Let us begin by speaking in the defence of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. He is no traitor. He knows about the Ring and about Frodo’s mission but even though he is in despair when he looks into the Palantir for the last time he does not betray what he knows. Sauron may have been able to seduce the proud heart of Saruman but Denethor is too great a man for that. But the Dark Lord is able to control all that Denethor can see in the Stone and so at the last as Denethor sits beside his wounded son his spirit is broken and he refuses to lead his people in their final defence against the hosts of Mordor.
“Follow whom you will,” he says, “even the Grey Fool, though his hope has failed. Here I stay.”
And so at the darkest moment it is Gandalf who takes command of the defences of the city.
“Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail.”
All through his stewardship Denethor has placed great value on the gaining of intelligence and it has served him well. He has often been able to remain a step ahead of his foes and to muster sufficient force to hold them at bay. But Sauron has always been able to play a long game. Even the loss of an army has not truly weakened him and at the last he is able to show such overwhelming force that Denethor is convinced that all is lost and so he abandons the duty that he owes to his people and retreats to a private place within his heart.
Gandalf knows just as much about the power of his enemy as does Denethor. In his case that knowledge is not about the size of a particular army but is based upon an experience of long resistance to a foe that he first encountered when Sauron was chief lieutenant to Morgoth in the First Age of the Earth. Gandalf knows, even more than Denethor, just how powerful Sauron is and yet he does not despair. Denethor derides Gandalf’s refusal to give in as a “Fool’s Hope” but it is founded upon something that goes far deeper than that.
Gandalf’s “Fool’s Hope” is based, as far as Denethor is concerned, upon the belief that two hobbits can penetrate the defences of Mordor and carry the Ring to the Cracks of Doom and there destroy it. For a man who has spent his life assessing the likely outcome of any action based upon good intelligence the possibility that Frodo will succeed is so ridiculously tiny as to be laughable. Of course any course of action based upon such a possibility can only be dismissed as a “Fool’s Hope”. But Gandalf has not placed his faith in Frodo. Of course he trusts that Frodo, aided by Sam, will give the very best that they can and he honours them for this but it is not their courage or even their luck that is the basis of his faith. Gandalf’s faith is in God and in a goodness that will ultimately prevail even though all seems lost. Frodo caught a glimpse of the Music of the Ainur when in the Halls of Elrond in Rivendell, an unseen flow that runs through history and will carry us to an ending that will have nothing to do with death so that its aliveness will be beyond anything that we have ever known. Sauron can never know it because he can only see death and darkness as the end of all things and so he worships these things. Gandalf has long known this music and so he teaches us, as does St Paul, that “the just shall live by faith” and he refuses to give in even if the end of the battle will be his own death. He knows that his own death will not be the end.