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The Two Faramirs

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

In an earlier post I compared the character Treebeard as we meet him in The Lord of the Rings, with movie-Treebeard as we meet him in Peter Jackson's films. The changes made to Treebeard's character were the first of what I call the four unforgivable changes Peter Jackson made to the story. Here I discuss the second.

"I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway." So says Faramir to Frodo in "The Window on the West," the chapter in which Faramir learns that Frodo was a companion of his dead brother, Boromir, and presses Frodo for information. At this point Faramir has not yet discovered that Frodo carries the One Ring, but he has guessed that Frodo is involved with "Isildur's Bane," which Faramir takes to be some weapon of the Enemy. Here Faramir declares himself to be impervious to the temptation to use any weapon of the Enemy, even to use it against him. It is a startling confession of self-knowledge and virtue.

He recognizes he could have an obligation to take Frodo to his father Denethor, Steward of Gondor. In some lines which would be unjustly warped in the film, Faramir says, "I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor, and my life will justly be forfeit, if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city. So I will not decide in haste what is to be done."

Later in the interview, Sam accidentally reveals that Frodo carries the One Ring. Tolkien begins Faramir's reply with just a hint of ambiguity, delicately raising the possibility that this new revelation will spark some vicious response in this Captain of Gondor:

"'So it seems,' said Faramir, slowly and very softly, with a strange smile. 'So that is the answer to all the riddles! The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way--to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and he Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!' He stood up, very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting."

He is being ironic. He is grave, but in fact feels no draw to the Ring. Frodo and Sam don't at first understand the irony. They "sprang from their stools and set themselves side by side with their backs to the wall, fumbling for their sword hilts." But Faramir quickly clarifies: he "sat down again in his chair and began to laugh quietly."

He assures them they have nothing to fear: "We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. 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 clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them. But I am not such a man. Or I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee. Sit at peace! And be comforted, Samwise."

Later on Faramir gently tucks Frodo into bed as Frodo nearly faints from weariness. Sam says to him, "[You] showed your quality: the very highest." Bur Faramir replies, "Yet there was naught in this to praise. I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done [...] Maybe you discern from far away the air of Númenor. Good night!"

Later, when Faramir learns of the path into Mordor by which Gollum plans to takes the hobbits, Faramir expresses strong disapproval of the route. However, he is persuaded by Frodo's reasoning and relents, but with words of caution. At their final farewell, "He embraced the hobbits then, after the manner of his people, stooping and placing his hands upon their shoulders, and kissing their foreheads. 'Go with the good will of all good men!' he said."

Now in the films Faramir eventually sends the hobbits on their way, with a blessing, and at this parting movie-Sam tells movie-Faramir that he has shown his quality by letting them go. But this release is an about-face, prompted by the terror of the battle for Osgiliath, at which a wingéd Nazgul scattered the men of Gondor and nearly captured the Ring. Faramir releases Frodo in large part because he realizes that while the Ring must not be captured by the enemy, yet with the advance of the forces of Mordo, Gondor is no safe place to take it.

The background for movie-Faramir's stupid decision to capture Frodo and Sam and attempt to take them to his father Denethor is, well, Faramir's daddy issues. He withers under his father's disapproval. He loves his brother but believes he doesn't measure up to him. We are led to believe that Faramir's decision to take the Ring to Gondor is motivated as much by his desire to win approval from his father as it is by his calculation that taking the Ring will improve their chances against Sauron.

In the films, the wise prince with a Númenorean air is nowhere to be found. Instead, we get a brave, valiant, loyal, but insecure kid-brother just trying to please his dad. There's nothing wrong a character with these traits. They're just not Faramir's. Real Faramir is a paragon of virtue. When we meet him in the book we are as astonished as Sam by his moral excellence. You don't meet people like this very often. They're not like other people.

All the more reason to write books containing them! Witnessing Faramir's virtue is itself an ennobling experience: we aspire to be like that, even as we know we ourselves fall short. Models like these, in fiction or otherwise, are good for us.

Modern storytelling focuses on characters overcoming their own inner conflicts, even as they overcome the conflict that drives the main plot. There's nothing wrong with this except when, as a kind of storytelling orthodoxy, it eradicates other compelling ways to depict character. Tolkien gave us a few characters who were simply excellent, not without grief or doubt but who had no moral weaknesses to prevent them from acting well in the extremely difficult circumstances the book describes. Faramir is one of them. So is Aragorn, and Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Treebeard. Peter Jackson made all of them less excellent than they really are. But movie-Faramir's sinister faithlessness, albeit later rectified, is a particularly egregious instance of Peter Jackson's iconoclasm, tearing down the monument of personal excellence Tolkien erected in the form of Faramir. Unforgivable.

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