Why Denethor Cannot be Evil

by MerryK with responses

I have long been a voucher of Denethor's inherent goodness, despite his flaws, and also for his love for both his sons, even if unequal and unacknowledged (at least in Faramir's case). But, as any Denethor fan knows, convincing people of this man's good qualities is an uphill battle, especially since the movies came out. So, I set out on a Quest to find one undeniable point in Denethor's favor that no logic or reinterpretation could discount.

Could it be that Denethor and Aragorn agreed on all points but one when Aragorn was in Gondor? Surely agreeing with one of the noblest men in Gondor would show that he was good. But nay, some might argue that it was only politics.

Could it be that he never tried to take the Kingship, and also made sure that Boromir never got any ideas about the matter, even though he nearly had a right to it? Nay, he might just have been following tradition for tradition's sake.

There were many other little hints and implications, but not one solid proof could I find. And especially if one was biased against the man, nearly everything could be interpreted in a different way.

Until—all at once, I saw an important scene in a new light. There has been much discussion over how Peter Jackson, in changing a few words in the scene where Denethor sends Faramir back to Osgiliath, makes it clear that he believes Denethor wished Faramir dead (not to mention that he changed the circumstances so that Faramir is charging towards an occupied city instead of just leading a retreat). That scene in the book is rather more ambiguous, and as I was thinking about it, and wondering if you could absolutely prove that Denethor did not wish Faramir dead, suddenly the light turned on.

If Denethor was evil, especially if he was abusive and murderous as some people think, he had no need to send Faramir to Osgiliath to finish him off. Not only would it be blatantly obvious to all of Gondor what he had just done (and sending your son to certain doom is unlikely to boost one's popularity), but it would be far too complicated compared to his other option. If Denethor had been evil, Faramir would have been doomed by his own hand. Faramir, when he let Frodo and Sam go in Ithilien, might be justified morally, but in the eyes of Gondorian law, he was a traitor. He didn't just make an unpopular decision, he broke a law. Upon returning to Minas Tirith and telling his father what he had done, he was opening himself for a trial and possible execution.

After all, Theoden, who retained his humanity and most of his mind though under Worm's control (in the book), put Eomer directly in prison after hearing that he had let the Three Hunters escape. It was a very real possibility that Eomer would be executed for treason if Gandalf had not arrived when he did. And if Rohan, often shown in the books to be more lenient with rules than Gondor, could do that, certainly Faramir was in much greater danger.

So if Denethor hated his son, and had wanted him dead, it would have been very easy to try him for treason and then have him executed. But he didn't. And that one fact shows that there was something more to Denethor than blind evil and hatred for Faramir. It may prove nothing more, but my Quest is completed.


Response by Lindorie:

I do not believe that Denethor was evil. I do, however believe that he was a prideful and jealous man who was easily led astray by using the Palantir. I also do not think that he really wanted Faramir dead, but he did want Boromir back. If he had to trade one for the other, Boromir, his favorite and the one that was most like himself, as far as beliefs goes, was the one that he would prefer to keep around.

Denethor's Jealosy and Pride are long term problems that date back to the time before and during Boromir's toddlerhood when Thorongil (Aragorn) served his father. Ecthelion showed open fondness for Thorongil and preferred him over his own son, Denethor. This is documented in the appendices as part of the history of the stewards of Gondor. It was in large part because of this favoritism and Denethor's jealousy that Aragorn returned to the North. It was not yet time for him to come to the thrown and had he remained, the fate of Gondor would have likely been civil war.

DenethorII was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly then any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men, and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and leaned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of the nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Throrongil had departed before his rival became his master, though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father......Therefore later when all was made clear, many believed thaat Denethor....had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mirthrandir designed to supplant him. From Appendix A ROTK

I think that Denethor felt that Faramir was weak and the the holding of the Kingdom would require someone stronger of heart than Faramir. He did not wish Faramir dead, but that Faramir had the strength that he believed would be necessary to hold and defend the Kingdom. Knowing no way that that could happen, he wished that Boromir were alive.

Faramir sets Denethor up for the answer that seems to wish his son ill. Denethor reprimands Faramir for his choices to let Frodo and the Ring go, rather than follow the law and kill or bring the hobbits and the Ring to him. Boromir would have done that, and indeed died having tried to capture this mighty gift for the use of Denethor for the good of the Kingdom. Faramir then says..."Do you wish then that our places had been exchanged?"

Denethor says yes. He wishes that Boromir had been in Ithililen to take the Ring and follow the law and that Faramir had gone to Rivendell. He has made a wrong choice and believes that the choices of his sons that resulted from that choice has caused the incipient loss of his stewardship and the Kingdom. That Gandalf approves of Faramir's decision only serves to rub salt into a raw wound.

Denethor's inborn jealousy and pride have been utilized by Sauron through the Palantir. The Palantiri cannot lie, but they can be used to twist the truth by showing things out of context, or to show what the viewer wants to see. Sauron has intentionally misled Denethor in this manner. The steward is not evil, but he is guided by an evil host.

Reply by MerryK:

lindorie wrote:
I do not believe that Denethor was evil. I do, however believe that he was a prideful and jealous man who was easily led astray by using the Palantir.


Oh, I do not seek to deny that he had huge flaws. But you say easily? Easily? Denethor began using the palantir when he first became Steward, in 2984, and held his own for 35 years against Sauron, a Maia. Aragorn, after one encounter with the Dark Lord through a palantir, was deadly weary. It is true that, when deeply grieved by his son's wounds, Denethor let Sauron deceive him into believing there was no hope. But I am more inclined to applaud him for lasting so long than for failing at the end.

lindorie wrote:
I also do not think that he really wanted Faramir dead, but he did want Boromir back. If he had to trade one for the other, Boromir, his favorite and the one that was most like himself, as far as beliefs goes, was the one that he would prefer to keep around.


I do not disagree with you here. Denethor's favoritism is one of his greatest flaws.

lindorie wrote:
Denethor's Jealosy and Pride are long term problems that date back to the time before and during Boromir's toddlerhood when Thorongil (Aragorn) served his father. Ecthelion showed open fondness for Thorongil and preferred him over his own son, Denethor.


While this very true, I do not hold Denethor entirely to blame here. Yes, Faramir was in the same position and did not grow jealous of Boromir, but then again, Boromir had always loved and protected him, while Thorongil was not close to Denethor at all. From a psychological point of view, Denethor, a highly intelligent and powerful commander, must have felt crestfallen when even his own father loved this newcomer, especially if he desired his father's approval (and what son does not in some way?). It is likely that his pride was there from his birth, yet I think it must have been fostered when Thorongil came. I can see him thinking: "I know I am worthy, even if people don't see it. It's all Thorongil's fault, stealing my father and my people from me," IMHO, his great pride was partly a shield, hiding the fact that he felt deeply hurt by his father's favoritism.

lindorie wrote:
I think that Denethor felt that Faramir was weak and the the holding of the Kingdom would require someone stronger of heart than Faramir.


I definitely agree here! I have always thought that in many ways Denethor saw himself in Faramir. To quote him: "I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death." This sentence, to me, is dripping with bitterness. Tolkien says that Denethor was a loremaster, and, considering that Faramir looked like him, and that their manners strike me as very similar in the book, I imagine that they were alike in character in many ways. Perhaps Denethor remembers when he would have rather been a scholar, but Sauron's actions forced him to become a captain of war. Thence bitterness whenever he sees Faramir, which, combined with a fear that Mithrandir is leading Faramir away from his duty (as Denethor sees it) as a captain, does not add up to a happy relationship.

But I was not trying to defend Denethor against all accuastions in the first post, merely to prove that he cannot be Evil.


Response by Eärrámë:

 Just to toss my hat in the ring; For reasons previously described; Denethor absolutely was not evil, nor did he wish that Faramir was dead.

MerryK wrote:
Aragorn, after one encounter with the Dark Lord through a palantir, was deadly weary. It is true that, when deeply grieved by his son's wounds, Denethor let Sauron deceive him into believing there was no hope. But I am more inclined to applaud him for lasting so long than for failing at the end.

We don't know to what extent Denethor's visions through the Palantir were controlled by Sauron. While Denethor always got a biased vision I think it probable that Sauron wasn't trying to break Denethor for 35 years. Sauron probably didn't want to risk causing Gondor to launch a preemtive strike before he was strong enough to destroy Gondor. In the time leading up to the war Sauron turned up the heat, no doubt.

One detail that is important to note about Aragorn being deadly weary after one encounter with Sauron; Aragorn wrestled control of the Palantir from Sauron and used it for his own benefit. That is something that Denethor was probably not capable of doing.


Response by Rohirrim Eored:

Don't forget, Saruman was led astray by the palantir too. As wise as he was, he couldn't have gained control away from Sauron either. Denethor was a good man at his core so Sauron had to trick him and break him by using his pride and secret fears against him. Only the rightful heir had the strength to resist and gain control. I see Denethor as tripping and falling right before the finish line. Mistakes at the end don't take away from the one heck of a race he ran. Just my humble opinion.


Response by Doctor Gamgee:

If I remember correctly regarding the Palantir, Aragorn was weary because he has "wrested control of it away from Sauron and sent it where he (Aragorn) would" and not to where Sauron let it be led. That, I believe is the difference between Aragorn and Denethor in terms of Palantir usage and ability. Denethor used it longer (perhap), but didn't gain control over it, and was allowed to see the things that Sauron thought would benefit Mordor (either through dispair, or via espionage -- knowing where to send the Orcs by being led to Boromir by Denethor perhaps, though that is just a thought and not a fact).


Reply by MerryK:

I agree wholeheartedly. It is a shame, IMHO, that Tolkien had to change his plans for Denethor, who originally understood and sympathized with Faramir to some extent, and who did not go mad. Of course, I understand why he changed him, as Denethor was a huge obstacle to Aragorn, but Denethor was an amazing man, and unfortunately only gets remembered for the things he did wrong. I am very fond of those sorts of characters in Tolkien, Saruman, Grima and Feanor also being ones I will defend.

Thank you Earrame and DoctorGamgee for pointing out my error with the palantir. I didn't exactly mean that Aragorn and Denethor's trials with it were the same, but certainly Denethor had a much easier time than I originally thought.



Reponse by Varda:

Denethor is one of the few powerfully realised human characters in The Lord of The Rings. He is not all goody goody but like a real human being he has faults. He owes as much to Aeschylus as to Tolkien, and is not wholly 'good' but like any great tragic hero he is not wholly bad either but is tragically flawed. Denethor's flaw is his failure to hope.

Hope is the central virtue of The Lord of The Rings, and it is failure to hope, not failure to fight or act, that is the greatest flaw. It assails Theoden, too, worn away by doubts sown by Wormtongue.

Can Denethor's lack of hope be blamed on the Palantir? Gandalf ponders this very question after the Steward is dead;
'The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dur can make them do so. He can, maybe, by his will choose what things shall be seen by weaker minds, or cause them to mistake the meaning of what they see....'

So Denethor sees what is true, but he is not king, so he does not have the right to look into the Palantir, so he becomes one of those 'weaker minds' who mistakes what they see. Aragorn sees the same things,but he is not misled, because he has the right to look into the stone.

As to Denethor wanting to be king, he never says he does; when Gandalf asks him what he wants, he says he 'wants things to be as they have ever been', that is for him and his heirs to be Stewards forever. In this he fails again, for Aragorn is all about change, and the ability to bring a new order into being. But Denethor, like some old style politician deaf to the cries for change, sets his face against any change. He would rather perish than change.

It is Boromir who, according to Faramir's talk with Frodo, wants the Stewards to be kings.

'It always displeased (Boromir) that his father was not a king. 'How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king retuns not?' he asked. 'Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty'. My father answered. 'In Gondor, ten thousand years would not suffice. 'Alas, poor Boromir!'

When Frodo defends Boromir and says he was always respectful to Aragorn, Faramir answers;
'they had not yet reached Minas Tirith or become rivals in her wars'

Denethor's attitude to Faramir is complex and does make him look evil. But remember Boromir is the favourite son, and Faramir the lesser favoured. Once Boromir is dead, Denethor will take all his grief and disappointment out on Faramir.

Denethor disapproves of Faramir; he isays his youngest son is'gracious and lordly as a king of old'; and maybe Denethor, who knows he can never be king, envies this easy nobility in his youngest son.

The proof of Denethor's 'hatred' of Faramir rests on his sending him off to his death in battle. But the incident that resulted in Faramir riding to his doom did not unfold like that. What happens is Denethor tries to challenge Faramir to prove his nobility, and show he is as loyal as Boromir;

Denethor says;
'I will not yield the River and Pelennor unfought. not if there is a captain here who has the courage to do his lord's will.
Then all were silent. But at last Faramir said; 'I do not oppose your will, sire. Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead - if you command it.'
'I do so' said Denethor.
'Then farewell!' said Faramir 'But if I should return, think better of me!'
'That depends on the manner of your return' said Denethor.

Here we see family politics disastrously mixed up in military strategy. Denethor is trying to test Faramir's lordly qualities, to see how true they ring. He is also testing him to see if he is as loyal as Boromir. And Faramir, despite Gandalf trying to stop him, is falling into the same idiotic race to disaster and goiing off to try to prove himself or die. It is a Greek tragedy, rather than an evil old man trying to kill his son.

On the contrary, Denethor loves Faramir;here is Pippin attending while Denethor watches by his son who has been brought back to the city badly wounded;

'And as (Pippin) watched, it seemed to him that Denethor grew old before his eyes, as if something had snapped in his proud will, and his stern mind was overthrown. Grief maybe had wrought it, and remorse. He saw tears on that once tearless face, more unbearable than wrath.
'Do not weep, lord, he stammered....'

But Denethor replies;
'I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay whatever now betide in war, my line too is ending....'

Denethor then tries to burn Faramir not because of hatred, but out of love; he wants to burn with him, that they might both enter death together. Denethor thinks this is the end of his line, and lineage matters more to Denethor than anything. He wants his family to end in a cleansing fire, not wait to be a captive of Mordor's.

Tolkien has been accused of writing black and white characters. But Denethor is a real person, not evil but flawed. I have always liked him because he is the only one in the book who is equal to Gandalf. He stands up to the Wizard, and he is right; Gondor has fought a long savage war while Gandalf smoked his pipe in the Shire, why should he jump and run when a wizard tells him? He is the only HUMAN to trade words with Gandalf and win. I prefer humans, however flawed to perfect wizards, so Denethor is a favourite of mine.

Not bad, but definitely a bit mad and very dangerous to know

Thanks for the debate.


Response by Linaewen:

Ooo, this looks inviting -- a marvelous Denethor discussion! I shall have to come back and take better part, because I'm another one who thinks very highly of Denethor and doesn't see him as being evil...

.... but for now, just one comment.

What happens is Denethor tries to challenge Faramir to prove his nobility, and show he is as loyal as Boromir...

I agree with this. I feel that Denethor is especially keen to see how Faramir will respond in loyalty, after he has just gone and "betrayed" his father's trust in him as Captain at Henneth-Annun, by having Frodo and the Ring in his grasp, and letting them go. All by itself it is a grave disappointment for Denethor -- but he makes it clear in what he says and how he compares Faramir to Boromir that there have been other disappointments, and this one fits the trend. And Faramir allows it, because now more than ever he must do the duty of two.


Reply by MerryK:

Varda wrote:
So Denethor sees what is true, but he is not king, so he does not have the right to look into the Palantir, so he becomes one of those 'weaker minds' who mistakes what they see. Aragorn sees the same things,but he is not misled, because he has the right to look into the stone.

This discussion prompted me to go back to Tolkien's essay "The Palantiri", written in 1965.

Quote: "and even after Sauron became aware of his operations [Denethor] could still do so, as long as he retained the strength to control his Stone to his own purposes, in spite of Sauron's attempt to wrench the Anor-stone always towards himself."

So here, it is implied that Denethor was able, at least at some point, to have some control over the palantir, much like Aragorn's.

Quote: "Nor had [Sauron] any servant whose mental powers were superior to Saruman's or even Denethor's."

Here we see that Denethor was not misguided when he thought himself able to handle the palantir. How many men could say that their minds were greater to all but Sauron's among the enemy?

And Varda, though I agreed with your post, Denethor did have a right to used the palantir.

Quote: "In the case of Denethor, the Steward was strengthened, even against Sauron himself, by the fact that the Stones were far more amenable to legitimate users: most of all true 'Heirs of Elendil' (as Aragorn), but also to one with inherited authority (as Denethor), as compared to Saruman, or Sauron."

The passage continues in a very interesting bit about Denethor's character as well as palantir use:

"It may be noted that the effects were different. Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron and desired his victory, or no longer opposed it. Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his victory was inevitable, and so fell into despair. The reasons for this difference were no doubt that in the first place Denethor was a man of great strength and will, and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time. And in the second place the Anor-stone was his by right, and nothing but expediency was against his use of it in his grave anxieties. .... His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits."

Wow. I had not read this essay for a couple years, but everything came back to me upon rereading it. This is my Denethor.

But anyway, Tolkien says very plainly here that Denethor had a right to the Stone, and that it was not wrong of him to use the Stone, and that it would have been all right if Faramir hadn't been wounded. That throws quite a different light on any discussion of Denethor's failure.

Last quote on the palantiri and Denethor: "the command and use of the Stones seems mainly to have been in the hands of the Steawrds....so the authority to use, or again to depute the use, of the Stones, was lawfully transmitted in their line, and belonged therefore fully to Denethor."


Response by Icarus:

I don't currently have access to the books and have even less time to do the research, but I could swear I remember that it's at least implied if not stated that Denethor didn't start using the palantir until things started getting really bad. I know Gandalf talks about Saruman using his for simple things at first and then gazing 'further afield until he dared to look onto Barad-dur itself, and so was caught'. Before I read MerryK's last post, I really thought that Denethor didn't bother (or dare) to look in the Palantir until things started getting really desperate for Gondor

Of course, all that's based on the books and not the essay MerryK quoted so eloquently. Based just on the books, though, I agree that Denethor was never dominated by Sauron, but influenced to the total loss of hope, culminating in outright insanity upon the supposed death of his last son (though I think Boromir's death had him teetering on the edge already).

I do think that the movie Denethor was a bit far into the madness bit, but most of the characters had one (or two) aspects really emphasized... making each of them almost a caricature of the book character.

Bottom line: I vote Not Evil! Mad (both ways ;-)) and desperate, definitely. But not evil.


Response by Varda:

Sadly, I fear here we must differ, as we have a variation not of opinion but of approach. I prefer to only accept what is written in the book. I know Tolkien said a great deal about his book, but for the sake of literary integrity, I think it is right to read what was written, not what was written about what was written. The reader should be able to read for him or herself, and make up his or her mind on what is in the book alone. It is wrong for Tolkien to tell us what to think. This is fiction, and the Palantir can only have those qualities that it has in the published work, not in an essay written years later on.

I know I am in a minority with this idea, and I humbly apologise, but for me evaluating a book relies on some canon being established, and if you can keep adding bits years later, it is not a proper book, it is a committee meeting. I know he is the writer, but writers are often not good judges of their own work. Tolkien wanted to tweak later on, but he did not want to go as far as a re-write. A book has to stand per se, and The Lord of The Rings has an integrity that is lost if you import matter written long after the fact.

I know we like to think Tolkien was describing a real world, but he isn't. He is writing an extended literary conceit. And for literature, you have to draw a line somewhere, or the work will have only a fluctuating value, according to what notes you have in your hand.

Even Tolkien admitted it was fair to disregard the Appendix, as a reader has the right to stick to what is in the book, and a critic has a duty to do so.

As it happens, I think you are correct, and that Denethor did have a right, albeit not as strong as the king. There is a great difference between the sacred role of king and that of a powerful ruler like Denethor. But the book says one must have the right, and the strength Denethor might have the right, but the book shows us very clearly that he does not have the strength.

Here is the description of him grasping the Palantir after he tries to roast his son;
'Then suddenly Denethor laughed. He stood up tall and proud again, and stepping swiftly back to the table he lifted from it the pillow on which his head had lain. Then coming to the doorway he drew aside the covering and lo! he had between his hands a palantir. And as he held it up it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame, so that the lean face of the Lord was lit as with a red fire, and it seemed cut out of hard stone, sharp with black shaows, noble, proud and terrible. His eyes glittered.

'Pride and despair' he cried. '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 fileld, but a day. But against the Power that now ariises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up the Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves....'

Then he attacks Gandalf. 'Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my staad, to stand behind every throne, north south or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to ...be a spy within my very chamber?'

And so on. Denethor here is utterly mad. He is in fact raving. It is quite clear that he DID NOT have the power to look into the stone and be able to see what was there without losing his mind. If Tolkien talks about Denethor having enough strength to look into the stone, has he forgotten what he himself wrote?

Here, Denethor does describe what is happening, but he cannot control the information and he is swallowed up by 'pride and despair'

Denethor has been utterly deceived. The Dark Lord is about to be defeated, not about to overcome. Denethor might have the right to look into the stone, but he totally lacks the strength, because it drives him mad. If this is what Tolkien meant by having enough strength, I'm an onion. Even Aragorn says it takes a terrible toll, and Denethor just could not manage it.

Denethor's words echo someone else who also looks into the stone and definitely does NOT have the right, or the strength, Saruman.

'Listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper' he said 'A new power is rising. Against the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor....'

So he too looked into the Stone and saw only defeat, when as the Council of Elrond decided, there was hope. albeit perilous.

Nor was it all right for Denethor to look into the Palantir, whatever his strength was. His looking had a dreadful outcome; he tried to burn his son, sure that there was no hope. Looking into the Palantir was not an allowable enterprise for Denethor; it destroys his mind and almost leads to his son's death. And it leaves a legacy of despair and resentment among the people of the city, who mourn their Steward and mistrust Gandalf.

It is fitting that after Denethor's death the Palantir never works properly again. The only thing that can be seen in it are his burning hands. It is as if his death blasts the stone, and it can work no more sorcery. It was a part of the old world that along with the Elves is swept away once the Ring and the Elven rings are gone.


Reply by MerryK:

 I know he is the writer, but writers are often not good judges of their own work.

Well, in that case we really can have no common frame of reference. I am quite astonished.

I know we like to think Tolkien was describing a real world, but he isn't. He is writing an extended literary conceit. And for literature, you have to draw a line somewhere, or the work will have only a fluctuating value, according to what notes you have in your hand.

I suppose this fall under why one loves Tolkien's work. There is another Tolkien website that deals mainly with writing fanfiction that I frequent, and we have wonderful discussions about "canon" and how we interpret it, etcetera, all in the mindset that this is a real world we are talking about. Yes, in the end it comes down to what canon you like, or think is justified, but I very rarely see people be upset about the "fluctuating value". In fact, most people enjoy that part; it is rather like piecing together ancient history from various documents that may or may not be accurate. I do not think it is wrong to enjoy Tolkien as a well-crafted literary tale, but neither do I see it as wrong or lesser to pretend it is real.

Even Tolkien admitted it was fair to disregard the Appendix, as a reader has the right to stick to what is in the book, and a critic has a duty to do so.

I truly do not understand how you can make this argument. If we were to stick to what was already there, then Tolkien would have had to stick with the version of "Riddles in the Dark" in the first edition. Instead, as his world grew and expanded, he edited the chapter so that it would fit the new understanding of the One Ring. I do not see how it is wrong for readers to play with the whole world because it was published posthumously instead of as a new edition to the book.

And so on. Denethor here is utterly mad. He is in fact raving. It is quite clear that he DID NOT have the power to look into the stone and be able to see what was there without losing his mind. If Tolkien talks about Denethor having enough strength to look into the stone, has he forgotten what he himself wrote?

This is a point which I consider somewhat ambiguous. Is Denethor truly insane here? None of his points are outrageous, just based off of false reasoning. Despair drives people to do things in LOTR that seem insane, like Eowyn and Eomer's death-wish-induced charges, but it is not a permanent disease. If Gandalf had been able to forcibly restrain Denethor, I think that he would have eventually regained his senses, because I believe his mind was greatly strained, but not broken.

As for Denethor not having the strength to use the palantir, I still believe that under normal circumstances, Denethor would have the strength. It was only in his grief-weakened state that the Enemy could win. And I think you can conclude that just from the text of LOTR, if you wish. Had it not been for Faramir's illness, would Denethor have gone mad? I think it unlikely. I do think it likely that Denethor would be very upset about what he saw in the palantir, but I think it was the mixture of grief and regret for his son that pushed his hope over the edge.

Interesting debate. Thanks, Varda! :D


Response by Rogorn:

Tolkien used Denethor's case to argue that LOTR was not all 'black and white' or 'quite so simple'. So it must be deduced then that Denethor, if not evil, had some negative traits in him that would have made him end up as cruel and dictatorial had he not died. About his mistrust of Faramir, Tolkien says it was for political reasons, due to his mistrust of what he saw as 'lesser' men, probably unable in his view to go to the same lengths as himself to keep Gondor intact before the rise of a rival (be it Mordor, in this case, or any other 'non-evil' empire).

Just so that you have everything together, here's Denethor in Tolkien’s letters:

"In their way the Men of Gondor were similar [to the elves]: a withering people whose only 'hallows' were their tombs. But in any case this is a tale about a war, and if war is allowed (at least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good complaining that all the people on one side are against those on the other. Not that I have made even this issue quite so simple: there are Saruman, and Denethor, and Boromir; and there are treacheries and strife even among the Orcs."

"So I feel that the fiddle-faddle in reviews, and correspondence about them, as to whether my 'good people' were kind and merciful and gave quarter (in fact they do), or not, is quite beside the point. Some critics seem determined to represent me as a simple-minded adolescent, inspired with, say, a With-the-flag-to-Pretoria spirit, and wilfully distort what is said in my tale. I have not that spirit, and it does not appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the 'right' side, Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have been or are, or can be. Mine is not an 'imaginary' world, but an imaginary historical moment on 'Middle-earth' – which is our habitation."

"Curious fact that even in the much less well preserved house of the stewards Denethor had come out as almost purely Númenórean."

"Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a 'political' leader: sc. Gondor against the rest."

"In all debatable matters of importance domestic, or external, however, even Denethor had a Council, and at least listened to what the Lords of the Fiefs and the Captains of the Forces had to say. Aragorn re-established the Great Council of Gondor, and in that Faramir, who remained by inheritance the Steward (or representative of the King during his absence abroad, or sickness, or between his death and the accession of his heir) would [be] the chief counsellor."


Response by Varda:

Yep, most people think I'm barking mad to want to make up my own mind about what Tolkien wrote without his help, but as I said,each to his own view.

I stand by my belief that writers are often not the best judges of their work. Hemingway said no good writer even talks about his own work. Joyce said; 'what work?'

My point is, if you let the author tell you what to think about his work, you are not a reader, you are a pupil. Once a work of art, any art, is in the public sphere, it is for us to decide, using whatever criteria we want but always taking the work itself as a basis for our conclusions.

Yes I know many people approach Middle Earth as a real place, and that Tolkien's whole body of writing, both the book and the letters and notes can be seen as palimpsests, written over with new additions as events take place or are remembered and discovered.

But, sadly, I know Middle Earth is fiction, and that this is a book. What I do powerfully believe is it stands up as serious literature, and I want it to be taken as serious literature. But if we play with that idea, as you say, yes it is fun, but The Lord of The Rings will not then be accepted as great fiction, because no-one can say what it comprises of, what letters do you include or not include?

In order for The Lord of The Rings to be accepted as great literature, it has to play by the same rules as other works of fiction, and the version presented by the author to the publisher to be the final word. When I first fell in love with LOTR it was regarded by serious literary critics as rubbish. I believed then that it was a great book, and it has steadily gained acceptance by the critics. But if it becomes a movement not a book, those gains might be lost.

As to your argument about Riddles in the Dark, I am not talking about new editions. I am talking about using material that is not in the book, in any form, to judge the book. Tolkien said no reader *had* to read the Appendix, so he himself was uneasy about including extraneous material in the corpus of the work.

As to posthumously publishing something, fine, if it was his wish. But was it? Christopher Tolkien admitted in his preface to the Silmarillion that the work was as much his as his father's. But we blithely talk about 'Tolkien's Silmarillion'. This is dangerous territory; we run the risk of attributing material to Tolkien that he did not write, or wrote but did not want published.

But if the aim is, as you say, to 'play with the world' that Tolkien created, I agree, it does not matter. But I prefer to play only with what is in this book. I don't care what is in his letters, or the Silmarillion, or in the films. When I sit down to read The Lord of The Rings, I want to know what it means, and to find out I have to be almost forensic, and exclude other stuff as inadmissable evidence.

Yes, I know others want to enjoy all of Tolkien's world, and so do I. But I want to respect its literary integrity more.

Look at it this way. Tolkien created a wonderful private universe. But when he handed this manuscript to a publisher and signed a contract, he put that universe out there for us to share as well. We do so by making it ours. I respect the Professor, but I don't want him looking over my shoulder, telling me what to think. As you yourself said, I want freedom to play, but in my case, I want to confine my games to an exact examination of what is in the book. Indulge me, I suffered under Professor Terence Browne and his advocacy of the New Critics, whose credo was 'the book, the whole book and nothing but the book' (not even the author!)

As to Denethor's madness, if you don't think the passages I quoted show a man who has lost his mind, then nothing will. But remember this, Gandalf speaks once of the servants of Sauron 'slaying themselves out of fear of him'. Now, Denethor does just that. Suicide is for Tolkien the symbol of the loss of hope. At Cirith Ungol Sam rejects it as a 'nothing'.

You ask; 'had it not been for Faramir;'s illness, would Denethor have gone mad? I think it unlikely'

The problem is Denethor is not looking into the globe now, he has not had time to do it for a few days at least. So what we are seeing is the
cumulative effects of years of peeping into the stone. Over time, Denethor has been affected by this thing. And it is not true to say Faramir's impending death is driving him mad; Faramir is not dying. As Pippin says, he is only hurt. Badly hurt, and in danger, but not dead yet. No normal person decides his son is past all help when he has, as the book says, just a small arrow wound in his side. It is the Palantir, or rather Denethor's despair induced by the edited version of events Sauron lets him see in the stone, that makes him think his son is as good as dead.

The thing is, if grief for a son was enough to unhinge Denethor, why had Boromir's death not had the same effect? Boromir was his favourite son, but although Denethor is full of sorrow for his loss, it does not stop him from braving Gandalf, ruling his city and daring his only remaining son to go riding off to his death.

What breaks Denethor? The answer, like all answers, is in the book. It says, 'Pride and despair'. Denethor has seen Sauron's conquering hordes in the Palantir, and thinks that means the end. And he just cannot bear the thought that his line, and that ancient lineage of Numenor, will perish. His great pride cannot bear it. As he says;
'No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb. No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!'

It is not 'After me, the deluge' but 'with me, the deluge'. Denethor will take it all to death with him, and not admit that his day is over but his city and even his son might survive. He cannot allow that, so he will wipe out his whole civilisation, turn time back to before his ancestors came out of the West with their great culture, and reduce his heritage to the savagery of heathen kings. Denethor wants to visit scorched earth on his own people, out of misguided despair and dangerous pride.

How many tyrants, cornered in their palaces, have wanted to destroy their countries along with themselves? But Denethor is not a tyrant; he is a good and great man, however flawed. What makes him into this raging monster trying to burn his son? It is difficult to believe he got to this state all on his own, even goaded by grief. I think he had some help, from Sauron, via that lethal stone.

Only my humble opinion, of course.

Thanks for the discussion, MerryK!


Reply by MerryK:

I do not think that taking into consideration all opinions on a subject is letting someone tell you what to think. In the end, I decide what I consider to be "canon", just as you do. I may choose to consider what Tolkien said to be more important than you consider it, but it is not as if he is beating me over the head until I submit. ::abrubtly giggles at the sudden strange image::

But if it becomes a movement not a book, those gains might be lost.

Ah, here is where interests conflict. I think the greatest misfortune would be for Tolkien's work to become "serious" literature. Just look what that did to Jane Austen. To the Brontes. To Shakespeare, for goodness' sake. Instead of ordinary people enjoying great works, we now have literary critics making good books into things that have to be dissected and studied to be enjoyed. Now, I may be a hypocrite here, because I greatly enjoy reading other people's dissections of books. But it is so sad to me when people say that they were "forced" to read a book in school. Those books were meant to be enjoyed, to be savored, to enrich lives, not to be organized into thematic essays. And right now, Tolkien is nearly free of that. Those who read the book do it because they want to, and they can do it without thinking "Oh no, am I missing out on the 'themes' and 'subthemes'?". True, you can look at LOTR on many different levels, and perhaps enjoy it even more because of it, but in my opinion, as soon as LOTR is named a "classic", it will be diminished. Right now it is the property of the readers; I don't ever want it to be the property of critics. ::steps off the soapbox::

Tolkien said no reader *had* to read the Appendix....

Well, I wouldn't even try to argue against that.  Surely, you don't need to know how Aragorn and Arwen met, nor how old Eomer is, but extraneous material is certainly both appealing and valuable to many, many Tolkien fans.


This is dangerous territory; we run the risk of attributing material to Tolkien that he did not write, or wrote but did not want published.

Oh, yes, indeed. I admire what Christopher has done, but would take what Tolkien said in his Letters above something in the Silmarillion.


I respect the Professor, but I don't want him looking over my shoulder, telling me what to think. As you yourself said, I want freedom to play, but in my case, I want to confine my games to an exact examination of what is in the book. Indulge me, I suffered under Professor Terence Browne and his advocacy of the New Critics, whose credo was 'the book, the whole book and nothing but the book' (not even the author!)

Certainly, I shall indulge you.  Let everyone make his own decisions! As one fan said, she uses the "extra" materials in Tolkien to give new insights, not necessarily to provide facts. For instance, she uses an original draft of the Silmarillion that has Maedhros instead of Maglor caring for Elrond and Elros to show that Tolkien very likely did not think Maedhros was cruel and ruthless. Not to prove it, but to provide some sort of evidence.


As to Denethor's madness, if you don't think the passages I quoted show a man who has lost his mind, then nothing will.

Oh dear, I did not mean that I did not think him mad. But I don't think he was insane. ::scratches head, trying to think of a way to explain this:: I think Denethor was just as mad as Eomer after seeing Eowyn on Pelennor Fields. They were not thinking clearly, not really thinking at all, and made poor decisions because of it. The only difference in my mind is that Eomer had time for the fit to pass, while Denethor acted too quickly for that, and ended his life. Well, and a slight difference of character; Denethor had more pride and therefore a greater fall than Eomer when despair took them.

Faramir is not dying. As Pippin says, he is only hurt. Badly hurt, and in danger, but not dead yet. No normal person decides his son is past all help when he has, as the book says, just a small arrow wound in his side.

Faramir was not dying? Did not Gandalf say time was running out very quickly for Faramir? He was under the Black Breath as well as an arrow wound, and would have quickly died, as far as I can tell, if it were not for Aragorn.

The thing is, if grief for a son was enough to unhinge Denethor, why had Boromir's death not had the same effect?

I did not mean that it was grief alone, but that grief made him more vulnerable to Sauron's influence. Boromir's death, while tragic, was nothing compared to Faramir's in Denethor's mind, IMHO. He was the one who sent Faramir to his death, and I do seriously believe that he felt guilt for that; but more importantly, Faramir's grave condition was the final signal that everything was doomed.

Denethor wants to visit scorched earth on his own people, out of misguided despair and dangerous pride.

I see nothing in Denethor's actions that indicated he was bringing down the whole of Gondor with him. If anything, it seems to me to be the epitome of personal selfishness. He and Faramir will "escape" through death, but everyone else is left on their own.

It is difficult to believe he got to this state all on his own, even goaded by grief. I think he had some help, from Sauron, via that lethal stone.

Oh, I was never trying to deny all of that. I merely think that Denethor held out for an awfully long time before Sauron really had an influence. I think that I can defend Denethor without absolving him of all guilt. One thing that I was thinking about was that if Denethor had died earlier in 3019, he would have been looked back upon as a hard but good Steward, who used the palantir to protect Gondor from Sauron. Had he not been so proud and stepped too far...

Only my humble opinion, of course.

Humble opinions are all anyone has to offer, in the end.



Response by Varda:

Thanks, Merry K for very interesting points.

I wasn't suggesting that you are only listening to the Prof when you form your opinions. But when people quote from letters as an argument, it rather suggests that they think those letters provide the final word. That is what I don't like. I don't read the letters, but I read the drafts, over and over again, as I think they are the work in embryo. But I only use them, as that fan you mention does, to inspire. They are not arguments one way or another. Only what is in the book can be the basis of an argument.

I am horrified by any suggestion that the Brontes, Jane Austen and Shakespeare are not the preserve of the common people . I assure you they are, MerryK. Just because it is on a course does not mean people don 't enjoy it and love it and find inspiration and truth in it. In fact great literature is usually enjoyed at many levels. That is why it is great. 

Great literature is also a touchstone of other issues in wider society. For decades Shakespeare was not performed in the Abbey, the Irish national theatre, because he was England's national poet. Then we grew up, and Julius Caesar is drawing big crowds at the Abbey right now. No way is serious literature only dissected in college courses, MerryK.

The problem is fantasy literature as a genre has so much of what is not even literature; it is just plain awful. I think LOTR is literature. That is why I think we should confine ourselves to the book, and show it can win on its own, without beefing arguments with letters or other works.

You say 'right now the Lord of The Rings is the property of the readers'. Well MerryK, that was my whole argument; I wanted the reader to be left to make up his own or her own mind, not dictated to by anyone, not even Tolkien.

Oh dear, this debate about Denethor's 'madness' is beginning to sound like Hamlet's madness; only mad north north west. When the wind is southerly, he can tell a hawk from a handsaw.

No, I think Denethor is far madder than Eomer. On a scale of one to ten, Eomer is at five, and Denethor is off the register. Denethor did not act that quickly; he was about to burn Faramir when Pippin ran off to find Gandalf, which must have taken at least a half an hour. And before that he was shut up in the room with his son for at least a day. This was no sudden fit, MerryK; this was a prolonged and terminal episode of possession by extreme despair, a suicidal depression brought on by the prospect not only of his son's death but his own loss of everything, and the end of his house.

As for Faramir, he is in a fever when Denethor tries to roast him. It is only later in the Houses of Healing that they realise that he is sinking under something other than his not very great wound, that is, the Black Breath. Remember what Gandalf says to Denethor, it is not his time yet.

No, Denethor does not have to go out with a firestarter to burn his city and people. He just has to abdicate responsibility for leading them. Remember, this is the middle of their fight for their very existence, and their Steward shuts himself up with his wounded son then burns himself alive. It is an almost criminal betrayal of his people in their hour of need. Denethor is not a private citizen who can just walk off and concentrate on his own sorrow. He has a solemn duty to his people, and when Denethor throws that duty away, then we know he has either gone mad or does not care if they live or die. Why else does he say to them;
'Burn!'

I think it is really splitting hairs. The real show in town is not Denethor's encounter with the Palantir, but Aragorn's.

From the time that Boromir dies and the Fellowship is scattered, Aragorn has taken a back seat to Gandalf, and let him decide what they will do. Then, suddenly, against Gandalf's advice, Aragorn takes the stone, and looks into it.

This is Aragorn's turning point as a hero, a leader and a King. He has an absolute right to look into it, whatever right Denethor has. By doing so, he reveals himself to Sauron, which is a gobsmackingly audacious and courageous thing to do. And he does it not to gain knowledge, like Saruman or Denethor, but to draw attention away from Frodo and onto himself.

The effort nearly kills him, but in revealing himself to Sauron, Aragorn deals him a deadly blow;
'I wrenched the stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure..to know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem, for he knew it not till now....'

Aragorn even shows him Anduril. He then uses the stone to look at Sauron's gathering armies,and it is shortly after he does that he takes the Paths of the Dead.

With great effort and at great danger, Aragorn uses the Stone, successfully. This shows us how Denethor's use of it is a total disaster; but then Denethor is not rightful king, only a Steward. And he does not have Aragorn's great strength of will. And he does not have his hope, or his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, in this case Frodo.

For all of these things that Aragorn is,and Denethor is not, that is why the Stone destroys one and makes the other.


Reply by MerryK:

I am horrified by any suggestion that the Brontes, Jane Austen and Shakespeare are not the preserve of the common people . I assure you they are, MerryK. Just because it is on a course does not mean people don 't enjoy it and love it and find inspiration and truth in it. In fact great literature is usually enjoyed at many levels. That is why it is great.

Oh, I was not saying that! I am part of several discussion groups for those books, so I know that there are real fans by the hundreds. I was more addressing the point that when one says one likes Jane Austen, people are apt to go "Oh" and give you a strange look as if to say: "You must be one of those stuffy elite people who read those sorts of thing for fun. Horror!" Of course, if one says that one is a fan of Tolkien, people look at you with a "What a geek" expression, but I'd rather have that.

No way is serious literature only dissected in college courses, MerryK.

Yes, of course. But I have definitely met some people, and read some books, though, that treated it so distantly and scientifically that I almost lost my taste for the classics.

That is why I think we should confine ourselves to the book, and show it can win on its own, without beefing arguments with letters or other works.

Well, here is the real crux of the argument. I was not trying to win, but merely share ideas on interpretations. I can accept that if one is trying to promote LOTR as serious literature, sticking to the books is the way to go, but I see no reason to in casual debate. I like to explore Tolkien, whether through his own or others' words, though I am more likely to trust the former, not win any points for LOTR as a great work. In the end, does it need more affirmation than the thousands of people who have been blessed and enriched by it? Someday, all those critics who cannot accept fantasy literature as serious lit will look back and say, "Look what we missed!" And all us fans, who didn't need their opinion to know it was great, will nod and say, "About time!"

Yep, it's pretty clear that the rest of this debate is just arguing interpretation and opinion. LOTR wouldn't be great literature, though, if it were clear cut.  Thanks for discussing! 


Response by Jimbo Baggins:

Outside of JRRT's actual writings. our own Agape wrote (is writing) the incredible tale "10,000 Years Will Not Suffice" covering the Steward, his father and our two favorite sons. I like to take this as the "Real" history as it shows how a man born to greatness is still mortal and subject to life's love's and losses. He starts as a obedient son of Ecthelion and as he suffers torment after torment becomes the corrupt soul we see in LOTR.
The Palantir is the obvious cause of the true evil via Sauron as opposed to his depression and anger brought on by the premature death of Finduilas, his fathers mis-management of Gondor and Faramirs continued disobedience (for lack of a better word) in contact with Mithrandir and not being more like Boromir with blind devotion to all things Gondorian. A bad combination that has only one path down the wrong road. Or off a cliff if you prefer.
What a great topic of conversation.


Response by Varda:

My problem is when I read something JRR has written about The Lord of The Rings, I wonder is it the same book I have read. What he says tells me more about him than about his work. I am aware that he is involved in a scholarly attempt to control opinion of his work. This is understandable; he was a critic, and he kept company with other writers and critics who exercised very high artistic standards. In this company his fame rested on two published works, one a children's book, the other fantasy literature, a genre not held in high esteem in literary circles.

Tolkien wanted readers if not to appreciate The Lord of The Rings critically at least to appreciate that its world was coherent and carefully constructed. That, as we have said, it goes on when we are not looking. To this end, he anxiously corrected any remark that he thought diverged from his own vision of Middle Earth and its denizens. He once scuppered an early film draft of the book because it showed Aragorn looking alarmed and shouting. Apparently Aragorn should never look scared and never shout.

A work of fiction, however complex, only comes alive when we find our own vision in it. Even if we are not strictly accurate, maybe we see Legolas as blonde, when perhaps in book he is dark, or if hobbits are to us very lovable, when Tolkien found them 'annoying' bumpkins. You do not need to deviate much from the book to make it your own, but if the author keeps popping up to put you right, claiming the world of Middle Earth for yourself will be a trial that you might come to think is too much like a school exercise in prose analysis. A freedom which is the right of every reader - to decide for themselves - is gone.

For the very same reason, no-one has to listen to my views of The Lord of The Rings either. They don't even have to read me, take me seriously, be intimidated by me or agree with me. But what MerryK mentioned, a 'casual discussion' about The Lord of The Rings is difficult for me; I cannot casually discuss a book that I took to my heart some time ago, and never let go.

You know those experiences called 'deja vus'? Well, I get them all the time, but not in an ordinary way. Usually, you feel you have been there and done that before. With me, I feel the time and place suddenly brings back some time and place in the book. I wish that I could discuss it like I discuss Jane Austen, detached, polite, in quiet tones.

But The Lord of The Rings is a bit like soccer; it is not a matter of life and death, it's far more important than that. To add to the problem, we Irish equate constraint as coolness, and passion as approval, and have often gone to war over a book.

Whether MerryK takes the red pill or not, Rogorn, I don't want to influence his view of the book and I am not so arrogant as to think I could. I am happy if people listen to my arguments, and weigh them and make up their own minds about them before they dismiss them.

I would also like it if our private visions of that book take into account more of what is written in the book. The Lord of The Rings is a very long book; there are pages and pages of conversation where the characters reveal their personalities. Surely, there is ample material in these pages for endless, and conclusive discussion?

A long time ago Rogorn you gave me a present of a trading card on which was a picture of Aragorn, with sword at the ready. Through all my homeless wanderings over the past year, when I lost other things, like all my jewellery and two enormous oil paintings (Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, where are you?) I kept that, and it is back in place on the kitchen table, on a stand. I suppose it captures a mood that I jump into when I see someone saying something about LOTR which I think is twaddle. But really, all I chop up with my sword are textual inconsistencies.

So with or without the red pill, that, as they say in Dublin, is where I am coming from; the book, even if it is seen through my unashamedly partisan vision.



Reply by MerryK:

Varda wrote:
But what MerryK mentioned, a 'casual discussion' about The Lord of The Rings is difficult for me; I cannot casually discuss a book that I took to my heart some time ago, and never let go. .... I wish that I could discuss it like I discuss Jane Austen, detached, polite, in quiet tones.

Just thought I'd mention...I did not mean casual in the sense of emotionless, but rather in the sense that no one treats it as a matter of life or death to get their points across. I really couldn't discuss Tolkien in a detached manner! It has changed my life, and I completely understand about deja vus...I could even swear that one family I know was the one who Tolkien based Denethor, Finduilas, Boromir, and Faramir on.


Response from Icarus:

I started to pull quotes from a post and then realized that the discussion kept going...and going... so I'm taking a page from Varda's book and just not quoting nuthin ;-).

I see 3 major points in all this discussion (sorry, that's the project manager in me - have to break it down to action items ):
1. How Mad is Denethor?
2. How did the Palantir influence Denethor?
3. Should Palantir be capitalized?
er... the FOUR major points...
no, wait. Back up, strike that:
3 (actual): How much of Tolkien's work should be considered gospel?

...The first thing I would like to point out (to set a little background and to put my spin on #3 (actual ;-)): I haven't read much of Tolkien's 'other' works on Middle Earth. Just finally read The Silmarillion after the movies came out, in fact. So I've always thought that sticking to the original trilogy... well, 6 books actually... was the way to go. I did read the appendices, however, and think that they are part of the 'original work' in this context and should be considered as well.

This piece of the discussion reminds me quite strongly of the same arguments about what was to be included in the Bible. Why aren't there books from ALL of the apostles? And many other questions. I don't want to start anything more, but I do think it's funny that the same discussion is so strongly held for the 2 best selling books of all time.

The other two points are strongly inter-related (IMHO) because it is most definitely the palantir (more specifically Sauron's control over how Denethor can use it) that drives Denethor mad (sorry MerryK ;-)). I think Varda has pointed out several good passages which indicate that the madness isn't brought about by Faramir's wounding: "He's not dead, yet" and the fact that Boromir's death didn't send him over that edge. A couple of points on that latter argument, though (both for and against, if I may be permitted to be momentarily schizophrenic): First, the 'death' (for that's how Denethor views Faramir's status at that point) of a loved one is much more impacting if it happens in front of you rather than hundreds of miles away when you're not 100% sure for quite some time he's really dead (even though he's sure of it when he sees the cloven Horn of Gondor, you know there's still hope until the body is seen or an actual eyewitness account is given). However, the thought that Faramir's is stronger because Denethor 'sent him to his death' doesn't really hold up... Denethor also sent Boromir to his death. In fact he over-rode Faramir's offer to go in order to send Boromir to his death.

The depression brought on by the death and 'near-mortal wounding' of his sons definitely serves to feed his despair and Faramir's situation is, I think, the 2nd to last straw to break Denethor's sanity. But my reading of the book leaves no doubt in my mind that the already heavy mantle of rulership has been made all but unbearable by Sauron's influence through the palantir. To echo Varda's point, this urge to burn everything and perform a 'scorched earth on his entire civilization' (nice description there) is NOT a sudden, temporary madness like Eomer's. It's been a long time coming. And I think the final straw of despair is actually in that day with Faramir's 'body' when Denethor spends time looking in the palantir with no hope already... and so Sauron is now able to almost completely control him (as happened to Saruman)... Denethor's once strong mind is now at least as weak as 'lesser men's'.

As I mentioned in my earlier post: I don't think Denethor actually looked into the palantir for very long (in comparison to his rule, anyway... definitely for a number of years). And I don't think Sauron actually strove with him until his plans were well established, so it was probably only a few years... starting subtly and slowly Sauron increased the pressure until he was finally able to overthrow Denethor's mind. Denethor definitely resisted longer than many would have, but he was not ever able to actually beat Sauron, but was able to somewhat resist his influence for some time.


Reply by MerryK:

Personally, I don't consider the two as comparable, and from my understanding of Denethor's character, he would not either. First of all, there is no clear understanding of what exactly preceded Boromir going on the Quest. All we are told is from Boromir's mouth, and he says is that Faramir had the dream multiple times and wished to go, and Boromir had the dream once and wanted to go, and their father chose Boromir. But, he says, Denethor was "loth" to let Boromir go; it appears that it was only because of his "bossy" (as Tolkien put it) nature that anyone went on the Quest at all. So, I do not see Denethor, who is never the most honest with himself in any case, blaming himself for Boromir's death. Perhaps blaming Faramir for not being more assertive, though I give that as a very tentative perhaps, but not Boromir.

The case of Faramir is quite different. There are men stranded in Osgiliath, and the Enemy is approaching. Faramir knows that they can't hold out, and Denethor knows it too, but Denethor wants Faramir to make a half-hearted last stand as they retreat across the Pelennor. He's not being his normal shrewd cautious self here, so one can fairly assume that he wants Faramir to prove himself on this mission. And when Faramir gets seriously wounded in that mission (dying or not, he's unconscious with a high fever from a possibly-poisoned wound...not good omens in an ancient society), Denethor is going to blame himself to some extent, IMHO. I believe this is clearly shown by his words: "I sent forth my son, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins."

Icarus:  To echo Varda's point, this urge to burn everything and perform a 'scorched earth on his entire civilization' (nice description there) is NOT a sudden, temporary madness like Eomer's. It's been a long time coming.

So has Eomer's. Though, I was actually thinking of Eowyn when I compared the madnesses. I am inclined to think that no one in LOTR acts entirely in the moment...there are foundations for all their deeds, and there is a long road to every decision. Just as Eowyn does not ride to war seeking death just because of Aragorn, Denethor does not seek death with his son merely because of the palantir. And, just to reiterate, I never denied that the palantir had influence, but only how much.

Since it appears that most people balk at my comparison of Eowyn and Denethor, I'll expand a little on the subject. IMHO, the two are incredibly similar. At the moment of their catalysts, both have dealt with loved ones pining away (Finduilas, Theodwyn), not receiving the attention they think they deserve (from Ecthelion, and Theoden/Eomer), a loved one going against their desires (Faramir, Aragorn), the problem of natural pride in a time where they need humility, the poisonous influence of false words (Sauron via palantir, Wormtongue), the anticipated loss of all remaining family to war (Faramir, Theoden/Eomer), and a false certainty of ultimate doom. And in response to this, they do very similar things, with one important difference. Both seek escape in death along with their family, forsaking their duty, but Eowyn seeks it aggressively while Denethor seeks it passively.

But is Eowyn really mad, I hear people asking? IMHO, anyone suicidal is mentally ill, in other words mad, and that Denethor is in this case hardly more so than Eowyn. If Denethor is decieved by Sauron's vision of despair, then Eowyn's ideas are all tainted with Wormtongue's views. And when she faces the Witch King on the Pelennor, there is certainly a fey air about her, perhaps colder than Denethor's fiery raging, but no less stable. Both of these people have come down a long road of pride and despair, and both of them succumb to it. Unfortunately, Denethor's road led him to a pyre, while Eowyn's led to an ending from which she could be rescued.

Thanks for the debate! It's always a pleasure to me to re-examine my opinions and then attempt to portray them clearly in words...a good exercise for the mind.


Reply from Varda:

I appreciate that you keep to the book, in talking about lOTR. At the least, it means we are both talking about the same material. ;-)

The comparision between Eowyn and Denethoris interesting, but I always thought that of all the characters in LOTR Eowyn is actually the most centred on herself, and on fulfilling her own personal ambitions, whether it is gaining the love of Aragorn, whom she sees as the apex of honour and courage, or getting to fight herself. She is not suicidal, but in the terms of her people's ideas of glorious death in battle, she is driven by the need to achieve deeds of 'valour or renown', even at the cost of her own life and especially now Aragorn has rejected her,.

As regards Eomer and Denethor, I think we have two completely different madnesses here. Eomer is fighting mad; he is a champion of a warrior society who probably value berserkers. Here is the description of him going over the top;
''Eowyn, Eowyn!' he cried at last. 'Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!'

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling; 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!'

But Eomer's charge almost gets him and his men surrounded, so he sobers up quickly and the book says;
'Stern now was Eomer's mood,and his mind clear again...'

He sings his battle song ending in the famous line;
'Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!'

and 'once more lust of battle was on him, and he was still unscathed, and he was young and he was king, the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships and he lifted up his sword to defy them'

This is not really being driven out of your mind with grief, it is a kind of rage compounded with grief but driven by battle lust. I don't think it is like Denethor's mood.

You have to also remember that the people of Gondor are shown by Tolkien to be of a higher sensibility than those of Rohan. As Faramir says;
'Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, ...we esteem a warrior above men of other crafts. So even was my brother Boromir..'

Part of this warrior mentality is a toughness towards loss and death; remember, Theoden also loses his son, in his case his only son, but does not even mention it. In fact, he rides over the place where Theodred was killed at the battle of the Ford, and does not even note the fact.

Denethor is not a 'twilight man'. but in his case his son's death becomes associated in his mind with the end of his line, and of Gondor itself. It is no simple grief. If losing a son was indeed the end of the world for Denethor, he would not have sent Faramir out to danger in the first place.

Denethor doesn't send Boromir to his death; Faramir tells Frodo that Boromir himself 'claimed the errand' and would 'suffer none else to have it'. So even Denethor could not stop Boromir going to Rivendell. Maybe that is why Denethor has no guilt or remorse about his other son's death, although he has tremendous grief.

In the book, Denethor sends Faramir out on a mission that is dangerous but not fatal. He is actually rescued and brought back by his men and Prince Imrahil, who fight with him and get back alive. But Osgiliath had been regained once before by Boromir, so the mission is a veiled challenge to Faramir to do as well as his brother, whom Denethor thinks is the better man, and whom Faramir admits is the better warrior.

There is a lot going on here; the clash between the ideal of the man of learning and tradition, Faramir, and the man of war, Boromir, and Denethor is challenging Faramir, who is 'lordly and gracious as a king of old' to do what the warrior could do. It is a family squabble with universal themes woven into it.


Reply by MerryK

I agree with most of this, however, when Merry sees Dernhelm, he says it was the face of one who goes "seeking death, having no hope". While there is certainly the mindset of the Rohirrim—and their attitude of only honoring warriors—in Eowyn, I think it is the despair that finally does it, not the ambition. But I don't see Eowyn as ambitious, merely trying to fit into a society that will not recognize her unless she leads in battle. That is why, IMHO, Faramir can reach her, because he accepts her for who she is and not what she has accomplished.

Faramir was not sent to retake Osgiliath, that was in the movies. In the books, Osgiliath is still in Gondor's hands, but is about to be threatened, which is why Faramir returns to Minas Tirith to take council. And Denethor knows that they cannot hold it against the Enemy, but he does not wish to yield it or the Pelennor to the enemy "unfought". In other words, he is having Faramir conduct a retreat that doesn't look like a retreat, a heavy task when tired and leading tired men, in some ways heavier than if he had to retake the City. 


Reponse by Tari:

MerryK, I agree with all your comments. I, too, believe the way Denethor's father treated him helped to form the man he became. That along with the palantir was his downfall. He definetly loved both his sons.


Response by Varda:

I think the fact that Eowyn had ambitions makes her more believable; she has motivation for her actions other than a sense of duty or courage.

Her mindset is summed up by those words spoken by Gandalf to Eomer in the book;

''she, born in the body of a maid had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage, and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.

...Who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking and the walls of her bower closing about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing'

These words are said to Eomer, who believes Aragorn is the cause of his sister's despair;

'Yet I knew not that Eowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you...'

Sorry, I am actually cracking up here at the picture of these three guys arguing over why a woman might be depressed. Smile

Action Hero Eomer thinks it MUST be over a man, Aragorn. Gandalf the wise knows it is because she has been tied to looking after a sick old man and thinking her life is slipping away without achieving anything great.

Aragorn then gives us the true answer when he says that what Eowyn loved in him was the 'shadow and thought' of the great deeds that she wanted to perform herself. She is indeed, ambitious, and for those things that Faramir says the Rohirrim value above all; valour in battle and great deeds.

No, Denethor did not send Faramir out to recapture Osgiliath, as is shown in the film. In fact, he does not send him to do anything; Denethor proposes the errand, and the council table falls silent, because everyone knows this mission, just a gesture as you say, is futile and dangerous.

It is then that Denethor speaks the fatal words; 'I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought - not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord's will'

This is the point at which Denethor challenges Faramir. He has already said to him that he believes Boromir would have brought the ring to him, that Boromir was loyal, and no 'wizard's pupil', as Faramir is.

So Faramir really has no choice but to go on the mission and prove his loyalty. Faramir has to prove himself several times in the book; as Sam says, a chance for Faramir to 'prove his quality'. He proves it by keeping his word to Frodo not to try to take the Ring, and he tries to prove it to Denethor by the insane sortie over the Pelennor.
As he says   'If I return, think better of me' That, and no military objective, is the reason Faramir goes on the mission.

But Denethor at this stage is just not listening to reason, from anyone, and does not see the error of his orders till Faramir is brought back wounded.

It is often only by a great shock that people realise the truth. It is not as if Denethor has been driven mad with grief, more that the scales have at last fallen from his eyes and he sees his behaviour for what it is, a mad race to break the spirit of the one son who could think for himself without making an idiot of himself.


Reponse by Orangeblossom Took:

Way too intellectual for me, here, but I have to say I agree with Varda. THere is crazy, there is substance abuse (not that it applies to here), and there is evil. You can be one and not the other but Denethor is evil. I have known people who are neither crazy nor evil but alcoholic. I have known people who are "crazy" but not evil, I have known people who are evil but neither "crazy" or alcoholic, and I have known at least one person who is all three. Clearly, to me, Denethor is crazy/evil.


Reply by MerryK

Hi, Orangeblossom! 

If you're convinced that Denethor is evil, I won't try to change your mind...you've read all my arguments anyway. However, I would be interested in knowing what you mean by evil. Now, in Tolkien, there is no pure Evil as dualistic philosophies count evil, no thing that was evil and only evil from the beginning. Gandalf says this about orcs, and if you read the Silmarillion, even Morgoth and Sauron were originally good. So the worst that evil can mean in Middle-earth is 'horribly bad and probably unredeemable'. Now, how I see it, to be called evil, you must do really terrible things. Torture, murder, betrayal, etc. Simply being a nasty character doesn't do it. Of the people in LOTR, very few would qualify for this IMHO (Sauron, Saruman, Lord of the Nazgul, Shelob, Wormtongue, orcs).

Obviously that doesn't account for the other, more shady characters, ranging from Gollum to Denethor to Lotho Sackville-Baggins, but I wouldn't call those people evil. Their crimes, whatever you count as crimes, just aren't that high.

However, another key in how I sort characters into evil and non-evil is: can they be redeemed? Sauron simply won't be redeemed, ever. He's gone too far. (Though I did read a fascinating fanfiction that made me believe that even Sauron might have a teeny bit of good left.) Saruman and Wormtongue, though they do evil things, might possibly have been redeemed. Unlikely, but possible. Gollum and Denethor, though, IMHO, could have easily been redeemed if the circumstances had been right, and if the characters had known what they were about.

But in the end, since Denethor never actually commited a crime (though he tried one), I find it hard to name him evil. Of course, trying to burn your son, no matter where the impulse came from and no matter what your mental state, is very bad. But I would not say evil. Perhaps it's just semantics, but the word evil has certain connotations that I would not ascribe to most 'villains'. Also Tolkien did pull up Denethor as an example when saying his book was not just black and white, Good and Evil, but contained mixed characters. So...I don't mind Denethor the Bad, or even Denethor the Very Very Bad wink, but do you really mean Evil?

Thanks for joining in!