Tolkien’s Antithetical Heroes: Thorin Oakenshield & Boromir of Gondor

Many fans of Tolkien’s works have noted certain similarities that exist between two heroes that inhabit the mythological realm of Middle Earth. Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarves, and Boromir, future Steward of Gondor, share some characteristics, to be sure. They are both noted for their prowess on a battlefield, for their ability to garner the loyalty of their followers, for their belief in the worthiness of their own people, and for their ardent, bullheaded sense of pride. However, these two warriors differ in the most decisive way.  One was esteemed by the writer for his magisterial qualities. The other, was derided for his lack of abstemiousness when it counted the most.

Thorin Oakenshield was born to rule. He was a prince descended from a long line of kings. In medieval society, monarchs were divine. They were not like everyone else. By rights, they were obeyed in all matters. By provenance, they were worthy of such veneration. Tolkien observed these ethical codes when writing all of his Middle Earth series. The Dwarf King was ordained by God to take his rightful place as commander of his people.  He would naturally be imbued with the majestic qualities of strength, morality, pride, equitability and a conquering spirit.

When Thorin is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of reclaiming his homeland, he strides onward with the imperial bearing expected of him.  Not for a moment’s respite, does the warrior shrink from his destiny. He is the son of Thrain, the son of Thror, and he must redeem the line of kings. He is fighting for what is rightfully his to fight for. The treasure (particularly the Arkenstone) belongs to his house. The city of Erebor belongs to his kin. It is an ordinance of predestination. To die in the process is commendable. To succeed is prodigious.

Boromir, on the other hand, is not of the Gondorian royal house. While being of Numenorean blood, he is of the line of stewards instead. When this line was created, it was forbidden for any of royal blood to be of its ranks.  The stewards were there to serve their lord as high chancellors, and in time of need, to rule in their stead. Denethor II, Boromir’s father, ruled Gondor for all of his son’s life. A haughty man who was consumed with power, he behaved more like a monarch than a loyal servant. Boromir resembled his father in many ways. He came to believe that his own line had as much merit as the sovereign house itself.  He is reticent, at best, to accept the true heir, Aragorn, when he reemerges at long last. This unnatural superiority complex was something that Tolkien decried.  To usurp another’s rightful place in the order of things can have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.  Boromir’s arrogance is of a disdainful sort that breeds malcontent and trouble for those on the quest to destroy the One Ring of Power.

Boromir has pride in his people. He is a mighty warrior who inspires those that serve him. There is no doubt that he wants to restore the glory of his once mighty kingdom to its full splendor. However, he goes about it in all the wrong ways. The dream of the One Ring comes, not to Boromir, but to his younger brother, Faramir. Superciliously, though, Boromir seizes onto the message and makes the journey to Imladris himself.  He is so full of insolence that he believes that he is the most apposite one to handle the power of this mighty relic. He is so imprudent that he is convinced that he can harness the evil that it wields for the glory of his own family. It is this mindset, which ensnares him when he finally encounters the One Ring.  As Tolkien reiterates throughout the LOTR, it is only one of the purest mind and most benevolent spirit that can escape its malignant grasp. Readers know that his younger sibling, Faramir, was the one that should have made the journey to join the fellowship in Rivendell. For, that is why the ring showed itself to him in the first place. Faramir was made of stronger moral fiber than his older brother.  He would not have jeopardized the mission as Boromir so wantonly did.

Thorin Oakenshield wielded power with a just and providential hand. Boromir attempted to usurp it through a misguided sense of his own self-importance. Unwittingly, the human warrior veered off of his noble path when he granted his pernicious hubris the upper hand.  Members of medieval society believed that this was an inherent danger in conceding power to those of inferior bearing. Only those of a certain aristocratic deportment were equipped to handle the nuances of prodigious responsibility. Aragorn recognized and rewarded this quality in Boromir’s brother, Faramir. Though redeemed in the end, Boromir imperiled those in his safe keeping, grievously. This was something that no culpable exemplar would do.

For Tolkien, Thorin Oakenshield represented the ideal Nordic warrior king, and by extension, what we should all strive after, moralistically. He was scrupulous, righteous, staunch, immolating, and unblenching. Boromir, on the other hand, serves as a cautionary paradigm. As human beings we are all imperiled by the constant threats of self-glorification and intemperance. Only by rising above these ignoble traits, can we, as a species, truly reach our apical potential. As Boromir showed in the end, we are capable of such superlative exploits if we can command the fortitude needed to battle the rancorous thoughts that reside within us all. Thus, our two heroes serve as models of opposite character. Thorin Oakenshield emblematizes the consummate human experience. He may be haughty and cynical at turns, but he never loses sight of what is paramount to his people.  Boromir of Gondor, by contrast, epitomizes the intrinsic frailties that most of us struggle with throughout our lives. By coveting the ring of power, he places his own concupiscence above the inviolability of the fellowship, and ultimately, of all of the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Some of us are able to rise above these contemptible shortcomings, whilst many more of us fall prey to our fallacious desires. Tolkien sought to provide a moral in his characterizations. To be human is to falter, but to fully embrace your humanity is to persevere conscientiously.

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16 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Antithetical Heroes: Thorin Oakenshield & Boromir of Gondor

  1. Pingback: Legenda 59: Stuff worth reading « Me + Richard Armitage

  2. “As Tolkien reiterates throughout the LOTR, it is only one of the purest mind and most benevolent spirit that can escape its malignant grasp.”
    Is this why Sam was able to give up the ring and withstand the temptation to keep it for himself?

    • I definitely feel that Samwise Gamgee is the unsung hero of the LOTR. His unwavering loyalty and selfless support of Frodo is why they made it to Mt. Doom in the end. Frodo would have folded far before they reached the gates of Mordor if not for Sam’s quiet heroism. This is why the elves grant Sam a place in the Undying Lands as well. He travels there to join Frodo after his wife, Rosie, dies. The elves wanted to honor the “other ringbearer” with the gift of eternal bliss.

  3. Excellent analysis, Susan — succinct and to the point. We know you could cite and footnote prodigiously, because this clearly comes from knowledge and strength of the case.

    • Thank you, Leigh. I could definitely “cite and footnote prodigiously.” I think there is a place for that and that is in academic papers. I’ve written plenty of those and only other academics have the patience to wade through the morass of wordplay and documentation. I want people to actually read my posts! LOL 🙂

      • You don’t need to bother with the citing and footnoting. You clearly have both in-depth knowledge AND a passion for your subject which shines through in your blog posts. And dear Sam–I am so glad to know he was given that place of honor. Frodo couldn’t have had a more faithful, steadfast companion and friend than Samwise.

      • Like Fedoralady, I don’t think you need to bother with it here. I am always glad to read your posts, because as she says, your knowledge and your passion shine through.

        I, too, am glad that Tolkien had the Elves reward Samwise. In some sagas, the boon companion gets nothing in the end.

  4. Pingback: Legacy of the People: The Burdens of Thorin Oakenshield and Boromir of Gondor « Heirs of Durin

  5. Great essay…but i think you are quite unfair with Boromir image, he is still a hero or the epitome of “a hero” to many of us,the redemption,and self-sacrifice is something worth of admiration and respect, Boromir was human, Thorin was a Dwarf,and the differences between humans and dwarfs are many and obvious,in fact Tolkien disliked the term “Nordic” (the “real” nords in tolkien works are the Rohirrim, or at least they are to me),im not a Tolkien scholar, but i think i can see the differences between the cultures of Arda, Thorin was a brave warrior-king, but i think its a little bit pretentious to say something like: “Thorin Oakenshield represented the ideal Nordic warrior king, and by extension, what we should all strive after, moralistically”,i mean; he could be linked with any other cultures: Gauls,Hebrews,even Romani people (Gypsies) i don’t know, to me they were the eternal Jews of Arda, but i dislike to make such comparisons, i really do.

    PD: its hard to argue in another language, im from France,so please accept my apologies for my rustic english.

    • Hi Cyril. I appreciate your feedback. I am coming from a literary standpoint with this. There are many different layers of representation in Tolkien’s works. I am focused upon the moralistic in this essay. Tolkien modeled Boromir’s character on traits that are to be eradicated within the human soul. He was not evil; he was very flawed, and as a result, he was consumed by darkness. Thorin Oakenshield, on the other hand, represented the flawed character that we all possess, and must overcome, if we are to transcend the dark influences around us.
      As far as the Rohirrim go, they actually represented the Anglo-Saxon culture of England. Tolkien was a professor of Old English. He modeled Theoden’s people on this early Medieval culture because he wanted to represent his nation. Tolkien didn’t dislike the term “Nordic,” in and of itself, he disliked it when people used it out of context.
      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Cheers!

  6. Great analysis and wonderful to read! I have a real soft spot for Thorin as a character but he certainly has his share of flaws. I feel that you took a very interesting perspective on the characters and hope to read more from you

  7. For me, the problem with both these characters – my favourites in Tolkien – is that the author seems to feel that if a character steps ‘out of line’, even briefly, he has to die. He can’t go on after his learning-curve, but still has to be sacrificed.

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