The Richard Nixon of Middle-earth: a Denethor character analysis
Denethor II, Steward of Gondor, has had ill-luck on screen. Commonly misinterpreted as a cruel and gibbering nutjob, he is butchered in the Peter Jackson adaptation, to the point where he becomes an incompetent shorn of any positive characteristics: Jackson implicitly invites us to cheer when Gandalf hits him with his staff, while the Steward’s final dash–on-fire represents one of the lowest points of the 2001-2003 trilogy. Denethor is even robbed of the palantír justification for his behaviour: rather than snapping under unnatural psychological pressure in service to the realm, film-Denethor is so hung-up on the loss of Boromir that he becomes deaf to the impending War, and then finally snaps when he regrets his own mistreatment of Faramir. Jackson’s Denethor is a fundamentally cowardly and selfish man, who gets his “deserved” comeuppance. Meanwhile, Denethor’s treatment in the 1980 Rankin-Bass Return of the King (“He’s gone loony, I tell you!”) is not great either – but it’s at least better than Jackson’s. Here we are given a figure worthy of pity, together with the palantír that eats at his mind:
A shame Rankin-Bass introduces him by narration, and never shows him before he despairs, so he is defined entirely by his final madness.
Neither Jackson’s contemptuous coward nor Rankin-Bass’ despairing lunatic adequately capture the Denethor from the book, a situation made all the more painful by the fact that Denethor is one of Tolkien’s finest character studies. Less iconic than Gollum admittedly, less grand than Fëanor, his story is nevertheless one of fascinating tragedy, with some rich thematic undertones. Hence today’s character analysis.
(i) The Númenórean Conservative
Denethor is simultaneously a throw-back to the darker and more dangerous side of Númenórean greatness, and the single most conservative character in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Aragorn, Faramir, and Imrahil, who essentially fit the mould of latter-day pious Elf-friend, or Boromir, whose delight in arms is more typical of the Rohirrim, Denethor is something else: a reminder of the mighty Empire that once ruled the world, with all the pride, cultural arrogance, and implied cruelty that comes with that. Théoden may be a kindly old lord with a desire to fight and die alongside his men, but Denethor plays chess with other men’s lives – and all for the good of Gondor. Shorn of the insanity plot, Denethor is what Aragorn might have been, had Rings been written by a more cynical author – indeed Tolkien is sufficiently pessimistic to imagine Aragorn’s successors turning out like him.
Moreover, just as the Númenórean Empire becomes defined by its obsession with life unchanging, and Tolkien’s go-to analogy for Gondor is Ancient Egypt, so too this last relic of dark (not black!) Númenor is characterised by his adherence to the old ways of doing things, as determined by prior generations. Denethor takes an almost perverse delight in not being King: Boromir may find it frustrating, but Denethor knows that a Steward becoming a monarch would not fit with the traditions of his culture, which dictate that he cannot use the royal throne, crown, or even the heraldry. This is not some lesser realm – this is Gondor, where ten thousand years would not suffice to make a Steward a King! This is Gondor, where the dead White Tree must be left standing, because everything from the glorious past must be preserved… or mummified. Gondor’s best days are well behind it, which Denethor knows full-well, but like the crusty caretaker of a crumbling mansion (or a Mervyn Peake character), tradition defines everything for him:
“What then would you have,” said Gandalf, “if your will could have its way?”
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my longfathers before me : to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me…”
Part of this is self-interest, of course: Denethor genuinely likes ruling (and is genuinely good at it), and does not fancy stepping down to become “the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.” But this also speaks to both Denethor’s Númenórean pride (one does not put the hillbilly descendent of Romulus Augustus upon the throne of Constantinople!), and to his personal conservatism. The Stewards have ruled Gondor for a thousand years, Minas Tirith has rejected the House of Isildur before… therefore, that is the way things must be. Denethor’s dream is a future that does not deviate from the past or present: it is life unchanging, a world without growth, with only the slow and silent decay of a dead White Tree.
(ii) Gondor über alles
Tolkien’s own analysis of the character contains this interesting paragraph:
Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and apposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a “political” leader: sc. Gondor against the rest. (Letter 183)
“Preserve” and “as it was” speaks to Denethor’s previously-discussed conservatism, but the rest of the paragraph marks Denethor as almost a sort of pseudo-nationalist. The interests of Gondor have, for him, taken on a imperative of their own, to the point where they displace the considerations of actual morality, and if calling Denethor a nationalist is anachronistic (and slightly misleading), calling him a practitioner of realpolitik is perfectly appropriate. In the title of this essay, I refer to Denethor as the Richard Nixon of Middle-earth, and indeed this sort of cynical Realism is the hallmark of old-school Great Power diplomacy. Certainly, Tolkien himself has little time for it, and in referring to “cruel and vengeful” treatment of the Haradrim and Easterlings, he likely envisages Denethor reviving that other dark Númenórean tradition: imperialism.
With regard to Númenóreans seeing Sauron as an amoral political rival, rather than as an immoral and monstrous foe, the obvious in-universe comparison is Ar-Pharazôn. This last and most powerful ruler of Númenor does not hate Sauron on moral grounds – he hates him as a competing imperialist, and when the Dark Lord dares call himself the King of Men, Pharazôn launches a (successful) attack on Mordor. However, whereas Pharazôn is motivated by personal self-aggrandisement and gigantic ego, Denethor’s concern is for Gondor’s aggrandisement (or at least its safety). From Unfinished Tales:
Denethor was a man of great strength of will, and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.
If Denethor were merely another Pharazôn, he also would not show the same obsessive deference to tradition: the last King of Númenor has no issues with launching a palace coup, and then marrying his first-cousin in defiance of the law; Denethor, by contrast, will not countenance seizing the throne for himself. In short, if Denethor, as per Tolkien’s letter, were to become a tyrant, he would at least be one motivated by more than personal selfishness. This gels well with Tolkien’s opinion later in Letter 183 that unsavoury leaders can still have good motives.
(An interesting flip-side to the Denethor and Pharazôn comparison is to recall that Pharazôn is incredibly popular, charismatic, and brings his realm to a zenith of political and economic power – before perishing, whereupon Númenórean civilisation is preserved by Elendil. Denethor, for all his intelligence, competence, and dedication, is decidedly uncharismatic, and earns respect but little love from his people, even as he struggles to govern a realm at its nadir – before perishing, whereupon Gondor is preserved by Elendil’s Heir. Oh, and there’s some nifty elemental contrast between the pair too, with the destruction of one being associated with water, and the other fire. But I digress).
Denethor seeing the events of the War of the Ring through the prism of Gondorian national interest has, as Tolkien also notes, the unfortunate side-effect of damaging his relationship with Faramir. Faramir himself has acquired a degree of binary thinking (“there are no travellers in these lands, only servants of the Dark Tower or the White”), but is flexible and wise enough to understand Frodo’s predicament. Denethor is not, and accordingly regards anyone not working for him with suspicion. Denethor is no fool, however: he has held off Sauron for a long time, using every weapon (magical or otherwise) at his disposal, and as such he considers himself the hero of the piece – why then shouldn’t the most powerful weapon in Middle-earth go to Minas Tirith? To deny him this “mighty gift” (i.e. the Ring) is to deny Gondor the chance to defend itself against its foes – and hence a personal and political affront. That Faramir is friendly with Gandalf is an aggravating factor, since Denethor knows that Gandalf is allied with the upstart Heir of Isildur – the wizard who plots against the Stewards now conspires to deny Gondor what it needs. In such soil, paranoia grows.
(iii) The Prudent Rationalist
In contrast to Gandalf, et al, who place their faith in a higher supernatural power, or the Rohirrim, who take comfort from the Northern Theory of Courage, Denethor’s cold commitment to reason presents no way out of Gondor’s predicament. That is not to say that Denethor does not try everything at his disposal:
- He gathers all means of assistance from rural Gondor.
- He lights the beacons (**** you, Peter Jackson).
- He sends the Red Arrow.
- He evacuates the women and children of Minas Tirith.
- Food supply issues are managed to the best of his ability.
- His war plans make sense, both in short-term tactics (contest the river-crossing at Osgilliath) and in longer term strategy (pseudo-guerrilla warfare in Ithilien).
- He himself wears armour to bed, to better keep himself fit at 89.
- He uses the palantír. Yes, there are drawbacks, but Denethor believes desperate times call for desperate measures – and he gains considerable advantage as a result.
This is a highly intelligent and highly competent man who tries everything humanly possible to stop Sauron, save “coming to terms/selling out” a la Saruman. Emphasis on “humanly” – because in the context of a fantasy story written by a devout Catholic, Denethor’s rationalism is a decided flaw, what with his lack of faith in anything greater. One sees an interesting comment on this in Rings, during the post-Pelennor Fields debate:
“You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such strong places as you have, and there await the onset; for so shall the time before your end be made a little longer.”
“Then you would have us retreat to Minas Tirith, or Dol Amroth, or to Dunharrow, and there sit like children on sand-castles when the tide is flowing?” said Imrahil.
“That would be no new counsel,” said Gandalf. ‘Have you not done this and little more in all the days of Denethor? But no! I said this would be prudent. I do not counsel prudence. I said victory could not be achieved by arms…”
Gandalf’s dig at Denethor is a tad out of line, but then he’s a wizard, not a diplomat. The point is that Denethor is prudent – not in the Vichy-esque “Sauron will win, so let’s make the best deal we can” sense of Saruman, but in the “Sauron will win, but we must delay his victory the best we can” sense. Denethor is sensible enough to see that Sauron can neither be negotiated with nor beaten on the battlefield, but he is too prudent for a situation that (in-story) requires an irrational belief, a trust in the impossible.
For, in the absence of any supernatural support, Gandalf’s plan is impossible. The reader has known this since Frodo failed to cast the Ring into his little fire at Bag End – the Ring cannot be destroyed by human action. Denethor, in his earlier dismissal of the “witless halfling,” applies what may be termed “real-world” logic to this story – indeed, if this were a real-world situation, I suspect many people would see things his way. Sauron certainly does, which is the only reason why the Ring Quest gets as far as it does: Sauron, a rational being, cannot comprehend the idiocy of rejecting the Ring, therefore does not expect Gandalf’s plan.
Denethor’s own plan for the Ring is a good deal more nuanced than Boromir’s. Whereas Boromir sees the Ring’s usage as straight-forward, Denethor sees it in terms of cost-benefit. If the Ring can be used, it ought to be used by Sauron’s chief oppositon (Gondor). If the Ring is too perilous to use, at least it ought to be kept out of reach of Sauron by Sauron’s chief opposition (Gondor). Denethor morbidly points out that this latter choice is optimal, since it means Sauron can only gain the Ring after all his opponents are dead anyway – by which point no-one will care. By contrast, sending the Ring into Mordor simultaneously deprives Gondor of even the possibility of using it, and greatly enhances the possibility Sauron will regain it. It’s only logical.
(As an interesting footnote, Gandalf earlier notes that Denethor treats the expression “until the King returns” as mere lip-service, a traditional habit shorn of belief. Indeed it is: Denethor simply doesn’t believe).
(iv) The Paranoid
Quite apart from his adherence to political Realism, the other famously Nixonian trait that Denethor possesses is his paranoia, his belief that he must keep tabs on his internal enemies. From Unfinished Tales:
During the end of the rule of his father, Ecthelion II, [Denethor] must have greatly desired to consult the Stone, as anxiety in Gondor increased, while his own position was weakened by the fame of “Thorongil” and the favour shown to him by his father. At least one of his motives must have been jealousy of Thorongil, and hostility to Gandalf, to whom, during the ascendancy of Thorongil, his father paid much attention; Denethor desired to surpass these “usurpers” in knowledge and information, and also if possible to keep an eye on them when they were elsewhere.
With regard to the palantír, Appendix A further notes:
In this way Denethor gained his great knowledge of things that passed in his realm, and far beyond his borders, at which men marvelled…
I do wonder if Tolkien is perhaps being a tad naive in his portrayal of Denethor here. A paranoid ruler with access to a palantír is not going to evoke wonder in his people – he is going to evoke fear. Rather than marvelling at Denethor’s abilities, an average Gondorian would perhaps be wondering about some sort of spy network or secret police (and it would not be out of character for Denethor to have used just such an organisation). Certainly, given Denethor’s well-known disfavour towards Gandalf, one would have thought the inhabitants of Minas Tirith would choose their words with extreme care in talking with either the wizard or Pippin, lest someone be watching.
But to back-track a bit: why does Denethor fear Aragorn/Thorongil and Gandalf? What is the root of the paranoia? One word: displacement. Denethor in his youth is sidelined in the hearts of his people, and even in the heart of his father, by a mysterious charismatic figure – Aragorn/Thorongil is the Kennedy to Denethor’s Nixon (a comparison I keep coming back to, but one I feel is pertinent, even though Tolkien was writing long before those events). One can certainly imagine Denethor hovering in the background of Ecthelion’s rule, muttering darkly that it is his destiny to lead Gondor in its time of need, so why is he taking second-place to an upstart? Given that, as time goes on, Denethor’s worldview solidifies ever more into a single struggle between himself and Sauron, he would also certainly have agreed with Stannis Baratheon’s comment that Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies: Gandalf is not a subject, therefore he is an enemy (or at least someone to be distrusted).
This paranoia then culminates in Denethor’s angry confrontation with Gandalf:
‘With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’
Denethor sees himself (not without reason) as having done the heavy-lifting in terms of fighting Mordor, and is (again, not without reason) incensed that all this hard work will merely see him removed from leadership. Denethor, had he lived, would certainly have been incredibly sceptical of Aragorn’s credentials – even mild-mannered Faramir’s immediate response on learning of the claim is “prove it!” – and Denethor certainly sees the Ranger (true claim or no) as Gandalf’s political puppet:
Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west…
Even considering that historical precedent is on Denethor’s side – the House of Isildur has been rejected before, and Denethor is a stickler for tradition – the idea of letting a wandering wizard dictate the affairs of Gondor is too much for his Númenórean pride.
(v) The Lonely Father
In addition to his obvious fear of displacement, it is worth remembering how personally isolated and lonely Denethor has become by the time of the War of the Ring. His wife, Finduilas, whom he loved, dies young, and in a climate of raw political calculation, all alone in those cold marble halls, in a city of stone and tombs and a dead White Tree, there is so little alive. For companionship, Denethor has only his servants – and his sons. Small wonder then that he showers so much affection upon Boromir – it represents a vanishingly rare outlet for expressing actual human emotion, one that is perhaps even accentuated by the personality difference between them (maybe Boromir reminds Denethor of Finduilas?). Denethor’s grief at his son’s death is genuine, a flicker of warmth and vulnerability in a man whose image is so cold and stern. And then there is Faramir…
The Denethor/Faramir relationship is, at Denethor’s end, a study of how the political clashes with (and warps) the personal. As an innately political creature, Denethor instinctively sees everyone else as chess pieces – someone’s value is directly proportional to how he can use them to promote his own agenda. He cheerfully ignores Gandalf while interrogating Pippin. But this runs into problems when applied to his own family – while Denethor boasts he can use Boromir and Faramir in the cause of Gondor, it turns out that even the mighty Steward of Gondor has fatherly instincts.
His grief at Boromir’s death is tinged with guilt at having let Boromir go to Rivendell in the first place, while his decision to send Faramir to contest the crossing at Osgilliath results in Faramir’s nearly-mortal wounding – an event that hastens Denethor’s final madness. Note that in contrast to Jackson’s Denethor, who orders a clear suicide mission/Charge of the Light Brigade, Tolkien’s Denethor at least shows tactical sense. It’s just that spending one’s son in the name of tactical sense has consequences. That Denethor has mistrusted Faramir for his friendship with Gandalf, and earlier condemns him for letting Frodo go – again, political considerations warping personal ones – only magnifies Denethor’s sense of remorse.
Tolkien’s Denethor also does not resort to the sort of abusive parenting seen in the Jackson adaptation. Jackson’s Denethor snaps because he is a selfish, stupid man who sends others to their deaths while being too cowardly to “stand and fight” himself (all that matters in Jackson’s Rings), then realises too late the eminently foreseeable consequences of his actions. The viewer does not pity him – the viewer condemns him. Tolkien’s Denethor, on the other hand, snaps because the personal consequences of his (on paper, justified) political decisions have come back to haunt him. As with any true tragedy, the character is brought low by a fatal flaw, which in other circumstances may be considered admirable. The result on the part of the reader is pity, not scorn, and while the mood in the film may be one of action and black comedy, the Pyre of Denethor in the book can only be sorrow and horror: a horse kicking Denethor into the flames has no place in Tolkien. Nor does Denethor running while on fire.
In rounding off this subsection, I think it is worth considering comparisons between Denethor and another “Lonely Father” figure of the fantasy genre: George R.R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister. Both Denethor and Tywin are stern, competent lords (but not Kings!) utterly committed to realpolitik. Both lose their (loved) wives early – which hardens their personalities – and both utilise their children for nakedly political purposes. Both prefer their elder, more martial son over their younger, more bookish son, even though the younger child more closely resembles they themselves. And both come to bad ends. Where Denethor and Tywin differ, which is why the reader feels sorrow at Denethor’s death, and schadenfreude at Tywin’s – is that Denethor still has personal feelings, as well as political ones. Denethor is still capable of guilt, love, and genuine sorrow. Tywin is not. Tywin’s heart is cold and unyielding – the heart of a monster, whereas for all his many faults, Denethor retains the heart of a father.
(vi) The Despairing
The most memorable Denethor moment will always be the manner of his death, one of the most iconic death scenes (if not the most iconic) in all of Tolkien. Having concluded that Faramir’s death and Sauron’s victory are both imminent, Denethor loses his mind, and attempts a horrifying murder-suicide with his own son. He fails to kill Faramir courtesy of the intervention of Pippin and Beregond, but succeeds in burning himself alive, still clutching the palantír.
What drives Denethor to these extremes, and how does his death fit thematically into Tolkien’s story?
The impending death of his last surviving son is, as mentioned, the catalyst for Denethor’s madness, but it has been building for some time, as the character is subjected to inhuman levels of stress. Denethor, via the palantír, has a better intellectual grasp than nearly every other character of what Middle-earth is up against – it is all very well for, say, Sam Gamgee or Théoden to know that a Mordorian victory is “bad”, and that they face a mind-boggling challenge, but neither quite grasp the totality of the situation. Denethor, who actually has seen the hordes of Mordor, does grasp it – perhaps even more so than Aragorn and Frodo. Save for Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond, the only comparable character to Denethor here is Gollum – who has had the dubious pleasure of the Dark Lord’s hospitality first hand, and who warns Frodo that Sauron with the Ring will “eat the world.”
Faced with this, faced with losing the country he loves and the son he loves (and whom he guiltily thinks he has sacrificed for his country), together with the psychological drain of the palantír, and the knowledge that even if he wins he loses (via Aragorn), Denethor teeters on the edge. What pushes him over is the sight of what he thinks is the fleet of Umbar sailing up the Anduin. Denethor, like Aegeus from Greek mythology (who kills himself after his son Theseus fails to replace black sails with white ones), misreads the situation – he does not know that this is actually Aragorn coming to the rescue. The rest is history.
While it is impossible to feel anything other than pity for Denethor here, in terms of Tolkienian Catholic-flavoured cosmology, he has just committed the unforgivable sin: suicide, the rejection of grace. Worse, unlike Tolkien’s First Age suicidal characters, who at least despair in the context of a more overtly ‘pagan’ setting, Denethor has an actual minor angel on hand, in the form of Gandalf, to try to talk him out of it. This is where Denethor’s failure to believe really does come into play – because he really cannot accept anything higher than raw politics, he abandons hope altogether. Hope, for Denethor, is a foolish illusion that distracts one from the cold mundane reality – so he has none.
Nor does he find solace in the Northern Theory of Courage. This, you may recall, is the traditional Germanic notion (much explored by Tolkien) that defeat does not mean refutation, and that fighting on in a lost situation is the true measure of heroism. Compare Denethor’s reaction to the Umbar fleet with Éomer’s. In the style of the Germanic pagan, Éomer does not despair – he only thinks of defiance, and of performing heroic deeds upon the fields of Pelennor before he inevitably falls. Théoden too is a good example, and indeed within The Lord of the Rings serves as a literary foil to Denethor – an old man, who has lost his son, who also faces the impending end of the world. The difference is that Théoden faces the end of the world with courage, and dies a hero, whereas Denethor faces the end of the world with despair, and dies a proud and pitiable fool.
This concludes a lengthy character analysis of Denethor. Tolkien’s work explores other tragic characters, of course, but rarely in such exquisite detail, and whereas the likes of Húrin and his family are trapped by a cruel and pitiless wyrd, and Maedhros pursued to his death by a terrible and bloodthirsty Oath, Denethor is less a Norse-style figure, and much more a character in the tradition of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy: he is not brought down by curse or fate or oath, but by his own innate personality flaws. There is certainly a bit of both Aegeus and King Lear in Denethor (though he stands very much on his own), and were Rings a ‘real’ history, one imagines both Sophocles and Shakespeare having a field-day with him, even if modern film-makers simply can’t be bothered.
Through this single character – who is not even one of the story’s actual protagonists – Tolkien thematically explores the fall of a talented and masterful man unwilling to bend before the inevitability of change. A man who loses his moral compass to the amorality of realpolitik – and then regains it only to be destroyed by the resulting guilt. A man who fails (understandably) to make a leap of faith, and who then fails altogether. A man whose paranoia alienates friends and allies, precisely because he equates his own interests with his country’s, and his country’s interests with moral righteousness. A man who loses what he loves – his country and his son – even though neither are dead yet. Denethor is a deep and fascinating study in failure. A true tragedy.