Denethor sits with Faramir and Gandalf in his chamber with Pippin standing in attendance. Until now he has maintained a courteous front but in the presence of his son, the wrong son, the mask slips and both his anger, his resentment and his desire are displayed to all.
“Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.”
With these words Denethor displays his lack of self-knowledge. He believes himself to be greater than the Ring. Lesser beings than himself may fear the Ring but he is not weak as they are. He is the Steward of Gondor and a true son of Númenor and the Ring holds no terror for such as he. And when Gandalf asks him what he would have done with the Ring Denethor replies:
“It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”
So Denethor would use the Ring “at the uttermost end of need” and he judges that he above all others has the capacity to judge when that time has come. We have seen already that the Ring will twist the heart of even the strongest. Gandalf and Galadriel have both been offered it by Frodo and both have been sorely tempted to take it but both have resisted the temptation. Denethor does not even recognise this as a temptation. To him it would be a gift, an opportunity to be grasped by the bold and by those who are worthy to receive it. And he judges himself to be worthy.
Denethor has lived his life as one given to fantasy. In his fantasy he is the wise and benevolent lord of the West, the one who achieves the final victory over Sauron and all his allies, the one who receives the grateful thanks and submission of all free peoples, the one who rules over them in wisdom and might. In another post at a later date on this blog we will think more about Denethor and the Palantir but suffice to say on this occasion that Sauron, who sees all weakness in others but never their greatness, has fed this fantasy over many years. Indeed the very reason that Denethor has used the Palantir is because of this fantasy. Denethor believes himself to be strong enough to use it even as he believes himself strong enough to use the Ring. But his belief is a delusion. He has disastrously misjudged his own capacity.
True strength and true wisdom involves the capacity to judge these things aright. The strong know their weakness better than any. This is why Faramir does not take the Ring, either for himself or for Denethor and why Aragorn deems that he can challenge Sauron in the Palantir. Faramir knows that he could only take possession of the Ring by force against one weaker than himself and he will not dishonour himself and all that he holds dear by doing so. Not even his father’s specious argument of “uttermost need” could persuade him otherwise. On the other hand Aragorn is the heir of Elendil to whom the Palantir were given and so he judges that he has the right and the strength to use it. Denethor has neither the right nor the strength either to take the Ring nor use the Palantir. He recognises only that he has the opportunity and he misjudges his own strength. The end can only be disaster.
We must achieve wise self-knowledge if we are to act rightly and an essential part of this is to know our weakness. When we are given an honourable job to do then we should act with all boldness believing that we will be given strength to do it. This is why Frodo can take the Ring even though he is only too aware of his weakness. Denethor on the other hand does not and so Gandalf is glad that the Ring never fell within his grasp.
17 thoughts on ““He Would Have Brought Me a Mighty Gift.” Denethor and the Ring.”
This is spot-on analysis of poor deluded Denethor (and so is Gandalf’s analysis of the man). The Steward has already reached the “uttermost end of need” and would have used the Ring the first moment he could. It’s interesting that all the ways Denethor sees himself as is how Faramir would have been if he was Steward and no king had yet returned. Aragorn rules just as mightily. Denethor is too small a man to have done so. The humble are the best rulers, and there is none of that in him.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Thank you so much for this, Anne Marie. Of course it is Gandalf who I follow here. The one thing that I would offer in Denethor’s defence is Gandalf’s words that he does not trust himself with the Ring. It is not that he is singling Denethor out for special criticism here. But the point remains in which I know we agree that crucial to the wisdom of self-knowledge is the acceptance of weakness and limitations. That is why only Frodo is “weak” enough to take the Ring to Mordor and even he is only just weak enough.
Thank you for your blessings. I happily offer them in return.
No doubt my years working in the US military-industrial complex affect my reading, but I’d say in reality Denethor is the wise and benevolent lord of the West. When I put myself in his place, with the information he had, it seems to me that his actions are correct, up to the time Gandalf and Pippin arrive.
Boromir wasn’t inventing things when he told the Council that “by our valour the wild folk of the East are restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay.” That was Denethor’s work. We also see this when the Captains of the Outlands arrive. Denethor doesn’t rally thousands of soldiers for the final battle without a lot of effort on their behalf in the previous years. And the Rohirrim didn’t ride just out of the goodness of their hearts. They knew what the Steward had been doing for them. Denethor is a great lord, holding Sauron’s forces in check with every tool he has available.
This is why Tolkien is a great writer, and Peter Jackson isn’t a great film-maker. Denethor isn’t a villain. He’s sure he’s the hero, but he makes bad choices at the end because he lost control of his intelligence sources. Gandalf’s confrontation with Denethor is a realistic political struggle between two powerful actors who are working towards the same end. The way I read the text, Denethor doesn’t think he’s greater than the Ring. He thinks that the outcome would be worse if he didn’t use it than if he did. Gandalf, who’s just gotten a briefing from Valinor, has better intelligence, but can’t convince Denethor of it. (Been there, done that.)
TL;DR: Denethor is a tragic hero, not a deluded fool.
Thank you so much for leaving this comment and for following my blog. I appreciate it very much. I completely agree with you that Jackson gives us a character without depth when it comes to Denethor. He simply reduces him to a self-indulgent, self-obsessed coward and, by doing so, reduces the people of Gondor to stupid, if brave, and slavish followers. And that is what they are in the film version.
On Boromir I think that he is nearly right in what he says in Rivendell. Gondor has played a central role in resistance to Sauron but so too have the members of the Council, Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf etc. If it were not for Gandalf’s efforts in enabling the restoration of the Dwarves kingdom in the North and the victory at Erebor (in which Gondor plays no part) described in The Hobbit Sauron would have had a Dragon and massive forces available to him that would have outflanked Gondor. Boromir repeats his father in thinking of Gondor only, as Gandalf puts it.
I also agree with you that Denethor is great and has deserved the best from his people. Just a simple thing like Tolkien showing us that he eats no more than anyone else in the city is enough to show us that. Jackson throws that aside so that he can reduce everything to a dualist and simplistic narrative of good guys and bad guys. Denethor has been a true steward of Gondor’s inheritance and deserves Rohan’s faithfulness to an ancient alliance as well as the faithfulness of the peoples of Gondor to their lord at a time when they might have chosen to defend their homes and families, something that only the people of Pelargir do before Aragorn arrives. All of this is true but I still agree with Gandalf that it would have been a disaster if the Ring had come to Minas Tirith. I think that Gandalf is true to his mission from the Valar, just as Saruman is not, but at the end surely it is faithfulness to values and not better intelligence that makes the difference? Denethor is actually right when he describes Frodo’s mission as a “fool’s hope” because that is what it is. The point is that Gandalf knows that he is a “fool” and that giving everything to the “fool’s hope” is all that is on offer. There is no way that Frodo should succeed in his mission. Denethor is not a “fool” and so he is completely wrong. That is established at the Council of Elrond and it rightly has Boromir scratching his head. The wise deliberately choose the way of foolishness.
Please do come back to me on this. I really appreciate the way you have made me think about this. You have also brought a perspective and experience that is different to my other commentators and that is also really valuable. I hope that we will have other opportunities to discuss that and also your valuable insights.
If I might be allowed to comment, I think that there is another flawed aspect to Denethor, and that is his flawed understanding of the true meaning of kingship. As you beautifully put it, it was “his fantasy” that “he is the wise and benevolent lord of the West,” because for him to take the rightful place from the King would act (and even does act) as a corrupting influence like the Ring; no matter what good he intended to do, it would have had the subversion of justice at its foundation. Then too, his understanding of how wise lords ought to act is very flawed, as shown when he speaks to Pippin, “He [Sauron] will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.” Truly great Lords such as Aragorn and Théoden do wield their own brands because they realize that they can only lead their men if they go forth with them. Denethor has made a great plan for the defense of Gondor, and spurned the counsel of others, and yet his proud plan breaks, and with it his mind, because he could only use others as his “weapons” to further his plan (which had a truly noble end in mind, but the end does not justify the means), rather than as friends and helpers in times of strife. Tolkien in his letters aptly describes this corruption; “Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.”
Thank you so much for your comment and for the quotation from Tolkien’s letters that I did not know. I have been doing my best to write this blog as an “innocent reader” as it were, and as I read The Lord of the Rings again, slowly and carefully, I try to reflect on it as it strikes me. Of course there is a certain disingenuity in my stated intent because I am also aware of Tolkien’s other works. The post that I will write today will draw upon The Silmarillion, for example.
I am struck by your quotation of Denethor himself, speaking to Pippin, in which he links greatness and wisdom. He reveals much of his soul there, I think. And as you point out most perceptively he links both to a Sauron like withdrawal from action. I am reminded of GK Chesterton’s wonderful portrayal of King Philip of Spain in his poem, The Battle of Lepanto, contrasted to the honest courage of Don John of Austria. I suspect that, given your fascinating user name, you probably know this yourself. You draw the same distinction between Denethor and Aragorn and Théoden.
What a fascinating use of the phrase, “mere politics” in Tolkien’s letter. I am told that it is a well known witticism in the United States that every mother wants her child to be President one day but that no mother wants her child to become a politician! I think that your comment draws the distinction between these two ambitions very well. Denethor is a politician and Aragorn is a king. We all need to learn the difference between the two in our time.
Thank you for your reflections on the books, I enjoy your writing immensely. I’d like to say that it was Tolkien who really led me to my current mission, because it was his vision and worldview that profoundly influenced my own. Had my childhood not been formed by The Lord of the Rings, I doubt that when I learned the story of Blessed Karl of Austria, I would have been so captivated by it as I was. Here was a true Emperor and King, worthy of Tolkien’s greatest works, who while seeking honorable peace to end the First World War, personally took command of his armies, and constantly visited his men on every front at great personal risk; going so far as to actually save the life of one of his soldiers. He was the embodiment of his great family history and tradition, which had been carried on in the face of the grave evils of National Socialism and Communism by his son Otto. Bl. Karl had his own Denethor, one of his officers, Miklós Horthy, who had sworn to rule Hungary until the King could return from exile. But when the King returned, Horthy broke his oath, having taken to himself the royal power, and with the threat of civil war forced Karl into exile once more. Perhaps because of this historical parallel I might look on Denethor more harshly than others do.
(P.S. I personally think Chesterton’s portrait of Philip II is unfair- Philip had led a fair number of battles himself- but I love the poem regardless.)
We don’t know if Denethor would have broken his oath and refused to acknowledge Aragorn as king because Tolkien decided not to allow that scenario. I hate to think what would have happened if Denethor had sought to deny entry to Minas Tirith to the victorious king.
I do not know of the story of Karl of Austria and would like to do so. What you say of him here is already deeply impressive, especially in the context of the appalling events of the First World War. I do not know if it is possible to go back to any particular expression of past history, even to Christendom and the Christian Emperor, but I am sure that at present we live in a time when many of us are ruled by false kings who have usurped power and I think it is likely to get worse. It was the task of the Steward of Gondor to keep the memory of the true king alive. Last year I wrote a series of posts on Faramir attempting to show that it is not just Gondor that matters to him but Numenor, and not the Numenor of Ar-Pharazôn but the true Numenor of Elros, brother of Elrond. Numenor cannot be restored because it lies under the ocean but it can be restored in those who bear true witness to it in their lives and that is what Faramir seeks to do even when it is a lonely calling.
I think we agree on almost everything here, so the differences are intriguing.
When I read your post, I asked myself: What kind of leader, with hundreds of thousands of lives depending on his decision, takes the fool’s hope? What kind of steward takes such risks with everything that’s been entrusted to his care? The answer seems to be: a fictional hero, which Denethor is not. He’s a real-world leader, stuck in an epic romance. In a situation where taking the action with the optimal cost/benefit ratio isn’t the right thing to do, he cracks.
Did you read the fascinating comment from “The Hapsburg Restorationist” in which he quotes from a letter from Tolkien in which he says that Denethor “was tainted with mere politics”. I would be interested and grateful to hear your take on this and also my reply if you have time and inclination to do so.
Yes, and I went and read some of his blog to find out what his “mission” is. His username is literal. Count that day lost in which nothing is learned, as they say.
You’ve found me out; I confess; this is just one of my ideas about Middle-Earth that I stole from Tolkien. 😀 I’m going to think this through a bit more, and write it down properly.
To me this is one of the joys of blogging, to be drawn into new conversations. I do look forward to your response when you have time to write things down “properly”. I know I will value what you have to say.
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Sheesh, that turned out to be long.
I am going to visit my daughter today but I have been thinking a lot about your piece on your site and will respond tomorrow. I very much appreciate the time you have taken to think about my work even though you don’t agree with me entirely. It has forced me to think very hard. Thank you.
Credit to you for discovering such a fascinating topic. I still don’t know what I’m going to end up thinking about it.
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