The case for Denethor, Gondors greatest defender
I think Denethor is one of the most memorable characters of Tolkien’s greatest work. No matter your thoughts on him, he sticks to the mind much like Pippin’s description of him as “like a grey old spider”. I’ll do my best to keep this to a post about Denethor, as hard as it will be to leave out his sons, his king and Pippin(the character who’s eyes we see him through).
Denethor is described as being more similar to Faramir as to Boromir in appearance, and this, Tolkien would lead us to believe, is a measure of the strength of his blood and his ties to his ancestors. The Numenoreans, known to many as a race of proud and paranoid people. Yet on the very next page Tolkien chooses to use Denethor as the conduit to which he expresses a sentiment that goes against much of what has come before – “that looks may belie the man”. This, coupled with Gandalfs remark that “the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does his other son, Faramir, and did not in Boromir whom he loved best”, may seem to contradict each other. And this is where it may be hard to grasp what my interpretation is, but I will do my best to explain.
It took me a second to discard Gandalf’s infallibility, so let us remember the words of Elrond, as he is a character of equal wisdom, but one not so invested in the battle as to forget the war. He says that “The road must be trod… But neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it”. I love Gandalf, as a figurehead of the INTJ community and as a role model I have looked up to my entire life, but he behaves more a fool than Pippin in ROTK. Denethor has the appearance of true power and wisdom, but against the weapons of the enemy both are useless.
The interactions between Mithrandir and Denethor are telling. Because despite his disdain at having to suffer the wizards condescension, and even more so knowing the wizard brings his(in his mind upstart) king, he doesn’t turn the wizard or his advice away. How many of us would do the same? How many of us would allow the one person who embodies the things we hate(in this case a seeming lack of responsibility, an entitled sense of power, a laissez-faire approach to the lives of his people), because we know that they could help us? Now I hope I don’t need to justify to you why Deny boy thinks of Gandalf this way, as a little bit of history and empathy is all that’s required to see it.
So we’re introduced early on to Denethor the protector of the realm. But our introduction to Denethor the father comes when Gandalf rescues Faramir from the Nazgul on the Pelennor. The presence of his son seems to make him even rougher, he grows bitter and spiteful of Gandalf who appears to have his son’s loyalty more than he. But this isn’t so much a character flaw as a side effect of a time honoured rite of passage any father or son knows all too well, the rebellion of a son against his father. The difference is that his father is also his lord. Faramir reminds Denethor of a time when he was younger, when Den was the one who was “lordly and generous as a king of old”. But Denethor has the hindsight of someone who has learnt that this brings only death, and the argument with Far is clearly an old one. An argument whereby Denethor urges his son to drop the formality, to embrace the time of war as was Boromir’s want to do, but as with many family arguments it is a proxy argument, with Denethor urging his son to drop formality not because “gentleness may be repaid with death” but because he wants a relationship with his son as he had before Far changed his tune from “Dad” to “father” to “my lord”. This is where a strong paternal instinct is needed. This is the bit that may be hard to understand, but Faramir may have turned cold not for any reason other than that he could not rebel in little ways against his father, because he could not rebel at all against his lord. It could have been that he was tired, or busy with the protection of the realm, or assigning more important matters to his more ready heir, but Denethor lost his sons trust as he grew. Whatever the cause of the divide, Den knows that it has been opened and knows not how to close that gap. He is a lore master and a military veteran, but raising two very different children on his own was his greatest battle. I could write for hours on the divide between father and son, and the pain that that causes both parties, but unless you know the pain personally it is not something you can feel.
So I move on, Denethor the father was a Denethor that did his best. I will now tackle the most difficult part of forgiving Denethor, which is a journey wrought with denial but we will take it with Faramir as our guide. “Yes I wish that indeed”. A line so heart breaking I dreaded re reading it to write this, but it’s clear that he did not wish that. No father wishes death upon his son, not so long as he loves them as Den does, so the question is why then did he say it? “For despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt” is a line from Gandalf I look to to help answer this riddle. He does not wish to have Boromir in Faramirs place because “he would have bought me a mighty gift”, he wishes not that the sons had switched places because he doesn’t love Faramir, but because he felt he had lost his son a long time ago. He gave up on that relationship, he lost his hope that Faramir may yet love him as Sauron twisted his mind and destroyed his hope that he may salvage his kingdom. It is another proxy argument, stating not that he doesn’t want Faramir, but that he fears deeply, more deeply than he fears anything, that Faramir does not love him. This is why Denethor is Tolkien’s most epic tragedy, as the Palantir granted him sight so too did it grant Sauron sight, and as Sauron guided where Denethor looked, I do not doubt that Denethor’s mind guided Sauron right to this, the only weakness in the impenetrable armour of a mighty man. I can see Sauron’s delight at having his then greatest adversary’s weakness displayed before him, and Sauron is never shown so wicked as to drive a man mad by pressing on the wound of losing both his sons.
When Faramir comes to him seemingly dead, Denethor loses the last hope of reconciling with his son. All of the arguments about formality and battle plans and halflings mean nothing, the only arguments that mean anything to him are the ones that he sees in the future that could have been. It was in this moment that he truly lost hope, he tasted true despair, he drank the last of “the bitterness in the cup that I[he] stirred for myself”. The motif of cleansing fire is not one Tolkien particularly enjoyed. He saw fire as smoke and death, not as new life like many of us(especially in Australia) do. So when Denethor chooses to burn himself so that the last traces of his failure are gone forever we don’t see it as cleansing, but as the filfthy business that it is, a murder suicide committed in the most desperate corners of a mind twisted by a wound he didn’t know he had made by an enemy he didn’t know could twist the knife. I make the case that Sauron showing Denethor the might of the east was not enough to brake his spirit, but if Sauron guided the Palantir sight to Faramir’s side, to watch his regret and know how he has failed the only task that matters to a father, only then has Sauron won.
I hope that this has displayed to you a different Denethor than the one you knew. Instead of seeing a man corrupted by power and a father neglectful of his sons, I hope you will see that Denethor was the captain that guided Gondor through its darkest days, and the Father who’s greatest fear was weaponised against him by a creature of pure evil.
Took me all day to write this👍😂 I don’t know if anyone will even read it tbh. Drop a comment and a DM! And reblog please I’d like more followers😭