About Denethor

by Rogorn

I find that when I have been thinking about the characters in LOTR, I’m not really looking into whether I like them or not or whether they were good guys or bad guys, but whether they work in the story and how complex they are.

Tolkien himself mentioned in his letters Denethor as an example that LOTR was not all black and white, goodies versus baddies, and in fact Denethor is one big grey area. As you might know, I have recently discovered Tolkien’s letters as a fountain of information, much of it obviously canonic, coming as it does from the source of Middle-Earth itself. So I’m quite willing to organise or modify my own thinking about LOTR topics according to what they clarify. This is what they say:

‘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 [Sauron], 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: Gondor against the rest.’

So quite clearly, Denethor was on the way to becoming a bad guy, and only the fact that he was fighting an even badder guy and his Númenórean descent might provoke some respect. I keep repeating that LOTR is the story of a single year, and that the events that occur are so exceptional that it can be dangerous reading too much into the actions of characters during it. Fair enough, an answer to this might be that in such situations is when it can be seen what each person is really made of, but do you really think that people’s true self comes out in times of war? I don’t.

Besides, LOTR happens when Denethor has been clearly driven mad by the Palantír, so the burning of Faramir thing is clearly him out of his mind. Using it was his fault, but who was to say that was a wrong choice at the time? We have all the information as readers, but as happened with Boromir and the Ring, the temptation to risk some harm to attain what was perceived as a bigger goal [destroy for ever the enemy that has been the bane of your country for generations] would be too much to bear for a man who trusted himself so much. The previous policy of not using it had been tried and had only produced as a result the being able to live today only to fight again tomorrow. Isn’t the temptation of putting cameras everywhere in our modern world ‘only to catch criminals’ too big to avoid seeing its evils? (I’m not actually asking, just offering an application into how difficult a decision ‘for the common good’ could be). Then, we are really in a bad position to understand the pressures on Denethor. We can understand Frodo’s simple life, for example, being much closer to our own field of experience, but unless someone here has been a leader of men in battle, it’s quite difficult to judge somebody whose decisions cost lives, tries his best, opts for a risky choice and (against Hollywood type) loses.

Denethor endeared himself to me when I read the book when he stopped Boromir’s thoughts of their dynasty being proclaimed kings outright. It seemed the right thing to say. Later, that didn’t seem to go too well with his disdain for Aragorn, but let’s not forget that Aragorn was Arnorian, and had a lateral claim to the throne, if the correct one. Succession issues are thorny ones, but there was here probably something else. Anyway the quote above from Tolkien seems to be the key: he despised [what he felt were] lesser men. That very probably meant anyone but him. For him Boromir lacked cunning and Faramir lacked ruthlessness, but in these times, he preferred the former, and he felt Boromir’s death more acutely. After that he is clearly too deranged to judge. I don’t think the film presents him as too different from the book, but obviously the temptation is for anyone who hasn’t heard of Númenóreans before of thinking what a kingdom Gondor must be if we judge it by its ruler. But as a character he is brilliant.