It was in the year 2050 of the Third Age that Eärnur, the last king of Gondor, rode to Minas Morgul in answer to the challenge of the Witch-King, the Lord of the Nazgûl. No tale was ever told of a battle between them but Eärnur was never seen again. He had no heir but the people of Gondor chose not to make a member of another family their king but to wait for the king’s return. They chose a Steward to govern them “to hold rod and rule in the name of the king, until he shall return”.
A thousand years passed before the War of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron during which the Stewards of the line of Mardil did their office. In all but name they were kings of Gondor but they never sat upon the throne or wore the crown. Tolkien remarks that although “some remembered the ancient line of the north”, the descendants of Elendil and Isildur of the kingdom of Arnor, the Ruling Stewards “hardened their hearts” against a true return of the king. Denethor may have told Boromir that only in places of “less royalty” could a steward have claimed the throne but as we saw in his last days he regarded Aragorn as an upstart. At the end of his life he cried out to Gandalf, “I will not bow down to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”.
Faramir saw things differently. It was one of the many ways in which he was divided from his father. Faramir may have been tutored by Gandalf, just as Aragorn was, but Gandalf could only teach him because he was already captured by the story of Númenor. There were effectively two stories of Númenor. Perhaps there are always these stories in every human enterprise. One was the story of the desire for power and a growing bitterness about everything that constrained them. At last all the bitterness about these constraints was concentrated upon anger about mortality and about the divinities, the Valar, who seemed to hold life unjustly as a private possession. The Valar, the governors or stewards of Earth on behalf of Illuvatar, the One, became through this belief as no more in the eyes of the kings of Númenor than rivals for power. Sadly this was the story that Denethor nourished in his heart and why he ended his life in despair and denial.
The other story, the story to which both Faramir and Aragorn gave their loyalty, was to Númenor as a gift. The first families of Men who wandered across the mountains into Beleriand in the First Age were befriended by and allied themselves to the Elves in the wars against Morgoth and the darkness. It was because of their faithfulness in those wars that they were given Númenor as a gift. So friendship and faithfulness lay at the heart of this other story and a submission also to the mystery of mortality. While the later kings of Númenor became embittered by this mystery, Elendil the Elf-friend and his followers chose to accept the mystery of mortality as a gift just as Númenor’s separation from the Undying Lands was also a gift.
We live in times in which the limitation of mortality is resented even as it was by Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor. Recently Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, argued that humans can only remain “economically viable” as cyborgs while Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, argues for human immortality by digital means believing that it will be a possibility by the 2030s. The philosopher, John Gray, describes these immortalizers as “the God-builders”.
Who is faithful to the true story of Númenor, the mystery of mortality, as a gift, as Aragorn and Faramir are? Who awaits the coming of the true king? It is because Faramir nourished his longing for the return of the king in his heart that on the great day when Aragorn comes to Minas Tirith to claim the crown that he is willing to be a true steward and to lay his ruling authority down. It is because of his faithfulness that renewal comes to Gondor.
Poor Pippin! For a long and exhausting hour he has to stand between Denethor and Gandalf and to tell his story the best he can. As he does so he is aware of Gandalf “holding in check a rising wrath and impatience”.
At the last Denethor speaks: “The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”
Those last words should be read with a fierce irony for Denethor knows of Aragorn. Indeed he has known him for a long time because Aragorn served his father, Ecthelion, hiding his true identity and going by the name of Thorongil. Denethor resented Thorongil’s masterful nature, “the most hardy of living Men” and “elven-wise”, “worthy of honour as a king who is in exile.” This is why when Denethor speaks of the good of Gondor he speaks, as it were in the same breath, of his own dignity. For him the two have become one and the same.
So it is that when Gandalf speaks it is with a courteous ferocity:
“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
This is a wonderful speech and is the nearest that we find to a confession of faith throughout the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth, not to preserve a kingdom, praiseworthy though that would be, but to preserve something deeper, something for which all earthly kingdoms exist, and that is all “that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again.” To fulfil this task given him by the Valar it would be a distraction, an unnecessary burden to rule a kingdom and yet Denethor does not believe him. Neither for that matter does Saruman and if Sauron were ever to question Gandalf he would not believe him either. Why is it that people are sure that someone of the stature of Gandalf must want to rule over others? Is it that they fear their own powerlessness, believing that only those who rule over others have any value? Eventually Denethor will abandon even his care for his people finally reaching a place where only his own grIief has any meaning. In the same way Saruman will reach this place regarding his bitterness. Nothing else will have meaning for him either.
We live in a world that suffers from those like Denethor or Saruman. Even in our democracies we seem all too ready to elect them to power. What the world really needs is more people like Gandalf; those who give their lives to be stewards of that which is good, beautiful and true. It may be that we live in a time in which the kingdoms that we love may decline and even fall but if we understand aright our calling as stewards then we will not be discouraged because we will be working and praying for the coming of a kingdom. And we do not need the power that Gandalf has in order to be stewards even as he is. All we need is to have the same love for “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands” and to offer ourselves as we are with all our weakness. Gandalf has called many people to share his stewardship from the great like Aragorn to the weak like Pippin and each will play his part. Sadly Denethor will reject the call. Pippin will give more to Gondor than its lord. We can give more to the world as stewards than its rulers do seeking their own glory.