The Murder of Faramir

by Varda

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 save Faramir.

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 to kingship?

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 go alone.

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 and wisdom.

Reply by Varda:

Thanks, Lin. I always thought Denethor was the 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 terrible subordination.

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....