Gandalf Speaks of Stewards and Kings

Gandalf and Pippin are about to enter the Citadel and Gandalf gives Pippin a few last minute instructions.

“Leave quiet the matter of Frodo’s errand. I will deal with that in due time. And say nothing about Aragon, either, unless you must.”

Pippin is confused. “What is wrong with Strider?” he asks. The very fact that Pippin still refers to Aragorn by the nickname by which he is known in Bree tells us much, both about Pippin and the way in which Aragorn has behaved towards him throughout their journey together. Readers of my blog may remember a piece I wrote over a year ago about the reunion of Aragorn and the young hobbits at Isengard that I entitled, “Strider has come back!” It was about a weary Aragorn smoking his pipe with his feet up. It was about the way that Pippin sees his friend.

But now Pippin needs to understand things better. “See, Master Pippin, there is no time to instruct you now in the history of Gondor… It is scarcely wise when bringing the news of the death of his heir to a mighty lord to speak overmuch of the coming of one who will, if he comes, claim the kingship.”

The history to which Gandalf refers took place almost a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It refers to the time when the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar, had brought about the final downfall of the northern kingdom of the Dunedain in Arnor but how he in his turn had been defeated in battle by Glorfindel of Rivendell and had retreated to Mordor. The Witch King had then taken the city of Minas Ithil from Gondor and made it his capital, Minas Morgul and how he had then taunted the young and still childless king of Gondor , challenging him to single combat. Eärnur finally accepted the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul, never to be seen again.

Gondor now had no king but instead of choosing another from one of her great houses she made Mardil the Steward,  “until the king returns”. Many stewards had ruled Gondor in the long years since but the king was still awaited. Boromir once asked his father, Denethor, how long they should wait until the Steward   could become the king. “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty,” came Denethor’s reply. “In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”

Ten thousand years would not suffice. And here we see the true meaning of royalty. To be a king does not mean simply being the one who sits at the top of the heap or to be the one, to use British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli’s words, who has climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Richard Wagner captured the essence of true kingship in his final opera, Parsifal, his own telling of the Grail myth. He told of how the keepers of the Grail are ruled by a priest king, Amfortas, who has lost the spear that pierced the side of Christ when seduced by Kundry and who is now the Fisher King presiding over a dying kingdom. Parsifal, the perfect fool, is able to overcome Kundry’s temptations and the power of the witch king, Klingsor, and when he returns to the knights of the Grail bearing the sacred spear he brings healing to the land and to Amfortas and his men. It is through this healing that all recognise that Parsifal is the true king. There is no palace revolution. Amfortas lays down the kingship willingly.

Tolkien also tells the tale of a dying land and of a king who returns “with healing in his wings”. As with Parsifal, Aragorn passes through many trials in his own dark journey before he can claim the kingship.  In doing so Tolkien does not steal an idea from Wagner but draws from the same archetype. The true king is divinely anointed. The Steward can only watch over the kingdom until the true king comes. To be a steward is a position of high honour, and Gondor knows this, but Denethor sits in a simple chair beneath the throne. He is not the king.

10 thoughts on “Gandalf Speaks of Stewards and Kings

  1. I tend to see Tolkien’s rendition as a purified version of Wagner’s – Wagner’s version is manipulative in a way that undercuts any message of healing, while Tolkien’s comes from a genuine spirit of goodness (as far as I can tell). I find it very difficult to appreciate anything by Wagner though.

    • I have to think about Wagner as manipulative. Deeply flawed, certainly, but I think he mainlines the archetypal in a manner that is often dangerous but is it abusive in a controlling manner? I was going to compare him to Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin but their relationship to the archetypal is naive in a way that is not true about Wagner. Perhaps I am moving towards your position! About one thing I certainly agree with you is the purity of Tolkien’s vision. Thank you so much for sharing this comment. I want to write a lot about the king archetype in the reflections on The Return of the King and your thoughts are of great help.

  2. I hate Denethor a ton. He’s mean to sweet little Pippin. What I like about Pippin is that he keeps his carefree, innocent sense – and yet he manages to change so much without compromising any of that.

  3. Denethor is a broken man. The broken horn of Boromir that lies on his lap tells you all about how he feels at the moment that Pippin meets him. And if Boromir died while trying to protect Pippin?
    The great moment comes when Pippin offers to serve Denethor out of gratitude for what Boromir did for him. I agree that Pippin has a big heart. Even Denethor is touched by it. And of course it leads to a great deed on Pippin’s part.

    • This.

      Denethor is one of those characters that breaks my heart because he is not a Bad Man. He is, as you say, a Broken Man. He is good at heart. He loves Gondor, he has a deep sense of duty, and an honorable mind. Sauron was not able to seduce him into evil, and we have to know that he tried.
      The thing Denethor lacks is Faith, and when he could not be seduced, Sauron used that lack of faith to rob him of hope.

      The final hope that remained to Denethor was, unfortunately, Boromir. Then Boromir is taken from him, and Denthor is taken by despair. It’s a story of great tragedy, I think. Even more piercing, in some ways, than Gollum’s tragedy.

      This is why the way Denethor is represented is one of my greatest complaints against Jackson’s adaptation. We never get the sense that we are looking at a good man who has been shattered. And it makes me cry just thinking about it. 8_8

      • I agree with you entirely. I cannot remember if Denethor knew about Frodo and Sam before he looked into the Stone for the last time. If so he did not betray them. I must check this. Jackson clearly wanted to retell the story here as he did with Faramir. Weakness seems to be the thing that bothers Jackson the most, hence Galadriel’s comment about the weakness of Men and Elrond on Isildur and the Ring. Perhaps despair is something too subtle for most of his audience to grasp. Sadly it has a tendency to grasp us first.

      • I always assumed that Sauron was controlling what Denethor could see (it takes great strength to wrest the Palantirs from Sauron’s influence), and as Sauron does not know about Frodo or Sam, I don’t think Denethor does. But it is made clear that he doesn’t directly serve Sauron (though his despair does). He is willing to let Gondor be destroyed rather than be annexed.

        Aye, I think the subtlety of Denethor’s character would have been hard to fit into the films, though I think they could have done better than they did.

  4. “Ten thousand years would not suffice. And here we see the true meaning of royalty.”

    This gives me chills. Because of the (pretty much universal) failure of worldly kings, we have largely forgotten what earthly kingship is supposed to be an echo of. Tolkien got it. And he was able to represent both the failure of earthly (middle-earthly?) kings without overthrowing the awareness of what they symbolized.

    • That is the fruit of his catholicism. If you get the chance to see it there is a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II recorded live from Stratford upon Avon with David Tennant in the title role. It has its faults but the extended reflection on the nature of kingship and the frailty of kings is both powerful and moving. Within half a century this very question was being fought over in the British Isles and the king executed. Shakespeare was truly a prophet. It is on the BBC website in all the Shakespeare anniversary material.

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