Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Denethor II, Steward of Gondor

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This installment looks at Denethor II, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and father of Boromir and Faramir.

Over the years, and perhaps especially after the release of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, Denethor has become one of the most despised characters in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. His blatant favoritism of Boromir over Faramir seems to be at least one root of this hatred. But where did the Steward’s cruelty come from? And is there any reason we should extend an attempt at compassion to a man so twisted and broken with hate? Did Tolkien conceive of the character that way from the start?

The short answer to that last question is: no. In fact, Tolkien originally cast Denethor as a man who, while certainly stern and hardened by years of war and loss, showed flashes of compassion and tenderness that belie his later harshness. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was he like in the beginning, and how did the Denethor we know and hate today emerge from the tangled threads of Tolkien’s relentless revisions?

The genealogy of Elendil, found in The Peoples of Middle-earth, describes Denethor II as “very tall and in appearance […] like an ancient Númenórean.” As the “first son and third child of Ecthelion,” he must have shouldered many heavy expectations and, fascinatingly, was “more learned in lore than any Steward for many generations” (206). Furthermore, his father, Ecthelion II, was at the least “friendly” with Gandalf (206), and presumably refortifies Pelargir and Cair Andros at the wizard’s encouragement. All this suggests to me two things in particular. Gandalf’s relationship with Ecthelion might have influenced the education of the young Denethor. Thus, we might trace Denethor’s unusual investment in the lore of his country to Gandalf’s preoccupation with the same. Conjecture, yes, but remember that Faramir was similarly influenced: Denethor twice calls his son a “wizard’s pupil” in the published Lord of the Rings, and there is more than a little bitterness in his words as he does so. It’s easy to imagine that Gandalf, ever looking to the future, had convinced Ecthelion that such knowledge would prove useful to the next Steward. I’d suggest that in part, Denethor grows cold towards his son because the similarities between their lives make him fearful (more on this later). Denethor’s wisdom and ability to foresee the future have been heavy burdens in the dark days throughout his life—and in the end they will cost him his life.

And his life has been full of loss and darkness. He marries, late, into the royal house of Dol Amroth. The family was “of Númenórean blood,” but also “reputed also to have Elven-blood from ancient days: the Elven-folk of Amroth of Lórien dwelt in the region of Dol Amroth before they sailed over sea” (Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 206). And his bride’s name? Finduilas. This is, right away, a warning sign. The original Finduilas was of course the beloved of hapless Túrin Turambar, and was captured and later brutally killed as a result of the sack of Nargothrond and Túrin’s abandonment. Her grave becomes a sign of Túrin’s failure and his fate. Now, the lives of Denethor and Túrin don’t necessarily have much in common beyond their general auras of dread and hopeless ends; but I would argue that the name Finduilas conjured up a very specific context or history for Tolkien—and now does the same for us. Names in Tolkien’s legendarium are more than names; they’re like markers or subtle signposts, reminding us to pay attention and, more importantly, to remember the past. The appearance of the name “Finduilas,” then, at this key moment, suggests that we read the story of Denethor with the story of Túrin in mind—and that should perhaps prepare us for the story of a man trapped in a dark fate he can’t understand or shake. A man locked in a hopeless struggle against an enemy too powerful to ever truly challenge.

Denethor enters the drafts of The Lord of the Rings with very little hesitation. Tolkien had used the Sindarin name before: it originally belonged to a leader of the Green-elves in Beleriand. Denethor, Lord Steward of Gondor, however, appears in two brief reference in The Fellowship of the Rings drafts; Christopher Tolkien notes that his father appears to have first written either a “B” or an “R,” but immediately replaced it with “Denethor” (The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 375). He was the father of Boromir from the start (Faramir’s existence and relationship to the leaders of Minas Tirith didn’t emerge until later). Tolkien doesn’t establish that Denethor is a steward until much later in the book, but here again he accomplishes the conception with little hesitation, prompting Christopher Tolkien to remark that his father apparently had worked out the existence of the steward-line long before (The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 153).

As in The Lord of the Rings, Denethor plays little to no role in the drafts until the arrival of Gandalf and Pippin at Minas Tirith. It is a surprise that, in the great upheaval that was Tolkien’s first foray into Book V, the character appears as clearly as he does. Tolkien began Book V optimistically; it was supposed to be the last, and he outlined nearly the entire thing before realizing that such was not to be. The outline was largely abandoned and its author discouraged. There were a number of false starts after that, and as many as eight drafts before the narrative began to take a shape of which Tolkien approved.

As with most of Tolkien’s characters, Denethor grew along with the narrative that surrounds him. In the drafts leading up to the published Return of the King, we see very clearly the price the Great War has exacted from the Steward of Gondor. Yes, Denethor is stern and in some respects harsh, but in these early stages, Tolkien often pulls aside that cold mask and allows us a glimpse of a soul exhausted by responsibility and torn by in-depth knowledge of a power against which it can do nothing.

In draft “D,” Faramir asks his father, as he does in The Lord of the Rings, “‘Do you wish then […] that our [the brothers’] places had been exchanged?'” Denethor’s response is heartbreaking:

“Yes, I wish that indeed,” said Denethor. “Or no,” and then he shook his head, and rising swiftly he laid his head upon his son’s bowed head. “Do not judge me harshly, my son,” he said quietly, “or believe me more harsh than I am. I knew your brother well also. Love is not blind. I could wish that Boromir had been at Henneth Annûn when this thing came there, only if I were sure of one thing.”

“Sure of what, my father?”

“That he was as strong in heart as you, and as selfless as you, my son.” (WR 332)

We should note a few things in particular. First, Denethor’s words have, in draft “D,” been made even gentler than they were in draft “C.” Indeed, from the words changed, we can assume an explicit desire on Tolkien’s part to make Denethor appear more understanding of his weary son. For example:  In draft “C” Denethor puts his hand on Faramir’s shoulder, not bowed head. Instead of asking his son to not judge him harshly, as in “C,” he asks that he would not believe him harsh, and he speaks quietly. Then again, his words about his sons’ places having been exchange is carefully and significantly altered. In the previous draft, as in the published version, Denethor does not elaborate on what he means by the claim, implying that he could accept Faramir’s death better than Boromir’s. In this draft, however, Denethor’s words are not left open to interpretation: he specifically qualifies his claim by saying only that he could wish that Boromir had been the one to meet Frodo and the Ring.

This is a very different sentiment than that which appeared before (and would appear finally, in the published version of the conversation). The exchange for which Denethor considers wishing is confined to a specific situation, a single moment. It humanizes him, and we understand the great (political, military) pressure he is under and how he grieves for the lives both his sons have been forced to endure. In draft “D,” no choice is a good choice, and Denethor’s resignation and honest admission of his older son’s flaws reveal Tolkien’s sympathy for a man who has been forced into a corner—who has prepared his entire life for this precise moment, only to find himself inadequate.

But, however sympathetic, Tolkien saw that this foundation just wasn’t going to cut it. Before going to the next draft, he left a note for himself—written, Christopher Tolkien says, “torrentially”—explaining how the father/son relationship should be amended:

The early conversation of Faramir and his father and motives must be altered. Denethor must be harsh. He must say he did wish Boromir had been at Henneth Annûn—for he would have been loyal to his father and brought him the Ring. […] Faramir grieved but patient. […] This will not only be truer to previous situation, but will explain Denethor’s breaking up when Faramir is brought back dying, as it seems. (WR 333)

Christopher Tolkien indicates that his father still went back and forth on this deliberation, but ultimately “decided that this was how it should in fact be.” It seems to have been particularly difficult for Tolkien to write this broken father/son relationship (one can’t help but wonder, given his propensity for father/son stories in general, if that reluctance was influenced at all by the loss of his own father at such a young age). The relationship is all the more tragic because of its potential. The two are more alike than either seems to be able to comprehend; Gandalf explains to Pippin that “‘by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in [Denethor]; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best'” (LotR 759).

As Faramir gradually loses his father over the course of these drafts, we see a much clearer picture of the hopeless situation of Minas Tirith, for as Denethor’s care for his younger son diminishes, so his wisdom with regards to the future of his stewardship falters. At one time, he viewed Gondor as one with himself (WR 282), a conception borrowed from ancient Celtic ideas of kingship. Now, his despair, though borne of wisdom and second sight, alienates him from his stewardship, his people, and his son. It is a dangerous thing for a steward, an intercessor, to be alienated, broken off from his duties—and we see the results in the way Denethor begins to interact with those around him. It leads him finally to self-destruction.

Interestingly, Denethor’s suicide is yet another aspect of his story that only evolved later in the drafts, and at first, it’s a direct result of Aragorn’s return. In the darkness and hopelessness of the War of the Ring, Denethor already sees himself as inadequate and incapable of protecting his people. He’s frightened. He sees Gondor collapsing around him (an exterior representation of his mental state). Sauron, the enemy, has not only found his way behind the bastion that is Minas Tirith—he’s also broken through the walls of the Steward’s mind, whispering lies and doubts that only seem to confirm what Denethor already dreads. In his mind (thanks to Sauron’s control of the palantir), the end is prescribed and he is found unworthy of leading his people, despite the fact that he’s specifically cared for Gondor as if he were its king, literally seeing it as an extension of himself. And now, just when he has become most convinced of his own failure and impotency, he learns that a more or less nameless upstart is making his way thither to claim the crown.

Of course, Denethor’s motivations shifted as Tolkien continued to draft, so we get a slightly different tale in The Lord of the Rings as it stands now. But the earlier drafts are still important because they reveal just how deeply Tolkien understood Denethor. He sees, and reveals to us, how the man becomes hardened over time, ground down repeatedly by his own wisdom; thwarted, seemingly, in all his efforts by relentless fate, which not only appears determined to prove him inadequate, but also in the last stroke takes away the son he unfairly neglected and the kingdom he couldn’t save. All this is evident in his last speech to Gandalf:

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.” (LotR 854)

Despite this, and despite Denethor’s cruelty to Faramir, I can’t help but wonder if Tolkien, who knew life’s hardships so well, still held onto that original sympathy he so clearly felt for the Steward. I suggest this for a simple but powerful reason. Even in the published Lord of the Rings, Denethor’s outlook on the War is repeatedly validated and his actions given credence, or at the least explained, by Gandalf. In “The Last Debate,” Gandalf consistently asks the Lords of the West to consider what Denethor said and understood, insisting that they see the truth in his outlook rather than unjustly vilifying him. Once the deed is done, the wizard doesn’t judge Denethor’s final choice, but rather attempts to see the situation from his perspective—and in so doing, discovers its value.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that either Gandalf or Tolkien thought Denethor made the right decision in ending his own life. But could we read his story with a little more empathy? Probably. No—certainly. Denouncing Denethor for his despair—which was, Tolkien is careful to point out, validated at every turn—is not only unjust, but is also, I think, to entirely misunderstand exactly what the Steward was up against. Tolkien gives us clues: Denethor’s bride is Finduilas. He gradually loses every single member of his family. He’s shown and convinced of a very specific future by the Dark Lord himself.

It’s not as if Denethor has been careless, making unwise choices or refusing to read the signs. The problem is that he knows only too well what’s going on—and for one reason and another, he doesn’t have the same network of support that each of the heroes of the story enjoys. There is no Sam Gamgee for Denethor, no Merry Brandybuck. He has grown bitter from a long loneliness engendered by great responsibilities and a wisdom that casts shadows wherever he turns. And to make matters worse, he sees the same thing happening to Faramir, now his only son, and blames Gandalf for encouraging Faramir’s sensitivity to the plight of Middle-earth. The knowledge drives him mad with grief and vulnerability.

None of this means that Denethor should be excused his cruelty, but I think it also means that he shouldn’t be blamed for his despair. It’s a difficult side to see, really. It’s so easy to blame Denethor and to despise him for his treatment of Faramir. But in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien consistently asks us to consider perspectives we might have otherwise ignored or overlooked, and this seems to be one of the more well-hidden examples of just that. And if we refuse to be gracious in our reading, have we really understood The Lord of the Rings at all?

“Denethor son of Ecthelion II” by 1oshuart

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who was, at first, miffed to find that working on this article transformed her opinion of her least favorite person in all of Arda. Now, feeling more compassionate, she doesn’t quite mind. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!

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