Denethor son of Ecthelion
One of the most amazing things about Tolkien’s writing is the sheer depth of the characters, and of their stories. If you are willing to look a little more closely, and take the people at something other than face-value, you will be surprised at what you might find. The character of Denethor son of Ecthelion is one such example, and here I will take my first impressions of him and try to disprove them.
I remember that after my first reading of The Lord of the Rings, I disliked Denethor. I just found him to be a despicable man who seemed to care little for his son, himself, and his own people. He was unwilling to fight for anything. He would not go to war, he would not try to save his remaining son, and he would not even save himself. He seemed to me to be the anti-Théoden.
There is a quote by Pippin which clearly illustrates why I initially disliked him. Pippin says to Beregond:
“But the Lord of the City, Beregond, has fallen before his city is taken. He is fey and dangerous.”
What kind of a Lord of Men falls before the end is truly upon him? Why did he not choose to ride out against the enemy as Théoden had? I thought him simply weak.
Of course, I took up the book again and the second time, without too much searching, I began to see his pain, his utter despair. You would be surprised what despair and seemingly insurmountable odds can do to a person’s psyche. I changed my mind about Denethor and I hope to make it more clear to others how he came to the point which he is at during the War of the Ring.
So let’s take a closer look at Denethor. For those of us who have not read the book, it may make you understand him better when you see the movie.
Here are the major points in Denethor’s life which, I believe, led him to his downfall:
1. Denethor has always been a proud man and his pride is tested early in his life.
While his father, Ecthelion II was Steward of Gondor, Aragorn left Imladris after learning his true lineage. He had made a great friendship with Gandalf and was traveling far and wide in Middle-earth helping his people and fighting against the Enemy.
It was during this time that Aragorn served both King Thengel, Théoden’s father in Rohan, and Ecthelion II in Gondor. He came to be called Thorongil, the Eagle of the Star, by the men of Gondor “for he was swift and keen-eyed, and wore a silver star upon his cloak…”. He is accounted a great captain of Men.
Thorongil receives great renown, especially in Gondor, where he is a trusted counselor to the Steward, and a great Captain who single-handedly overthrows the Captain of the Haven of the rebels in Umbar. Ecthelion II is known to love Thorongil above all others of his Men.
After the defeat of the rebels, Thorongil does not return to Minas Tirith, though great honor was awaiting him, and all of the Men who lived there were saddened and felt it a great loss…except Denethor.
Denethor never liked Thorongil because Ecthelion always placed him second to the stranger. Even the people of Gondor thought better of Thorongil than the Steward’s son. But, Denethor and Thorongil never actually vied with one another. The only disagreement they ever had was about the Wizards. Thorongil often counseled Ecthelion to place his trust not in Saruman the White but in Gandalf the Grey. Denethor disliked Gandalf and would not trust him.
Denethor was himself wise, far-sighted (and this is without the palantir), and learned in lore, but he could not compare to Thorongil in the minds and eyes of his own people. In later days, people believed that during this time, Denethor had guessed who Thorongil actually was, and that he believed that the Grey Pilgrim and this stranger meant to supplant him. Needless to say, he was unhappy about this prospect. He continued to shun Gandalf and it seems likely that it was due to Gandalf’s long friendship with Thorongil.
So here we have a key point or event in Denethor’s life. We can see that Denethor’s father himself was “playing favorites”, and his favorite was not even his own son.
2. Denethor marries Finduilas of Dol Amroth, and she bears to him their two sons.
He loves her, but when they move to Minas Tirith, “it seems to men that she withered in the guarded city, as a flower of the seaward vales set upon a barren rock.” She is terrified by the shadow which is ever-growing in the East and her eyes are turned always toward her city by the Sea.
Shortly after Denethor becomes the Steward of Gondor, Finduilas dies very young. Her death makes Denethor more grim and silent than before. He has the gift of foresight and he can see that the storm is coming from Mordor and that Sauron will strike during his lifetime. He becomes silent and goes often to his tower to think.
3. It is his need of knowledge about the assault from Mordor that draws him to the palantir.
He desires this knowledge to help his people. He believed himself strong, and so he thought that he could withstand the Dark Lord. At first it seemed as though he had.
Soon though, he begins to look aged beyond his years. As his pride at being able to vie with Sauron increases, so does his despair over what he has seen. He begins to believe that it will end up as a contest of the Lord of Gondor against the Lord of the Barad-dur. He begins to mistrust everyone who does not serve only him.
**A note about the palantir**
Unfortunately for Denethor, the palantir of Anárion which he used, was the one which was most closely related to the one which Sauron held. This made him far easier to ensnare.
Sad also is that Sauron was actually showing Denethor the truth. An immense army was being readied. They would attack Gondor and there was no way that the forces of Gondor could withstand them militarily, at least not indefinitely.
Also, Denethor did not know about the Ringbearer and his quest. Maybe if he had things would have turned out differently. The only reason that Aragorn and the Captains of the West tried to stand up to Sauron with any sort of army was to give Frodo a chance to complete his quest. There was no way to defeat Sauron’s massive army, Denethor knew this, but he did not know about the hope that Frodo would save them all.
There is a chance that he was able to see Aragorn in the palantir and perceive him returning slowly to the White City to claim his Kingship. Surely Denethor would have recognized Aragorn as Thorongil and it would have made him terribly angry to see this old “friend” returning.
4. Boromir dies.
He is Denethor’s favorite son, yes, though not because he is the most like him. Boromir loves fighting and little else. He shares his father’s pride and face, but that is all. His death weighs heavily on Denethor. Maybe Denethor felt that the lives of the Men of Gondor would always be filled with war, and that Boromir would be the best one to lead them after his own death. Regardless, there is no denying the fact that Boromir was his father’s favorite son, and everyone knew that.
5. He sends Faramir out to his “death”.
This was really the last straw. We finally here begin to see the “real” Denethor in the scenes before he dies. Despair has finally taken him and he can see no light at the end of the tunnel. He is guilty, sad, desperate, forlorn … He is really rather pitiful in those scenes in the book and I hope that audiences feel pity for him when they watch the movie, because he deserves our pity at the very least. He does love Faramir, though he obviously took issue with most things that Faramir did. It is sad that the favoritism displayed by Ecthelion was passed down to his own son.
For all of these reasons, I believe that Denethor son of Ecthelion is not as I initially thought him to be. He is not weak, per se, but is a victim of his circumstances. His father thought he was not as worthy of praise as Thorongil, who was a great warrior and captain of Men. He lost his wife, and not just lost her very young, but he had to watch her wither and die before his very eyes because he could not make her happy enough in his city of stone. He was unable to defend his city and his people against the coming onslaught from Mordor. He could not protect his own children from death or himself.
Denethor is a tragic character. I think that pride may have been his ultimate downfall. To me, even more than Boromir, Denethor embodies the frailty of men. Human beings desire good but we are easily moved by pride and jealousy, fear and despair, love and hate. Denethor was a good man whose life was shaped and changed by the adversities which he faced. How would any of us have fared if faced with the same desperation? I hope that we never have to find out.
Essay by Nienna-of-the-Valar