Denethor’s mimetic rivalry with Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 5

Again, from Appendix A of The Return of the King:

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 as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

The mimetic rivalry of Denethor towards Thorongil/Aragorn calls to mind the many instances of fraternal conflict throughout Scripture: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David. It’s a pattern that culminates in the “envy” the Pilot observes in the Jewish leaders who hand Jesus over to be crucified. The Appendix A account of Denethor’s rivalry with Thorongil also sets into even sharper relief the very different response of Denethor’s son, Faramir, to Aragorn, calling to mind Jonathan’s willing acquiescence to David in the Book of Samuel and John the Baptist’s preference of Jesus’s person and ministry over his own in the Gospels.

Aragorn, King and Priest after the Order of Melchizedek

The story in Appendix A of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias while in the service of Denethor’s father, Ecthelion II, adds a great deal to the christological typology surrounding Aragorn’s character. I quote the passage at length:

In much that he [Ecthelion II] did he had the aid and advice of a great captain whom he loved above all. Thorongil men called him in Gondor, the Eagle of the Star, for he was swift and keen-eyed, and wore a silver star upon his cloak; but no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born. He came to Ecthelion from Rohan, where he had served the King Thengel, but he was not one of the Rohirrim. He was a great leader of men, by land or by sea, but he departed into the shadows whence he came, before the days of Ecthelion were ended.

     Thorongil often counselled Ecthelion that the strength of the revels in Umbar was a great peril to Gondor, and a threat to the fiefs of the south that would prove deadly if Sauron moved to open war. At last he got leave of the Steward and gathered a small fleet, and he came to Umbar unlooked for by night, and there burned a great part of the ships of the Corsairs. He himself overthrew the Captain of the Haven in battle upon the quays, and then he withdrew his fleet with small loss. But when they came back to Pelargir, to men’s grief and wonder, he would not return to Minas Tirith, where great honour awaited him.

   He sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion, saying: “other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.” Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went. For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.

   There was dismay in the City at the departure of Thorongil, and to all men it seemed a great loss, unless it were to Denethor, the son of Ecthelion, a man now ripe for the Stewardship. to which after four years he succeeded on the death of his father.

   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 as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

My first comment is on the statement that of Thorongil “no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born.” A few Sciptural associations come to mind, the first being that the lack of known provenance or genealogy for Thorongil suggests a possible connection with the biblical Melchizedek, the king and priest who seems to come out of nowhere in Genesis 14 (“without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually”–Heb. 7:3), and whose name literally means “king of righteousness.” One of the unique qualities of the Numenorean kings was that they were both priests and kings, a coincidence of roles that Tolkien implies Aragorn resumed after assuming the throne of Gondor:

when the ‘Kings’ came to an end there was no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’: the two being identical in Númenórean ideas. So while God (Eru) was a datum of good* Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history. He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place. And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the West, and all the area under Numenorean influence… It later appears that there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindolluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten. It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain. It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. (Letters no. 156)

The uncertainty surrounding Thorongil’s identity and origin also calls to mind the same uncertainty that surrounds Jesus throughout the Gospels, an uncertainty, moreover, that Jesus himself identifies as the mark of one who is “born of the Spirit.” As Jesus explains to the uncomprehending Pharisee Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Normally this passage would more naturally apply to Gandalf, the self-described “servant of the Secret Fire” (i.e., the Holy Spirit), but then again, much of the above passage about Thorongil sounds more like Gandalf than the Aragorn we are used to, suggesting that Tolkien’s purpose is to establish these two characters as far more similar than we might otherwise have realized. As the above passage from Tolkien’s letter reveals, it is not just Gandalf, but also Aragorn who is a “servant of the Secret Fire.” Being “born of the Spirit,” he goes whither the Spirit blows him.

(To be continued….)

Annihilation and suicide

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 46

In the previous post in this series I suggested that, in its final manifestation as annihilation, evil makes a kind of return to its beginning: what began as a creaturely attempt to usurp the Creator’s power to give being ends in the equally futile attempt to altogether obliterate it. There is a way, however, in which one can, at least ritually, enact after a fashion, and with some efficacy, the annihilation of the world, and that is through suicide, through the “annihilation,” that is, of one’s own self. Evil may never be able to “corrupt the whole good,” as Thomas says, yet because evil is the privation of being, it follows that every act of evil succeeds in eroding something of the evil-doer’s own being, causing him to be less than what he is. For Aquinas, as Philipp Rosemann observes, “to do evil, or to sin, means to act against one’s own conscience, that is to say, against the innermost core of one’s own being. This split within the human being, this division of the self against itself, is at the same time a split outside the human being, that is to say, a division between the sinner and God” (Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 170). One way of striking out at God, accordingly, is to strike at oneself as his image-bearer, and one way of obliterating the world is, so to speak, to obliterate oneself. We have seen an aspect of this in Sauron and Melkor, who in their desire to dominate and destroy are willing and even required to do violence to their own selves, rending their own spirits in an act that for Tolkien mythically dramatizes the spiritual suicide of the modern self, and all in order that they might invest part of themselves in the instruments and objects of their domination. (This idea has been revisited recently in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, in which the “Dark Lord” Voldemort, in an effort to make himself immortal and invincible, creates “horcruxes” by violently splitting his own soul into seven different parts and putting each part into some fetish-object held to be of great value or lineage in the wizarding-world.)

The link between the destruction of the world and the self-destruction of suicide is brought out in the grim nihilism of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who when asked by Gandalf what he would have if his will could have its way, answers:

‘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.’ (ROTK 130, emphasis original)

When it becomes evident that he cannot have things as they once were, Denethor indeed chooses “naught” and sets himself on fire (like one of the “heathen kings,” as he puts it), thus revealing the will to annihilation or nihilism latent not only within the will to domination, but even within the will to mere preservation examined earlier.

Of Kings and Hobbits

Both Théoden and Denethor take hobbits as retainers, but their relationship to their respective hobbits differ from each other. Merry tells Théoden that he will be a “father” to him, but Denethor’s relationship is more pragmatic or utilitarian: although he is genuinely touched by Pippin’s gratitude for Boromir’s sacrifice and his offer of service, and as Gandalf himself generously recognizes, Denethor effectively uses Pippin to extract information from him about the Fellowship, as Gandalf also astutely perceives. Both men enter into a feudal relationship with their hobbits, a relationship that has mutual obligations, and yet both men, despite their being in the position of lords, default on their responsibilities to their vassals when they dismiss them from their service. Once you accept someone’s service, you cannot then refuse it at will. Merry is therefore in a sense entitled to accompany Théoden into battle, as Éowyn rightly recognizes. Unlike Denethor, of course, Théoden’s dismissal of Merry is at least partly solicitous: he naturally does not want Merry to come to harm. At the same time, it is also neglectful: Théoden is going into battle and (understandably) doesn’t want to be hindered by what he (wrongly, it turns out) perceives as unnecessary and encumbering “baggage.” The irony, of course, is that, in yet another exhibition of Tolkien’s gospel-logic, it is the small and seemingly insignificant Merry who will deal the all-important blow to the Witch King, giving Éowyn the crucial opportunity to destroy him altogether. Like King Lear’s Cordelia, in other words, they are precisely the two individuals most disenfranchised (or at least least enfranchased) by Théoden who render him the most faithful and effective service in the end. Théoden’s lapse in judgment here is to be contrasted with the gospel-logic exhibited, for example, by Elrond at the Council and Gandalf throughout the Third Age, the ingenious and paradoxical strategy of whom, beginning in The Hobbit, is the calculated enfranchisement of the hobbits, exposing them to and including them in the wider affairs of Middle-earth.

Denethor’s treatment of Pippin, however, is far worse. I have already mentioned his using Pippin to get extract information that Gandalf is loath to divulge, but he later disingenuously and hypocritically, even if indirectly, accuses Pippin of being a spy when he tells Gandalf that he has deliberately planted Pippin in his service for that purpose. It is disingenuous, because Denethor knows the genuineness of Pippin’s offer. If anything, Gandalf suffers Pippin to enter Denethor’s service against his own “better judgment,” and in part for Pippin’s own sake, knowing that he (Gandalf) has more to lose or risk than gain by having Pippin so attached and indebted to Denethor:

“I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. It touched his heart, as well (may I say it) as pleasing his humour. And at least you are free now to move about as you will in Minas Tirith – when you are not on duty. For there is another side to it. You are at his command; and he will not forget. Be wary still!”

In this we see something of Gandalf’s own “generosity” and self-sacrifice in allowing Pippin to serve Denethor despite the risk it may mean for Gandalf’s own purposes. So Denethor sees and recognizes the selflessness of Pippin’s offer, only to insult it later when he feigns to suspect it as a plot. And it is hypocritical in that, as has already been pointed out, it is Denethor himself who employs Pippin as an unwitting spy against Gandalf and the Fellowship.

Théoden and Denethor compared and contrasted

Gandalf describes Théoden to Pippen as “a kindly old man,” whereas “Denethor is of another sort, proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power.” How are Théoden and Denethor similar and different? How does Denethor’s “far greater lineage and power” contribute to and characterize this difference?

Both are rulers of their people, but one is king, the other a mere steward. However, despite not being king, Denethor’s is “of far greater lineage and power.” Denethor’s ancestors have been stewards in Gondor for some 800 (?) years, longer than there has even been a Rohan.

One similarity is that they are rulers who are both weighed down by the cares of ruling and who eventually “fall” and are corrupted. Théoden, of course, is retrieved and redeemed from his fall and Denethor is not. But before that, the way in which they fall is also very different. Saruman is able to subdue Théoden directly by means of Théoden’s counselor and confidant, Wormtongue. Denethor, by contrast, is not able to be cowed even by Sauron himself—in this he proves himself even more resilient and in that sense even greater than Saruman the White Wizard. Thus, where there is a chain of corruption running from Sauron through Saruman to Wormtongue to Théoden, Denethor succeeds in resisting Sauron’s overt efforts to dominate him. Suaron’s influence over Denethor, accordingly, is limited to the more indirect means of leaking misleading information. Denethor does not believe Sauron’s lies, but in the process allows himself to be swayed by Sauron’s “truths.” Two examples of this are when Denethor is allowed to see that Frodo (whom Denethor knows to have the Ring) has been captured and when he is shown the fleet of Corsairs sailing up the Great River (but under the command, it turns out, of Aragorn—thus bringing to pass Gandalf’s prediction to Pippin that Aragorn may make his “return” under a guise that no one, not even Denethor, expects). Part of Denethor’s resistance to Sauron lies in his independence: unlike Saruman, who, as Treebeard observes, wants to become a “power,” Denethor is already a great lord of “lineage and power,” and unlike Théoden who, though a king, seems overly dependent on his ministers or counselors (as he says in Helm’s Deep, speaking not only of Gandalf but also of the now exposed and disgraced Wormtongue, “I miss now both my counsellors, the old and the new”), Denethor’s superiority means that in an important respect he needs no counselor (can you imagine Denethor having a Wormtongue-counterpart?) This, I think, is part of the significance of the conspicuous emptiness of Denethor’s hall: when Gandalf and Pippin first enter Denethor’s halls, they see no one except Denethor himself (they don’t even see who it is—if anyone—responsible for opening the doors to the hall, and it is not until Denethor rings the bell, that Pippen even notices that servants are present). This is very strange for a lord’s court, which is usually filled with, well, courtiers, advisees and dependents of the court. The emptiness of Denethor’s hall, however, is indicative of his independence and autonomy, qualities that exhibit both his remarkable greatness but also that weakness which will prove his greatest tragedy undoing. Denethor greater than Boromir in that, whereas Boromir at the Council of Elrond sees the Ring as a “gift” for the enemies of Sauron, Denethor realizes that the Ring cannot be used but ought to have been brought to Minas Tirith to be kept safe. Denethor reveals his own Boromirism, however, when he admits that the Ring was only to be used in utmost emergency. In this Faramir distinguishes himself, however, as greater still, in that he says he would not take up the Ring even if he found it by the side of the road.

The “humane” vs. the “political”: Frodo, Elrond, and Denethor

In The Return of the King, Gandalf contrasts Denethor’s mode of stewardship, which thinks of the good of “Gondor only,” with Gandalf’s own, much wider stewardship concerned with the preservation of anything that may “still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come,” and with “other men and other lives, and time still to come.” In a response he wrote to W.H. Auden’s review of the book, Tolkien articulated this antithesis in terms of the supremacy of the “humane” over the merely “political.” Objecting to Auden’s use of the word “political” to describe the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

I dislike the use of ‘political’ in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that  Frodo’s duty was ‘humane’ not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘human’–including those …. that were still servants of the tyranny.

     Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.

     But that was not the policy or duty set out by the Council of Elrond. Only after hearing the debate and realizing the nature of the quest did Frodo accept the burden of his mission. Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a ‘humane’ duty. This did not happen merely as an unfortunate damage of War; it was known by them to be an inevitable result of victory, which could in no way be advantageous to Elves. Elrond cannot be said to have a political duty or purpose. (Letters 240-1)

Related posts: Denethor’s Machiavellianism, Denethor’s Hegelianism, The Nihilism of Feänor and Denethor

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 1

Denethor and Fëanor are two of Tolkien’s more tragic characters. I’ve mentioned before Denethor’s Hegelian-like statement admiring Sauron for his use of “others as his weapons” in the manner of “all great lords.” That Denethor proudly numbers himself among such company is evident from his follow-up, rhetorical question to Pippin: “Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?” Though it is the most explicit—albeit ironic—statement of the crassly utilitarian approach to one’s own progeny, Denethor is not the first instance in Tolkien’s legendarium of a father wasting his sons to accomplish his own desired (and futile) ends.  

Fëanor, to be sure, is better known for his use and abuse, not of his sons, but of those less directly connected with him, as by the end of his story he leaves worse off virtually everyone with whom he comes into contact. From his very beginning, his mother Míriel “was consumed in spirit and body” in delivering her son into the world, and eventually died from her weariness, but not before bequeathing to Fëanor his ominous name, meaning “Spirit of Fire.” And despite his remarriage and begetting two more sons by his second wife, we are told of Finwë that “All his love he gave thereafter to his son [Fëanor],” foreshadowing that it will not be only the mother who will be consumed by her son’s overweening spirit. In keeping with this premonition, when Fëanor is banished for a time by the Valar from the Noldorin city of Tirion for threatening his half-brother Fingolfin’s life at the point of sword, Finwë (showing a remarkable lack of sympathy for his younger son’s life) goes into voluntary exile with Fëanor. Even when Fëanor, after a period of twelve years, is temporarily summoned back to Tirion by Manwë for a festival, his father, for his part, refuses to attend, declaring that, “While the ban lasts upon Fëanor my son, that he may not go to Tirion, I hold myself unkinged, and I will not meet my people.” It is this Fëanor-fixation, moreover, that indirectly leads to Finwë’s death, for it is while Fëanor is away that he, protecting his sons Silmarils, is killed by Melkor. When he hears of his father’s fate, Fëanor blames and curses the summons of Manwë, an irrational and unfair response revealing perhaps a tinge of guilt and suppressed self-reproach on Fëanor’s part for the death of his father. To Fëanor’s credit, we are told that Finwë “was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands,” yet it is precisely the love of Fëanor that was Finwë’s doom, and we are perhaps invited to see a touch of tragic irony when the narrator rhetorically asks, “and who among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?” Inordinate love inevitably proves to be a devouring love.