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.

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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.