When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli entered the halls of Théoden in Meduseld it was into a place of darkness. The throne chamber of Minas Tirith is not dark and stifling but cold and austere. The darkness of Meduseld matched the mood of its lord but Gandalf was able to deliver him, taking him outside into the wholesomeness of the wind and the rain. The throne chamber of Denethor is not dark but light but the light is cold revealing a man who has already bidden farewell to hope. Tolkien finds the image that most truly describes the man who sits upon the Steward’s chair beneath the throne of Gondor even at the one point in scene that reveals a little warmth. He speaks of “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening.”
The fleeting moment comes when Pippin offers his service to Denethor. It is a moment when he shows that Gandalf’s words about him at the defences of the Pelennor Fields are true and Denethor recognises this too. “Looks may belie the man- or the halfling.” Pippin is indeed “a valiant man”. He hardly recognises it himself but he is battle hardened and the pride with which he answers Denethor is a good pride. That it is able to reach Denethor, even for a moment, shows that the Lord of Gondor has still a spark of life within him. For a true elder delights in the pride of a younger man, by one who is not daunted by hard words, who speaks courteously and yet looks him in the eye. The true elder is not threatened by a young man who displays such character.
But the moment soon passes, for Denethor is in the process of casting aside his eldership. The one young man for whom he truly cares is dead and his horn lies broken upon his lap. Boromir died at the hands of orcs at the Falls of Rauros, giving his life for Merry and Pippin, seeking to atone for his attempt to sieze the Ring from Frodo. Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart. “Though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” From now on every person will only play a part in the story of his private grief. He is no longer Steward of Gondor in anything but name and even his son Faramir must be punished for being the son who is alive when Boromir is dead.
Do we condemn Denethor for this? Surely our hearts go out to him in his grief and yet we remember that Théoden too lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship leading his people in battle, thus restoring their pride. We honour Théoden for this event as our hearts go out to him also in his grief.
Denethor’s grief is mingled with a pride that cuts him off from all other bonds. Ultimately it will cut him off even from his true self as despair will always do. The early Fathers of the Church understood this, teaching that metanoia, the radical turning of the heart toward the light that is usually translated as repentance, must be founded upon a renunciation of despair. Sadly this was later to be reduced to the modification of certain behaviours, usually those that did not conform to the social norms of the time, thus often pushing more adventurous spirits outside of the church. But this was not the case when the church itself was the true home of the adventurous spirit. And it is never true when a saint calls humanity home to its true selfhood when it is fully alive.
And this is how we know that despair, while it may call forth our deepest sympathy, is not a true state of the heart. Denethor is already preparing his own funeral pyre even as he questions Pippin and receives his service. For the one who is connected to the true self even preparing for death is not an act of despair but of expectation.