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.

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