to dying alone and far from one another, but there will always be something that draws me back to the Men of Middle-earth, and it is, undoubtedly, the emotion they show.
Of course we’re starting with Boromir. Last week, we talked about how Boromir is setup for failure given that he’s placed opposite Aragorn, and it really is such a bummer because there’s so much opportunity to be had in Boromir’s character, so much that we could learn about the Men of Middle-earth. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all questioning Tolkien’s decision to kill his character. We did need that death to happen for the necessary forward momentum, and there’s a lot to be said for why Boromir needs to die at the splitting of the Fellowship, but that feels like an entirely different post. Instead, let’s look at Boromir as he is when he’s alive.
He’s someone that a lot of us can relate to. With a father that is constantly lifting him up on an impossibly high pedestal while also constantly turning away from his younger son, though Faramir’s done absolutely nothing wrong other than somehow not being Boromir, but even if he were Boromir, he still wouldn’t be good enough because Denethor sees only Boromir and wants only Boromir, and that is such a complicated and terrible place for him to be. For no matter how much Boromir loves his brother, he also desperately loves his father and wants his approval, and it’s this balance of accepting Denethor’s praise while also trying to fight for Faramir’s recognition. And while Faramir knows that Boromir loves him and will always stand at his side, it’s so clear in all of Boromir’s actions around his father & brother that he never thinks he does enough for Faramir, that he’s always letting his brother down and not lifting him up enough so that their father can finally see how truly incredible Faramir is, as well.
No wonder that, by the time we meet Boromir at the Council of Elrond, he’s a bit rough around the edges. Not only has he left his city behind, the city that he’s devoted his entire life to protecting, not only has he come through the wilderness alone for months on end into a city that he’s never seen, not only has he been sent as a representative of all of mankind, as it were, but he’s left Faramir behind, not just alone, but with Denethor, and that, Boromir knows, is the worst sort of punishment. And I know that we all know this, but really think about it, and of course Boromir is the way he is when we meet him in Rivendell. Of course he’s stubborn and brash and a little bit pig-headed. Of course he’s loud and sounds like he’s only seeking glory and single-minded about his desire to bring the Ring to Gondor.
When was the last time that the male hero of a high fantasy actually admitted they were scared? Or, heck, just even kind of showed it? One of my absolute favorite things about Bard–and you’ll have to give me a little leeway here, it’s been a while since I read The Hobbit, so I’m thinking of the movie, unfortunately–is that he’s very outwardly terrified. And about a lot of things! A) he 100% does not want to go up against Smaug. I mean, buddy, I do not blame you, neither do I, that sounds terrible. B) his entire town is collapsing around him, the town that he’s fought tooth and nail to survive in, the town that he doesn’t really love all that much, but that he’s made a home out of anyway. C) his children are in danger, and my goodness, but don’t even get me started on that scene.
I can’t believe I just shared a clip from The Hobbit, who even am I. A fool for the Men of Middle-earth, that’s who, because the way Bard tells Bain to look at him and only at him, to hold steady and be brave, ugh! That’s the stuff! Because you can hear the love in his voice, yes, but the fear, too. This is it. Either he kills Smaug right now, or he watches his son die. There is no other option here, and even killing Smaug might irreparably harm Bain, but it’s the choice between putting that harm in his own hands or letting it happen through something far worse, something he can’t control. At least if the iron arrow is on Bain’s shoulder, if Bard is the one holding death so close to his son, he can control how that danger pivots, but my goodness, how horrifying that must be.
There are a lot of emotions that echo out of the vast legendarium of Middle-earth, but, at the end of the day, it’s the fear that the Men show that ring the loudest because it’s the most relatable. Sure, we all wish that we were mystical and magical like the elves, or that we could be as badass as Gandalf getting all smug at the balrog. I’m over here dreaming about life as a hobbit, and listening to Gimli describe the great caves of Helm’s Deep that were so beautiful even the dwarves wouldn’t mine gives me chills. But, at the end of the day, when I think back on Middle-earth and all that The Lord of the Rings has to offer, it’s not Galadriel or Bilbo that I think of. It’s not even the grand ones like Thorin or Fëanor. (Please note that I on purpose didn’t mention my two faves so I wouldn’t have to pretend that I daily cried about Sam or absolutely thought of Morgoth before anyone else.)
It’s Eomer openly weeping about the possibility that Eowyn might be hurt. Or doing everything in his power, even if that means hurting himself, to convince Théoden to see the danger that he’s in. Or accepting his banishment as a last desperate call to arms. It’s his fear in having to become King of the Mark. It’s his fear of the evil that Saruman has slithered into Rohan. It’s his fear that all they do might be for naught.
And it’s the fact that he still settles onto his horse and prepares to wade into battle anyway. It’s the fact that Bard still climbs that tower and faces off against Smaug. It’s the fact that Boromir still leaves Gondor behind and seeks a better future. Because even in the face of so much fear, the Men of Middle-earth do their absolute everything to hold it at bay.
Faced with that much fear, the elves flee Middle-earth. The wizards retreat into the woods. The hobbits shore up their borders. The dwarves refuse to leave their mountains. And there’s Beren, full of so much love that he’s willing to travel into the heart of Angband to prove that no amount of fear will ever stop the Men of Middle-earth from being as brave as is humanly possible.