The Lord of the Rings Reread

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

The 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.  


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.


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