A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Denethor as Tragic Hero

Denethor Unfinished” by Peet on Deviantart

I organized the Defenders of Denethor [1] Committee (membership: 1) in response to a post by Stephen C Winter on his blog “Wisdom from the Lord of the Rings“.

Mr Winter does not go easy on the Steward of Gondor. The post levels accusations like “deluded”, “lack of self-knowledge”, and “given to fantasy”. There are two specific charges against Denethor: use of the palantir, and planning to use the Ring. The post says it’s because Denethor’s Numenorean arrogance (stipulated by the defense) convinces him he’s stronger than either, and so he can turn them to his own ends. This kind of misjudgment, the argument goes, makes him the bad guy.

As I mentioned over there, there’s nothing in the text that makes us conclude Denethor thought that he was greater than the Ring or the palantir.  The evidence says, rather, that he made a considered judgment that using the palantir is better than not using it.  I agree that “the Ring holds no terror” for him. If not using it would be the greater evil in Denethor’s judgment, he would use it.  What does Tolkien say in his favor?

Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin … When Denethor became Steward (2984) he proved a masterful lord, holding the rule of all things in his own hand. He said little. He listened to counsel, and then followed his own mind.

LotR, Appendix A(iv)

Coming from JRRT, this is high praise. Hell, I’d even vote for him myself. On the negative side, we have Gandalf’s post-mortem:

Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long ago I guessed that here in the White Tower, one at least of the Seven Seeing Stones was preserved. In the days of his wisdom Denethor would not presume to use it to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess, since Boromir departed. He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.

LotR, V.vii

No way is Gandalf a disinterested observer. [2] This is a funeral speech for political purposes, like Marc Antony’s over Julius Caesar, but if we’re careful we can use it. Disregard subjective judgments about wisdom and foolishness, and note the contradiction: there’s only one sentence separating “…Denethor would not presume to challenge Sauron…” from “He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power…”. Let’s note that not using the palantir to challenge Sauron means Denethor was using it for general reconnaissance, which was “often of service to him.” He knew how to use tools, even ancient artifacts.

Mind to mind, the Steward of Gondor was a match for Sauron, where Saruman was not. This is a clue to Denethor’s place on the good-guy/bad-guy scale. Saruman was caught (LotR, III.xi) because he wanted power beyond his due. On the contrary, just like swindlers can’t con an honest man, Sauron can’t subdue Denethor. Denethor has earned his power, by birth and by decades of just rule. He’s not looking for more than he has.

Middle Earth and the Cold War

As it happens, I met a real-life Denethor. James R. Schlesinger was President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, President Carter’s Secretary of Energy. (For my readers outside Washington, DC, that means he was in charge of the nuclear weapons.) In that meeting I was only 5% more senior than Pippin, and believe me: “between two such terrible old men” is an understatement. I wore a tie that matched the wallpaper and I kept my mouth so firmly shut it’s a wonder I could open it again afterwards.

The One Ring is not an allegory for nuclear weaponry, but it’s perfectly valid to use the Ring to think about what nuclear weapons mean. Working the other way is valid, too. We now know lots of stories about how people behaved when they were given world-destroying power, and we can use that to think about what the Ring might do.

When Sec. Schlesinger took office, the official strategy of the US was “Mutual Assured Destruction“. That is, the USA knew that the USSR wouldn’t attack us because we’d obliterate their cities. And the USSR knew we wouldn’t attack them because ditto. Yes, technically both of us were threatening war crimes. Schlesinger saw that there was a fundamental moral problem with that, which leads to a military problem: will the troops carry out that order? What kind of monster would give it? (cf. “The Last Command” by Arthur C. Clarke) Schlesinger started the process of turning US strategy towards counter-force operations, which improved the deterrence by concentrating the threat on the people who would actually be involved in starting the war. It worked. I was of draft age during the last, most-stressful part of the Cold War. I won’t even pretend to be objective in my approval.

Because of this history, which JRRT didn’t have, I believe Denethor when he promises, “It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”  All eight US Presidents and five Soviet Premiers did that in their challenge. All the Secretaries and Ministers of Defense, as well.  Zero leaders on either side failed to.

Faramir passed the test of the Ring. Might not Denethor have passed it, too? He was greater than Faramir when he was young, and only grew in wisdom and power after that.

And pride, alas. Sauron found the tragic flaw. He couldn’t beat Denethor face to face. He couldn’t thwart Denethor’s intelligence operations, but he could mislead them. Lying through the palantir’s video feed may have been Sauron’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t doubt that Denethor experienced a direct frontal assault on his mind from Sauron, withstood it, and thought that he had won. That’s when one is most vulnerable to deceit, and where Sauron is strongest.  Winter says this means Denethor “disastrously misjudged his own capacity”; I say this is the kind of conflict we see in the real world, between two evenly-matched adversaries.  Where you can’t win by strength, you try trickery.  Nobody misjudged anything.


Back in the real world (as I commented on Winter’s blog) I look at leaders, and I see one thing they all have in common. As a rule, the good ones are all conscious of their responsibility to the innocents they protect. Denethor is one of our leaders. He looks at the worst that can happen, and chooses the strategy that turns out the best if everything goes wrong. (Operations researchers call this “minimax”.)  If cost-benefit analyses existed in Gondor, he’d insist on having them on his desk. I feel like I understand Denethor, because I’ve met people like him.  By my lights and theirs, he’s doing the right thing.  Gandalf breaks that rule. He sends the Ring into Mordor, knowing that the chance of devastating failure is at least as great as the chance of success. What kind of person does that? The hero of a romance, that’s who. Gandalf’s plan would never be chosen by someone who doesn’t have supernatural support, which is Tolkien’s point.

Also on the comment thread, “The Hapsburg Restorationist” (username checks out) cites Letter #183, that “Denethor was tainted with mere politics”, and Winter replies with the observation that “Denethor is a politician and Aragorn is a king. We all need to learn the difference between the two in our time.” I hope this post demonstrates that we’ve done so.

[1] “Denethor” is an anagram of “dethrone”, which I never noticed before but others did.
[2] Gandalf learned compassion and pity from Nienna, but the books are silent about where he learned intellectual snobbery. I’m guessing faculty meetings.


Fun with Botany




  1. Quite a fascinating post! I wonder if you’ve read the essay “‘The Dull Backwaters of the Art of Killing’: Training, Signalling, Intelligence, and Maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction” (available only as archived here so far as I know: ) After reading your full perspective I think you might agree with a lot of the points made in the essay, especially as regards the contrast between the elements of modern and medieval warfare present in The Lord of the Rings. Although perhaps you might not agree with the conclusion the author of the essay draws about Tolkien himself.

    • Joe

      I have read it now! Thank you for pointing me to it.

      Dr. Croft is a formidable scholar. I wish she’d supported that last sentence a bit better, though. Two questions I may ask her some day: Doesn’t Elrond count as a leader who’s not at the front of any battles? And when the war is being fought simultaneously in St. Petersburg, El Alamein, and Singapore, where should the leader stand?

  2. As the writer of the original blog post that you tackle in this fascinating and thought provoking piece I would like to offer a response.
    Firstly, I want to thank you for challenging my thinking. Challenges are so important because without them we always end up getting flabby. We may not agree with each other at the end of this debate but I know, for myself, that I have a clearer idea why I think the way I do.
    I think I want to start by saying that from the perspective of taking action on the basis of asking the question, “What resources do I have and how can can I bring them to bear on this problem?” Denethor has a case when it comes to wanting to have access to the power of the Ring. As he faces the attack from Mordor and its allies he does not have much to offer. A small force has arrived from the provinces of Gondor but it will not be sufficient to repel the attack that is coming. Of course he hopes that help is on its way from Rohan and he does not know about Aragorn’s ride through Gondor to raise the siege of Pelargir or the protection of his northern flanks by the Ents on the fields of Rohan, by Galadriel in Lothlorien or by Dain and Brand at Erebor. He can only act, as you say, on the basis of what he knows and it all looks pretty grim.
    In that respect nothing has changed since the agonised debate at the Council of Elrond before the Ring set out on its journey south. The same assessment of resources and options has been made but an entirely different decision has been made and it is a decision that Denethor calls, when he finally learns of it, a “fool’s hope”. And I have to say that he is right. It is a fool’s hope. The idea that Frodo could actually carry the Ring to the fire past all the defences of Gondor is crazy and that would have been true even if he had been accompanied by the whole fellowship. It is an impossible task, a true “Mission Impossible”!
    I will leave aside the question of Denethor’s ability to use the Ring even if he possessed it though it is a question worth raising and will go straight to the issue that divides Denethor and the Council and that is whether it would ever be “right” to use the Ring. Elrond and Gandalf both declare that to use the Ring would be a disaster. Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel all have the capacity but all reject the possibility even though, in the case of Gandalf and Galadriel, they are sorely tempted to use it. They are clear that there can be only one Lord of the Ring and that if one were to use it then all fellowship between them must come to an end. A new Lord would arise who would ultimately challenge all, even the Valar, even Illuvatar himself. In that world everything would be reduced to slavery. Some slaves would be relatively strong and therefore useful but the weak ones, hobbits for example, would soon be cast aside, the pleasures of pipeweed notwithstanding.
    The Council reject the doctrine of the weapon of last resort. Philosophically this is absolutely central because it means that they would rather choose Sauron’s victory than to win themselves by one of them becoming Sauron. And here, too, we see something that Tolkien tends only to hint at, that the Council believe that even in the defeat there is a power at work in the world that is greater than Sauron’s even though it lies hidden, choosing to express itself in the weak and not in the mighty. This power is seen in seen in Frodo and Sam and not in Denethor and it is foolish.
    I think that Tolkien was almost certainly thinking of St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2 when he used the words, Fool’s Hope, to describe the actions of the Council: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…” And in The Lord of the Rings we see these words expressed not in a private tale of domestic life but on the widest stage of all, in a world war. And in doing so we see that Paul’s words, the foolish/the weak in the world, are not just a figure of speech but are really crazy. The cross in which Christians hope is really crazy. I suspect that this is the reason that most Christianity is simply a replacement of one super God by another. The thought of God choosing to be foolish and weak is simply too much to be countenanced. How can one hope in a God like that?
    I think that reading your blog and in our conversation I realise that I have to say that I make that choice. Of course it is easy to make it in the context of a reading a novel, even one as great as The Lord of the Rings, the challenge for me will be to make it in the context of choosing not to make the defence of my own Self the highest good but to throw away anything that looks to me like a weapon of “last resort”. That opens up an entirely different debate, asking the question what should be defended and what should I not seek to defend. It is the central question of the gospels and I have plenty of opportunities to think it over.
    So thank you so much for writing your excellent piece and for giving me the opportunity to reply. In my own blog I think I will write more about this next week and I look forward to more debate with you and wish you every blessing.

    • Joe

      I think you’re right about Corinthians. It works well to take the confrontation between Denethor and Gandalf as one between two ways of knowing. Denethor uses the facts on the ground to formulate a plan that even Sauron thinks “would have been a heavy stroke against his power”. (III.v) Gandalf has access to other knowledge, and so sees that it ultimately won’t work.

      Only vaguely related: it amuses me to think of pagan kings in late antiquity, as the armies of Christendom appeared on their border, questioning their spymasters: “…and their god is a lamb?! Who’s that supposed to intimidate?”

  3. Joe

    With a bitter smile, I observe that I wrote this article with the threat of nuclear war in the past tense. Since then, of course, the US has elected a new President who doesn’t have the discipline of our Cold War leadership. I have no evidence that he even knows such discipline existed, or would respect it if he knew about it.

    On the contrary, he has speculated idly about how many other countries ought to have nuclear weapons, wondered aloud why we don’t use the ones we have, and has (reportedly) publicly contradicted things he was told by defense experts in private briefings.

    So it’s possible that my entire thesis here is wrong. I will be grateful if the worst thing in store for us is that I have to rewrite a few blog posts.

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