Denethor’s Ghost: Lessons from “Lord of the Rings”

Can a story about wizards, elves, dwarves, and goblins teach 21st century believers something that Catholic apologetics, devotional books, and reasoned arguments can’t?

21st century Catholicism is up against it, not the first time in history but the first time for many living Catholics. The glorification of the lesbian-gay-transgender lifestyle is the newest commandment of the new religion of the land, and any objections make you a bigot, and sometimes a pariah. There are fewer abortions, but the “right to choose” is still the entrenched law of the land, and euthanasia is gaining greater public acceptance. Gluttonous consumerism has many admirers. The ghetto-izing of traditional Christian beliefs is underway. Human life keeps getting cheaper and cheaper, at least those human lives that are less equal than others, as George Orwell might say. Even Atticus Finch has gone off the rails.

In response, many Christians think that the only options are retreat, resignation, or rebellion.

Can a story like The Lord of The Rings teach us anything important about humanity’s present age and Catholicism’s present challenges? Lest we think that he was just an ivory tower storyteller, J. R. R. Tolkien lived through two terrible wars where the lust for power threatened to destroy the world, with Tolkien experiencing World War I firsthand in the European trenches. Because we moderns know that the world and liberty weren’t utterly destroyed in these wars, we forget that victory was by no means certain to those who lived through those cataclysmic years, with many, like Denethor in Tolkien’s story, succumbing to hopelessness or the accommodation of evil.

Though Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn are inspiring characters, the most instructive characters for our age are Denethor and his son, Faramir.

Tolkien’s Denethor ruled the chief city in Middle Earth. Though ostensibly a steward awaiting the return of the rightful king, so many centuries had passed since the city had a king that Denethor ruled as king and considered himself as such. Steeped in pride, he told himself that he was strong-minded enough to gaze into a Palantir, a seeing stone that revealed events far and wide. Unfortunately, Sauron was the lord of the Palantiri, and he gripped Denethor’s mind and twisted it, showing the Steward exactly what he wanted him to see—Sauron’s irresistible power, the devastation his armies were inflicting, the weakness and fickleness of his enemies. Thus, the combination of Denethor’s pride and his lust to use Sauron’s own devices against him drove the Steward to despondency and madness. “The Enemy has found it (the One Ring), and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous…Pride and despair,” he (Denethor) cried. “Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower (Minas Tirith) were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool (Gandalf). For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labor in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet of black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.”

See how his mind has been turned to despair?

These days, aren’t many of us haunted by the ghost of Denethor? Isn’t most of what we are shown in the media, on our various devices, and on social media discouraging and demoralizing? Aren’t we tempted to retreat, resign ourselves to the toxic culture, or rebel in the sense of thinking that it’s up to us to set things right? Don’t we sometimes use the tactics of the Enemy against our adversaries?

Denethor’s elder son, Boromir, echoes his father’s desire to use the Enemy’s Ring against him when he says to Frodo: “We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. Is it mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory.”

But Denethor has another son, a son he scorns and belittles, and this son is an exemplar of how we ought to respond to the cultural trials we are undergoing: doing all he is capable of doing while knowing he cannot control events, rooted in reality rather than pretending, not giving up on his father even as Denethor becomes more strident toward him. And one thing more: the closest Tolkien comes to explicit prayer in The Lord of The Rings occurs in the person of Faramir: “Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence… ‘So we always do,’ he said, as they sat down: ‘we look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.’”

Where Denethor is haughty, Faramir is humble, though he is more courageous than his father in defending the city. And when Faramir discovers that Frodo possesses the Ring of Power, he says, “So that is the answer to all the riddles. The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way—to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality!…Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them…I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee.”

Thus, Faramir would rather go down to defeat, in a worldly sense, than use the devices and tactics of the Enemy.

Many would argue that there is nothing in Tolkien’s story that cannot be found in Scripture or the Catechism or in many devotional books, but I say that such storytelling is altogether different in the way it affects our thoughts, emotions, and imaginations. While the story may not say anything new, truths are depicted in a new way, a way that allows us to see them in a different light. And these lessons are eminently Scriptural. Paul’s logic in the Areopagus doesn’t convince the Greeks. Intrigue doesn’t advance the faith, but the radical notion that Christians loved one another, even their enemies. Nero’s pogrom wasn’t met with armed resistance. And the Church’s response to Attila and the other invaders wasn’t to accommodate their Molochs but to engage and convert them, sometimes requiring centuries.

My wife could tell you that I can be one of the worst at taking my own advice, getting discouraged by unwelcome developments and reacting with sarcasm to secular zealots, but I’m encouraged that many of the saints fought against these tendencies too.

We are up against a hostile culture that will likely become even more hostile, but Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir depict the most essential struggle, that within ourselves. Shall we despair? Shall we resign ourselves to society’s new truths, as the Vichy government did in World War II France, for the sake of survival, or comfort? Shall we use the tactics of the adversaries of the Church against them, as if calumny, or character assassination, or intimidation can bring about something good?

Tolkien has given us the right response in the character of Faramir: resistance with honor, all-in for a righteous and noble cause, seeking the good everywhere it may be found and trying to evoke the good when the field seems barren, gratefulness for the beneficence of “that which is beyond…and will ever be”, and a deeply rooted humility to keep from being seduced by the Enemy, who isn’t a character in a story but a real and ever-present threat.


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About Thomas M. Doran 55 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.