Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, is a fictional character in J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings. He was the 26th ruling Steward of Gondor, committing suicide in the besieged city of Minas Tirith during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
Denethor is depicted as embittered and despairing as the forces of Mordor close in on Gondor. Critics have noted the contrast between Denethor and both Théoden, the good king of Rohan, and Aragorn, the true king of Gondor. Others have likened Denethor to Shakespeare's King Lear, both rulers falling into a dangerous despair.
In Peter Jackson's film trilogy, Denethor was portrayed as greedy and self-indulgent, quite unlike Tolkien's powerful leader.
In Tolkien's Middle-earth, Denethor was the first son and third child of Ecthelion II, a Steward of Gondor.[T 1] He married Finduilas, daughter of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth. She gave birth to two sons, Boromir and Faramir, but died when they were ten and five years old, respectively. Denethor never remarried, and became grimmer and more silent than before. He was a man of great will, foresight, and strength, but also overconfident. Gandalf described him as "proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power [than Théoden of Rohan], though he is not called a king."[T 2] Gandalf further commented:
He is not as other men of this time…by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.[T 2]
Unlike Saruman, Denethor was too strong to be corrupted directly by Sauron. He began secretly using a palantír to probe Sauron's strength, incorrectly insisting he could control it. The effort aged him quickly, and the impression of Sauron's overwhelming force that he gained from the palantír depressed him greatly, as Sauron biased what he saw.[T 2] Boromir's death depressed Denethor further, and he became ever more grim. Nonetheless he continued to fight Sauron until the forces of Mordor arrived at the gates of Minas Tirith, at which point he lost all hope. In the published essay on the palantíri, Tolkien wrote:[T 3]
He [Denethor] must have guessed that the Ithil-stone [Sauron's palantír] was in evil hands, and risked contact with it, trusting his strength. His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits. Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron... [while] Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his defeat was inevitable, and so fell into despair. The reasons for this difference were no doubt that in the first place 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.[T 3]
As invasion became certain, Denethor ordered the warning beacons of Gondor to be lit, and summoned forces from Gondor's provinces[T 2] and from Rohan,[T 4] while the people of Minas Tirith were sent away to safety.[T 2] Denethor ordered his son Faramir to take his men to defend the river crossing at Osgiliath and the great wall of the Rammas Echor. Faramir was wounded, apparently mortally; his body was carried back to the city.[T 5]
'Hope on then!' laughed Denethor. 'Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west... 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.'[T 6]
Denethor, grief-struck by the apparent loss of his son, ordered his servants to burn him alive on a funeral pyre prepared for himself and Faramir in Rath Dínen.[T 5] He broke the white rod of his office over his knee, casting the pieces into the flames. He laid himself down on the pyre and so died, clasping the palantír in his hands. Faramir was saved from the flames by Gandalf.[T 6]
The Tolkien scholar Jane Chance contrasts Denethor both with another "Germanic king", Theoden, and with the "true king" of Gondor, Aragorn. In Chance's view, Theoden represents good, Denethor evil; she notes that their names are almost anagrams, and that where Theoden welcomes the hobbit Merry Brandybuck into his service with loving friendship, Denethor accepts Merry's friend Pippin Took with a harsh contract of fealty. Chance writes that Tolkien further sets both Theoden and Denethor against the "Christian lord" Aragorn. In her opinion, Denethor "fails as a father, a master, a steward, and a rational man," giving in to despair, whereas Aragorn is brave in battle and gentle with his people, and has the Christlike attribute of healing.
Denethor's madness and despair has been compared to that of Shakespeare's King Lear. Both men are first outraged when their children (Faramir and Cordelia, respectively) refuse to aid them, but then grieve upon their children's death – which is only perceived in the case of Faramir. According to Michael D. C. Drout, both Denethor and Lear "despair of God's mercy", something extremely dangerous in a leader who has to defend his realm.
Alex Davis, in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, writes that many critics have examined his fall and corrupted leadership, whereas Richard Purtill identifies Denethor's pride and egoism, a man who considers Gondor his property.
The medievalist Elizabeth Solopova comments that unlike Aragorn, Denethor is incapable of displaying what Tolkien in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics called "northern courage", namely, the spirit to carry on in the face of certain defeat and death.
Peter Jackson's films
a masterful man, both wise and learned beyond the measure of those days, and strong willed, confident in his own powers, and dauntless. (...) He was proud, but this was by no means personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.[T 3]
The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey wrote that where Tolkien's Denethor is a cold ruler doing his best for his country, Jackson's is made to look greedy and self-indulgent; Shippey calls the scene where he gobbles a meal, while his son Faramir has been sent out in a hopeless fight, a "blatant [use] of cinematic suggestion".
Christianity Today wrote that the films "missed the moral and religious depths" of the book, such as when they turned "the awful subtlety and complexity of evil" into something trivially obvious. It gave as an instance the caricaturing of the powerful Steward of Gondor, Denethor as "a snarling and drooling oaf rather than a noble pessimist".
Daniel Timmons writes in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia that Jackson characterizes Denethor and others in a way "far from Tolkien's text", but that the film version successfully "dramatizes the insidious temptation to evil", and that through "the falls of Saruman, Denethor, and Sauron, we see the bitter fruits of the lust for power and its corrupting influence."
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1996). Christopher Tolkien (ed.). The Peoples of Middle-earth, "The Heirs of Elendil". Houghton Mifflin. pp. 206–207. ISBN 0-395-82760-4.
- Tolkien 1955, book 5, ch. 1 "Minas Tirith"
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (2012). Tolkien, Christopher (ed.). Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 526–527. ISBN 978-0547951997.
- Tolkien 1955, book 5, ch. 3 "The Muster of Rohan"
- Tolkien 1955, book 5, ch. 4 "The Siege of Gondor"
- Tolkien 1955, book 5, ch. 7 "The Pyre of Denethor"
- Davis, Alex (2006). "Jackson, Peter | Artistic Impression". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. p. 120. ISBN 1-135-88034-4.
- Kocher, Paul (1974) . Master of Middle-earth: The Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien. Penguin Books. p. 63. ISBN 0140038779.
- Chance 1980, pp. 119–122.
- Smith, Leigh (2007). "The Influence of King Lear on Lord of the Rings". In Croft, Janet Brennan (ed.). Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. McFarland & Company. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-78642-827-4.
- Purtill, Richard L. (2003). J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion. Ignatius. p. 85. ISBN 978-0898709483.
- Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J. R. R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, 28–29, ISBN 978-0-9816607-1-4
- "The Return of the King". Behind the Voice Actors. Retrieved 17 February 2021.
- Pearse, Edward (15 January 2009). "The Lord of the Rings, Episode 2". Radio Riel. Archived from the original on 15 January 2020.
- Jones, Alan. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Radio Times. Retrieved 13 February 2020.
- Shippey 2005, pp. 409–429.
- "The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King". Christianity Today. 1 December 2003. Archived from the original on 18 April 2021. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
- Timmons, Daniel (2006). "Jackson, Peter | Artistic Impression". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. p. 308. ISBN 1-135-88034-4.
- Chance, Jane (1980) . Tolkien's Art. Papermac. ISBN 0-333-29034-8.
- Shippey, Tom (2005) . The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0261102750.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, OCLC 519647821