The Pyre of Denethor
Chapter 7 is set within the time-span of Chapter 6, as indeed is most of Chapter 8. It takes the reader back to the end of Chapter 5, with the Witch King suddenly retreating to face the threat of Rohan:
“When the dark shadow at the Gate withdrew Gandalf still sat motionless. But Pippin rose to his feet, as if a great weight had been lifted from him; and he stood listening to the horns, and it seemed to him that they would break his heart with joy. And never in after years could he hear a horn blown in the distance without tears starting in his eyes. But now suddenly his errand returned to his memory, and he ran forward. At that moment Gandalf stirred and spoke to Shadowfax, and was about to ride through the Gate.”
He calls out, warning Gandalf that Denethor intends to burn alive his wounded son. This makes a dilemma:
“‘Can’t you save Faramir?’ [asks Pippin]
“‘Maybe I can,’ said Gandalf; ‘but if I do, then others will die, I fear. Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work.’
“Then having made up his mind he acted swiftly; and catching up Pippin and setting him before him, he turned Shadowfax with a word. Up the climbing streets of Minas Tirith they clattered, while the noise of war rose behind them.”
He meets Prince Imrahil, and puts him in charge of the men now rallying after the arrival of the Rohan horsemen gives them hope.
He rides Shadowfax as far as he can, and then hastens to intervene when he sees Beregond, who has followed Pippin’s advance and is trying to save Faramir:
“For there were the servants of Denethor with swords and torches in their hands; but alone in the porch upon the topmost step stood Beregond, clad in the black and silver of the Guard; and he held the door against them. Two of them had already fallen to his sword, staining the hallows with their blood; and the others cursed him, calling him outlaw and traitor to his master.”
Pippin is a trickster, as Bilbo was, and as Frodo is not. He had fooled the unusually evil Orc Grishnakh into helping him. And now, after Denethor helpfully releases him from his promise, he successfully subverts Beregond in the name of a higher duty. And then went to fetch Gandalf, correctly guessing that his power would be needed.
Denethor now appears, sword in hand. But Gandalf feels justified in using his full power:
“The door which Beregond held shut with his left hand was wrenched open, and there behind him stood the Lord of the City, tall and fell; a light like flame was in his eyes, and he held a drawn sword.
“But Gandalf sprang up the steps, and the men fell back from him and covered their eyes; for his coming was like the incoming of a white light into a dark place, and he came with great anger. He lifted up his hand, and in the very stroke, the sword of Denethor flew up and left his grasp and fell behind him in the shadows of the house; and Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”
Learned though Denethor was, he had not supposed a wizard would have such power. Which may anyway be part of the extras Gandalf got when sent back as Gandalf the White.
Defeated physically, Denethor appeals to what he sees as justice:
“‘Since when has the Lord of Gondor been answerable to thee?’ said Denethor. ‘Or may I not command my own servants?’
“‘You may,’ said Gandalf. ‘But others may contest your will, when it is turned to madness and evil. Where is your son, Faramir?’
“‘He lies within,’ said Denethor, ‘burning, already burning. They have set a fire in his flesh. But soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind!’
Alarmed that he might have killed his son, they push in and find Faramir on a table with wood piled under it and drenched in oil:
“Then Gandalf revealed the strength that lay hid in him; even as the light of his power was hidden under his grey mantle. He leaped up on to the faggots, and raising the sick man lightly he sprang down again, and bore him towards the door. But as he did so Faramir moaned and called on his father in his dream.
“Denethor started as one waking from a trance, and the flame died in his eyes, and he wept; and he said: ‘Do not take my son from me! He calls for me.’
“‘He calls,’ said Gandalf, ‘but you cannot come to him yet. For he must seek healing on the threshold of death, and maybe find it not. Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’
“‘He will not wake again,’ said Denethor. ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?’
“‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’ Then passing through the door he took Faramir from the deadly house and laid him on the bier on which he had been brought, and which had now been set in the porch. Denethor followed him, and stood trembling, looking with longing on the face of his son. And for a moment, while all were silent and still, watching the Lord in his throes, he wavered.”
At that very moment, others are showing courage in the face of terrible foes. Expecting to die, and not even hoping there will be anyone to remember their sacrifice.
Denethor is not a coward, but he no longer believes in a future worth suffering for. Or a duty worth sticking to regardless of outcome, which holds Frodo to his quest till very nearly the end. He has been led into despair:
“Then suddenly Denethor laughed. He stood up tall and proud again, and stepping swiftly back to the table he lifted from it the pillow on which his head had lain. Then coming to the doorway he drew aside the covering, and lo! he had between his hands a palantir. And as he held it up, it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame, so that the lean face of the Lord was lit as with a red fire, and it seemed cut out of hard stone, sharp with black shadows, noble, proud, and terrible. His eyes glittered.
“‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.’”
Back in Chapter 4, he had believed even worse. He thought that Sauron had the One Ring, which would have vastly increased his already-overwhelming power:
“‘The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous.”
He does not repeat this unproven fear, but he has entirely lost hope regardless.
Denethor shows a common human weakness in hanging onto power at the expense of the cause he is supposed to be serving. Sees only power-games:
“‘Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! 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 Anarion. 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.’
There is some truth in his complaint against Gandalf, who had told Pippin not to mention who Aragorn was. Being more honest about it might have helped – and also explaining that Gandalf has no wish for power for himself. But of course Saruman would have begun so and become a traitor, as Denethor well knows.
On the other hand, Aragorn’s line of Ranger Chieftains is also descended from a woman called Firiel, who by Gondor’s law should have become the Ruling Queen after her father’s death.[A] She was set aside in favour of a more distant male relative, and his son is the Lost King in whose name Denethor rules. By blood, Aragorn’s claim is excellent and many in Gondor would accept it.
The real problem is Denethor’s refusal to change:
“‘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, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’
“‘To me it would not seem that a Steward who faithfully surrenders his charge is diminished in love or in honour,’ said Gandalf.’”
But Denethor will not see it so. Tolkien presumably sees this as a version of men setting themselves up as gods, as Feanor did much earlier. Denethor has failed in the more limited dominion he inherited, and has nothing more to live for. Sauron long ago showed similar vanity and greed. Saruman was following the same path. Galadriel was tempted by it and rejected it. Gandalf knows he could be tempted and limits his power, wisely refusing Frodo’s offer to give him the One Ring.
Full of pride and despair, Denethor jumps on the pyre and lights it, taking the palantir with him:
“And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.”
Gandalf them moves on:
“‘So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion,’ said Gandalf: Then he turned to Beregond and the Lord’s servants that stood there aghast. ‘And so pass also the days of Gondor that you have known; for good or evil they are ended. Ill deeds have been done here; but let now all enmity that lies between you be put away, for it was contrived by the Enemy and works his will. You have been caught in a net of warring duties that you did not weave. But think, you servants of the Lord, blind in your obedience, that but for the treason of Beregond Faramir, Captain of the White Tower, would now also be burned.”
They take Faramir to the Houses of Healing. And while doing this, they hear what must be the cry of the Witch King when struck down by Eowyn:
“But even as Gandalf and his companions came carrying the bier to the main door of the Houses, they heard a great cry that went up from the field before the Gate and rising shrill and piercing into the sky passed, and died away on the wind. So terrible was the cry that for a moment all stood still, and yet when it had passed, suddenly their hearts were lifted up in such a hope as they had not known since the darkness came out of the East; and it seemed to them that the light grew clear and the sun broke through the clouds.”
You might also expect Gandalf to hasten to the battle when this is done. But perhaps he sees his duty as changed with the fall of the only foe that humans would normally not be able to deal with. And he seems to know the cost:
“Things of great sorrow and renown have come to pass. Shall we weep or be glad? Beyond hope the Captain of our foes has been destroyed, and you have heard the echo of his last despair. But he has not gone without woe and bitter loss. And that I might have averted but for the madness of Denethor. So long has the reach of our Enemy become! Alas! but now I perceive how his will was able to enter into the very heart of the City.”
He then explains:
“‘Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long ago I guessed that here in the White Tower, one at least of the Seven Seeing Stones was preserved. In the days of his wisdom Denethor did not presume to use it, nor to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess, since Boromir departed. He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.’”
Denethor was wiser than Saruman, though less powerful. He wanted only to preserve what he legitimately held. But he was subtly led to see nothing else as being worth having, if this hope failed, as it clearly had.
Those with power can influence the minds of others – the most plausible version of magic. Rehashed as SF with the Jedi mind power. And also the Voice of the Bene Gesserit in Dune: the first Star Wars Trilogy borrows a great deal, as I have mentioned elsewhere.[B]
Gandalf perhaps wants to get to the bottom of just what the influence was. And is soon told:
“‘Now I understand what seemed so strange to me!’ said Pippin shuddering at his memories as he spoke. ‘The Lord went away from the room where Faramir lay; and it was only when he returned that I first thought he was changed, old and broken.’
“‘It was in the very hour that Faramir was brought to the Tower that many of us saw a strange light in the topmost chamber,’ said Beregond. ‘But we have seen that light before, and it has long been rumoured in the City, that the Lord would at times wrestle in thought with his Enemy.’
“‘Alas! then I have guessed rightly,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thus the will of Sauron entered into Minas Tirith; and thus I have been delayed here. And here I shall still be forced to remain, for I shall soon have other charges, not Faramir only.
“‘Now I must go down to meet those who come. I have seen a sight upon the field that is very grievous to my heart, and greater sorrow may yet come to pass.”
The battle is still going on, but Gandalf sees healing as his first duty. And may plausibly be aware that Aragorn’s mission has succeeded and he comes to help. Though if so, it might have helped to have told Denethor, who naturally took the black-sail disguise at face value.
An echo of Greek myth there, I also note.
“Theseus forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones, so his father, the king, believing he was dead, committed suicide.”[C]
Healing comes next, and chapter 8 will begin with the battle still going on outside the city.
[B] Saraumanic Heroes: the Ethics of Star Wars: https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/m99-topic-menus-from-long-revolution-website/998-from-labour-affairs/the-french-revolution-and-its-unstable-politics/050-about-science-fiction/the-moral-void-in-star-wars/