Mon
Jun 14 2010 1:13pm

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.7, “The Pyre of Denethor”

cover of The Return of the KingThe Lord of the Rings re-read continues with book V, chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor.” The usual spoilers and comments follow after the jump.

What Happens

Pippin stops Gandalf before he rides out to the battle and tells him that Denethor is about to kill himself and Faramir. Gandalf reluctantly agrees to come since no other help is available.

They find that the porter to the walled door has been killed and his key taken. At the House of the Stewards, they see Beregond fighting against the servants of Denethor, who have brought torches at Denethor’s command. Denethor opens the door to slay Beregond himself as Gandalf and Pippin arrive, but Gandalf magically disarms Denethor and rushes into the House. Finding Faramir unhurt, he lifts him from the soon-to-be-pyre and takes him outside. Denethor has a brief sane moment but then reverts to pride and despair, displaying a palantír and saying that the West is doomed, and even if it wasn’t, he would not live just to bow to Aragorn. He makes another attempt to kill Faramir and, when Beregond thwarts that, seizes a torch brought by a servant, snaps his staff of office, and lies down to die while clutching the palantír.

They take Faramir to the Houses of Healing and hear the death-cry of the Lord of the Nazgûl. Gandalf uses his magical sight to perceive what had happened and tells the others that the victory has come with bitter loss, that he might have been able to prevent if Sauron’s will had not entered Minas Tirith through the palantír. He sends Beregond to tell the Guard what has happened, and goes with Pippin to meet those coming to the Houses of Healing.  

Comments

I’m writing this again on the train, this time back from vacation, and I’m doing it without my notes, which were on a device that no longer works. [*] But even then, I had surprisingly few; we’ve talked so much about Denethor in earlier chapters I feel like we’ve covered most of this already. Maybe this will turn into a non-enormous post, then, for a welcome change of pace?

[*] Tip: do not bring electronics on to the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, no matter how much of a hurry you are in. Fortunately we live in the age of eBay and kind Internet friends, and replacing my beloved Palm TX will be easy. (Not the time to evangelize for your favorite electronic devices! I have good reasons.)

So let’s start with Pippin instead of Denethor. As befits the very different relationships, there is far less of Pippin in this chapter than there was of Merry in the last. Pippin gets Gandalf’s attention and convinces him to help—I like the way that his explanation to Gandalf conveys breathless haste through the repeated “ands” that connect the clauses and sentences (mostly clauses). But after that he doesn’t speak until the Houses of Healing. Denethor not only doesn’t speak to him, he doesn’t even use his name, calling him “this halfling” when accusing Gandalf of setting a spy upon him. No farewell, no forgiveness, not even any conversation; it’s the smallest of the things that Denethor lost in his pride and despair, the love and respect of a hobbit he’s just met, but again, quite the contrast with Théoden.

* * *

Okay, looking over the scene with Denethor, there are a few things to say about it. Just as Faramir’s illness made him realize his cruelty earlier, here again his concern almost leads to sanity:

[Gandalf] took Faramir from the deadly house and laid him on the bier on which he had been brought, and which had now been set in the porch. Denethor followed him, and stood trembling, looking with longing on the face of his son. And for a moment, while all were silent and still, watching the Lord in his throes, he wavered.

Is there anything anyone could have said or done, here, to tip him away from suicide? I can’t think of anything. Sauron is defeated only by the smallest of chances, and “it may look hopeless, but there’s still hope” is not an argument that is going to move Denethor, even if he were sane.

I know we’ve already talked about this, but the way that Denethor comes to the same failing as the Númenóreans is really striking here. It’s stasis or nothing for him: he wants to “have things as they were in all the days of my life, and in the days of my longfathers before me.” And if he cannot, “then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.” (Emphasis in original.) This sentence always gives me chills. I don’t know what happens to pagan suicides in Catholic theology, or to suicides in Middle-earth, but I can’t help but imagine Denethor speaking more truly than perhaps he knows and commending himself to negation. (He’d already admitted the sins that were killing him, after all: “Pride and despair!”)

* * *

And a handful of miscellaneous comments:

Denethor was using the palantír as a pillow on the marble table? How remarkably uncomfortable.

Yes, Gandalf says he “might have averted” the “woe and bitter loss” caused by the Lord of the Nazgûl if he were there. I have no opinion whether he thinks he was able to kill the Witch-king or whether he is correct; I think the text admits of either interpretation.

The Houses of Healing are the only place in Minas Tirith with a garden and trees? I realize it’s a stone city and there are fields outside, but still, that doesn’t seem very friendly. Another thing to check the last chapters for.

The chapter ends on a mournful note to match the mood of meeting the wounded: “even as they hastened on their way the wind brought a grey rain, and all the fires sank, and there arose a great smoke before them.”

This chapter takes place entirely within events that have already happened; not only does it not advance the timeline, it stops before the furthest point thus established. But I don’t mind because the last chapter ended at such a broad stopping-point and because this chapter is so self-contained. (Well, okay, it could have been put together with “The Siege of Gondor,” but then that chapter would have been even longer and we wouldn’t know what Gandalf was talking about with regard to the Nazgûl, plus it would have had to be renamed.)

That’s about all I’ve got, everybody. What about you?


« Return of the King V.6 | Index


Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

45 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
As you said, we've pretty much dealt with Denethor already. So a few minor things that come to mind.

For the first time, it occurs to me that what Gandalf is referring to in having been able to prevent a bitter loss had he not been sidetracked is the death of Theoden. Not that he would have been able to kill the Witch king himself, but he might have saved Theoden by slaying the flying beast.

I'm basing this on what I've read in Dante, but pagan suicides would be punished in accordance with their own beliefs. We don't really know where the Numenoreans stood on suicide, or if the afterlife of Middle Earth includes general punishment, but Denethor would probably be facing punishment for whatever the worst thing he did was.

Probably the most important thing in this chapter is the actions of Beregond. He does what is morally right, but in doing so he violates his oath of fealty and a few other rules and regulations. We won't really see this until much later when Aragorn passes judgment on him, but it is important.

Finally, the death of Denethor reminds me a bit of the pyre of Croesus in Herodotus. Croesus winds up surviving, but there is a similar feel.
Jamsco
2. Jamsco
The text said that after this, unless one had great strength of will to direct the palantir, it would only show Denethor's burning hands.

I wonder who tried? At least one person with a strong will.
Jamsco
3. Jamsco
And I appreciate how seriously Gandalf took Pippins words when he stopped him at the gate.
Tony Zbaraschuk
4. tonyz
I'm sure Aragorn tried the palantir (he has the Orthanc-stone as well, but a second would have been very useful -- perhaps Arwen tried it, in hopes of using it to speak with Aragorn while he was away on the frontiers?)

One thing that it took me a while to realize: Denethor's "The past preserved perfectly, or NOTHING!" is _also_ a condemnation of the Rings of Power: their very goal was to preserve all things unstained, unchanged, immune to passing Time. But _this_ is where that leads, since change is inevitably decreed as the manner of creation: the Music of the Ainur must proceed to the end, even if Men have been given the power to shape their lives and choose within it.
j p
5. sps49
Gandalf was definitely heading out to confront the Witch-King. It was not easy for him to avoid the discouraged use of "force of arms"; he may have heard an echo of Manwe's mission statement in Pippin's news.

Denethor is very unlike a willow tree, no?

Beregond's dilemna is not that unusual- orders can be bad, illegal, or morally reprehensible. Oaths to actual persons (rather than the nation or people thereof) are most susceptible to conflict. Did all of Denethor's torchbearers obey unthinkingly?
Soon Lee
6. SoonLee
Denethor was using the palantír as a pillow on the marble table? How remarkably uncomfortable.

Seems to be part of the hair-shirt thing. He also slept with armour on.
Jamsco
7. meteorplum
...then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.


Denethor apparently does love Faramir as much as he did Boromir. Which makes the suicide that much sadder.
Jamsco
8. pilgrimsoul
I agree with Demetrios X. Gandalf might have gone to confront the Witch King but the evil he speak of is Theoden's Death. Then we can get all technical as to the extent Gandalf is a "man".
Jamsco
9. Elaine Thom
The Houses of Healing are the only place in Minas Tirith with a garden and trees? I realize it’s a stone city and there are fields outside, but still, that doesn’t seem very friendly. Another thing to check the last chapters for.

Somewhere, probably in the Last Debate chapter Legolas enters the city and remarks to Gimli that there's way too little in the way of growing things. He promises that when Aragorn comes into his own the people of the wood will bring trees and flowers, to beautify the place. Even further on, perhaps in the appendices, we're told it did happen.

Of course, it was original a fortress outpost, not the capital city. That may have something to do with the lack of space for gardens. OTOH, herbs, fruit trees and vegetables would have been handy in a fortress.

I'm basing this on what I've read in Dante, but pagan suicides would be punished in accordance with their own beliefs. Someone somewhere I've heard calls Dante's Commedia "Aquinas' Summa in poetry", which implies he got the theology essentially correct.

FWIW.

One thing that it took me a while to realize: Denethor's "The past preserved perfectly, or NOTHING!" is _also_ a condemnation of the Rings of Power: their very goal was to preserve all things unstained, unchanged, immune to passing Time. But _this_ is where that leads,


Shows how the Eldar have learned, doesn't it, that they all - even Galadriel - actively help the Ring on the way to destruction instead of trying to hold things back and continue to keep all things untouched by Time.

I really like Beregond in this chapter. Tolkien set it up perfectly, and then came up with the perfect way for Aragorn to deal out consequences.
Andrew Foss
10. alfoss1540
Whether it is from reading this so slowly, or the fact that it about the 14th time I have read it, Gandalf's comment about how Denethor kept him from preventing woe and bitter loss was lost on me. Is it that Theoden is escalated to Epic hero extrodinaire already? I do not know.

Regarding Denethor, and interesting thought is about how much the story of Denethor has elements of Horror told second hand in the middle of this historical fantasy epic. He is haunted by an evil nearly all powerful enemy who is slowly mentally unhinging him.

More reasons to love it.
Andrew Foss
11. alfoss1540
Let's not forget tragedy as well - though some of that is in his head - but not all.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
DemetriosX @ #1, yes, and he also fears that Eowyn and Merry will yet die. Theoden gets such a grand sendoff that it took me a minute too to connect that bitter loss, because of course no matter how golden it's still a loss.

(reading down, pretty much like alfoss1540's reaction @ #10.)

Jamsco @ #3, yes, Gandalf knows the worth of a hobbit.

tonyz @ #4, well-spotted. I agree.

sps49 @ #5, the two servants who bring Denethor the torch do so after a direct appeal to them, but more than that I cannot say.

meteorplum @ #7, though I wonder if he would also have tried to cut Boromir's throat.

Elaine Thom @ #9, thanks for the references later to plants. And yes, to you & DemetriosX, I did neglect Beregond. He'll get his time.

alfoss1540 @ #10, a more psychological horror than the Nazgul on the field, as befits Denethor's more psychologically-rounded character (to date).
Jamsco
13. buzzbaileyport
tonyz @4: In The Council of Elrond, the eponymous Elf relates that the Three were indeed made "to preserve all things unstained"; he contrasts them with the other seventeen, which seems to imply that those were "weapons of war" whose purpose was "strength or domination or hoarded wealth." Excellent relating of how Denethor's desire corresponds to the Elves', and how both are in conflict with the Music. I've never seen it in that light before.

sps49 @5: According to Appendix B, The Tale of Years, the Istari "were forbidden to match his (Sauron's) power with power." Not sure how literally Manwë intended to be taken--was he saying only Istar-Sauron clashes, or any sort of offensives by the Wizards? At any rate, I don't think Gandalf only acted in self-defense against Sauron's minions, but neither did he launch one-man assaults on Sauron's strongholds.

Not too sure what you were referring to in the Denethor/willow contrast.

Re: conflicting orders: the most obvious real-world comparisons, of course, were the oaths sworn by officers of the Third Reich to Hitler. This served as the foundation for the "We were just following orders " phrase was the chief defense of many of the accused war criminals at the Nuremberg trials--which, of course, the court rejected. The oath also prevented more than a few officers from joining the conspirators in the famous July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler (Valkyrie, anyone?): it was morally right (or, at least, morally "less wrong"), but they felt bound by their oath. So although it may be tempting to denounce the torchbearers as mindless automatons (and I actually have, up until I read your post), that almost certainly wasn't the case.

(By the way: in the US, the members of the armed forces swear an oath to defend their nation's Constitution, rather than a person, position, or even the nation's population. British military recruits swear to defend their reigning monarch; Germans, to defend the well-being of their people.)

SoonLee @6: Denethor seems to be quite Spartan, at least as far as creature comforts are concerned. He demands a lot from everybody, but doesn't spare himself. Well, not that much, anyways. Too bad that he isn't willing to fight to the death, like said Spartans.

meteorplum @7: I think that Denethor is referring to his son's love (for his father) halved, as is seen by his next words: "Thou hadst already stolen half my son’s love."

Elaine Thom @9: I seem to remember reading somewhere that Minas Anor's original purpose was in defending against incursions from the southwest (e.g., Dunlendings and Corsairs), and that sustained sieges therefore would not really be a problem. Otherwise, though, building a city that could last much longer than its inhabitants doesn't seem like a very coherent strategy.

Re: the Eldar and getting rid of the Ring[s]--I think the Elves realized that getting rid of Sauron was much more important than holding onto their Rings. Seems like a no-brainer, but then again, in the First Age they had been more concerned about their realms (Doriath, Nargothrond, and Goldolin come to mind) than about defeating Morgoth.

alfoss1540 @10: What is it about Gandalf's comment that is so confusing? I thought the others' explanations were quite clear: namely, that Gandalf supernaturally sees Théoden lying dead (and Éowyn lying mostly dead), and that is the "woe and bitter loss" he's referring to.
jon meltzer
14. jmeltzer
In "The Peoples of Middle-Earth" JRRT reveals that Denethor was "the third child and first son" of Ecthelion, so he had at least three siblings and presumably the House of Hurin would not have become extinct if Denethor had succeeded in burning Faramir. Not that Denethor is thinking clearly about that at all, of course ...
Jamsco
15. Elaine Thom
#14 Denethor was "the third child and first son" of Ecthelion, so he had at least three siblings and presumably the House of Hurin would not have become extinct if Denethor had succeeded in burning Faramir.

Genealogical houses aren't usually thought of as continuing through female lines, though. So if the male lines die out, the house is gone. If Denethor is the first son - was he an only son, did it say? - and he and his sons die without issue, there goes the House of Hurin.


I'm not sure I agree that Theoden's death is the bitter loss. On the one hand, what else could it be?* OTOH, he himself thinks it a great way to go, and it's certainly much better than what Wormtongue and Saruman would have given him.

*Eowyn and Merry, of course. Even if Gandalf sees Merry standing he knows that those who strike the Witch King are doomed by the Black Breath.

In general there's a theme of the old being swept away and new young folks coming in and taking over. The Eldar are going. The old kings and stewards are killed or suicide. Out with the old! In with the new! Aragorn isn't exactly young, but he's a new thing, a king after centuries of no king. And he reigns long enough so that he can be thought of as 'young' (historically, you might say) when he takes the kingship. The old who aren't willing to bend - oh is that what someone above meant with the willow metaphor, bending like a willow? - die. The Eldar who do bend get to go West. They've learned at last. He who learned better, (that is under the Saruman influence he wasn't going to bend and help, but he lets Gandalf heal him) Theoden dies, but gloriously, in the best traditions of his people.
Jamsco
16. Marc Rikmenspoel
@Kate: Thanks for continuing to post this series. I'm still reading it, even when I'm not posting a comment.

I find the Denethor sections of LotR immensely claustrophobic, which was of course the intended effect. But they work too well for me, so that I don't much reread them, or even like reading about them.
Soon Lee
17. SoonLee
Elaine Thom @15:
IIRC (either in "The Silmarillion" or "Unfinished Tales"), the Numenoreans began initially with oldest son inheriting the kingship, but that was changed during their time on Numenor to oldest child inheriting. IIRC, Elendil himself was descended from Elros via a female line.

Though by Gondor, inheritance of rule had reverted back to oldest son. So female inheritance was not unheard of but by the time of the Stewards, both the kings & stewards of Gondor were males. Denethor himself did not sire any daughters (as far as we know) so as far as he was concerned, *his* line dies with him.
jon meltzer
18. jmeltzer
The Stewards line was not direct father-to-son in two cases: once a childless steward was succeeded by a cousin, and the other time by a sister's son (though we don't know who her husband was).

And, as SoonLee notes, the earliest known male ancestor of Aragorn is Princess Silmarien's husband, not Elros, Earendil or any of the Edain before them. So he may not possess the same Y-chromosome as Elrond (though I suspect that JRRT, if asked about that, would have said that Silmarien married a cousin).

(I expect to write more about this, and Numenorean succession laws, when we get to Appendix A)
Kate Nepveu
19. katenepveu
Elaine Thom @ #15, I took Merry & Eowyn to be the "greater sorrow (that) may yet come to pass."

Yes, there was a good article that I have since misplaced (anyone who can provide the cite, please do) that pointed out that one of the ways Tolkien allowed hierarchy to be flexible was by removing old/corrupt authority and replacing it with new, or by just taking off whole top layers (Iluvatar, the Valar, and now the Eldar).

Marc Rikmenspoel @ #16, thanks for commenting, though no worries, I know the typical lurker-commenter ratio perfectly well and am not bothered by it.

SoonLee @ #17, jmeltzer @ #18, I did not know that about Elendil's line of descent! I admit to having previously scanted Appendix A, and expect to find much new to me when we get to it.
Jamsco
20. Elaine Thom
What I remember about Elendil's line of descent is that Silmarien was the eldest child, but the next ruler was her brother. But her line stayed true. At least for the most part, hence Elendil came from it. The implication being that if they'd just gone for the eldest line instead of male heir things likely would have turned out differently. This goes along with Aragorn being of Isildur's - the elder brother's line - and his being the one that lasts and eventually returns. Although there's also more than one mention IIRC about him being descended 'father to father' from Isildur.

Tolkien seems to want to say that eldest line is specially blest or something. Or maybe if the eldest is passed over for non-good reasons it will turn out badly in the long term.
Jamsco
21. buzzbaileyport
The Lords of Andúnië were descended from Silmariën and her son Valandil. To my knowledge, Tolkien never gives the full genealogy from Valandil to Amandil (the last Lord of Andúnië and the father of Elendil), but I wouldn't be surprised if it was straight father-to-son, like that of Arnor and in marked contrast to the convoluted lines of succession of Númenor and Gondor.
Jamsco
22. radagastslady
The index is not updating this. Might want to check that out.
Jamsco
24. Jerry Friedman
I think many literary readers would see this chapter as one of the novel's greatest failings. Gandalf has carefully told us about the conflict between Aragorn and Denethor, and Denethor has started it by questioning Pippin. Boromir (we realize, maybe in retrospect) might have been against Aragorn, but he has conveniently died. How, the reader is wondering, will Aragorn handle a conflict with an ally? Will he again be the interestingly conflicted person that he was through chapter 2 of The Two Towers, or will he remain the perfect knight that he's been since then? And what do perfect knights do in this situation? What maneuver will Gandalf attempt? Will Pippin help as the unexpected voice of loyalty and common sense?

No. Denethor conveniently dies. The conflict is dodged (though we may see a symbolic trace of it, since Aragorn's Theseus-like sails and his flag's failure to unfurl contribute to Denethor's despair). Faramir, perhaps predictably, will not cause a problem. Aragorn will get little interesting to do except Beregond's punishment (as Elaine Thom pointed) and a few bits of odd behavior. And the reader may feel a bit cheated—though I didn't till after many rereadings.

So is Denethor's tragedy part of Aragorn's reward for living up to his destiny, and part of the reader's eucatastrophe?
Jamsco
25. pilgrimsoul
@ Jerry 24

An interesting point, but I don't think the focus was meant to be the politics but the quest.
Jamsco
26. Elaine Thom
Jerry, I'm working off memories of HoME where Tolkien did write a confrontation between Aragorn and Denethor, and what the associated notes by him or Christopher said -

I think Tolkien decided having such a scene unbalanced the tale, and put the emphasis on the wrong side: earthly politics. What matters is the quest. If Frodo doesn't succeed, everything goes down. When you keep that in mind the politics are irrelevant. Denethor couldn't see that. Aragorn does. Tolkien did, after writing it. So he decided to kill off Denethor so as to keep the political crap to a minimum, and keep the focus on Frodo's quest.

(Elaborating what pilgrimsoul wrote.)
Jamsco
27. Jerry Friedman
Thanks for the comments, Elaine and pilgrimsoul. I must say the restoration of the rightful king seems almost as important as the quest, to me.

I mentioned literary readers because I'd expect that for them, the quest would be unimportant and the conflicts between the characters would supply the interest. As someone who likes fantasy and science fiction, I'm not so insistent. Though I'd still like to know what Faramir would have done.

However, if the politics was unimportant, why did we get so much in Chapters 1 and 4? Why have Gandalf fence with Denethor? Maybe HoME, which I haven't read, provides the answer. Maybe Tolkien decided to set up a conflict between Aragorn and Denethor, decided it was too much and took out the confrontation he'd written, but didn't go back and remove the set-up. Maybe he thought the tension would show Denethor's character and would be interesting even if it wouldn't be resolved. So thanks for bringing that up.

But even so, I feel cheated. Maybe I'd better read that scene in HoME.
Jamsco
28. pilgrimsoul
The more interesting conflict, and it may be merely in my eyes, is the one between Aragorn's longing and duty to go to Minas Tirith and his strongly felt need to support Frodo. He knows which one is more important. "I would have guided Frodo to Morder if I could," but that decision was taken out of his hands. If you asked him Aragorn would say that Frodo's quest superseded all politics.
The conflict between Gandalf and Denethor shows the contrast between someone thinking beyond personal interest and long term and someone thinking only of his personal interests.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
Jerry Friedman @ #24, interesting question. I remember saying, last time that this came up, that an Aragorn-Denethor confrontation would be rather similar to the Scouring in feel. And on having read the next chapter and trying to imagine how Aragorn would deal with it, in light of his actions there, I think I may stick with that.

(I admit that I'm probably biased because Denethor's arc strikes me as one of the better things so far this re-read.)
Jamsco
30. Jerry Friedman
pilgrimsoul @ #28: I agree that Aragorn's interior conflict, which I mentioned above, is very interesting. I think another major flaw in the book is that the first-time reader has little chance to understand it. I didn't understand it at all till I read Master of Middle-Earth.

But that, like the skipped conflict between Aragorn and Denethor, is part of "the return of the king", which I'd say is second in importance to Frodo's quest only because it depends on Frodo's success. I don't see it as mere politics at all. Politics could have been one way it was achieved.

I must also disagree with you on what the conflict between Gandalf and Denethor shows. Denethor states, and Gandalf agrees, that Denethor is thinking of Gondor, not just himself. And Denethor makes the excellent point that Rohan and the small additional population of free people have little hope without Gondor. Also, in their situation there's not much long term without a short term. Gandalf was smart to walk out after his "I shall not wholly fail" speech in "Minas Tirith" and avoid Denethor's crushing reply.

I see two conflicts between them. One is that Denethor believes he could have been trusted with the Ring. As he points out himself, this is only in the realm of "if". The other is that in his pride he does somewhat confuse Gondor's and the world's interests with his own. But this problem arises only in regard to Aragorn, and that's what Tolkien decided to dodge.
Hugh Arai
31. HArai

I see two conflicts between them. One is that Denethor believes he could have been trusted with the Ring. As he points out himself, this is only in the realm of "if". The other is that in his pride he does somewhat confuse Gondor's and the world's interests with his own. But this problem arises only in regard to Aragorn, and that's what Tolkien decided to dodge.


I'd say trusting Denethor with the ring is only in the realm of "if" in his own head. He wasn't strong enough to wrench the palantir from Sauron, something Aragorn could do. Yet Aragorn didn't trust himself with the Ring.

As for the other conflict, if hiding the ring in a fastness of power was a good idea, Denethor still holds Gondor excessively high. There is Rivendell after all. Complete with Noldor warriors like Glorfindel who is capable of riding against the Nine by himself. Denethor may be thinking of Gondor not just himself, but he's still thinking that if Gondor is lost, it doesn't matter if Sauron wins. That's what Aragorn, Gandalf and Elrond are wise enough to see beyond. I would say Faramir also sees beyond that which is part of why Denethor is so bitter.
Jamsco
32. pilgrimsoul
@Jerry 30
We actually don't disagree. I just wasn't clear enough about "personal interests" which for Denethor are clearly Minas Tirith's survival, power, and prestige.
Jamsco
33. Jerry Friedman
Kate @ #29: I confess I can't see how an Aragorn-Denethor conflict would have felt like the Scouring. Do you recall where you mentioned that?

I like the Denethor arc too, but it's truncated. How would you have liked it if he'd committed suicide (or as good as—getting himself killed in battle or by fighting Aragorn or Gandalf) because everyone took Aragorn's side instead of because Sauron deceived him with the palantír?

(This is bad—I'm seeing how a rewrite would fit together. Must save writing for things other people might read.)

HArai @ #31: I agree completely that Denethor is wrong about being trustable with the Ring. That's a basic premise of the book, in addition to your point about the palantír.

The subject comes up in talking about Faramir's opportunity to take the Ring from Frodo. At that point, I don't think sending it back to Rivendell is a reasonable possibility. True, Denethor would believe it would be safer in Minas Tirith if such a question had come up.

Maybe Denethor doesn't care what happens to the rest of the world if Gondor loses, but as he points out (and Boromir and Beregond do), the question is academic. If Gondor loses, so does the rest of the world.

In fact, Denethor and Gandalf never disagree on anything practical that I can see, but they would if Denethor had met Aragorn.

pilgrimsoul @ #32: Thanks for clarifying.

I'd like to go back to something Elaine Thom said about an Aragorn-Denethor confrontation unbalancing the book. It seems to me that few fantasy writers think about such things. Their goal is to have as much incident and complication as possible, whereas Tolkien simplified things a lot (which may be why he said the book was too short). I'm not saying that's a bad thing in general, just in this case.
Jamsco
34. Confutus
What Denethor valued was his own survival, prestige, and position. I don't believe he ever had any great concern with that of the ordinary people of Minas Tirith. If he had, he would not have abandoned them when Faramir was struck down and he himself was needed to lead the defense of the city.

Although he was respected for his wisdom, he was too stern, cold, and commanding, and too jealous of his own prestige and position to inspire much love in the other direction, either. Faramir was leas jealous and better loved, and his father resented him for it.

I have a few comments on the possible confrontation between Denethor and Aragorn, but those are better saved for the next chapter.
Hugh Arai
35. HArai
Jerry Friedman@33: I disagree. The world still wins if the Ring is destroyed, whether or not Gondor falls. It's not academic at all, and that's Gandalf's point in the upcoming council where they decide to march against Mordor.
Jamsco
37. Jerry Friedman
Sorry, I should have seen what you were talking about—it's obvious now. Yes, I agree that for Gandalf and the reader, if Gondor is destroyed and the Ring is too, the world wins.

It had never occurred to me that this could be what Gandalf was talking about about when he said, "I shall not wholly fail", and I'm still not sure it is. (And I'm not saying you're saying it is.)
Maiane Bakroeva
38. Isilel
Confutus @34:

What Denethor valued was his own survival, prestige, and position.

IMHO, he didn't necessarily value his own survival all that much. Like ancient Romans Denethor cared about his place in history - Gondorian history. But he didn't believe that there would be any left at this point.
Jamsco
39. Elaine Thom
I've spent a good few hours skimming my Tolkieniana looking for the bit I know I've read that discusses how Aragorn and Denethor having a confrontation and so on would have unbalanced the narrative. I know I didn't make it up, but I can't find it either.

I did find, in HoME Vol 8, a short confrontation scene. Denethor speaks along the lines of "I'm not giving power to you." and Aragorn replies wtte "I will take, not wait to have it given." And it would have been nice to see it fleshed out some more.

Something I did skim this morning remarked that Denethor was basically in the same position as Wormtongue, heirarchy-wise. Both were stewards, Denethor was just a hereditary one. Now that was a parallel I've
not seen drawn before.


Yes, I agree that for Gandalf and the reader, if Gondor is destroyed and the Ring is too, the world wins.

It had never occurred to me that this could be what Gandalf was talking about about when he said, "I shall not wholly fail"


Whatever anyone else thinks he meant, I think he meant exactly that. He says so in his (first?) meeting with Denethor. That if there's something surviving that still flourishes, he won't have wholly failed.


Other oddments I noticed while skimming through HoME -

JRRT played with making the Lord of the Nazgul one of the fallen wizards.

He apparently credits Eowyn for offing him.

(I still think Merry and his barrow-blade had to start it.)

He'd put a palantir at Erech at one point, and had Aragorn find it.

In most of the drafts, when the banner is unfurled at Erech the stars on it show up.


He was not one of those writers who needs the right name for characters. Some of them he was changing up until the end.
Travis Butler
40. tbutler
@Jerry:

I think many literary readers would see this chapter as one of the novel's greatest failings.


See, I view that as a condemnation of that strain of literary readers, not the novel. :)

For me, that's part and parcel of the culture of cynicism that helped ruin the movies, and the way they meddled with Aragorn and Faramir in particular. The idea that interpersonal conflict among the protagonist's side is the most 'interesting' thing is a mindset I deplore. I've dealt with way too much of it in everyday life; and it's not something 'interesting', it's something boring at best, actively annoying at worst. As someone else said, it's politics and a sideshow to the important part, destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron.

I also think Denethor's 'As Gondor goes, so goes the world' is far more related to pride and arrogance than to concern for the world - and in a way that echoes the cynical attitude mentioned above, because it denies Hope. If Gondor were destroyed, it may be that that would have let Sauron smash the free kingdoms of the world (though even that is overstating Gondor's importance, I think, given the battles in other parts of the world). But even if that were so, there would still be hope for the future as long as one small corner of goodness survives, Gandalf argues in the 'For I am also a steward' speech we were discussing a couple of chapters ago. I don't think there's much doubt where Tolkien stood there, or in several other spots in the book, which is why I find cynical takes to be such irritating mis-readings.

(Probably more on this in a couple of chapters. ^_^)
Kate Nepveu
41. katenepveu
Oh, right, commenting is fixed!

My thoughts on Aragorn-Denethor ended up fitting in the next chapter post, which is in the hopper.

Elaine, thanks for the tidbits.
Andrew Foss
42. alfoss1540
Speaking of Denethor's "As Gondor Goes, So Does the World", what about the Battle of 5 Armies? His mental state at this point is 100% ego centric. Denethor is Gondor.

Been avoiding next chapter due to the horror of Ioreth, gulp. Hold you stomachs.
Jamsco
43. Jerry Friedman
Yes, thanks, Elaine. I wouldn't have guessed "I will take it" would be Aragorn's approach.

tbutler: There's no accounting for taste. I might have enjoyed a scene with Denethor and Aragorn. As it is, though, Tolkien sets it up and then doesn't do much with it. The pay-off seems to be that Denethor resents and mistrusts Gandalf (not without reason—Gandalf hasn't been candid with him about Aragorn.), as we see in this chapter. Also, though Denethor says, "I would not bow to such a one," he does seem to envision losing the stewardship in the last sentence of his next speech. But this seems to me like a minor part of his despair, not worth the set-up.

Incidentally I'm just now noticing that Gandalf misses one of his best arguments: If Denethor has devoted his life to fighting for Gondor, he's ruining it by failing at the end. And Denethor misses one of his: Would Gandalf risk seeing the defenseless Faramir taken prisoner and tortured if the City falls? (But then Gandalf only hinted at his best argument with Saruman: "Whoever wins, his outlook is poor.")

Several people have said that the conflict the rule of Gondor is of minor importance, and you called it a "sideshow". I really don't see it that way. The restoration of the monarchy strikes me as second only to the defeat of Sauron (necessarily), and there's a reason this book is called The Return of the King.

I don't understand what you're saying about cynicism. I strongly suspect that if you were in a war, you'd find it boring at best and much worse than annoying at worst. (Or that you did find it that way, if you've been in a war.) I don't see why preferring to read about one topic or the other is cynical in any sense.

"As Gondor goes, so goes the world." I have the impression that the attack on Minas Tirith had by far the greatest force of Sauron's attacks. This is not supported with any textev other than some vague comments about Sauron's chief hatred and where his chief blow would fall. I can't imagine Dale, Erebor, the elves of Mirkwood, etc., would have much of a chance if Gondor fell. (Maybe Lórien?)

I agree with you and alfoss1540 that Denethor's attitude contains a lot of pride as well as a practical strategic point. And psychologically it's part of his breakdown; Tolkien repeatedly has him say that the West has failed, not just that Minas Tirith will fall. Indeed there's little doubt of where he stands. But I don't see the connection with his decision not have Aragorn confront Denethor.

By the way, I'm finally remembering to say that Sauron's inducing Denethor to kill himself may have been a blunder. By that time Sauron knows Aragorn will claim the kingship, and allowing a conflict between him and Denethor might have worked better for Sauron.
Jamsco
44. pilgrimsoul
@ Jerry 43

I do not think that Sauron had the power to induce Denethor to kill himself. He controlled the palantir and what Denethor saw with it, but Denethor's own pride and despair was sufficient for him to want to die--it was a last act of control--and take Faramir with him.
Bill Reamy
45. BillinHI
tbutler @40: If I'm correct in my understanding of your aversion to 'interpersonal conflict among the protagonists', I wholeheartedly agree! Just watched the CBS show on the (forget the number) Greatest Surprises on TV and am appalled at the kinds of things a great number of people watch on TV. Two that stuck out to me were Gordon Ramsay and whoever the guy was that got his arm chopped off by a helicopter and then had one fall on him in the next season (is that ER? Don't know and don't really care).

How has Ramsay avoided at least being cut up if not killed with any of the large sharp knives in Hell's Kitchen? I was hoping the ex-marine featured on the CBS show was going to cold-cock him but of course it didn't happen. I can't really feel sorry for the people on the show, though. They have to know what kind of psychotic sadist they are getting involved with by agreeing (and probably competing!) to get on his show.

It's due to people and shows like that that my TV viewing is limited to things like How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, etc.
Jamsco
46. Jerry Friedman
pilgrimsoul @ #44: Sorry, I meant that maybe Sauron shouldn't have influenced Denethor toward killing himself.

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