Denethor’s end, when it comes, is both tragic and yet utterly pointless. The pyre that he has prepared in the House of the Stewards is intended to be a magnificent gesture in which he will declare his freedom from tyrants whoever they are, Dark Lord or White Rider. And he will take his son with him so that he too will not fall into the hands of others. And yet at the last it is but a small, mean thing in the light of the events of the day. Peter Jackson portrays this well in his film showing the flaming body of Denethor at first filling the screen before suddenly pulling the camera back as if to a great distance so that Denethor’s fall becomes just another incident within a great battle. The words of King Lear come to mind as he rails impotently at his daughters,
“I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
As with Saruman it is a palantir that is revealed at the moment of crisis. Denethor shows it to Gandalf with furious pride as the symbol of his so-called freedom.
“Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory.”
Note what Denethor says, that to hope is mere ignorance and folly and that to know is to be certain of the victory of darkness. Saruman, if he were present, would say much the same thing. He too is corrupted by what he believes that he knows though there is a difference between them. Saruman is so convinced of his own greatness that he believes that he can become the ally of Sauron. He even believes that his own ringlore might enable him to out manoeuvre the Dark Lord. Denethor has no such illusion. He knows that the triumph of Mordor will inevitably mean his own enslavement and so refuses to become the ally of Sauron. But both Saruman and Denethor are corrupted by what they believe that they know.
So is Tolkien saying that all knowledge must lead to corruption and despair? Is it, as Denethor accuses Gandalf, that to hope must mean to be ignorant? Even from our knowledge of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings we know that Denethor’s accusation is untrue. The Council of Elrond makes it clear that Gandalf is entirely aware of Sauron’s strength. There is also the wonderful passage in which Galadriel declares, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!”
So it is not knowledge that corrupts Denethor and Saruman just as it is not ignorance that sustains the hope and the defiance of Gandalf or of Galadriel. What precedes knowledge in each of these figures is a fundamental moral choice. When Frodo offers the Ring, first to Gandalf and then to Galadriel, we are made aware of the inner struggle through which both of them have gone. And we see both of them reject the Ring and the power that it could bring to them. Both choose the possibility of defeat rather than the kind of victory that would be gained through the Ring. Such a victory would be entirely catastrophic. Denethor and Saruman have failed to make this choice, this fundamental rejection of evil and of despair. Denethor may not have chosen to be an ally to evil as Saruman has but his belief in the ultimate triumph of evil makes him an ally whether he wills it or not. And our fundamental moral choices will determine which side we will choose at the moment of crisis.
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.