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.