If you have seen the films, it is doubtless that there is one grim character you did not find the most appealing. Grey, aged, and yet shrewd, Denethor II, the Ruling Steward of Gondor, surely holds a good place in only a few people’s hearts.
The twenty-sixth (and last) Ruling Steward of Gondor is portrayed in the movies as less-than-welcoming of Gandalf and Pippin upon their arrival in Minas Tirith. In the words of Gandalf, he “wear[s his] grief as a cloak,” mourning the loss of his dearest son, Boromir. He is snappy and does not conceal his anger toward nor mistrust for Gandalf in his presence. The novel version of Denethor is not much different. Perhaps the main difference is that Tolkien makes it a point to describe Denethor as being only a shade of what he had the potential to be.
The story of Denethor is sad, to be sure. As mentioned in a previous post, he was in unnecessary contention with the stranger Thorongil (Aragorn) when he took the office of Steward from his father, Ecthelion II. A few years before this he had married a woman named Finduilas from Dol Amroth and she bore him two sons, Boromir and Faramir, before his Stewardship. Finduilas died soon after and Denethor became grim and depressed. Adding to his anxiety, he began using the Palantír, one of the Seven Seeing-stones like the one Saruman had, and attempted to vie with Sauron through it. This proved to be his downfall as, though strong-willed he was, his mental strength could not contend with the Dark Lord. (Note: Minas Tirith had a Palantír since it’s construction, though not mentioned at all in the film. The Stewards refused to use it, seeing it as only something the King would have the strength to wield. Denethor decided he knew better than this. Unfortunately for him, the Seeing-stones that were kept in Minas Morgul and Osgiliath, before their fall, were in the possession of Mordor.)
None in Minas Tirith knew of this secret he kept, as he would only look into the Palantír in the top-most chamber in his tower. This contest of strength broke his mind as Sauron would send him illusions and feigned portends of what was to happen to Gondor. These delusions solidified his sorrow and people began to say he was far-sighted as he thought he was able to see what Sauron was planning. What he saw in the Palantír made him prideful, thinking that the only foreseeable end to the War would be combat between the White Tower and Dark Tower alone. He began to mistrust any who thought help could come from anywhere else (especially those that trusted Gandalf). In the book, as in the movie, Denethor commits suicide on a pyre but only after revealing his secret of the Seeing-stone to Gandalf and those with him. He is burned with the stone (which is unhurt) but those who looked in it afterwards could see the image of two hands around it.
Little of this history is explained in the films but is crucial to understanding the plot point of Aragorn retaking the throne. The kingdom of Gondor would go from being ruled by essentially a madman to the true heir of Isildur reuniting the North and South Kingdoms. Like many other important characters in Tolkien’s mythology, Denethor’s story is a tragedy, but one which shows the great fall of a great man. It is sad but much can be learned from it about not only what terrible things man is capable of but also what great potential man has.
[Credit to Jack Moore for proofreading and corrections.]