“As far as any character is like me, it is Faramir.”
Tolkien mentioned this connection in a 1956 letter to a Mr. Thompson. And it was hanging in my head for nearly the entirety of “The Window on the West.” Faramir a reflection of so many of the characters that surround him, a mirror to others we’ve already met and (think) we know well. His presence calls to mind Boromir, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Treebeard; it calls into question the assumptions of Frodo and Sam. He also on occasion, seems to stand just outside the story, as the expositor of Tolkien’s themes. Patience, mercy, the rejection of power. The soul that trends towards academia and is forced into wear. The call to never love “the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness” but only the things they defend. And, of course, he’s also a person: serious, thoughtful, merciful, the slightest hint of a chip on his shoulder.
On a first reading of “The Window on the West,” it’d be fairly easily to see Faramir as a relatively flat character. He functions as a threat to (and then conversational companion of) Frodo and Sam. He usefully mirrors Aragorn, while also looking backwards to Boromir and Gandalf (and ahead to Denethor). He conveniently embodies a handful of moral and intellectual principles at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
Despite all this, though, Faramir feels like a real person. He’s relentlessly fair, and very kind, but in a way that feels like the result of hard work. It’s the central flaw of Jackson’s adaptation: Faramir’s been underappreciated for most of his life, but that underappreciation didn’t calcify into bitterness. It was cultivated into patience.
Faramir as Reflection
Faramir’s first function is to be a roadblock. He’s a threat to Frodo and Sam, a large and imposing person with a large and imposing band of soldiers. He’s clever, and asking too many questions that hit too close to home. As Sam notes, his questions for Frodo look “strangely like the trial of a prisoner.” Tolkien clearly has some fun setting up Faramir as an artificial threat to the quest, laying down some heavy-handed suggestions that Frodo will be implicated in Boromir’s death. And Faramir’s dramatic observation that the world is filled with perils (“and treachery not the least”) feels ready-made for a smash-cut to commercial break.
It works on the level of plot, but also ties him to Aragorn, with whom he has so much in common. Both are introduced as threats to the hobbits, but quickly shift gear to invaluable allies. Both are introduced with their faces masked – Aragorn with a literal hood, Faramir with emotions that are “not unmasked.” Both are stern, both have grey eyes – one with a gleam, one with a keen wit. Faramir’s eyes are filled with doubt, a psychological state heavily associated with Aragorn in The Two Towers. Both make vague, angsty references to the days of old. Both have a fine-tuned sense of duty, committed to a cause though they’d rather be somewhere else. Faramir is also tied to Treebeard, through his three-time rejection of hastiness throughout the chapter, tying together these three together as threatening-yet-ultimately-benevolent figures who help hobbits in the fourth or fifth chapter of their adventure.
Faramir as Tolkien
More than any other character, though, Faramir probably calls to mind Tolkien himself. Faramir is a nerd at heart, demoted to second-favorite son because of his love of books and Gandalf over Boromir’s weapons and war. He does not love war, but he sees its purpose for defending the things he does love. His idealization of the past is pretty, but often a bit uncomfortable to 21st century eyes. It’s not hard to draw the line to a studious British professor shipped off to fight in World War I.
Were you feeling less than charitable, it’d be easy to toss Tolkien some side-eye for crafting a self-insert like Faramir. He’s universally loved in the fandom, and he’s relentlessly intelligent, kind, and merciful. He’s underappreciated but nearly always correct. He manages to reject the Ring with apparently minimal temptation, offering to leave it lying by the side of the road. It’d be a fair criticism. But despite that, Faramir worksbecause he walks the line between embodiment of Tolkien’s ideals and real person. While in large part he’s a thematic character, an embodiment of many of Tolkien’s pet ideas, he doesn’t feel didactic.
Faramir, along with Frodo, manages to be a model of mercy. After his initial feint as a villain, and Sam’s interruption, Faramir responds with something akin to a mission statement:
“I spare a bit of time, in order to judge justly in a hard matter. Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago. For I am commanded to slay all whom I find in this land without the leave of the Lord of Gondor. But I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when needed. Neither do I talk in vain.”
It’s a centerpiece to Tolkien’s philosophy: hasty judgement closes doors, mercy allows for hope in their opening. His rejection of the Ring as a corollary of that, a rejection of certainty, authority, and limitless power. He’s also an expositor for Tolkien’s view of war, history, and politics.
“I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who will devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.”
It’s a very Tolkien-y attitude towards the world. A respect for past beauty that has been fading, a willingness to defend it paired with a rejection of militarism for its own sake.
Faramir as Númenorean
Much of the sense of loss that permeates Tolkien, the sense that the world is not what it once was, comes from the Elves. Men, in contrast, are the younger, more vibrant people. But Faramir recalls that there’s a sense of loss imbued in them as well – at least in the Númenorean contingent. “We are a failing people,” he notes, “a springless autumn.”
In some sense, this is simply a healthy criticism of the present, another strand of Faramir’s tendency to condemn an overly-militarized society. Gondor esteems a warrior “above men of other crafts.” And in another sense it’s simply a traditional fantasy trope: the age of miracles is over, the magic has faded and drained from the world.
“Kings made tombs more splendid that the houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of the descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.”
It’s an interesting double-edged criticism. The golden age is past, but in large part because the people who succeeded it obsessed too much over the past: pouring over dusty rolls and faded heraldries. And Faramir, criticizing them, is looking further to the past himself. There’s a lot going on, and a lot to unpack.
But from a 21st century standpoint, unfortunately, there is also quite a bit of baggage associated with this nostalgia.
“For we so reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Númenoreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their king that dwell still far in the North; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness… We have become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things.”
A “higher” race of men that have fallen from their ancient glory has deeply unpleasant connotations these days, and it’s hard to read this chapter without acknowledging it. Tolkien’s tendency to classify peoples has a potential component of racial determinism that’s of his time, but also very unfortunate. It’s hard to completely avoid the idea that Faramir’s goodness, in part, stems from his Númenorean heritage. And it’s hard to completely avoid the idea that a certain subset of the modern population might associate the “High Men of the West” in a more explicitly racial way, despite Tolkien’s original intent.
Tolkien’s dedication to his own brand of Catholicism would have prevented him from wholeheartedly supporting such a view. His position of individual choice as paramount is testament to it. And he’s on record vocally opposing explicitly racist policies. But despite this, there have been small reminders throughout The Lord of the Rings that it is very much a product of its time. And some of its underlying assumptions can be easily appropriated for unpleasant ends.
Faramir as Faramir
Though I’m generally against characters serving simply as authorial stand-ins, I do think Faramir still works well as a character. Mostly because he’s not just a stand-in. I like him a lot: despite any shortcomings from a meta perspective, he’s also a breath of fresh air. He’s kind throughout, and respectful and thoughtful towards both hobbits. He’s obviously respected by this men, who never grumble or murmur against him despite his consideration of disobeying Denethor’s orders. And he’s funny to boot! When he mentions that the hobbits must be tired, “especially good Samwise, who would not close his eyes before he ate – whether for fear of blunting the edge of a noble hunger, or for fear of me, I do not know” – it really made me laugh.
There are also hints throughout that his life has not been the easiest, but he’s never bitter. His obvious love for Boromir – despite a hint of distant jealousy – is touching. It makes sense that the portrayal of Faramir in Jackson’s adaptation is so widely reviled. It takes a character that is genuinely good, and assumes that his goodness makes him boring. The assumption that moral ambiguity and struggle is the only way to be interesting is an unfortunate trend in modern storytelling. I think Tolkien would not be a fan. It’s the worst thing you could do to Faramir, a fundamental rejection of who he is as a character.
- I really enjoyed Faramir’s discussion of Boromir. “And this I remember of Boromir as a boy, when we together learned the tale of our sires and the history of our city, that always it displeased him that his father was not king… Alas! Poor Boromir. Does that not tell you something about him?” It does, and about Faramir as well.
- “The Lady of Lórien! Galadriel!” cried Sam. “You should see her, indeed you should, sir. I am only a hobbit, and gardening’s my job at home sir, if you understand me, and I’m not much good at poetry – not at making it: a bit of comic rhyme perhaps, now and again, you know, but not real poetry – so I can’t tell you what I mean. It ought to be sung.”
“Then she must be lovely indeed,” said Faramir. “Perilously fair.”
“I don’t know about perilous,” said Sam. “It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they’re brought it. But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she’s so strong in herself. You, you could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship or a rock; or drowned yourself, like a hobbit in a river. But neither rock nor river would be to blame.” One of my favorite passages in The Lord of the Rings. It’s also a nice moment for Sam, at his self-deprecating and insightful best.
- Shout out to the anonymous solider of Gondor who responds to Sam dunking his head in a barrel of water by quietly respectfully asking if it was the custom of hobbits to do so. I also quite liked the entire section about Gondorian and hobbit customs. There was a mutual respect that resonated through the whole conversation.
- I found it intriguing that Frodo said that the Ring does not belong to any mortal. But if it did, it would belong to Aragorn. I’m assuming he means this from a legal standpoint (as a direct descendant of Elendil and Isildur). It still struck me as a bit odd though. I’d assumed property rights didn’t cover Rings of Power.
- Once again, Sam manages to go unnoticed in a large meeting. Once again, he dramatically jumps out and yells opinion (this time in front of 200 well-armed men). Never change, buddy.
- Also good – in a chapter where Faramir namechecks the peril of ancient heirlooms – Tolkien describes the window on the west as “threaded jewels of silver and gold, ruby and sapphire and amethyst, all kindled with an unconsuming fire.” Just imagine a curtain of Silmarils.
- Prose Prize: They walked on in silence for a while, passing like grey and green shadows under the old trees, their feet making no sound; above them many birds sand, and the sun glistened on the polished roof of dark leaves in the evergreen woods of Ithilien. Still would like to live here, please and thank you, especially with Faramir and Eowyn in charge after the war.
- Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): Nothing egregious this week. A little disappointed at Tolkien’s self-restraint.
- Contemporary to this chapter: Aragorn heads to Dunharrow and the Paths of the Dead. Gandalf, Pippin, and Shadowfax are still on their way to Minas Tirith.