In defence of Denethor

For all his qualities as a filmmaker, Peter Jackson's representation of Denethor shows how he is unable to fuse the genius of Tolkien and the rich sensibility he brought to bear in what he termed ‘the cauldron of story’ – the common weal of imagination that produced the great sagas, Old English epics and folklore - into his own art.
Denethor settles down to eat some delicious cherry tomatoes as his son rides into battle. Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Denethor settles down to some delicious cherry tomatoes as his son rides into battle. Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
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In Peter Jackson’s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel cycle The Lord of The Rings, the ailing Steward of Gondor, Denethor, eats chicken bits with cherry tomatoes while his last living son Faramir rides out of the stronghold of Minas Tirith in a suicidal, last-ditch mission to recapture the ruined city of Osgiliath, now occupied by orcs (the ruined servants of the evil dark lord Sauron). As the horsemen are mown down by arrows, wine and tomato juice spurt down Denethor’s chops: he is an old fool, Jackson suggests, masticating his kingdom away.

In Tolkien’s original, Denethor is a far more compelling and serious figure. When Pippin, one of the four Hobbits caught up in the great conflict, meets Denethor, he is struck by his noble bearing: ‘Denethor looked indeed much more like a great Wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older.’ He is, like his counterpart, Théoden, the ageing King of Rohan, something of a reworking of the Arthurian figure of the Fisher King, a wounded old man, seeing his kingdom go to wrack and ruin. Both of them lose their firstborn heir in the wars against Sauron and the corrupted wizard Saruman: Théoden’s son Théodred is killed in a foray against Saruman’s forces at the Battle of the Fords of Isen, and Boromir, Denethor’s favourite, while protecting the hobbits Merry and Pippin from capture by orcs.

And yet the pair are unlike in significant ways. Théoden finds within himself the strength to die honourably in battle, ascending to a nearly godlike status on the field of conflict. He rides into battle to aid the besieged city of Gondor, heralding the total defeat of Sauron’s armies at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: ‘Darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them,’ Tolkien writes.

Denethor is so bereft at the loss of his firstborn son that he goes mad with despair and commits suicide, attempting to murder the wounded Faramir along with him. As he prepares his own funeral pyre, he says: ‘We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.’ In his heroic actions on the battlefield, Théoden is reconciled to the greatness of his ancestral inheritance – in Tolkien’s vision, the men of Rohan are lovers of horses and fierce in battle. Tolkien writes: ‘The battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane [his horse] like a king of old.’ 

And yet Denethor’s grief is compounded to a degree that Théoden’s is not. Théodred’s body is returned to Edoras and buried alongside the tombs of his forefathers, while Boromir’s body is washed down to the sea, and only his broken horn returns to his father, an heirloom of the House of Stewards (which has ruled Gondor in lieu of an older line of kings from which Denethor descends): ‘In my turn I bore it, and so did each eldest son of our house, far back into the vanished years before the failing of the kings… heard it blowing dim upon the northern marches thirteen days ago, and the River brought it to me, broken: it will wind no more.’ 

Echoes and heirlooms cannot deliver Denethor from his grief – madness follows. His burden is in a sense more complex than that borne by Théoden, for the men of Gondor are really the men of Númenor, the men who ‘sailed hither from the West’, blessed with enormously long life, and far closer to elves than mortal men in wisdom and learning. Indeed, it is a seeing stone, a Palantír, one of seven crafted by an elven smith, that once allowed the men of Gondor to see events far away and to converse over great distances, that sows the seeds of Denethor’s madness: when the might of Sauron’s forces becomes clear to him, he despairs.

It is this ability to keep the various qualities of the epic in balance that sets Tolkien’s books in a class apart from the now more famous film versions. Peter Jackson’s heart is with Rohan – far more narrative energy and care is devoted to its culture’s ‘celtic’-style heroism than Gondor’s sad and sombre world. The same is true of the hobbits – Sam Gamgee’s simple qualities are repeatedly highlighted, and in this he holds true to the vision of the books. Frodo – whom Tolkien presents as a deeply complex figure, at once sad and serious, with a quiet, dignified intensity – is merely winsome in the films.

Jackson is comfortable with the earthy aspects of Tolkien’s vision – the love of small things, of gardens and trees, of an older England gone – and also treats with reverence the simple valour conveyed by his amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Norse heroism in the men of Rohan. But he is perhaps less comfortable in the broader territory Tolkien develops in Middle Earth. The nuances that are so typical of the genius of Tolkien and the rich sensibility he brought to bear in what he termed ‘the cauldron of story’ – the common weal of imagination that produced the great sagas, Old English epics and folklore – are somewhat lost. 

As for Tom Bombadil, well, that’s another story altogether…

Alastair Benn

Alastair Benn is deputy editor of Engelsberg Ideas. He writes regularly on politics, culture, and current affairs, and has written for Reaction, The Times, The Spectator, and The Independent.

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