Denethor is right!
I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.
“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.
“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”
“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”
“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”
Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.
In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.
And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.
Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.
The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories. But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.
13 thoughts on “On Gandalf and His “Fool’s Hope”.”
It’s indeed interesting how Providence works sometimes. Even the tiniest chance of a successful outcome of some dangerous and impossible deed might prove possible after all. But it’s impossible without hope. If there was no hope – even fool’s hope – in Frodo, Sam and others, they might as well have given the Ring straight to Sauron. I love this idea of risking an impossible road with at least some hope in one’s heart. The universe helps those who hope and believe.
Thank you so much for your comment. Hopefully the first of many!
I agree with you entirely that the universe helps those who hope and believe but in order to experience that help we have to set out upon the road with profound vulnerability. I confess the need to make sure that I know where my next meal will come from!
Oh, it was a pleasure! I’m glad I’ve discovered your wonderful blog and will be happy to take part in discussions!
Indeed! It’s a curious combination, though. One should also be in need for this help.
I like your thought here that we should always live our lives with the vulnerability of one who is setting out on a journey.
I think it makes life more interesting. We tend to notice more around us with that kind of mindset, I believe.
I’m not sure you can really say that Denethor was right, in light of what Gandalf says of Sauron at the Council of Elrond, “Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.” Denethor, seeing the world through Sauron’s eyes (with the Palantír ) judges with the same scale of desire of Power, which is ultimately the undoing of both. Is this truly wisdom? Denethor’s despair stems from the same root, his distorted view of the world; “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not,” says Gandalf at the Council, and both Denethor and Sauron thought they knew the end without doubt.
Then too, I don’t think you can quite say :”And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought…” because the two stories are in fact the same with a variation of the telling. The Lord of the Rings is really a story about how the smallest that become heroes, and this does not deny the role of Providence in the story, but in many ways magnifies it. “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere,” we find in the wisdom of Elrond. No matter how much Frodo was meant to have the Ring, it is still Frodo’s choice to accept it, and to bear it through peril to the Fire, it is still Sam’s heroic choice to accompany Frodo to the end, and it is Frodo’s mercy that all make possible the final Providential grace, and this I would say is the Heroism that is the axis on which the story turns (in both the original and the adaption even if slightly weakened). Those are my thoughts (and they could be quite wrong), anyway the rest of your post is excellent!
Thank you so much for taking such time and trouble to leave this thoughtful comment on my blog. You rightly challenge me here and I want to think carefully as I reply.
My intention in writing this piece was to give Denethor’s motives the best possible interpretation. Perhaps I went a little too far. The wonderful quotes from the Council of Elrond are entirely appropriate both for your argument and for my piece.
I wanted to say that even if Denethor is “right” within the logic of his own perspective the folly that the Council embrace and to which Frodo says his great, Yes, is wiser than the reality in which both Sauron and Denethor live.
On the matter of the place of the heroic in The Lord of the Rings I need to give more thought to this. I note that Anne Marie Gazzolo has also challenged me on this.
I think you’re right. This seems like a message Tolkien would want us to take away from that confrontation.
Your mention of Faramir raises a question, in this context. If Faramir let Frodo carry on with his quest because he thought Frodo had the greatness to pull it off, then he didn’t understand the full picture any better than Denethor did. But if he let Frodo go because he saw Sam had the kind of solid, good-hearted cluelessness that their fools’ errand required, then he sees the picture as clearly as Aragorn or Gandalf. Which do you suppose it was?
Your challenge has started quite a debate on this blog. Thank you! It is giving me a lot to think about.
On your question I don’t think that Faramir judges Frodo’s greatness in terms of his ability to achieve goal. Even if Aragorn had been the Ringbearer, and Faramir would certainly have recognised his greatness, he would have been no more capable of fulfilling the mission than Frodo. The mission is impossible. The greatness that I believe that Faramir perceives is moral. It is the willingness to undertake the impossible task, to lay down his life in the service of others. I believe that whenever we encounter this we know that we are in the presence of greatness. As to Sam Faramir may sometimes be a little irritated by his occasional slowness but never by his loyalty. I am sure you know what an honour it is for a leader to receive the loyalty, freely given, of his followers.
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I agree with Hapsburg. The movies did a marvelous job celebrating courage and sacrifice in the face of impossible odds and despair, just as the tale itself does. Frodo was chosen but he also chose to be chosen, he accepted that he was, he could have rejected it. He was chosen because he was little (literally and figuratively) and because he had no ambition to be great, the Ring had nothing to work with at first. It had to poison him with itself because he could be corrupted into thinking he could be great (and that a false greatness as Sauron had). Denethor does not his own weakness and Frodo is very aware. What Frodo learns on his via dolorosa is how strong he is, until finally overcome at the end. Quite true, the task was impossible and even if the rest of the Fellowship were there, it still would be impossible at the end, but for the grace that was there, celebrating, rewarding, and blessing Frodo’s complete donation of self. Faramir saw the danger to himself and to his men if the Ring stayed near, so was wise enough to flee from it. He also saw Frodo’s ‘elvish air.’ Denethor easily dismisses Frodo (and Faramir and Gandalf) because he does not have the wisdom and vision to see what the Chooser saw in Frodo and what Faramir and Gandalf also see. Yes, it was a foolish errand, but so are a lot of things seemingly, as St. Paul knows. Indeed Middle-earth is full of the Gospel even before it exists.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to leave this beautiful comment. I think that in many ways I was bringing a personal reflection to this element of the story but perhaps not appropriately. As a young man I wanted to be the hero of my own story. Quite consciously I wanted to be the subject of a biography that someone else would write. I sought out tough jobs and challenges hoping to emerge from them heroically and gloriously. I remember sharing something of this with my bishop years ago and he responded by saying, “One day God will take all of this away from you!” I was terrified by his words. In many ways my experience was to learn through failure and occasional depression the difference between a life that I was trying to construct myself and one that I received as a gift of God. What I should not do is to impose my experience upon Frodo as if it were universal. I still have work to do on this.
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