Denethor POV – 3 of 6
The many men so beautiful
And they all dead did lie!
And a million million slimy things
Liv’d on – and so did I.
In which fate and free will are argued – the Athrabeth challenged, by way of Coleridge.
After two somewhat quiet chapters dealing with internal dynastic politics (well, as quiet as such politics can be in the House Húrin…), we rush headlong into the metaphysics of Middle-earth and, obliquely, the grounds of the religious debates of our own times.
The mariner. He’s a sly one. Keep an eye on him.
Denethor is the last Númenórean, as shown by his perfect comprehension of ships and the works of their hands, knowing these things as memories recovered more than things to be learned. He sees things others in his time cannot. It is important that he understands that the root of the Númenóreans defiance was not at first a desire for immortality, but love, to be with something that deserved to be loved, and then the understanding of the distance between what could be perceived (the towers) and what could be grasped (mortal lands).
To Denethor, they Powers hold all the cards and all the power. In particular, the presence of Sauron angers him. He does not really contest that Men die; what angers him is the conditions under which they are made to live – in the face of semi-divine evil and possessed by a love for something they are forbidden to approach. Love replaces knowledge as the apple in this garden. In my thinking, Aragorn and Denethor represent the two great inheritances of Númenor – the Elven/immortal and the Edain/mortal.
In Denethor’s case, it comes with this great empathy for the works and ways of his ancestors, to the point where he can be overwhelmed by the weight of what has been. Aragorn’s inheritance is, in some ways, more simple to bear – he is the redeemer, come to wipe clean the failings of the past and to refound the (holy) rule. Denethor is the memory of all that has been, including the failures, the falling away, and the transgressions. He wants to valorize this in the face of the looming conflict between Good and Evil presaged by the return of Sauron. Whether Evil or Good triumphs, what has been will be destroyed – like Beleriand or Númenor itself.
Like Aragorn, he has a fate, which is not to bring salvation from Sauron, but to prepare the way for the one who will and/or to salvage what remains if the chosen one should fail. There is no rift through which Denethor may pass. The particular events may change (he might have one son, not two; his wife may live longer or shorter; he may die in battle), but the broad narrative will not change. Except… the human role in the grand narrative is to do the unexpected and to bring into being what was never intended – for good and ill. What need not ever have been yet somehow, miraculously, is.
Thus the mariner’s last words “Forgive, child. Forgive,” handing Denethor the key to what might unravel the fate before him and allow something else to be in its place. Can he forgive and let go the deep resentment that ungirds his acts? Can he, most importantly, forgive himself for “breaking troth” with what he has assumed must be his fate and reaching for love and hope? ‘Yet only hope may discern hope. You still have eyes to see, if you have the heart to look.’ The mariner will not intervene in what lies before the character, whether to help or to harm. It is for Denethor to chose – even as all choices may appear equally futile.
In some ways, HotK is about the choices that could have been made, but were not. That’s not to say “If only Denethor had done X, there would have been a happy ending.” I don’t think happy endings are in the cards for this character, but there might have been something less horrifying. That the outcome of the Ring War was anticipated long before as can be seen in the things like the prophesy of Malbeth the Seer or Aragorn’s preternaturally long life.
Even so, there is something less than predestination in operation. So, where are the points where the grand narrative is open to emendation, and in what ways? Can something truly miraculous – unforeseen by anyone, even Eru – come to pass? Without at least that possibility, this is a pantomime, treating beings, as Denethor would say, as playthings.