(Updated on 28/01/16)
Coming directly after all of the large-scale action of the last chapter, skipping back in time to Gandalf at the gate is a bit jarring. One might wonder if the events of “The Pyre Of Denethor” may not have been better served to happen straight after “The Siege Of Gondor”, with some editing. That, and it’s very short. This chapter has pretty much the sole purpose of wrapping up the Denethor plot, and maybe giving Gandalf and Pippin something to do to justify their absence from the big fight.
The Witch-King has retreated from the gate. Gandalf stands “motionless” still. An interesting debate can be made here about Gandalf which is just how useful he is when put up against foes of the sort that the Witch-King represents. He’s faced the Ringwraiths a few times and walked away, but once they may have left of their own accord, and the other, at Weathertop, is not an encounter that received much elaboration. He beat the Balrog, so his power must be great, but against the Witch-King he seemed to freeze up, as if the Nazgul effect was something that the Ringwraith’s could actually use against him. But, this chapter does let Gandalf be useful to the plot in a way that he hasn’t been able to, to a certain extent, for a while.
In a nice aside before we get into the meat and bones of the chapter, Tolkien takes a moment to go back to the horns of Rohan, describing vividly how moved and ecstatically happy Pippin is to hear them. “And never in after years could he hear a horn blown in the distance without tears starting in his eyes.” It just goes to emphasise the sheer hopelessness that the city was suffering, broken by a simple noise in the distance.
Pippin lays out the situation to Gandalf. It would have been easy for Tolkien to write something like “Pippin explained how Denethor was going crazy”, but instead he lets Pippin talk. The hobbit, betraying a sense of calm and purpose that you may not expect of him, lays it all out quickly, in a paragraph. It’s nice to see Pippin showing his worth here, realising that time is an advantage they do not have, and that he has to make Gandalf understand fast.
Gandalf has a dilemma, which is whether he should go and save Faramir from his crazed father, or ride out into the battle. This is a pretty crucial moment for the Gandalf character, even if it only gets a moment here. The battle raging outside is the most important moment of the age, an event Gandalf has had a great degree of responsibility for creating. He is, on the surface, the only guy on the field capable of facing the Wraiths and walking away. Logic dictates that he ride out and join that fight, to make sure the right side wins the battle, to play his part in the endgame he has directed.
But Faramir will die as a result, undefended, one of the heroes of Gondor. Perhaps he is not as important as what’s going on outside, but he is one of the “god-like” ones, that Gandalf has a serious connection to, maybe a responsibility for.
I always thought it would have been better for Gandalf to go into battle – too late to stop Eowyn and the Witch-King facing off of course – and leaving Pippin with the responsibility to save Faramir. I don’t mean an abandonment, but Gandalf genuinely trusting Pippin to get the job done in the dire circumstances, in the way that Gandalf just instantly trusts Pippin’s word in this instance. Tolkien doesn’t go that route though, which I think is a small bit of a lost opportunity. This is kind of presented as Pippin’s big moment, but it is nowhere near as big as Merry’s was in striking the Witch-King, or Sam’s in facing Shelob. That is not to underplay his achievement, he is responsible for saving Faramir’s life, breaking an oath in the process, but he does so by being little more than a messenger.
Gandalf chooses heart over head. That matches the Gandalf philosophy anyway, as he decides to let the large events take their course as fate dictates, in order to save a single life. That, at least, is true to the man who gives mercy to Gollum and is happy to let Frodo march alone into Mordor. He acknowledges that the will of the enemy is at work, but what will happen, will happen.
The duo speed to the tombs to find Beregond, almost a throwaway everyman character up to this point, killing Gondorian soldiers to try and save Faramir. This says less about Beregond I think, who actually comes off as a little reckless and dangerous here in my opinion, than it does about Faramir, who inspires loyalty of an immense kind, even when in a coma. The guards flee before Gandalf where they had previously been prepared to go up against Beregond. The White Wizard, the “light in a dark place”, comes to banish madness and bloodshed. He remains strong against mere mortals anyway. What follows is one of the most fascinating confrontations in the entire story, which offers much to think about.
Denethor has lost it completely off course, almost a gibbering wreck of a man, before he starts turning into someone who is approaching megalomania. He weeps for his son as Gandalf takes him from the constructed pyre, rambles about how better it would be to burn, before he turns one last time, taking on something of his previous nobility, albeit a poisoned, warped version.
“He stood up tall and proud again…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.”
Now, in his last moments, he almost gloats over the apparent defeat of Gondor and fall of man, happy that he can see the truth that no one else, especially Gandalf, can. He rails against the wizard, his hobbit “spy”, his plans for Aragorn. It is the thunderous rant of a man who has predicted doom for some time, and now glories in being apparently correct. He has lost all sense of reality, only wanting to revel in his own superiority, claiming to have weaselled information out of Pippin, like this fantasy means he has beaten Gandalf in their duel of wit and will.
Gandalf once remarked that no one can choose what times, peaceful or desperate, they are born into, but that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”. If Frodo, the audience for those words, is making the most of his time in service to Middle-Earth, then Denethor is the opposite: a man unwilling to tolerate any longer a time when all that he has is seemingly taken from him. His move towards suicide is thus a selfish one in the narrative.
Gandalf offers Denethor the same choice he gave to Saruman: to come out and fight for some last shred of honour. I’ve always been struck by the wizard’s generous “There is much that you can yet do”, an olive branch the Steward might not really deserve. It’s a very Christian notion I suppose, and a reminder that no one is beyond redemption. Like Saruman’s brief indecision, Denethor wavers in the face of such a possibility, before defiantly turning it down. With this last rejection, Gandalf seems to realise that Denethor is beyond a lost cause.
The revealing of the Palantir – the answer to the previous riddles – provides the final point, showing us exactly how Denethor has gotten this way. If Pippin and Aragorn’s reactions to their brief exposure showed us anything, it’s that the seeing stones are not for everyday viewing. Denethor seems strong enough not to become a pawn of Sauron’s through it, as Saruman did, but he has not the wisdom to see beyond the surface details of what Sauron shows him. Still, his final warning, that “against the Power that now arises there is no victory” is a chilling one.
Denethor’s portrayal is of an honorable man, hardened by circumstances. He would have been an effective, even great, ruler in peaceful times, but he is the wrong man in the wrong place here. His outer show of strength is hollow: he gives into despair all too easily, and his actions have caused immense harm to his city. As he prepares in his final moments, his sentiment is a slightly refined idea that if he can’t have everything as he wants it, no one can: “…neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated”. In the face of a new age full of change, his view cannot hold.
He dies by his own hand in the most horrific manner, his mind gone, “like the heathen Kings of old”. His counterpart, Théoden, dies in glory leading his people to the forefront of battle, but Denethor dies in shame, hiding himself in the darkest tomb he can find while his city is in deadly peril. It collapses around him, as the Steward’s spirit collapsed. Their final interactions with hobbit character are obvious contrasts too, with Théoden reaffirming his all too brief friendship with Merry before his passing, while Denethor sneers at “this halfling” he now deems Gandalf’s spy, metaphorically spitting on the idealised service once offered and accepted.
As an aside, Denethor’s death does conveniently remove a very serious obstacle for the returning Aragorn and his mission to reclaim the Gondorian Kingship. Denethor openly derides Aragorn and his claim before his death as a “ragtag” thing, and a fascinating confrontation between the two has been hinted at before, only to be cut off from possibility now. Tolkien actually did write a first draft of such a scene, but then removed it. A certain hint of eucatastrophe at work?
Faramir lives, since letting him die might have been just a little too depressing, even for this kind of chapter. He is taken to the Minis Tirith hospital, its “Houses of Healing”, from where we will get some of the stories last bits of romance, in time. Tolkien also gives a bit of time to the status of Beregond, committer of a deed he “will ever rue”, forced, in his own mind, to kill the porter who barred his way to Faramir. Beregond is easily painted as the good guy in the scenario – Gandalf blatantly says so really – but I feel like a trick was missed here, in the opportunity to have Beregond be at the centre of a greyer moral dilemma. I suppose I’m not even sure what I mean exactly, but in the story Beregond kills innocent fellow Gondorians and gets away with it.
From afar, Gandalf observes, through his own magical sight presumably, the fall of the Witch-King and all that happens around the event. His choice at the gate has proved both right and wrong: the bad guy has died, but others have also, and are yet dying. Even someone so wrapped up in the “Que Sera, Sera” mind-set is bowed under the terrible weight of such choices. “Shall we weep or be glad?”
Tolkien takes a few paragraphs for the loose threads at the conclusion, a brief discussion on the Minis Tirith Palantir and Denethor’s frequent uses of the same. It is clear that the enemy has weaselled its way into Minis Tirith through its ruler, which only makes his story more tragic. He sought knowledge in an unnatural way, and fell into darkness unintentionally, a common theme in the narrative. But even for Denethor’s recklessness, his cruel treatment of Faramir, his antagonism towards Gandalf and Pippin and his weasel-like declarations on what he would and would not do with the Ring, we can still sympathise with an old man, bowed by the responsibilities of his time and grief over his eldest, falling so easily into despair.
Gandalf heads back to the battle as the chapter ends, on a tone filled with warning and things in the balance, which is all a little overboard since we already know the outcome of the battle. The time skipping is actually done for this Book at least, and the next couple of chapters will deal with the aftermath of the battle.
This chapter, I think the shortest in Book Five, serves as a finale for the internal Minis Tirith plot of The Return Of The King, and I suppose can be seen as the final part in a trilogy of chapters that began with “Minis Tirith” and continued with “The Siege Of Gondor”. Denethor’s journey receives its resolution, and poor Faramir is saved from a grisly fate. But it is all tragedy and sorrow regardless: in the way Gandalf is kept from the battle he could decisively intervene in, in the way Beregond draws a blade against his fellow soldiers, in the way an inherently, deep down inside, decent man is brought to ruin by the insidious power of the enemy, and his own negative personality traits. While short, the conclusion of Denethor’s plot is an effective one, brilliantly written. If “The Pyre Of Denethor” has issues, it’s with the small impact that Pippin has – his only proactive part being to ask that Gandalf come to the rescue right at the very top: even Peter Jackson allowed him to be the one to get Faramir off the pyre – and with the manner that Tolkien shies away from some awkward questions over Beregond. A coda for everything that has happened in and around Minis Tirith is still to come, but Tolkien has wrapped up the many issues well enough here. And, if I may be allowed a rare shot at a film series I mostly adore, he didn’t need an immolated Steward sprinting off a height to do it.
Next, Aragorn laughs in the face of illness.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.