Why Denethor Cannot be
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 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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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;
'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
'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
'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
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
Reply by MerryK:
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
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
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
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
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
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
Interesting debate. Thanks, Varda! :D
Response by Rogorn:
Tolkien used Denethor's case to argue
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
"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
"Curious fact that even in the much less well preserved house of
the stewards Denethor had come out as almost purely
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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....
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
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
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
The thing is, if grief for a
son was enough to unhinge Denethor, why had Boromir's death not had the
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
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
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
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
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;
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
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
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
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
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
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
Reply by MerryK:
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
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
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
(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
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
'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
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."
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
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
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
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
'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
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
Her mindset is summed up by those words spoken by Gandalf to Eomer in
''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
'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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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 , but do you really mean Evil?
Thanks for joining in!