Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Genuineness & Speech. Or, a Defense of Boromir.

 As someone who cannot stand affected accents, the meticulous differentiation of linguistic styles accomplished by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings seems a minor miracle. Tolkien must have shared my pet peeve, based on his claim that “[The Lord of the Rings] is to me, anyway, largely an essay in 'linguistic aesthetic'” (Letter 165). The efforts he put towards maintaining purposeful and consistent stylistic variations in his characters’ speech result in characters who all read (at least for me) as genuine: their speech mannerisms truly seem to derive from the characters’ different personalities, statuses, and cultures. My question is: without referencing overused abstract nouns (such as “personality”, “status”, and “culture”), what does that mean? What are the specific considerations Tolkien thought about when determining the different linguistic styles of his characters? Being rather fond of Boromir, and feeling that the negative reviews he received in both LeGuin’s article and Monday’s class discussion fail to realize the extent of Tolkien's labors, I propose to use Boromir as an example to flesh out some of the factors that Tolkien might have considered when determining how to write genuine styles of speaking for his characters.

The critic may protest that this is a vain endeavor, for Boromir’s speech is not, in fact, genuine, and that he adopts formal, embellished, and somewhat archaic language as a means of impressing people, like Aragorn, who make him feel insecure. The easiest way that I can think of to determine whether this is what Tolkien had in mind is to look at the speech of Boromir’s family. If Tolkien meant for Boromir’s manner of speaking to be genuine, then the general linguistic style amongst Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor should be the same (allowing for differences due to differences of character). Consider first Faramir:

“Alas for Boromir....How you [hobbits] have increased my sorrow, you two strange wanderers from a far country, bearing the peril of Men….‘Not if I found it on the highway would I take it’ I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.” (Bk. IV Ch. V).

And Denethor:

“But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anarion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.” (Bk. V, Ch. 7).

In both cases, the defining formal, archaic qualities of Boromir’s speech –such flexible word order, noble tone, and antiquated vocabulary –are evident. If anything, Denethor’s speech is even more antiquated than his sons, although certainly this can in part be attributed to his flair for the dramatic. At any rate, the general consistency of style of speech amongst Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor suggests that Tolkien did not intend for Boromir’s manner of speaking to be read as simply him showing off, but as his genuine language, adopted from the cradle.

The question remains of how Tolkien decided what style made the most sense as Boromir’s (and his family’s) genuine linguistic style. I think that in order to answer this, Tolkien applied to Boromir’s position in life. Tolkien recognized that language would take on different roles for different people and cultures, and notes that “all users of the C[ommon] Speech would reveal themselves by their accent, differing in place, people, and rank” (Letter 193). For example, Minas Tirith is a courtly city, a place where it matters not only what you say, but how you say it. For the future Steward of Gondor, it matters even more. And so, for Boromir, the purpose of language is not merely to communicate information but also to convey one’s rank; it is a tool with which a leader can inspire and command his inferiors. To illustrate this, consider the speech of Beregond, a guard of Minas Tirith:

“I am named Beregond son of Baranor. I have no duty this morning, and I have been sent to teach you the passwords, and to tell you some of the many things that no doubt you will wish to know. And for my part, I would learn of you also.” (Bk. V, Ch. 1)

The fact that Beregond’s manner of speaking is more straight-forward than Boromir’s suggests that embellishments are used only by those of higher rank and learning. Thus, Tolkien wrote Boromir’s manner of speech to be consistent with his elite role as the future Steward of Gondor. 

However, the formal style with flexible word order seems to be a shared quality of speech of the Men of Gondor, regardless of rank. This contrasts with the styles Tolkien attributes to other cultures. As an extreme example, the role of language for Boromir is completely different than the role of language for Ents; they speak so infrequently that language is used to relate not only some subject, but also the importance of that subject (“we do not say anything in [Entish], unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and listen to” (Bk. III, Ch. 6)). Less dramatically but perhaps more relevantly is a comparison of the speech of men of Gondor and elves. The speech of the elves –one of the oldest and most inflexible cultures –is highly archaic, while the men of Gondor speak only “relatively Elrondian” (Shippey p. 72). Although the matter is complicated by the problem of translation (a topic I will here ignore), it makes sense that for Tolkien, for whom both common culture and his philological background enforce the idea that archaisms are “the perfect distancer” (LeGuin p. 85), the antiquity of a culture could be conveyed by its use of archaic style of language. The fact that Tolkien gave the elven style of speaking more archaisms than that of men of Gondor is consistent with the greater antiquity of elven culture; Tolkien knew that to ignore this important aspect of these cultures would corrupt the genuineness of their different linguistic styles.

There are, I am sure, many more factors that Tolkien considered. Please do not view this blog post as a definitive outline of how Tolkien decided to write the speech of Boromir. The point of the exercise was to flesh out a few specifics regarding things that Tolkien must have thought about in determining different linguistic styles for his many characters in order to find renewed respect for the immense amount of thought he put into his subcreation. (That I was able to do this by defending the good name of my favorite unsung hero of the Lord of the Rings was an unexpected boon.)

Lisa Pawlowicz


  1. Excellent defense of Boromir! Yes, the thing to do is to compare his speech not just with Aragorn's but with that of other members of his family and other Men of Gondor. It is too bad that we do not have similar instances of Faramir's and Denethor's speaking with Aragorn (other than ceremonially to Faramir): I wonder how Aragorn would speak to them?


  2. I agree with Prof. Fulton Brown that a comparison with the men of Gondor is equally necessary as one with Aragorn for the purposes of fully appreciating Boromir’s style of speech and what it says about his character, and I think you’re correct when you conclude that he speaks “his genuine language, adopted from the cradle.”

    But I also have to say, I really admire your use of close reading here. So far it seems like we’ve been painting Tolkien’s writing and world with a fairly broad brush (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course!), but I find that going in with a finer focus is usually more revelatory and rewarding. Your analysis strikes me as a good example of how treating specific details (or individual passages) carefully can yield further-reaching conclusions. We see here not just that Boromir’s language deepens his characterization as one always deferent to rank, as speech is “not merely to communicate information but also to convey one’s rank; it is a tool with which a leader can inspire and command his inferiors,” but also that the very fact that Tolkien invested his characters with particular patterns of speech reveals the careful crafting of his subcreation.


  3. You raise the kind of important questions that close study of Tolkien’s language can get at. Perhaps it is the case that we feel Boromir’s betrayal too acutely and are wont to discover his character where we should be looking for his circumstances. (This is what I was once taught is called by some sociologists the fundamental attribution error.) I think you show very convincingly how appropriately he belongs to the latter by situating him in context of the court protocol of Minas Tirith. Indeed, this kind of close comparison of language then reveals two things about our interpretation: first, it exposes the way in which Tolkien constructed his stories (with a reciprocity between style and content), and second, it reveals new entry points into the characters themselves, perhaps suggesting a deeper appreciation by Tolkien (and by us) of the kinds of values the characters are culturally disposed to hold.

  4. Since Boromir is one of my favorite characters in the Lord of the Rings, I really and truly appreciated this defense of him! While I agree with previous posters that it would help to evaluate how Faramir and Denethor might speak to Aragorn in a non-ceremonial context, I do think that you make a compelling case for accepting Boromir's speech as his own. I also think that, in light of the history that Tolkien created for his world, it makes sense that the men of Gondor (and especially the high-ranking men of Gondor) speak in a watered-down Elvish style. Indeed, I think it reveals a different sort of arrogance in the men of Gondor, and one not directly aimed at Aragorn or any other character in particular. After, is it not the Númenórian heritage - or the elf-friend heritage - that supposedly sets Gondor apart from the other kingdoms of men? Since the blood of Númenor is linked so closely to nobility within the kindred of men, it makes perfect sense that the members of the House of Stewards would try and emulate it as much as possible so many generations down the line.

    Taylor Ehlis

  5. Thank you for writing this post. I find the character of Boromir to be a strange case, as he is defined almost entirely as a vainglorious, weak man, whose death is both good (because he is able to finally prove himself heroic in some true sense) and bad (because he is dead, and he, more than other characters, is mourned and missed deeply by men, such as his family, which is unnaturally active insofar as families share time “on-screen” as it were in the novel). And so he is a character that largely serves as a dramatic irony: where all men miss him, yet the reader knows that he really did not deserve to be so mourned. And in the world that Tolkien created, this is strangely simplistic and, in a way, monochromatic.

    I know that this is hard to qualify, but Faramir seems very dissimilarly portrayed in the novel; his weakness, his family dynamic, make him more human, real, and relatable than any other of the Men in Middle-earth. Who cannot identify with family drama, with mourning, with people not listening or appreciating? His speech separates him from the others; though mildly formal, it is not particularly archaic.

    Boromir’s speech puts him closer to his father, which clearly makes sense, though it is perhaps more worth noting the linguistic distance is farthest between Faramir and Denethor, whose speech (while reading the novel) seemed like that of a depressed old man, a shadow of former greatness.

    I really do appreciate the work put into this blog post. Thank you!