The Murder of Faramir
A long time ago, before the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain came down,
I visited Russia.
It was late in the year, October, and the evenings drew in quickly. But
it was not cold, no worse than Ireland in autumn.
Russia, especially St Petersburg, is full of art treasures. I was
stuffed with Reubens and Rembrandts and by the time I got to Moscow
what I really wanted to see was some Russian art. Everyone has heard of
Kandinsky and his white squares, but I wanted to see the works of the
late 19th century Russian artists, who took themes from their country's
history and painted huge dramatic canvasses showing events from their
own turbulent and colourful past.
I was told that Russian art was to be found in a gallery called the
Tretyakov, and I set off, alone, to find it.
Soon, I was hopelessly lost. Moscow has larges suburbs of big houses
hidden in sprawling enclosures, and all the streets looked the same. I
could not read the Russian map. It began to get dark. I was pursued by
a drunk, but outran him. There was no-one around to ask.
At last I saw two Mongolian soldiers guarding a building and marched up
and in my best Trinity accent asked; 'Excuse me, could you direct me to
the Tretyakov Gallery?'
Russia must be the only place where a private from Kirghistan knows the
art galleries, and with a lot of smiling and bowing and handshaking,
they showed me the way; I was right beside the museum....
It was a vast mausoleum of a building, gloomy in the evening light and
entirely empty. But I was like a Dwarf in Khazad-dum; to me it was a
wonderland. Not dark, or gloomy, but a treasure-cave of works by lost
Russian painters, who celebrated the distant medieval warriors and
saints of their land.
But the painting I wanted most to find was one of Ivan the Terrible.
Now, Ivan the Terrible got his name because he was, well, terrible. He
initiated state terror on a vast scale, ruling by torture and
oppression. But among all his crimes, the worst thing he ever did he
did by accident; in a fit of drunken rage, he killed his eldest son and
heir, a wise and able young man.
This painting showed that event; on a vast canvas, Ivan crouches like a
hunted animal, clutching to his chest the body of his dead son, a
beautiful young man dressed in the long furred gown of a boyar. Ivan is
unable to comprehend what he has done. A guardsman's spear, the blade
dabbled with blood, lies on the rich Persian carpet. Servants, too
terrified to approach, peer round the door. Ivan stares out at us,
gesturing for silence; hush, don't tell me what I have just done.....
For me, this is Denethor, had Pippin not fetched Gandalf in time to
It could have happened; it is not a foregone conclusion that Gandalf
will save Faramir. This is a dynasty that Tolkien has set himself to
destroy; why save any, to muddy up the waters of Aragorn's pure claim
Why does Denethor try to kill Faramir? The easy answer is because he is
mad, like Ivan the Terrible. But this is a strange madness; he ably
guides the city in its war against Mordor; only when Faramir is brought
in wounded does he give up the defence of Minas Tirith, and that not
just because of his grief, but because he thinks the war is lost;
'Why do the fools fly?' he wonders 'better to burn early than late...'
If Denethor thought all was lost, perhaps because of looking into the
Palantír, why did he not just sit by his son till he died? Why
did he have to try to burn him before he died? He knows what he is
doing, and it is a barbaric act. For Tolkien, the scene where he tries
to burn a living man is quite horrific, and most like the death scene
of Saruman, which is also horrific, straining the sense of the story
till you wonder what Tolkien is actually saying.
Is he suggesting that the line of Denethor has become corrupt by total
power; that the Denethors and Ecthelions and all the autocratic kings
not just of the Lord of The Rings but of the tales beyond that, back to
the Silmarillion, kings proud and wilful and unable to listen, are now
a thing of the past. That Denethor has reverted to what his ancestors
came from the West to replace;
'Heathen kings, before ever a ship sailed out of the West...'
And Gandalf says it too;
'only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the DarkPower, did thus,
slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their own kin to
ease their own death..'
In the words of Galadriel, if Elessar does not succeeed, there will
only be a fall into darkness; a darkness that comes from within as well
as from Mordor....
Denethor gives his sons no autonomy; they are his, to command, even to
death. When Denethor rants to Faramir that Boromir 'would have brought
this thing (the Ring) to his father' he is saying that Boromir's will
would have been just an extension of his own. Faramir's great crime is
to think for himself; a modern act in a medieval world.
'Your father loves, you, Faramir, and will remember it, before the
end..' Gandalf says to Faramir. But he is wrong. Denethor shows grief
at the end; but is it grief at loss of a son, or loss of power? Even at
the very end, he runs at Faramir with a knife, trying to murder him
with a blade having failed to do murder him with fire.
In the Russian painting of Ivan and his slain son, the attendants look
on, powerless to intervene. In the film, to a man the guards in the
tomb also do nothing but look on, holding the torches, knowing it is
all wrong but not doing anything about it. Denethor insists on total
power, or nothing at all. And, despite Gandalf, he gets his way....
'In this at least thou shalt not defy my will; to rule my own end....'
Just musing, thanks for listening....
Response by Linaewen:
Good musing! I've been thinking about this a lot myself, actually. I
never thought Denethor was so mad that he didn't know what he was
doing. I have been of the opinion that he wanted to burn himself and
his son because he felt they were about to lose the War and he would
rather take himself and his son out by his own hand than to allow
Mordor's minions to have that pleasure. But that doesn't make it any
less horrible -- it is tortured reasoning, to be sure. The fact that he
might think Faramir already almost dead, doesn't make him finishing the
job himself less gruesome and wrong. You are right to point out that he
tries to kill Faramir with a knife as well as with fire. I wonder if
Gandalf didn't have the right of it -- no matter what Denethor says to
himself about his reasons for behaving in this way, he doesn't want to
Response from LadyhawkBaggins:
I'm afraid I've not the wits to answer all the
questions, but I know what I thought when you spoke of Denethor
thinking of Boromir being simply an exention of his will. I remember my
father's family. My dad's father died when my dad was only five, a
horse and wagon accident. As was the tradition, the farm went to the
oldest son. The oldest son took it, because that's what was expected of
him. He hated farming. He hated everything about it. Sadly, one of the
other boys loved the farm and loved everything about farming. What a
very different life it would have been for all of them if the farm had
gone to the one who loved it best rather than the 'rightful heir.' And
how many fathers beat their wives and their children and no one said
anything, until only recently, because children were, in essence,
property, and so were many women? Change can be a very good thing...
and it was time for a change, which the King brought with compassion
Reply by Varda:
Thanks, Lin. I always thought Denethor
sanest mad man in ME. I noticed that in the Last Debate, Gandalf is
wary of saying Denethor was mad, as his lords and lieutenants are all
standing by. Denethor's actions were very powerful because of the utter
obedience the people gave to the family of the Steward. He is more like
Lear than Hamlet....
Thanks, Lady H, and I absolutely agree, and have seen such things
many times, living in an agricultural country where the legacy of the
farm has caused feeling to run very high.
I think we are slowly, painfully, moving away from that medieval idea
that wives or children are 'owned', and what an evil legacy it was,
causing the men to misuse power and the women and offspring to suffer
Contrast Aragorn's letting go the troops who are afraid to fight.
Denethor would have had them put to the sword they feared to wield
against the enemy; Aragorn pardons them and sends them home. Like Henry
V, who says;
'their passports shall be made, and crowns for convoy put in their
purse. I would not die in that man's company who fears his company to
die with me...'
And that is Aragorn's spirit, the spirit of the Fellowship;
friendship and comradeship in war freely and courageously offered, not
coercion and subordination of unwilling slaves....