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The Last Rites of Boromir

June 16, 2015


One of the most Catholic scenes in The Lord of the Rings is the death of Boromir. Shortly after Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, the company becomes scattered and is attacked by hundreds of orcs. When the orcs attempt to take Merry and Pippin captive, Boromir defends them, killing at least twenty before he is felled by a barrage of arrows. The warrior collapses next to a tree and is soon found by Aragorn, dying from his wounds.

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 his 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.

In this short, moving scene, we see several elements of the last rites offered to Catholics. Last rites include three sacraments: reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and the Eucharist. Boromir confesses his sins to Aragorn and shows true remorse. Aragorn offers him a kind of absolution. He also seems to anoint Boromir as best he can with a kiss on his forehead. Boromir has already performed a heroic and appropriate penance. Having sinned by attempting to take the ring, harming a hobbit in the process, he makes up for this by defending two hobbits, even to the point of giving his life for theirs. Hearing Aragorn’s words, Boromir is able to smile and die in peace.

The only element of last rites missing from this scene is the Eucharist. When given to a dying Catholic, this sacrament is called “viaticum,” Latin for “provision for a journey.” Interestingly, the elvish lembas bread, able to sustain a man for a long journey, is also called “waybread.” Surely it is no coincidence that the supernatural forms of sustenance are basically named “bread for a journey.” I’m not sure why Tolkien does not include viaticum in this scene. Perhaps Boromir died too quickly for Aragorn to rush back to the shore for the lembas. But my suspicion is that its presence might have made this already obviously Catholic scene a bit too allegorical.

Either way, Strider is able to send Boromir on his final journey; spiritually, in the sacrament of reconciliation, and literally, in his funeral boat over the Falls of Rauros. Aragorn also keeps Boromir’s transgression secret when he meets with the other members of the company, thereby preserving the seal of the confessional.

So what gives Strider the authority to administer these “proto” last rites? Well, Strider is not just a ranger of the wild. He is Aragorn son of Arathorn, the rightful king. His lineage stretches all the way back to Elendil. But, long ago, Elendil’s line faltered. The kingdom divided into North and South. Elendil’s son Isildur fell. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed. The Southern Kingdom decreased and the royal line was thought to be lost. But Aragorn rose up to claim the throne and restore his people. This account of the fictional kingdoms of middle-earth is unmistakably drawn from the true history of Israel, its division, and the failing of its kings. So, just as Jesus sprang up as the “shoot of Jesse,” the rightful heir of David and King of the Jews, Aragorn is the “shoot of Elendil,” the rightful heir of Isildur and King of Gondor.

Drawing from this connection to the Israelite kings, Aragorn also serves a priestly function. This is perhaps most clear in his gifts as a healer. Although he may not have the skill of Elrond, Aragorn is able to triage Frodo in the wild after the attack at Weathertop. Later, after the battle of Pelennor Field, he slips into the city because he is the only one able to heal those hurt by the Witch King.

Boromir was beyond any physical healing, however. And so we see instead Aragorn’s most important priestly function; a vessel of grace in the sacraments. Without this, Boromir’s contrition might still have been present. But it wouldn’t have come to fruition in absolution and peace for the mighty warrior. But Aragorn, true king and priest, was present and able to send Boromir on his journey with a clean heart and beautiful words all Catholics should hope to hear, “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”