1. In Defence
Just what is it about him that makes people portray him as an evil, deluded pyromaniac who only wants to kill Faramir?
It's not surprising, really, if one takes a closer look at the movies. There, Denethor is portrayed as all of the above (and Faramir's character isn't so great in the movie, either).
Though the actor who played him certainly deserves credit (in my opinion, he definitely did justice to the part), it is certainly disappointing that there was no mention of the palantír. Without the factor of a mental battle with Sauron contributing to an unbalanced mental state, Denethor is merely a schizophrenic with terrible table-manners.
Separating Myth From Canon
Was Denethor bad-looking?
There is one book-quote that could have spawned this belief –
"It is said that he dared to use the palantír of the White Tower, which none since the kings had looked in, and so saw much of the mind of Sauron (who had the stone of Ithil), but was aged prematurely by this combat and fell into despair" - Appendix A, Lord of the Rings.
However, we set this against:
'Pippin saw his carven face with its proud bones and skin like ivory, and the long curved nose between the dark deep eyes, and he was reminded not so much of Boromir as of Aragorn.' (The Return of the King – Minas Tirith)
In the first line mentioning Denethor, we see already that he is compared to Aragorn. This is done again in the appendices – 'Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil [Aragorn] as to one of nearest kin.'
His appearance with regard to his sons is also given in Appendix A – 'Boromir, five years the elder, beloved by his father, was like him in face and pride, but in little else. Rather he was a man after the sort of King Eärnur of old, taking no wife and delighting chiefly in arms; fearless and strong but caring little for lore, save the tales of old battles. Faramir the younger was like him in looks but otherwise in mind. For he read the hearts of men as shrewdly as his father, but what he read moved him sooner to pity than to scorn.'
"Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older. " – (The Return of the King – Minas Tirith)
Peoples of Middle-earth - The Heirs of Elendil: Denethor II - He was the first son and third child of Ecthelion and more learned in lore than any Steward for many generations. He was very tall and in appearance looked like an ancient Numenorean."
Clearly, we can dispel the myth that Denethor is unattractive in appearance, unless you want to think that Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir are ugly and vile as well, not to mention all those Numenoreans.
Then, we come to Denethor's relationship with his sons. I can safely say here that the thought of Denethor hating Faramir is twaddle.
Firstly, we have Gandalf's reassurance to a reckless Faramir: 'Gandalf it was that last spoke to Faramir ere he rode east. 'Do not throw your live away rashly or in bitterness,' he said. 'You will be needed here, for other things than war. Your father loves you, Faramir, and will remember it ere the end. Farewell!'' (Return of the King – The Siege of Gondor)
Gandalf is wise; he is a Maia, and it is quite safe to assume that things do not deceive him easily. With that in mind, he has probably judged correctly in this line – thus felling argument with one swoop.
Denethor does not hate Faramir. Even in the end, when Gandalf is bearing Faramir to the Houses of Healing, Denethor says 'Do not take my son from me! He calls for me!'' (Return of the King – The Pyre of Denethor). He is anything but cold and distant.
The belief that Denethor actively wanted Faramir dead is probably sourced from this passage:
'Do you wish then,' said Faramir, 'that our places had been exchanged?'
'Yes, I wish that indeed,' said Denethor. 'For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard's pupil. He would have remembered his father's need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.' (Return of the King - The Siege of Gondor).
This does not mean that Denethor hated Faramir. At the most, it can be taken to mean that he preferred Boromir, or that he wanted the Ring and this thought blinded him to the words he was saying.
Also, I found a fascinating alternate draft to this controversial scene, in History of Middle-earth: War of the Ring :
'Yes, I wish that indeed,' said Denethor. 'Or no.'
And then he shook his head, and rising swiftly he laid his hand upon his son's bowed head. 'Do not judge me harshly, my son,' he said quietly, 'or believe me more harsh than I am. I knew your brother well also. Love is not blind. I could wish that Boromir had been at Henneth Annûn when this thing came there, only if I were sure of one thing.'
'Sure of what, my father?'
'That he was as strong in heart and selfless as you, my son. That taking this thing he would have brought it here and surrendered it, and not fallen swiftly under its thraldom. For, Faramir - and you too, Mithrandir, amid all your wide webs and policies - there is a third way, that is neither the folly of wizards nor the lust of warriors....'
Here, Denethor openly says that he believes Faramir to be stronger and more selfless – i.e. a better person – than Boromir.
Are these the words of a man who wants Faramir dead? I think not.
Denethor did not hate Faramir, then. At the absolute limit of believability, we can perhaps conclude that Boromir was the preferred son.
We also know that Denethor and Aragorn have met (this was while Aragorn served Denethor's father Ecthelion under the alias Thorongil). And Denethor disliked Aragorn, so this must mean that Denethor is evil, right?
Denethor never exactly hated Thorongil – there was considerable rivalry, which is natural, as they were of the same age, ranked the same, and Denethor’s father showed some deference to Thorongil in matters of counsel. Surely it would irk anyone if his father listened to another over him!
Denethor was no fool, and even in the Appendices, Tolkien says that it was widely believed that Denethor had found the truth behind the mysterious 'Thorongil', and believed that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.
This is quite understandable. Denethor's family have ruled Minas Tirith as Stewards for generations. Naturally he would be a little hesitant to give up his position of considerable authority for some wandering Ranger from the North.
Also, previously, we’ve seen that Arvedui did claim the throne of Gondor, but his claim was rejected. Why should the rules differ for Arvedui’s descendants? Denethor is only following the precedent others have set before him.
Another point we see made too often is that ‘Denethor did not have the right to use the palantír; it drove him mad.’
If we see the essay on them in Unfinished Tales:
“After the days of the Kings, and the loss of Minas Ithil, there is no further mention of their open and official use. There was no answering Stone left in the North after the shipwreck of Arvedui Last-king in the year 1975. 2 In 2002 the Ithil-stone was lost. There then remained only the Anor-stone in Minas Tirith and the Orthanc-stone.
Two things contributed then to the neglect of the Stones, and their passing out of the general memory of the people. The first was ignorance of what had happened to the Ithil-stone: it was reasonably assumed that it was destroyed by the defenders before Minas Ithil was captured and sacked; but it was clearly possible that it bad been seized and had come into the possession of Sauron, and some of the wiser and more farseeing may have considered this. It would appear that they did so, and realized that the Stone would be of little use to him for the damage of Gondor, unless it made contact with another Stone that was in accord with it. It was for this reason, it may be supposed, that the Anor-stone, about which all the records of the Stewards are silent until the War of the Ring, was kept as a closely-guarded secret, accessible only to the Ruling Stewards and never by them used (it seems) until Denethor II.” The Palantíri, Unfinished Tales
"Actually they must normally have been used by such deputies. Each Stone had its own warden, one of whose duty it was to `survey the Stone' at regular intervals, or when commanded, or in time of need." –
The Palantíri, Unfinished Tales.
What can we see here? The King, obviously, had the ultimate right to use the palantíri; after all, they belonged to him.
However, it also appears that the Kings normally delegated power to others, for surely they could not monitor all seven at once; therefore, assuming that the Stewards had the right to use them is quite reasonable in this, and also in that since there is no King in Gondor, his authority is naturally vested in them, even to the extent of these.
Finally, we come to the ‘madness’ of Denethor. What caused it?
The use of the palantír itself certainly did not have that great an effect on him.
"The breaking strain of Denethor's confrontation with Sauron must be distinguished from the general strain of using the Stone. The latter Denethor thought he could endure (and not without reason); confrontation with Sauron almost certainly did not occur for many years, and was probably never originally contemplated by Denethor." – The Palantíri, Unfinished Tales
In Tolkien’s own words, we have it – the use of a palantír does involve some strain, but this Denethor thought he could handle. The ‘breaking strain’ was a mental confrontation with Sauron – and it must be admitted that Denethor acquitted himself extraordinarily well – he is a mortal Man, and Sauron is a Maia, old, powerful, and evil. Denethor is indeed not to be taken lightly – even after a battle of wills with a great Power, he (mostly) retained his senses.
Even Aragorn suffered a similar strain (though in the end he did not succumb like Denethor did):
“‘You forget to whom you speak,' said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. 'Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? What do you fear that I should say to him? Nay, Gimli,' he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights. 'Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely.’
He drew a deep breath. ‘It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will.’” - The Passing of the Grey Company, Lord of the rings: The Return of the King
Aragorn didn’t effortlessly waltz in and out of conflict with Sauron! True, his mind made it out better than Denethor’s had, but neither of them succumbed like Saruman did, and that is to be admired and appreciated.
Denethor failed at the end, it is true, but he failed for many reasons – he failed because Sauron deceived him, he failed because he had seen the strength of the opposing forces and believed (not without reason) that hope was lost for Gondor, he failed because to the best of his knowledge, he was going to lose the only thing he had left – his son.
He did not fail because he was evil, and in defence of Lord Denethor, I rest my case.
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