Ch. 64 – Forgive

Forgive – Denethor POV – 2 of 2

In which Denethor tries to figure out if he loves the right thing.


This is a quieter chapter than the previous few. The shock of Umbar and Thorongil’s departure are receding, while civil war has been averted. It answers the question of what is in the last letter Thorongil sent to Denethor. It also puts in place a layer in Denethor’s psychological foundation to create the person we meet in LotR. Both Laanga and the mariner have tried to warn him, but Denethor refuses to hear.

All of Denethor’s flaws are distortions of his greatest virtues. His integrity becomes harsh judgment, his rationality becomes calculation, his pride becomes arrogance. Yet, his reactions to the events around him are not unreasonable in their context. It’s easy to write a cardboard villain, with a hard-heart and a shriveled soul, someone to boo and hiss when he appears on screen. It’s harder to create someone who is, on one level, completely reasonable and acting from admirable motives. Denethor shows an amazing amount of restraint in the face of real physical threat to himself and his family.

But it’s the small things, things that seem of a piece with earlier acts, yet which are places where a true break could be made. The refusal to accept Ecthelion’s apology and plea for forgiveness is in keeping with Denethor’s very smart strategy of isolating and disempowering previous enemies who are in a position to harm him. Even so, it simply repeats the pattern of distance and distrust rather than remake his world by doing something truly frightening – forgiving rather than avenging.

Umbar is the fulcrum of HotK. There is before and there is after. For Thorongil, it is the moment in which he can no longer deceive himself about what he faces and who he must become – but also who he might become if he is not careful. This part of the story is told obliquely. For Denethor, this is when he turns to self-deception, because he can no longer bear what he faces. It’s not entirely an irrational reaction, given the circumstances.


6 thoughts on “Ch. 64 – Forgive”

  1. “All of Denethor’s flaws are distortions of his greatest virtues.” That’s what makes him so believable, and ultimately a sympathetic character, even as he does things that make us readers want to throw our laptops across the room. I still feel so bad for him.

    “Beware of Fire, Denethor, for kind calls to kind.” Ah, fuck.

    “A peculiar fact he had uncovered was that none of the stones had ever been able to look into Mordor, not even the Osgiliath stone. ” Nice little bit of explanation there!

    So I wonder… will Denethor try to look for Thorongil when he finally gets his hands on the palantir again? Or will he have hardened his heart against caring? (Tune in next week to find out the answer to this and many other questions…)

  2. Heh. Throw our laptops across the room, indeed. There will be many more moments like that before the end.

    Laanga is good for Denethor in a way that Mithrandir is not. He is Earth to Mr. Snarly’s Fire. In my mind, Faramir and Laanga become very good friends, though I suspect Faramir hides it from dear old Dad. I also imagine his relations with Mithrandir to be similar to Finduilas’ – not letting himself be goaded the way the old guy can do to Denethor and looking for advantage.

    I love having the most learned man in Gondor as my protagonist! He digs up all sorts of fascinating tidbits. One of the mysteries of LotR is how did Sauron manage to have a palantír for so long yet not be able to spy on everything? Denethor explains it all. I also imagine that what he could see would have been awfully faint and fuzzy. It’s part of the essay on the palantirí that speaking through the stones is easier than looking into them, from which I extrapolate that it is easier to see people than places or events. Another reason to not talk about the way the King can be found in a flash if you know the trick of the stone.

    Denethor will attempt any number of inadvisable things with the palantír, you can count on it.

    Aiavalë, on the other hand, is doing a lot of things others would advise her against doing and is having a grand old time. I had always imagined her a spinster, but she set me straight. Once she began to travel – and got over her crush on Adrahil – she saw herself in a new light. Before, the world was Minas Tirith and the misery that her family had inflicted upon her. She lived through Denethor, which is why she was so demanding of him, and waited for someone else to rescue her from obscurity. The turning point in her life was leaving the Stewards House and living with Lark and Wren. It weaned her of her physical and emotional dependence on Denethor. The next big thing was getting a shoe that minimized her limp, so she could move comfortably. Some people no doubt treated her badly on her travels, but she also met people who judged her as herself, a woman with a limp and odd speech, but not a monster.

    And she fell in love. She’s been chuckling to herself about this for some time, but only let me in on the secret about four chapters ago. I thought it was just her getting over Adrahil, but it was more serious than that. Denethor is going to have some difficulty adjusting to this, I’m afraid. He’s really a spoiled brat in some ways, and he is used to being the center of his big sister’s universe. He was willing to share that place with Finduilas, but with some other man? No way. Mr. Snarly does not like surprises.


  3. Oh I love that Aiavalë has fallen in love as well! (Meant to comment on that and got distracted by all the sad things.) Good for her. I see Finduilas having a ripple effect among the whole Stewards House and beyond, leading to all kinds of falling in love, and possibly better quality relationships than they would have had.

  4. Aiavalë started the story as the most bitter and sad of the characters – a brilliant, ambitious, erudite, talented woman literally living in a cave underground – and ends as one of the few truly happy people. It was a reversal that surprised even me. I love that she is in love, but even more that she is able to shed the despair that otherwise suffocates her family, especially her brother. You will love watching what Aiavalë ends up doing. In a way, just as Maiaberiel mirrors parts of Denethor (the worst parts), Aiavalë mirrors other aspects of him that are his strengths – a fierce loyalty and love, intelligence, a sense of adventure, a delight in finding out new things, a willingness to challenge and change.

    But none of it would have happened without Finduilas’ disruptive, constructive influence. She is going to keep trying to lead them into less hostile paths. Even Mr. Snarly is going to loosen up a wee bit.


  5. Here’s a few of my notes on the theme of forgiveness that runs through HotK, first introduced in “Faithful” when Ecthelion declares he will never forgive Denethor’s deceit and which will carry through to the end.

    Forgiveness is the only act that will undo the personal damage of what has gone before, to truly and completely release your anger and resentment against those who trespass against you. As Hannah Arendt points out in The Human Condition, forgiveness is both a personal and a political act, and is joined, ontologically speaking, with the ability to promise, i.e. to put some stability in the otherwise unpredictable flow of life. That’s why I put promises into the wedding sermon Thengel gave and why oaths are so important to Denethor. The problem is that oaths/promises can be in conflict or can have effects you didn’t expect. The only thing that can release one from an oath is forgiveness. Forgiveness releases the promise maker and creates a space in which a new and more humane promise may be made.

    Denethor knows this, at some level. He is fanatical about his oaths, though he can be mercurial in all other things. He wants things fixed and certain. But he cannot forgive oath breakers, most importantly himself. There is no release from his guilt. He also does not believe in mere accident or innocent mistakes. In a god-driven world, everything that happens has a purpose behind it, and therefore an actor who may be praised or blamed.

    The mariner flatly tells him to forgive, knowing it is the rift through which his beloved and stubborn mortal can pass to elude the worst of his fate (though not all), and Denethor does forgive Brandir for his foolishness. He keeps trying, and sometimes he succeeds. The fault is not in his stars (fate) but in himself. This is what makes Denethor tragic, not unlucky and not sinful. Laanga tries to get him to think philosophically about the “Fire” that has sunk into his bones – it can’t be removed by force (of will); it can only be extinguished by removing the fuel that gives it life, the anger and resentment smoldering just below the surface.

    I think only Thorongil could have guided Denethor to this understanding and only after he had lost his own illusions about how he could become king. Whether Denethor could have forgiven is questionable.


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