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Old 11-27-2001, 01:21 PM   #18
Mister Underhill
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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.
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