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Mithadan 11-19-2001 03:32 PM

The Fall of Denethor
The Fall of Denethor is one of the sadder moments in LoTR. We have a great man of noble upbringing, utterly dedicated to his duties, who becomes deceived by Sauron after attempting to use the Palantir with the best intentions of using what knowledge he gained for the good of Gondor. Or is this just too simple....

Could it be that Denethor learned to covet his station and, after becoming overshadowed by Thorongil, became determined to consolidate his power into a royal dynasty? He was distrustful of Gandalf, perhaps because he realized that Gandalf's allegiance was not just to Gondor but rather to all free peoples. Would he allow Gandalf to peruse the Royal Archives freely, or instead would he himself investigate the scrolls and books which Gandalf took an interest in to further his own agenda? Could he have known of the Ring and Isildur and divined the meaning of the dreams which Boromir and Faramir had? This would explain why he sent Boromir, a great captain of men and warrior, rather than Faramir, whom he considered weak, to Imladris. He hoped that Boromir would "bring him a great prize". Thoughts?

Sharkû 11-19-2001 04:44 PM

Let's look at the person in question a bit. What grave mistakes did he make in his long reign?
Few, I would say, and most of them came from flaws in his personality.
Denethor was arrogant when it came to felling decisions, and heeding the counsel of others. This is why he used the Palantír in first place -- his motives were only the sake of his people, but he mistrusted others, especially Gandalf, and so used the stone to gain the knowledge about the Enemy in a way he thought to be first hand. Of course, one could neither blame him for trying, nor for being misled by Sauron... or could one? On the other hand, it also led so far that he "despised lesser men, and one may be sure he did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor" (Letters).
He rather trusted Saruman. Another point against the Grey there. Faramir, whom he correctly perceived to be on the side of the latter, he did not trust very much either...

The way the issue of the Ring was handled by those who took the responsibility seemed to him like utter folly. And wasn't he right from his own point of view? Of course, it is this very point of view which may be modern, but is a flawed one in the cosmology of Middle-Earth. As Tolkien said somewhere in Letters, "Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure."
Denethor never was more than a politician, he never was more than a steward either. The charm, glory and intuition of a king he neither had nor could be demanded to have anyway. So that would be one mistake then - his aversion against Elessar and his promoters.

As for Denethor's suicide: Gandalf may call it a habit of the wild heathen kings, but wasn't it considered the duty of a defeated ruler in our very own antique to plunge himself into his blade? And he didn't leave his people without a leader, one might argue; after all, the northern usurper was at the doorstep already. That he wanted to take Faramir with him can be excused by his by then bad mental shape and his firm belief that the case of the West was lost.

If Denethor had egoistic motives behind, for example, admitting Mithrandir to the archives, this still doesn't counter the political and rational benefit of this very action - and if the steward would read the same scrolls after the wizard, this could have only been a disadvantage had the wizard had anything to hide from the mightiest leader of free men at that time.

Any speculations about ambigious plans or intentions of Denethor have to remain just that. So, his intelligent actions were not far-sighted enough for the great demands of the time. He was no king, but a steward,a politician. We can assume he was well aware of that -- maybe it boils down to the fact that the core of Denethor's failures, flaws and fall is that very deficit, and the way he lived - or should we say could not live? - with it. He became mistrustful, chauvinistic in his politics, and lost the view for the world outside the borders of his realms. Thorongil may well have played a part there, for even if Denethor did not recognize the heir of Isildur, what he clearly could see was what popularity Aragorn quickly gained.
Denethor's view became the simple paradigm that all changes are for the worse and would only contribute to the fall of Gondor, and himself with it. This of course lacks the necessary differentiation. For his own policy of conservation, the events of that time proved the worst enemy, though; Gondor was not powerful enough to ward of Mordor alone, and Denethor might have thought that himself not being king might have something to do with that.

Goals too high, forces too low... certainly a tragic figure, and I may add my personal opinion that Denethor is, on a modern literary scale, one of the most intriguing characters in the LOTR for just that.

Mithadan 11-20-2001 12:01 AM

Old Man, I agree with you in some respects but disagree in others. And just as I have perhaps read too far into the texts, the same comment can be directed towards you.


Any speculations about ambigious plans or intentions of Denethor have to remain just that. So, his intelligent actions were not far-sighted enough for the great demands of the time. He was no king, but a steward,a politician,
Indeed this is my point. Denethor was a politician, though at the wrong time. During peacetime, Denethor might have been loved by his people. Thorongil? Gandalf? Mere nuisances. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result he greedily sought any advantage he might find.... the Palantir, and perhaps spying on Gandalf's research.


On the other hand, it also led so far that he "despised lesser men, and one may be sure he did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor" (Letters).
Again, true indeed, and who were the lesser men? Thorongil, the Northerner (Aragorn), anyone other than he and Boromir?


So, his intelligent actions were not far-sighted enough for the great demands of the time. He was no king, but a steward,a politician. We can assume he was well aware of that -- maybe it boils down to the fact that the core of Denethor's failures, flaws and fall is that very deficit, and the way he lived - or should we say could not live? - with it. He became mistrustful, chauvinistic in his politics, and lost the view for the world outside the borders of his realms.
Here I do not entirely agree. He did not lose his view of the world outside his realm. The Pakantir assured that. Say instead that the world outside his realm did not suit his petty desires and interests and were not worthy of consideration save as they might impact him.

Marileangorifurnimaluim 11-20-2001 12:20 AM

Denethor was defined by his loyalty and his pride, and part of what cracked him was being caught in the crux of the two by the coming of the king.

Aimed at the throne? Not Denethor. Think, he never attempted to rise above his rank. But Gandalf pointed out his pride had swollen to the size of a king's, even if Denethor refused to admit it.

Denethor ruled so long he did not draw a distinction between himself, his role as steward of Gondor and de facto king, and the glory of Gondor. He prized loyalty above all else, which is demostrated is his stubborn attachment to both loyal Boromir and Denethor's clinging to the trappings of steward despite his actual power. Had he been more ambitious and less loyal he would have claimed the kingship for himself. That he refused to do. A noble man. As ruler of Gondor he had both Nobility of rank, and it's pride, and Nobility of spirit, his unswerving loyalty to Gondor. With the coming of the king his loyalty to Gondor would have forced him to give up the former. But he couldn't. He didn't have the humility to step down.

To give over the kingdom would have killed him. He would rather have died the leader of Gondor than crown the King and live out the rest of his life, he felt, in ignomious retirement. In a sense, his end was less tragic than Boromir's, because dying the leader of Gondor is what he would have chosen.

By the way, he did not consider Faramir weak but questioned Faramir's loyalty, primarily to himself which he equated with loyalty to Gondor as a whole. It was Faramir's closeness with Gandalf he resented, not his studious nature which Denethor himself shared. But he had a vindictive ability see the vulnerabilities of others and slam them effectively. That claim of weakness in his younger son, always in his brother's shadow, was a brutal slam but nothing more.

Sharkû 11-20-2001 06:52 AM

First of all, time to bid you a welcome to the Downs, Marileangorifurnimaluim (from now on abbreviated as Maril by me for the obvious reason [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img] ). Entering by posting a lot and well is always good to see!
Let me work from the second to the first reply. "Denethor ruled so long he did not draw a distinction between himself, his role as steward of Gondor and de facto king". Good point, Maril, and obviously, this was a flaw, for in Middle-Earth no politician can compete with a noble righteous King if both are on the same ethic level (which was not the case with Aragorn and Denethor, I argue).
"...dying the leader of Gondor is what he would have chosen". He actually did choose that; to what extent his desparation was formed by the end of Gondor he saw in the victory of Sauron, or the downfall of Gondor he saw in the inthronization of Elessar, and how much these two relatively weighed compared to each other, we cannot know, but only speculate.
"It was Faramir's closeness with Gandalf he resented...": In correspondence with what I said myself in my first post, I of course have to agree.

As for your points, Mith, you sharply perceived some blurry points of mine... "Denethor was a politician, though at the wrong time." Precisely. The fact that he did use the mentioned methods - if we can call it greedily at all in that case - wasn't a mistake of his in my eyes, he had to try to live up to the demands of the time.
"[...] and who were the lesser men?" Good question, without reading into my own Letter quote, I think Denethor may have held a dialectical view. For one, he may have despised those of less noble origin than his own; but this would of course exclude Faramir (whom he certainly did not despise, but after all still loved as a son, I have to note here), or those whose descent he knew to be noble. Whether he knew who Gandalf and Thorongil were, and whether he thus was aware of their high order or birth, I cannot answer.
But then, Denethor may have also viewed those as lesser men and objects of his despise who could not match him - in his eyes - in some other fields such as experience or far-sightedness. Thorongil and Mithrandir may more likely have fallen into this category; Thorongil did not have a lineage of rulers directly before him (I can hear Denethor calling these something not unlike to 'captains of brigands of the hills'), and he had no experience as a politician or king for that matter. That he could make up for that by his inborn abilities, Denethor would not have judged as a valid arguement, it appears to me. The steward probably also believed himself to be at least one step ahead even of Gandalf because of his palantír, and it was natural for Denethor to despise the counsel of those who knew less than himself, apparently.
"[...] the world outside his realm did not suit his petty desires [...]": Yes, agreed, I left this one not as defined as I thought it to be. What I should rather have said was that he lost the objective view, the perception of the interrelations of some things, and the ability of impartial thinking a politician needs for true greatness. Minas Tirith was not the center of Middle-Earth at his time, and even though it was crucial, Sauron could not be defeated by it alone, unlike Denethor might have seen the situation.

lindil 11-20-2001 07:50 AM

Denthor was concerned possibly that Mithrandir was another Curunir, but more likely resented not being in the front line of decisions of the 'white council, whose existance he may have glreaned from the palantir and or Mith and Cur.

Sauruman especially wpould love to twist something ike that out of shape.

His big problem was that his hearty was closed, do we not hear of his coldness and gimness after his wife died?

boromir was heading that way and faramir was not. Faramir was therefore no more understandable to D. than Mithrandir.

I have trouble w/ JRRT's statement re: D. being only a politician, but compared to Aragorn he was a lilliputian.

Gondor's slow remove from Eldarin culture is the greater root of Denthor's malaise. Plus inhereiting from the earliest ruling stewards a poor view of the Northern Dunedain. probably a 'If they couldn't run arnor or even arthedain , why should we let them try Gondor?" attitude.


Telchar 11-20-2001 08:52 AM

It's very easy to make allegory (as I/we probably shouldn't) between the Fall of D. and JRRTs resentment of Bureauchracy (sorry about my spelling) and Civil Servants that tries to pick up power that does not belong to them.

The case on D - can however perfectly be explained by what JRRT wrote in his books and his letters. Where JRRT explains that Thorongils part and influence on D's youth - and the lack of respect that he probably deserved as being the heir of the ruling steward.
Denethor was both intellegent and wise - the picture we see in LoTR he is allways compared to either Gandalf and Aragorn, and earlier Thorongil/Aragorn. Denethors problem was that he was ruling Steward in the most troublesome years of Gondors history - in a time of decay - the only real victory Gondor had, on a larger scale was credited Thorongil. Of course he was jealous.
Later when his own sons were born, he saw in the older the fighter and warrion, a leader of men. He of course had great love for both his sons - but his hopes was in Boromir - his heir - and as he vainly hoped the person that could regain some of the pride to the house of Stewards.

All combined - love and fustration - hope and fear pride and jealousy - let him to look in the palantir.

I don't know - hmmmm
Cheers Telchar

obloquy 11-20-2001 01:52 PM

I think with all the years of successful rule under Denethor's belt he would naturally become resentful of those who didn't hold him in high enough regard to include him, personally, in their Council against the Shadow. He was capable, and he was an important figure in the survival of Middle-earth. And yet he was not considered a "peer" by the Wise. Just think of the insult! Did Mithrandir share his discoveries with Denethor, or consult him for his opinions? I think this exclusion simply furthered the sense of division that was inherent in the situation: Gondor was on the very borders of Sauron's turf, and leagues away from its most important allies.

Does it surprise anyone that he became prideful and resentful? My post is intended to be somewhat subjective to what I believe Denethor must have been feeling. I don't personally believe he should've been included in the White Council -- of course not. But I do think the Council would have benefitted by at least keeping open the lines of communication with him, and keeping him informed of certain things. At least enough to soothe his pride.

Mister Underhill 11-20-2001 03:11 PM

Good posts all around! Here's my two cents:

“Pride goeth before the fall.”

That’s the quote I always think of when Denethor comes up. For me, the matter of Denethor is much more simple – he is defined almost wholly by his pride and arrogance. Virtually everything he says and does speaks of his almost megalomaniacal egotism.

When Gandalf arrives with Pippin, Denethor wastes precious time questioning Pippin – both to gain intelligence for his own purposes and to repay Gandalf for real or imagined slights in the past when he felt that Gandalf had withheld intelligence from him and/or had attempted to use him for his own ends.

Their dialogue is very revealing of Denethor’s state of mind and his priorities:

"But though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.”
Even though Denethor admits that “Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need…”, his words belie a proud and haughty attitude: “Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy.”

Denethor is clearly more committed to maintaining his pride than he is even to the defense of his realm.

He is often quick to boast about all that he knows of what is happening in the wide world, and can’t resist making cryptic comments about the sources of his knowledge.

He judges himself strong enough to wrestle with Sauron using the Palantír without seeking help or advice.

He judges himself strong enough to master the Ring and use it for “good”.

Denethor has an almost Hitler-ian view of his own importance. He alone possesses the wisdom and mental strength to defeat Sauron. He alone has the foresight and the vision, while other, lesser men (i.e., Gandalf and Faramir) conspire to undermine him. Yet when doom and failure seem imminent, it is not himself that he blames, but his unworthy minions. “The West has failed.” And the sentence for their failure? “Go back and burn!” One of the great pities of the war, as he perceives it, is the end of his own line: “Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.” He views Gondor only as an extension of himself, and has a similarly exaggerated view of its importance in the grand scheme of things.

Surely, Denethor resents Faramir for his closeness with Gandalf, but he bears even greater resentment towards him, I contend, because Faramir is his own man.

Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel.
His love for Boromir seems to stem in large part from the fact that Boromir is not only his literal heir, but also his psychological heir. He is a mental clone of his father, with an unrealistically exaggerated view of his own (and Gondor’s) strength and importance.

Now, Denethor was surely no Hitler in terms of his social and political practices and policies, but in terms of his leadership style, at least in the last days and weeks of the War, I think the comparison is not unjust.

[ November 20, 2001: Message edited by: Mister Underhill ]

Sharkû 11-20-2001 05:21 PM

I have to say, I find your analysis of his pride as Denethor’s decisive fault a bit reductive, Underhillo. While it essentially is of course not wrong, I hold against it the fact that Denethor’s pride and arrogance were not always the main, and arguably never the sole reason for those of his reactions which can be judged as imprudent from the lofty seat of literary or historical criticism (this is in my humble opinion also one major flaw of, for example, Sallust – personality and character are rarely the only, albeit of course often an important, motivating force of history; and it has to be noted that this is almost never realized during the life-time of a person).
The situation with Pippin and the ‘tool of other men’s purposes’ –quote may reveal his pride, but still do not lessen the prudence behind Denethor’s action, respectively his sentence. Now, that he mistrusted Mithrandir that much, was of course a result of his pride, and can – though only with hindsight! – be considered a mistake.
“Denethor is clearly more committed to maintaining his pride than he is even to the defense of his realm.” I have to differ here. His own sake and the sake of Gondor were inevitably tied, and even if his own salus had been more important to him – what I still doubt –, an action for the one would also further the cause of the other. What the incession to act was in first place may be more interesting to a psychologist, but I will not go there.
His overly developed self-confidence led him to face Sauron and to dare to have the resolve to take the Ring (purely hypothetical, though), but was this too wrong? Denethor was no master of Ring-lore (something I will elaborate on further down when we come to the fascinating comparison you made, Undé); one could not demand of him to know the facts that the Ring was not to be mastered by man. And one man who could have achieved it, had it been possible, would certainly have been the wise steward.
Conclusively for that aspect, I may say that although Denethor’s pride was inherent, it was not, at least not the only thing, what made him fall; unlike the proverb.

As for your analogy of the methods of leading used by Hitler and Denethor, it is certainly bold, but intriguingly fitting, and precise even to some details.
I will simply add some points as I notice and see fit. Hitler was notorious to reject any counsels for much the same reasons as Denethor (see my previous posts for the latter), experience/skills and descent (although with Hitler it was more the case that he despised those of noble origin among the conservative generals et alii, not the simple men). As a cause, it of course also was the other way round with the World War private.
Denethor wanted the West to perish as the consequence of his failure, and no longer being worthy of a place among the people of Middle-Earth – Hitler said the same about the German people.
Now, Hitler of course never had a line of ruling forebears, nor did he ever intent of founding one himself (speculative biological obstacles aside). Both leaders, however, abandoned the logical dichotomy of leader and people, both viewed the latter as being vitally dependent from the first, as you mentioned quite well.
Could the good relation to Boromir, as his identical image of an apprentice, echo the relation of Hitler and his apprentices in the party, most of all maybe Rudolf Hess? While this very comparison probably goes to far, the way they choose their familiars was similar for both. Neither valued counsel, but rather kept their minions in mutual competition. And since the own judgement was the best anyway, such counselors as they chose were apprentices which could be used as their right arm in some affairs where others were not to be trusted (the mission to Imladris, for example, or the armaments industry Hitler gave Speer the command over).
Hauntingly striking appears to me the mistake of both leaders to overestimate their own competence in vital fields where they were actually far behind the learned and wise. For Denethor, this was Ring- and Elven-lore; for Hitler, the whole field of military strategy. This was eventually were both failed, too.

Now, is this not the sign of arrogance and pride, and was it hence not the ultimate cause for their demise? As I said, this cannot be rebuked totally. Instead, I propose an approach that takes the respective circumstances more into account, for historical events are never isolated, and therefore the characters of leaders can never be a sole cause for either good or bad. At least with Denethor, this very flaw we are discussing would not have been his demise in any other situation but the crucial War of the Ring, and, even the way it was, his actions never led to the actual end of his realm, nor would he have had the potency to cause that, I argue. Minas Tirith would have continued to fight without Denethor, even if the leaders who took his place were of lesser stand or had been more open to debate than Mithrandir, Imrahil and Elessar.
Of course, here the time of Hitler was totally different, the war was lost before April 30, 1945. And the Führer indeed was the main cause both for its beginning and the defeat of his own side.

Oliphaunt 11-20-2001 07:05 PM

These are all good points. I wonder if Denethor resented his exclusion from the White Council, because at that time, although the Nazgul were in Minas Morgul, Sauron was in Dol Guldor, and perhaps Denethor was confident in Gondor, and content to leaving the Elves and the wizards to their own designs. Any thoughts?

Marileangorifurnimaluim 11-20-2001 10:11 PM

Bravo to Mithadan for an interesting topic!

Oliphaunt - I'll get to the White Counsel in a moment.

I agree with Sharku and Mr. Underhill on the extent and flavor of Denethor's pride, to a point.

But the death of Hitler was not tragic. If they were so similar, why do we not cheer when Denethor throws himself on the bier?

What's tragic?

He's faulted. Yet there is a possibility for greatness. He has a keen intelligence, is a great strategist (you can see that in the questioning of Pippin), strong-mindedness, enough to stand up to - well, all the wrong people - and he used the Palantir with more success than Saruman. His intentions were noble, he wished to protect the realm of Gondor, and he was loyal to the end to his role as steward.

In disecting his faults don't ignore his virtues.

Even Dene-tractors can see how valuable an ally he could have been.

Could-have-beens make for tragedy.

In the books you wait and wait for Denethor to open his eyes, thaw out a little, join the rest of the world in its struggle rather than demanding the rest of the world join him.

We see the awakening of Theoden, and it seems possible for Denethor, too. He only lacks hope, trust, and broad vision of a better future. So he takes the course of a bitter pragmatist, rather than throwing himself into the fray.

Yet there's a bright spot, a spark of a chance, when the perky Pippin is brought to him; a possibly Denethor might see a more hopeful, happy world, once he had proof one actually existed in the Shire. Perhaps even having some concern for it for the sake of his young squire, extending his vision of "realm in need of protection" beyond his own borders.

But that faint hope is snatched away, we later learn, because he put his faith in the Palantir. In himself. He never allied himself with the rest of Middle Earth.

In the end he is replaced, but we feel his death keenly, more than a mere politician's, because he clearly could have been so much more.

The White Counsel, Oliphaunt...

I think it would be in character for Denethor to expect to be kept informed of anything that effected his realm and - as demonstrated by his use of the Palantir, Pippin - he wanted to know everything first hand so he could make up his own mind. What went on behind closed doors would have been a source of irritation and out of spite he'd not be inclined to cooperate. His spitefulness was demonstrated in his treatment of Faramir, and attitude towards Gandalf. His actions were just pettiness. A lack of cooperativeness rather than outright opposition. Proof he had no great interest in being part of the council. He was too canny not to rightly assume the White Counsel was more concerned with foreign realms and 'Middle Earth' over 'Gondor', so he wouldn't have been interested, except in those decisions that directly effected his realm. The arrogance (in his eyes) of creating a counsel above his head at all would've ****ed him off.

Telchar 11-22-2001 02:29 AM

This has become one very interesting topic. And good posts by everyone.
When I read Mr. Underhills post I stumpled on the sentence:


The West has failed
I have allways seen this sentence as The West - The Powers of the West ei. the Valar has failed for not rescuing ME from the evil of Sauron - and partly being somthing Denethor had been led to belive by his contact with Sauron.
I see Denethor in TA3019 as a person very much under the infuence of Sauron - through the Palantir he has been brainwashed to see and learn what Sauron wanted him to.
His pride has been manipulated with which leed to his fall. Sauron knew that there were forces in ME stronger that Denethor - If he could make Denethor belive that he (D) was the wisest opponent there was to Sauron, so that D would despise the counsil of others (Gandalf - TWC - Faramir) then Sauron would benefit from it.


[ November 22, 2001: Message edited by: Telchar ]

Sharkû 11-22-2001 02:35 AM

Possible, Telchar, but I suppose that Denethor already was that confident of himself upon using the palantír the first time; he would not have dared to otherwise, perhaps.

Eowyn of Ithilien 11-22-2001 02:43 AM

Denethor's death is so tragic because it marks the end of the hope, as Telchar's always sad to see something that could be so beautiful wither and die.

Marileangorifurnimaluim 11-27-2001 12:47 AM

I always read "the West has failed" as referring to Numenor, which was Denethor's prime concern, Gondor being it's last vestige in his eyes. He lived at a time when the line of Numenor was dwindling and was not, unlike Gandalf, concerned about the fate of lesser men. Anger would have been his response, if someone else had failed him. Despair is the response of those who have themselves failed, (even if perhaps they fail alongside others of like purpose).

He was the lord of Gondor, and he had lost... his realm (in his view via the palantir), and one by one, both his sons. By his own decisions. Despair and guilt over Faramir's injury drove him to look in the stone, and weakened him. He blamed himself. "Stir not the bitter cup which I have mixed for myself" he said over the death of Boromir. Is it noble to take responsibility for a realm, and to foot the blame if things go ill, or a kind of arrogance, taking credit for the actions of others and circumstances beyond ones control?

Meglomania does not describe Denethor, for that sort feels destined and deserving of greatness and will justify anything to that end. Manifest Destiny. Yet Denethor told Boromir..


How many hundreds of years does it take to make a steward a king, if the king comes not? - Boromir

In places of less royalty, a few years perhaps. In Gondor ten thousand would not suffice. - Denethor
Still during his madness he refused the claim of Aragorn, calling him "this Ranger of the North" come to supplant him. Had he not already gone over the edge, would he have refused a solid claim? I say no. This contradiction is a change for him, and that change in him was madness.

[ November 27, 2001: Message edited by: Marileangorifurnimaluim ]

Mithadan 11-27-2001 08:14 AM

Mari, I rather disagree with your last statement. Keep in mind that a thousand years before when the line of Gondorian kings first "failed", Arvedui laid claim to the Crown but was rebuffed. While this could be a comment on the popularity of Earnil, it also shows a traditional prejudice against the "lesser" line of the North (presumably deriving from the destruction of the flower of the North Kingdom's men at the Gladden, as well as later regional strife). Faramir comments that Boromir would have revered Aragorn and his heritage but the time had not yet come when they would be rivals for control of Gondor. I do not think that Denethor would have welcomed Aragorn even if circumstances were otherwise. As they say in my profession, there was "precedent" for rejecting such a claim.

[ November 27, 2001: Message edited by: Mithadan ]

Mister Underhill 11-27-2001 01:21 PM

Maril – you’re quite right that the Hitler analogy has only a limited application, and you’re also right that Denethor had many virtues.

Many interesting points, Old Man, including some keen insights in your extension of my analogy! Two more interesting parallels: both opted for suicide over defeat, and both chose immolation as the means of destroying their earthly remains.

Now let’s see – quite a bit of interesting ground has been covered here. In the first section of your earlier post, Sharkû, you seem to conclude that Denethor’s pride is mitigated by the historical context in which he moved, and that his decisions, when viewed without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, are not all that bad and are justifiable in light of his circumstances, etc.

I agree with you – up to a point – when you imply that Denethor’s pride was to a certain extent institutionalized. The office of Steward was conducted as a de facto kingship, complete with a system of primogeniture (*thanks, BW!). Lip service was paid to the concept of stewardship and the return of the king upon assumption of the office, but by Denethor’s time the possibility of such a return was regarded as little more than a myth, especially by the Stewards themselves, who “hardened their hearts” against such thoughts. Is it any surprise that Denethor should view himself as Gondor’s one and only rightful leader, especially with the hour of its ultimate test at hand? And surely a man whose country had been at war for the entire duration of his rule must have needed to become a strong-willed military overseer in order to perform his duties.

However, I don’t think I’m being reductive – or perhaps I should say that my reductiveness is not inappropriate in the context of Middle-earth. In ME, individual characters wield considerably greater personal power than any real-life analogs, both in a “spiritual” and in a political sense. In this world, a single act – destruction of the Ring – can mean the difference between world annihilation and victory. The power of the Ring implies that in this world, individual personalities do act as an important motivating force of history. If a Harry Truman has a nasty temper or a Ronald Reagan gets an itchy trigger finger, we can at least take comfort in the fact that there is a whole military apparatus, not to mention a political bureaucracy, between the personality and the instruments of destructive power. The Ring eliminates that buffer. If Denethor had gotten his hands on it, it would have spelt the end of Middle-earth. Or, in a perhaps more “realistic” scenario, suppose he had been entrusted with knowledge of Frodo’s quest – his decision to use the Palantír on his own might have led to this crucial piece of intelligence falling into Sauron’s hands with obvious consequences.

Ultimately, though, we’re only really discussing Denethor’s personal downfall. And really, I can’t see any other cause besides pride (arrogance, megalomania – pick your synonym). And not pride that was only the relatively late result of his mental skirmishes with the Dark Lord – we’re talking lifelong pride, and a lifelong effort to consolidate his hold on the rule of Gondor. There’s a clear indication in the appendices (Appendix A -> The Númenorean Kings -> Gondor and the Heirs Of Anárion -> The Stewards) that Denethor at least suspected who “Thorongil” really was, and, rather than revering him and befriending his mentor Mithrandir in preparation for a “team” defense of the West and timely return of the King, he learned to despise them based on his suspicion that they “designed to supplant him”. Despite his subtlety of mind and ability to look “further and deeper than other men of his day”, Denethor allowed his pride to delude him into trusting Saruman and mistrusting Gandalf.

Can we blame him for looking into the Palantír? Yes! None of the previous Stewards, in their wisdom, had dared look into the stone, particularly after the stone of Minas Ithil fell into the hands of the Enemy.

Can we blame him for his lack of Ring-lore? Not really. But we can condemn the faulty judgment which would lead him to reject, or indeed, to not even seek in the first place, the counsels of those more learned than himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who, though we may grant that he was not a Steward nor in line to hold the office, shows a much broader wisdom unclouded by overweening arrogance. He risks his own ignominious death for what he rightly perceives as the greater good. He says to Frodo: “But more lies upon our words together than I thought at first. I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor, and my life will justly be forfeit if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city.” He knows what Denethor would want him to do, but wisely realizes that something much greater than the good of his city is at stake.

I would say, Maril, that Denethor does fit your definition of megalomania – having brooded for years on his foresight that Gondor’s test would come during his tenure, he wasn’t about to surrender his throne to Aragorn, and did everything he could to stave off (as he perceived it) his and Gandalf’s scheme to supplant him. He came eventually to anticipate a decisive “single combat between the Lord of the White Tower and the Lord of Barad-dûr.” That’s manifest destiny if I’ve ever heard it.

In closing, I think it’s interesting that in Denethor we have another case of Tolkien’s recurring theme of his best, brightest, and most capable characters being the ones most likely to stumble.

Sharkû 11-27-2001 03:36 PM

Corruptio optimi pessima - the corruption of the best as the worst case. You can't say the true things often enough [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

To throw in only another quote for now, Clausewitz said the most drastical methods are justified in war if they shorten it. Drastical times demand drastical means -- I think the use of the palantír by Denethor was correct. It turned out wrong, and the Wise would have rightly warned him, but that does not meant he felled a fundamentally wrong decision in his system of politics.

Apart from that, the discussion has reached a point for me where subjective interest no longer forces me to reply, so I have to ask for patience with a more elaborate reply.

Mister Underhill 12-03-2001 01:06 AM

Clausewitz, eh? Take this Clausewitz:

A great part of the information obtained in War is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character. What is required of an officer is a certain power of discrimination, which only knowledge of men and things and good judgment can give.
Perhaps you're right that it was not necessarily the use of the Palantír that is condemnable -- perhaps this extreme method of intelligence-gathering was called for -- but again we must come back to Denethor's pride and resultant poor judgment.

Rather than share the intelligence he gained with learned counselors and allies for analysis, Denethor hoarded his knowledge, preferring instead to feed his pride by being able to project an impression of quasi-omniscience. A free exchange of information with others who could be more objective than himself may have prevented Denethor's fall into madness and disgrace.

Denethor instead deluded himself into thinking that he was at least the personal equal of Sauron and could not be deceived by him.

Sharkû 12-03-2001 05:50 AM

As sorry as I am to thus kill our discussion like this, but I basically have to agree.

"Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need" - Denethor to Gandalf. Just wanted to add that, with a grain of salt.

Halbarad 12-03-2001 06:10 PM

Good topic Mith! I haven't read many disagreements with you so I will give my perspective to the debate.
I think that it is important to remember that no-one was sure that the Ithil stone had fallen into the hands of Sauron, there were suspicions but no proof until the Orthanc stone was found. Denethor used the stone more and more leading up to his fall, and in doing so fell under the corrupting influence of Sauron, who, not being fully able to corrupt him, instead decieved him, showing great armies coming from Mordor and Osgiliath, and possibly mispresented the fleet coming from Umbar, led by Aragorn. Could anyone have hope when the situation was thus presented?
Aragorn said he managed to wrench the Orthanc stone away from the will of Sauron, but only just, and he was the rightful user of the stone. Could Denethor, then, have the ability to wrench the stone away from Sauron, the stones being primarily communicatory devices? I think that despite his nobility and great will he did not have the strength.
Based on this premise, I would have to conclude that many of Denethor's actions were based on the deceit of Sauron (master of lies?). Who knows when Denethor first looked into the stone? After his wife's death? Could this account for his abrupt change of character? Could of of his covetousness of his position be based on thelies of Sauron? Or perhaps the honeyed tongue of a corrupted Saruman, who had long been ensnared by Sauron ( since before the rise of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur or even since he moved into Orthanc, being slowly corrupted and ensnared by Sauron?). I do admit that his pride &c. could have been based on the disbelief that the heir of Isildur lived, which would give suchj a proud man the idea that he had the right to rule, even to be king, and that the arguments of Sharku and Mith and Merith have a lot of merit, but has anyone thought of the situation in that way? Have I just simplified JRRT's own opinion (I hope not)?

lamarquise 12-04-2001 12:40 AM

Denethor was deceived, certainly. Sauron was able to deceive him because Denethor insisted on having his own way, thinking himself great enough to use the stone without danger though it was under Sauron's influence. A wiser man, perhaps, would have been more prudent and trusted less to his own strength. Aragorn himself had trouble with the palantir of Orthanc, and the only thing that probably saved him was the fact that he took it to distract Sauron while his friends made their way into Mordor.

Marileangorifurnimaluim 12-04-2001 09:33 PM

Good to see you again, I., good posts wherever I've bumped into you. [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

Side Note first:
I., I disagree on one minor point, Aragorn's noble motivations would not have made a difference in his more successful use of the Palantir, it was his greater strength of mind. The Palantir were not like the rings of power, they were neutral. Denethor was deceived because he didn't have the strength to recognize Sauron's influence in what he was able to see, and what he could not.

Results vs. Motives

Folks, excuse the length, I'm working this out stream-of-consciousness.

If we judge Denethor by how his actions turned out, we have to condemn him, because it went badly.

Judging character by results will be inaccurate every time.

To do that we have to condemn every mistake, well-intentioned or not... including Pippin dropping that little pebble in Moria.

Then from that we have to condemn the trait that caused this pebble-problem.

Then that ONE trait must be exaggerated to justify our condemnation.

And as soon as we have to exaggerate to prove our point, we've oversimplified. We're looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. No longer taking any other factor into consideration.

Truth is, results mean nothing in judging character. Ill-intentioned actions can come out well, well-intentioned can come out ill. Or an unpredictable outside factor can intervene.

Character can only be judged by motive.

Denethor's intentions were more noble than Pippin's (pebble in Moria) in this case, he honestly meant to glean information for the good of the realm.

So where's his pride?

In using it at all? No. Denethor was had every reason to assume what he saw in the stone was the truth. The nature of the Palantir was not deceptive. He also was faced with grave danger to his kingdom, it’s acceptable to take risks when the gain outweighs the potential risk. It was not pride to try to master the stone, but desperation. He didn't know he was being deceived, and so as far as he knew, his gamble worked.

The real revelation is in how he recited information gleaned from the stone, without mentioning its source.

"It has long been known to me who the Captain of the dark forces is.."

"That was known to me ere nightfall.."
Why brag?

For all his good motives, (the following is just a partial list)..
-He wanted an edge over the Dark Lord.
-He was defending his realm and everyone in it.
-He believed in Gondor and all of its traditions, even against the wishes of Boromir. 10,000 years wouldn't suffice to make a steward king.

..he still used the stone as an edge over Gandalf and others of influence. Pride was not his downfall. Politics was.

A politician may do good things, and even mean well, like Denethor, but they will not sacrifice for the good of all. And the only way to win to win this battle was through what Sauron couldn't understand: sacrifice.

Boy I love it when these discussions reveal something I didn't see before. Denethor's a powerful example of a truth Tolkien nailed.


[ December 04, 2001: Message edited by: Marileangorifurnimaluim ]

Mister Underhill 12-06-2001 04:23 PM

You’ve made several interesting points here, Maril, as usual, but I think I see a few places where I must (respectfully!) disagree. So, at the risk of beating a dead horse (a risk I’ve never shrunk from in the past), I’ll carry on…

Character can only be judged by motive.
I, for one, can’t side with you on this. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” they say. One could justify any number of misdeeds according to your logic. Quality of judgment and some sort of moral yardstick must also be taken into account when evaluating character, IMO. In other words, upon what basis has the person in question formed the opinion that their motives and methods are ‘good’? For all his virtues, Denethor’s judgment was badly skewed. By what? His own pride and arrogance, I contend.

Denethor's intentions were more noble than Pippin's (pebble in Moria) in this case, he honestly meant to glean information for the good of the realm.
Here again (IMO), you’ve made an unwarranted, albeit generous, assumption. There are several points worth considering here.

(1) As a descendant of Númenoreans who were nearly destroyed as a bloodline by the deception of Sauron, Denethor of all people should have been aware of the unavoidable dangers of confronting his Enemy. Like all successful politicians, Denethor knows the right thing to say in many situations, but whether he’s sincere or not is another matter. When he assumed office, he took the oath 'to hold rod and rule in the name of the king, until he shall return', yet we see that he had no intention of surrendering either rod or rule when the king did return. As I quoted earlier and Sharkey mentioned in his last post in this thread, Denethor quotes a seeming proverb about the folly of disdaining help and counsel at need, yet we see that he disdained both at his hour of greatest need. I would add to these two examples his words to Boromir. Despite what he had to say about 10,000 years, etc., he clearly perceived himself to be at least the equal – if not the better – of the greatest of the Númenorean kings if he thought he could take on Sauron single-handedly and defeat him. His motive may have been ‘good’ – defeat Sauron – but his judgment and his methods were, to say the least, questionable.

(2) I concede that the extraordinary events taking place in the world may have justified the extreme measure of using the Palantír – yet what were the circumstances under which he made use of it? He doesn’t appear to have consulted any trusted advisors. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to have any trusted advisors, certainly none that dared to oppose his will (with the possible occasional exception of Faramir). Faramir states that the punishment for choosing “a course that proves ill for [the] city” is death. Here, the Hitler analogy rears its head again. Even if Denethor did have advisors, how many would dare oppose his opinions or decisions in such a climate? Denethor’s megolamania set the stage for his own downfall. Contrast him with Théoden, whose deception at least was the result of a nefarious scheme against him, and who ultimately redeemed himself and died with honor. Even while in the throes of his deception, Théoden still retained trusted advisors close to him, and had enough humility to allow himself to be shown the error of his ways – a humiliating but necessary subjection of his ego to the advice and counsel of others.

(3) Was it mere political ambition that led Denethor to conceal the source of his information? Denethor already had a secure grip on the highest office he could hope to attain. What political aims could he possibly further by having this dubious “edge” over his allies, none of whom had any immediate political designs on his position (and whose designs, if any, were in any case proper according to the traditions and history of Gondor)? Or was it more that Denethor could not bear the thought of submitting himself to the leadership of someone other than himself; in fact, could not bear having to rely on others for help and intelligence, or even having to ask the advice of someone who might contradict his opinion? IMO, it’s the latter.

Who would have thought we could get so much mileage out of a Denethor thread? Interesting posts, all!

Mithadan 12-06-2001 04:48 PM

Whack, whack, whack.....poor horse. [img]smilies/rolleyes.gif[/img]

But I definitely agree - a worthy discussion all!

Mister Underhill 12-06-2001 05:26 PM

Perhaps I, Denethor-like, should have consulted with Mith before posting. Good thing I don't have a Palantír at my disposal...

Marileangorifurnimaluim 12-07-2001 02:27 PM

[img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] hahahahahahahha - Too true.
But dead horses are very appropriate for the barrow-downs don't you think?

Master Underhill and I are getting into very subtle points of cause and effect you see.

How much is good defined by intention, and how much by action? How predictable is the effect of an action, and how much is 20/20 hindsight? If we define good by the result, then the result has to be predictable.

Don't bail when it's starting to look past the character into fundamental principles.

Your original question hasn't been answered. We all just agree on what's clearly stated in the book: Denethor is "proud." No kidding. Gandalf said that 15 times. That's surface stuff.

There're brilliant minds behind the posts here: where's the line between good and evil? What's the criteria? Using Denethor as an example - who's more grey-zone than Gandalf the Grey - will define it, and finally tell us if Denethor's loss is tragic, and why.

Marileangorifurnimaluim 12-09-2001 03:49 AM

Oh bother, [img]smilies/rolleyes.gif[/img] nevermind, should have brought it up earlier.

"Faithful servant, yet Maril's bane
Lightfoot's foal, swift Snowmane."

Bang. I declare this horse officially dead. [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img]

Mister Underhill 12-09-2001 03:21 PM

Wait, wait, O fellow horse-whacker! The weekends are usually downtime for me, so don't misread my no-response as lack of interest. I think you've put your finger on some of the deeper issues that have made this Denethor discussion so interesting (for me, anyway). I'm up for taking a few more swings, but holiday shopping and thinking about my next response in the controversial analysis going on in "The One Ring?" thread have delayed me. Look for more beating, poking, and prodding from me soon!

Marileangorifurnimaluim 12-11-2001 07:37 PM

Well, if nobody objects, I don't think this horse will mind being saved from the glue factory. Let me re-read your response Mr. Underhill, you do bring up a valid point on good intentions vs. actual value of actions.

Mithadan 12-11-2001 07:48 PM

*Mithadan revives horse which looks dubiously at Maril and Underhill who are advancing, staves in hand...

Marileangorifurnimaluim 12-12-2001 10:17 PM

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! The visual alone.. *Maril gulps as she raises her stave, pausing..* okay, give me time to overcome my pity (and finish Christmas shopping) and we'll continue. [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img]

Arvedui 05-05-2003 12:34 PM


"...and finally tell us if Denethor's loss is tragic, and why."
It is tragic in the fact a good man of Gondor fell to the wiles of Sauron via the Palantir, for his own will could not leave it alone. His loss the way it came about is tragic because a better death ccould have been had in the field of battle similar to King Theoden. I think his time had to end with the war though for his pride could have been an obstacle to the ascention of Aragorn as King. For Denethor wouldn't want to give up the ruling power.

Sharkû 07-21-2003 02:27 AM

Best Denethor-related topic.

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