Despair strikes at the heart of the city, and it’s all Gandalf can do to keep the fire from spreading.
Gandalf looked through the gaping Gate, and already on the fields he heard the gathering sound of battle. He clenched his hand. ‘I must go,’ he said. ‘The Black Rider is abroad, and he will yet bring ruin on us. I have no time.’
‘But Faramir!’ cried Pippin. ‘He is not dead, and they will burn him alive, if someone does not stop them.’
‘Burn him alive?’ said Gandalf. ‘What is this tale? Be quick!’
[…] So Pippin poured out his tale, reaching up and touching Gandalf’s knee with his trembling hands. ‘Can’t you save Faramir?’
‘Maybe I can,’ said Gandalf; ‘but if I do, then others will die, I fear. Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work.’
They discover that Beregond has managed to stop Denethor’s servants from bringing him fire, but only by fighting and even killing people who are merely doing their duty. That’s what you get when you’ve got a madman in charge.
Even as Gandalf and Pippin ran forward, they heard from within the house of the dead the voice of Denethor crying: ‘Haste, haste! Do as I have bidden! Slay me this renegade! Or must I do so myself?’ Thereupon the door which Beregond held shut with his left hand was wrenched open, and there behind him stood the Lord of the City, tall and fell; a light like a flame was in his eyes, and he held a drawn sword.
But Gandalf sprang up the steps, and the men fell back from him and covered their eyes; for his coming was like the incoming of a white light into a dark place, and he came with great anger. He lifted up his hand, and in the very stroke, the sword of Denethor flew up and left his grasp and fell behind him in the shadows of the house; and Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.
Don’t mess with Gandalf, y’all.
He removes Faramir from the prospective pyre, who’s still largely unconscious, but calls out to his father in his dreams.
Denethor started as one waking from a trance, and the flame died in his eyes, and he wept; and he said: ‘Do not take my son from me! He calls for me.’
‘He calls,’ said Gandalf, ‘but you cannot come to him yet. For he must seek healing on the threshold of death, and perhaps find it not. Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’
‘He will not wake again,’ said Denethor. ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?’
‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’
It’s interesting how the film altered that last line to refer to “the Return of the King”, particularly since it does seem to be a roundabout allusion to the Kings. Apparently, the kings of old were able to “order the hour” of their deaths, with enough of a natural lifespan that they could essentially wait until they were ready to pass on the crown and just lie down and die. The difference, of course, is that that’s still seen as a “natural” death, and of course it involves taking thought for the future.
Denethor seems to waver for a moment, but his pride gets the better of him, and he reveals his mysterious source of information: A palantír.
‘Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’
The reveal of the palantír illuminates the source of his despair, since Sauron would have a great deal of control over what Denethor sees with it – hence, he saw the Black Ships coming up Anduin, but not who they really carried, and it seems he never saw the Rohirrim arriving. Then there’s the paranoia. He reads ill-intent in everything Gandalf and his friends do, because he’s become convinced that if Gandalf doesn’t put Gondor first, then he must not care about it at all.
‘I would have things as they were all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of the 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 that doom is denied me, I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’
‘To me it would not seem that a Steward who faithfully surrenders his charge is diminished in love or in honour,’ said Gandalf. ‘And at the least you shall not rob your son of his choice while his death is still in doubt.’
Then Denethor takes a knife and tries to kill Faramir that way, but Beregond prevents him, so he gets a torch to just light the fire for himself.
Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.
Denethor desired peace and stability, but because of that he first clung to false hope in the might of Gondor and then fell into despair. I think he might even have accepted a lifetime of war, as long as it was constant and predictable, because that kind of was the “peace” that his forefathers had. What he wanted was control, not just of his kingdom, but of his family and, perhaps more understandably, his own life. So with the first two out of the question, he refuses to let Gandalf “control” how he wastes his life.
‘So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion,’ said Gandalf. Then he turned to Beregond and the Lord’s servants that stood there aghast. ‘And so pass also the days of Gondor that you have known; for good or evil they are ended. Ill deeds have been done here; but let now all enmity that lies between you be put away, for it was contrived by the Enemy and works his will. You have been caught in a net of warring duties that you did not weave.’
Denethor and Théoden are both dead now, and while Théoden is lying in state in the White Tower, Denethor is burned and buried beneath the rubble of the House of Stewards which he brought down upon himself. Théoden was really a gentle old man at heart, but he chose to fight and die for a better future rather than enjoy a false peace. Denethor saw no honor in serving another man’s interests, so he selfishly died for his own.
By the time they’re finished, the Witch-king has already been defeated, so Gandalf waits in the Houses of Healing and watches over the wounded, leaving the last of the fighting to Aragorn, Éomer, and company.
Until next time…