Despair and hope in The Lord of the Rings: Denethor and Théoden

It wasn’t until my third read of The Lord of the Rings that I was struck by the links between Théoden and Denethor, lords of the last free realms of men. Both are old yet strong, both are widowers, and both are mourning the death of a son and heir when we first meet them. Both are enmeshed in lies, and both struggle with despair. And both receive a hobbit into their service (though in tellingly different manners).

And the contrasts between them are arresting: one is humble and kindly, plain and honest, yet fierce in battle even to the death; the other is proud and lordly, shrewd and subtle, not leading the charge but sitting in his hall. Théoden risks everything, his people and his realm, to ride to Gondor’s aid, while Denethor cares for Gondor only.

Finally, the contrast between their deaths: Denethor dies of despair by his own hand, while Théoden rides out to meet death head-on, determined to strike one last blow before the end.

Their lineage and wisdom

Denethor is higher in all worldly regard than Théoden, which makes the contrast between them all the more complex. Gandalf warns Pippin, ‘Théoden is a kindly old man. Denethor is of another sort: proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power, though he is not called a king’ (Return, 10 – 11). The Steward of Gondor is “wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore” (Appendix A.I.iv 368). Théoden, though a noble king, is certainly less in stature.

But here’s the final irony: although Denethor is far more learned and lordly than the king, Théoden proves more courageous and ultimately the wiser, because in the end he knows how to fight bravely and face death rather than give in to despair.

Their treatment of the hobbits

I suspect Denethor receives Pippin into his service only because he thinks he can wring information out of him. Before entering Denethor’s hall with Pippin, Gandalf warns the hobbit, ‘But he will speak most to you, and question you much, since you can tell him of his son Boromir. He loved him greatly…But under cover of this love he will think it easier to learn what he wishes from you rather than from me’ (Return, 10; emphasis added). And indeed, “Pippin never forgot that hour in the great hall under the piercing eye of the Lord of Gondor, stabbed ever and anon by his shrewd questions…” (15).

Théoden, on the other hand, treats Merry kindly, seating him at his own table. The king gladly receives the hobbit’s offer of service, treating him in a fatherly, kindly manner: “…and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him” (39).

When the time comes for Théoden to tell Merry he must stay home from the war, Merry asks bitterly why he accepted him into his service in the first place. Théoden responds, ‘I received you for your safe-keeping,’ showing his kindness and concern towards this little hobbit far from home — ‘and also to do as I might bid,’ he continues (70). Translation: do as I say and stay put where you’ll be safe.

Nobility and nationalism

Denethor says to Gandalf, ‘To [me] there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor.’ (Return, 16). He really does not care about anyone else. Meanwhile, Théoden risks his people, his realm, and his own life to ride to Gondor’s aid, because he is a noble man. The king says to Denethor’s messenger, ‘Even if Rohan itself felt no peril, still we would come to [Gondor’s] aid’ (Return, 65).

Both struggle with despair

Both struggle with despair (though in different ways). We see it in Théoden from the beginning: not long after Gandalf breaks the “spell” on him, he says to the wizard, ‘I fear that already you have come too late, only to see the last days of my house…Fire shall devour the high seat. What is to be done?’ Gandalf, ever the beacon of hope in this story, answers, ‘Much’ (Towers, 128). 

Through the victory at Helm’s Deep and beyond, despair continues to dog the king
— until, in a truly magnificent passage, which I think is worth a long quote, he overcomes it in the final charge before Minas Tirith. His hosts halt with the burning city in sight:

But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age…They were too late! Too late was worse than never! Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills.

Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt, a change…at that same moment there was a flash, as if a lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.

At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had every heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!

Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!

spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains…And the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away…Théoden could not be overtaken…he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old…morning came, morning and a wind from the sea…

With that, the king’s struggle is over, and he has won.

Denethor, by contrast, seems stern and resolute, even in the face of an overwhelming enemy — all until Faramir is wounded and seems certain to die. At this, Denethor is suddenly broken, and he ends in a fire of his own making.

Their deaths

Théoden prefers to ride out and meet death head on, determined to strike one last blow against ‘a destroyer who would devour all’ before his end. He dies well, saying to Merry, ‘I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall now now be ashamed…A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset! …Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me!’ (Return, 116). Though it is his day to die, he calls it glad, because they have victory: evil has been beaten back one more time.

Denethor dies by his own hand in despair, saying, ‘But soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind!’ (129).

The thing about despair is, it’s built on certainty. It’s certain things will never get better, failure is inevitable, and there’s no point in trying. As Gandalf says in the Fellowship, ‘despair is only for those who see the end beyond doubt. We do not.’

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