Despair assails the White Tower from within as inexorably as the hosts of Mordor without.
There sat Denethor in a grey gloom, like an old patient spider, Pippin thought; he did not seem to have moved since the day before. […] Presently the old man turned to him:
‘Well, Master Peregrin, I hope that you used yesterday to your profit, and to your liking? Though I fear that the board is barer in the city than you could wish.’
Pippin had an uncomfortable feeling that most of what he had said or done was somehow known to the Lord of the City, and much was guessed of what he thought as well. He did not answer.
Pippin is still trying to figure out his place in all this, and Denethor isn’t helping that much – mainly because he doesn’t really see the use of hobbits, unlike Gandalf.
Already it seemed years to Pippin since he had sat there before, in some half-forgotten time when he had still been a hobbit, a light-hearted wanderer touched little by the perils he had passed through. Now he was one small soldier in a city preparing for a great assault, clad in the proud but sombre manner of the Tower of Guard.
In some other time and place Pippin might have been pleased with his new array, but he knew now that he was taking part in no play; he was in deadly earnest the servant of a grim master in the greatest peril. The hauberk was burdensome, and the helm weighed upon his head.
Throughout this chapter, Tolkien excels at creating a sense of mounting dread. It begins with a sunless dawn and the slight privations of rationed food, then you gradually feel the menace closing in and drawing nearer.
Faramir finally reappears, retreating from Osgiliath chased by flying Nazgûl, although Gandalf is able to run them off. It’s interesting meeting Faramir in this new setting, seeing that he’s actually well-liked (even loved) by his people, but not so much by his father. He tells his father of his meeting with Frodo in Ithilien, and although it’s evidently not a thorough account, Denethor seems to catch more or less the full meaning, especially from Gandalf’s relatively unguarded reaction to the news.
‘I hope I have not done ill?’ [Faramir] looked at his father.
‘Ill?’ cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. ‘Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skillfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long held your heart in his keeping.
‘My son, your father is old, but he is not yet dotard. I can see and hear, as was my wont; and little of what you have half-said or left unsaid is now hidden from me. I know the answer to many riddles. Alas, alas for Boromir!’
‘If what I have done displeases you, my father,’ said Faramir quietly, ‘I wish I had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.’
‘Would that have availed to change your judgement?’ said Denethor. ‘You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.’
‘So be it,’ said Faramir.
‘So be it!’ cried Denethor. ‘But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.’
Denethor is straight up questioning his son’s judgement (in a very tricky and unprecedented situation), and then he has the gall to guilt-trip him and suggest that he’s betrayed his country.
‘Do you wish then,’ said Faramir, ‘that our places had been exchanged?’
‘Yes, I wish that indeed,’ said Denethor. ‘For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.’
For a moment Faramir’s restraint gave way. ‘I would ask you, my father, to remember why it was that I, not he, was in Ithilien. On one occasion at least your counsel has prevailed, not long ago. It was the Lord of the City that gave the errand to him.’
‘Stir not the bitterness in the cup that I mixed for myself!’ said Denethor. ‘Have I not tasted it now many nights upon my tongue, foreboding that worse yet lay in the dregs? As now indeed I find. Would it were not so! Would that this thing had come to me!’
‘Comfort yourself!’ said Gandalf. ‘In no case would Boromir have brought it to you. He is dead, and died well; may he sleep in peace! Yet you deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son.’
While the movie straight-up says that Denethor wished Faramir had died instead of Boromir, and the implication is definitely there, here he’s only saying (explicitly) that he wishes Faramir had gone abroad while Boromir stayed “safe” at home. It’s still understandably provoking for Faramir, and then of course his father turns around and plays the victim card (again) and I almost don’t care that he’s more “sympathetic” in the books, it’s extremely cathartic to watch Gandalf thwack him in the head.
I think it’s important to note that while Boromir was certainly loyal to Denethor’s ideals, he seemed to be far more loyal to Gondor itself than to his father – and since Denethor clearly values strength for its own sake, sooner or later Boromir would come to scorn him as “weak”. Faramir, on the other hand, obviously disagrees with his father often, but I think respects him far more than Boromir did because he understands his form of strength. It’s just unfortunate that we only get to see Denethor as he’s beginning to unravel.
Outside there was a starless blackness as Gandalf, with Pippin beside him bearing a small torch, made his way to their lodging. They did not speak until they were behind closed doors. Then at last Pippin took Gandalf’s hand.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.’
Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. ‘There never was much hope,’ he answered. ‘Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.’
Gandalf was legitimately shaken by the news of Frodo that Faramir brought (mainly that he was headed for Cirith Ungol), but he’s actually heartened by the thought that Sauron made his move before Frodo would have arrived there, since it means that a) he doesn’t suspect what they’re up to and b) he’ll be focused on things outside of Mordor while the Ring is getting in.
Then Denethor sends Faramir out on a suicide mission.
‘Much must be risked in war,’ said Denethor. ‘Cair Andros is manned, and no more can be sent so far. But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought – not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord’s will.’
Then all were silent. But at length Faramir said: ‘I do not oppose your will, sire. Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead – if you command it.’
‘I do so,’ said Denethor.
Gandalf it was that last spoke to Faramir ere he rode east. ‘Do not throw your life away rashly or in bitterness,’ he said. ‘You will be needed here, for other things than war. Your father loves you, Faramir, and will remember it ere the end. Farewell!’
He justifies this by basically saying “But Boromir would have succeeded at a mission like this” (he wouldn’t). Gandalf eventually goes out to help with the fight (since he’s the only one with any power to turn back the Ringwraiths), but it still turns into a rout when the “Dark Captain” arrives on the scene.
‘Not – the Dark Lord?’ cried Pippin, forgetting his place in his terror.
Denethor laughed bitterly. ‘Nay, not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.’
This serves as yet another contrast between Denethor and Théoden – where Théoden is aged but still determined to lead his people in battle, Denethor is actually in pretty good shape physically (although they’re about the same age), but chooses instead to lead by command. What’s fascinating is that Aragorn might have had a hand in shaping Denethor’s philosophy of military leadership.
So this is another part of the story that was relegated to the appendices and only vaguely alluded to in the story proper, but it helps explain quite a bit about Denethor. Several decades prior, Aragorn was doing his little errantries in Rohan and Gondor under an alias. He got to be quite popular in Gondor, winning renown by his feats of arms, and he even won the trust and affection of the Steward – Denethor’s father. But then after a particularly resounding victory, “Thorongil” refused to return to Minas Tirith, fearing the people would want to immediately make him their ruler, instead returning to the shadows from whence he came. It makes sense that Denethor would resent him, whether he ever guessed his true identity or not, especially since his father died only a few years later. It also makes sense that he would learn to govern from the sidelines, since there was always a more conventional “hero” around to lead the battles, one who was a far better captain on the field. He’s actually been in Faramir’s position before, but instead of empathizing with him, he focuses on all the mistakes which are so much clearer to him than otherwise.
The Prince Imrahil brought Faramir to the White Tower, and he said: ‘Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds,’ and he told all that he had seen. But Denethor rose and looked on the face of his son and was silent. Then he bade them make a bed in the chamber and lay Faramir upon it and depart. But he himself went up alone into the secret room under the summit of the Tower; and many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out. And when Denethor descended again he went to Faramir and sat beside him without speaking, but the face of the Lord was grey, more deathlike than his son’s.
Faramir collapsed on the field after being wounded by a poisoned arrow (he was pretty exhausted when he set out, too), although he still managed to fight valiantly, of course. But this is when Denethor is defeated, while the battle still rages outside.
No hours so dark had Pippin known, not even in the clutches of the Uruk-hai. It was his duty to wait upon the Lord, and wait he did, forgotten it seemed, standing by the door of the unlit chamber, mastering his own fears as best he could. And as he watched, it seemed to him that Denethor grew old before his eyes, as if something had snapped in his proud will, and his stern mind was overthrown. Grief maybe had wrought it, and remorse. He saw tears on that once tearless face, more unbearable than wrath.
‘Do not weep, lord,’ he stammered. ‘Perhaps he will get well. Have you asked Gandalf?’
‘Comfort me not with wizards!’ said Denethor. ‘The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous.
‘I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnants of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.’
This clearly isn’t just remorse – he says that Gandalf’s hope had failed, that the Enemy “found it”. While it’s unclear exactly how, Denethor has a knack for getting news from afar uncannily fast – and this is about the time when Frodo was captured by orcs. He snapped because he thinks Sauron has the Ring, that doom is near at hand, and the last thing he did for his last remaining son was send him out on a suicide mission out of bitterness, seemingly to his death.
He subsequently releases Pippin from his service (another Théoden parallel) and withdraws further into the Citadel, refusing to care about the siege outside, merely suggesting that his soldiers follow Gandalf if they want someone to lead them.
‘I will not say farewell, my lord,’ said Pippin kneeling. And then suddenly hobbit-like once more, he stood up and looked the old man in the eyes. ‘I will take your leave, sir,’ he said; ‘for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.’
THIS IS WHAT HOBBITS ARE GOOD FOR.
But Denethor is beyond caring about anything but himself at this point. He has his servants carry Faramir into the Houses of the Dead, lies down beside him, and orders them to bring wood to burn them with.
Pippin tries to buy time by telling the servants to move slowly, but they’re not very receptive. So when he runs into Beregond on his way down to look for Gandalf, he tells him the situation and gives the ultimatum that unless he leaves his post to stop Denethor, Faramir will die before help can come to him.
Then he finds Gandalf.
In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.
‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!’
The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
‘Old fool!’ he said. ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’
But right when the battle seems lost, hope returns. Because Tolkien loves him a good eucatastrophe. The cavalry arrives…