An encyclopedia of Middle-earth and Numenor
John Noble as Denethor
in the New Line Cinema film
From "Denethor grieves for his son"
by Anke-Katrin Eissmann
(see the full-size image)
Denethor II was the last Ruling Steward of Gondor. He ruled Gondor for 35 years and defended his land and people from the growing threat of Sauron. But during the War of the Ring, Denethor was deeply grieved by the loss of his eldest son Boromir, and he succumbed to despair when Sauron showed him visions of Gondor's doom in the palantir. Denethor burned himself alive and he tried to take his youngest son Faramir with him, but while Denethor perished in flames, Faramir survived and became Steward to Aragorn, King Elessar.
Denethor was born in 2930 of the Third Age. He had two older sisters. Their father was Ecthelion II, the 25th Ruling Steward of Gondor.
The Stewards originally served the Kings of Gondor, but after the line of Kings failed in 2050, the Stewards ruled Gondor as caretakers. It was the duty of the Stewards to preserve and protect the Kingdom until a King returned. The Stewards sat on a chair at the foot of the dais where the King's throne stood empty. They bore a white rod instead of a crown and their banner was plain white. But in fact the Stewards exercised all the powers of a King.
Denethor resembled the ancient Kings of Numenor. He was tall and and regal in bearing and had chiseled features, pale skin, dark eyes, and a long curved nose. He was valiant and he became skilled at wielding a sword. He was also wise and learned and he studied the ancient lore of Gondor in the archives of Minas Tirith, learning much that had been long forgotten.
As Denethor grew to manhood in Gondor, Sauron was amassing power across the Anduin in Mordor. Sauron had returned to Mordor in secret in 2942, and in 2951 he openly declared his presence and rebuilt the Dark Tower of Barad-dur. In 2954, Mount Doom burst into flame and the Men of Gondor who lived in Ithilien on the border of Mordor were forced to flee.
Denethor's father Ecthelion responded to the growing threat by strengthening Gondor's defenses. He took many valiant men into his service, including one who called himself Thorongil. Thorongil was greatly admired by the other captains and especially by Ecthelion, who favored Thorongil above all others, even his own son. He valued Thorongil's counsel on matters of defense and heeded his advice to trust Gandalf but not Saruman. Denethor grew resentful and viewed Thorongil as his rival, though Thorongil did nothing to try to usurp Denethor's position.
Denethor was a shrewd and insightful man, and he apparently discovered that Thorongil was in fact Aragorn, the Chieftain of the Dunedain of the North, and as such one who could stake a claim to the throne of Gondor. Denethor suspected that Aragorn and Gandalf were in league to supplant him.
Denethor was opposed to yielding the rule of Gondor to the heir of the lost kingdom of Arnor. Gondor's kings had been descended from Elendil's son Anarion, while Arnor had been ruled by the heirs of Elendil's son Isildur. The two kingdoms had been separated for nearly 3,000 years, and the North-kingdom had ceased to exist over 1,000 years ago. The Heirs of Isildur had become leaders of a wandering people known as Rangers, and Denethor considered them to have lost their lordship and dignity.
In 2980, Thorongil led an assault on Umbar and defeated the Corsairs who were allied with Sauron. Afterwards he did not return to Minas Tirith and sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion. Denethor was not sorry to see him go, but he did not forget him and he continued to distrust Gandalf.
Denethor became the 26th Ruling Steward of Gondor after his father's death in 2984. He was a strong ruler who listened to the advice of his counsellors but made his own decisions. Denethor was a proud man, and he believed himself destined to lead Gondor in its darkest hour. Early on, he retook the city of Osgiliath on the Anduin from Sauron's forces and stationed a garrison there as a first line of defense against Mordor.
Denethor had married Finduilas, the daughter of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth, in 2976. She was 20 years younger than he. They had two sons: Boromir, born in 2978, and Faramir, born in 2983. Denethor loved Finduilas, but she was unhappy in Minas Tirith far from the Sea, and the Shadow of Mordor terrified her. She may also have become aware of the strain on her husband that resulted from his use of the palantir. Finduilas died in 2988, and Denethor became even more grim and withdrawn.
It is believed that Denethor began to use the palantir shortly after becoming Steward. Denethor had long studied the lore of the palantiri - seven stones used to communicate and observe at great distances. The palantir of Minas Tirith, called the Anor-stone, had been kept secret for many years in the Tower of Ecthelion. Its companion stone, the Ithil-stone, was feared to be in the possession of Sauron.
Denethor was the first Steward to dare to use the palantir. With the palantir, Denethor was able to see many things happening throughout Middle-earth. One of his motivations in using the palantir was to keep an eye on Gandalf and Aragorn and to try to surpass them in knowledge. Another reason was to learn of Sauron's plans in order to defend Gondor against an attack which he perceived to be imminent.
After many years, Sauron became aware of Denethor's use of the palantir. Denethor was strong-willed, and he was initially able to maintain control of the Anor-stone and prevent Sauron from forcing his gaze to the Ithil-stone. The effort cost Denethor dearly and he was prematurely aged. Sauron unable to break Denethor's will or corrupt him as he did with Saruman, but eventually he was able to manipulate what Denethor saw in the palantir in an effort to convince him that defeat was inevitable.
Denethor came to view himself as Sauron's primary opponent and he perceived the conflict to be between Mordor and Gondor, rather than encompassing all of Middle-earth. Of a like mind was his eldest son Boromir, who shared his father's pride in Gondor's might and earned his father's favor as a loyal and obedient son. In other ways, however, Boromir was unlike his father - he was a warrior and was uninterested in learning and lore.
Faramir, on the other hand, shared his father's intellect and insight and in him, as in his father, the blood of Numenor ran true. But Faramir was of a gentler nature and was inclined to understanding and pity of others, which some viewed as weakness. And although he was also a skilled soldier, Faramir was not interested in glory for its own sake, and he believed there was a greater good beyond that of Gondor alone.
Faramir also became friendly with Gandalf, who visited the archives of Minas Tirith periodically. He spent time with the Wizard and learned much from him, which displeased Denethor. Denethor viewed Faramir's friendship with Gandalf as disloyalty to himself.
In 3017, Gandalf came to Minas Tirith once more to search the archives. He found a scroll written by Isildur describing the One Ring of Sauron, which Gandalf had begun to suspect was in the possession of Frodo Baggins in the Shire. Denethor was familiar with much of the contents of the archives, but this particular scroll was unknown to him, and Gandalf did not share his concerns with the Steward.
On June 20, 3018, Sauron launched the first assault of the War of the Ring. A force led by the Lord of the Nazgul attacked Osgiliath. None could withstand his evil presence, and the part of the city on the eastern bank of the Anduin was captured. Boromir and Faramir cast down the bridge and held the western half of the city. But Sauron's purpose in ordering the attack had been to test Gondor's defenses and to provide cover for Nazgul to begin the hunt for the One Ring, and once that was accomplished, Sauron halted the assault.
Boromir and Faramir told their father of a dream they had both shared:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:Denethor did not tell his sons what he made of this riddle. He most likely realized that "the Sword that was broken" referred to Narsil, the sword of Elendil that was broken in battle with Sauron and was kept by the heirs of Isildur in the North. He probably thought long and hard about Isildur's Bane and may have eventually realized that this was the One Ring of Sauron.
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur's Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.
The Fellowship of the Ring: "The Council of Elrond," p. 259
Faramir volunteered to travel to Imladris, which Denethor informed them was Rivendell, the home of the Elf-lord Elrond. But Boromir insisted on undertaking the journey himself, and Denethor reluctantly agreed - a decision he came to bitterly regret.
On February 26, 3019, Boromir was killed by Uruk-hai at Amon Hen. He had tried to seize the One Ring from Frodo, but he died honorably defending Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Denethor heard the Great Horn sounded by Boromir in the distance and was filled with foreboding. Then the Great Horn was found broken in two pieces in the waters of the Anduin. The shards of the Horn were brought to Denethor, who held them on his lap while awaiting news of his son's fate. Yet in his heart he knew that his beloved son was dead.
Denethor was deeply grieved by Boromir's death, and it was a severe blow to his spirit and his mind. Nevertheless, he continued to prepare for the coming war with Sauron. He wore his mail and sword at all times, even while sleeping, to keep himself strong and prepared. He ordered the repair of the Rammas Echor - the great outer wall surrounding the Pelennor Fields. The women and children of Minas Tirith were evacuated to the southern provinces of Gondor.
On March 7, word arrived that a fleet of Corsairs was preparing to attack Gondor in the south. That night, Denethor ordered the Beacon-hills lit to summon aid from Rohan. Denethor also sent a messenger named Hirgon to Rohan bearing the Red Arrow as a sign of Gondor's need. King Theoden received the Red Arrow on the evening of March 9. Troops had also been summoned from the fiefdoms of southern Gondor and they arrived in Minas Tirith on March 9.
That same day, Gandalf came to Minas Tirith with the Halfling Pippin Took. Gandalf brought news of the victory against Saruman's forces at the Battle of Helm's Deep in Rohan, but Denethor already knew this through the use of his palantir. He was more interested in hearing from Pippin an account of Boromir's death, saying "But though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness." (RotK, p. 27)
Through careful questioning of the Hobbit, Denethor confirmed his suspicion that Aragorn was coming to Minas Tirith with Narsil reforged. He believed that Aragorn intended to take the rule of Gondor from him with Gandalf's help. Denethor had no intention of allowing this to happen.
Pippin offered his sword and fealty to Denethor. Denethor accepted, for even though he believed that Pippin's purpose was to spy on him and report to Gandalf, the gesture touched and amused him. Also he hoped to learn more from Pippin with the Hobbit close by his side.
The next day, Faramir returned from patrol in Ithilien and reported that he had encountered Frodo. Denethor was angry that Faramir had not brought the One Ring to him, as he believed Boromir would have done. He mistakenly believed that Boromir's strength and loyalty would have allowed him to overcome the temptation of the Ring. He viewed Faramir as disloyal and under the influence of Gandalf. Denethor told Faramir that he wished that his sons' fates had been reversed - that Boromir had survived and Faramir had died.
Denethor felt that the Ring should not have been sent into Mordor to be destroyed, but instead "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 then befell would not trouble us, being dead." (RotK, p. 87)
Gandalf pointed out that they had a duty to people beyond the realm of Gondor and in future generations, and he also said that Denethor would be unable to resist the lure of the Ring no matter how deeply it was hidden. But Denethor had pride in his own strength and in the supreme importance of Gondor, and he disregarded these arguments.
The next day on March 11, Denethor summoned a council of his captains. He announced his intention of sending a force to defend the river crossing at Osgiliath. Faramir believed it was a hopeless task, since they would be far outnumbered by Sauron's forces, yet he volunteered to go.
"Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead - if you command it."Faramir set out immediately for Osgiliath. A great army led by the Lord of the Nazgul arrived on March 12 and swiftly took the river crossing. Faramir and his men were outnumbered ten to one, and they were forced to retreat to the Rammas Echor. The enemy forces breached the wall on March 13 and overran the Pelennor Fields. Faramir was resolved to stay with his men until the end.
"I do so," said Denethor.
"Then farewell!" said Faramir. "But if I should return, think better of me!"
"That depends on the manner of your return," said Denethor.
The Return of the King: "The Siege of Gondor," p. 90
Denethor sat in a high chamber in the Tower of Ecthelion observing the retreat. He was aware that the enemy forces were led by the Lord of the Nazgul, and he was also aware that another force had captured Cair Andros and crossed the river farther north. This knowledge may have come through the use of the palantir, which Denethor consulted with increasing frequency.
But Denethor had no news of whether the Rohirrim were coming in answer to his call for aid. Hirgon, the messenger he had sent to Rohan, had been killed on the return journey to Minas Tirith. It may be that the palantir was of no use in this matter because by now Sauron was able to control what was seen by Denethor, whose will had been weakened by the loss of his eldest son.
Denethor sent out a sortie led by Prince Imrahil to assist the men who were retreating from Sauron's forces. A third of the men had been killed and many more were wounded, including Faramir. Denethor's youngest son was brought unconscious and near death to his father's chamber in the Tower of Ecthelion.
Denethor went to the secret room at the top of the Tower and consulted the palantir once more. He was shocked by what he saw. It seems likely that he was shown a vision of Frodo, who was that same day captured by the Orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Denethor assumed that the One Ring had been captured also: "The fool's hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous." (RotK, p. 97) But unknown to Denethor, Sam Gamgee had the Ring and later rescued Frodo.
Denethor returned to sit by his son's bedside. He was deeply saddened and regretful of his actions toward Faramir. "I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins." (RotK, p. 97) Denethor's esquire Pippin Took remained with him during these dark hours.
And as he watched, it seemed to him that Denethor grew old before his eyes, as if something had snapped in his proud will, and his stern mind was overthrown. Grief maybe had wrought it, and remorse. He saw tears on that once tearless face, more unbearable than wrath.Further visions in the palantir showed Denethor a fleet of Corsairs' ships sailing up the Anduin toward Minas Tirith. He did not know that the fleet had been commandeered by Aragorn, who was coming to Gondor's rescue. Denethor believed that Gondor was about to be destroyed and that he was about to lose his only remaining child and heir. Faced with these unbearable losses, Denethor's mind broke and he descended into madness and despair.
The Return of the King: "The Siege of Gondor," p. 97
Denethor abandoned control of Gondor's defenses, and Gandalf was forced to take over for him. The City was besieged and the lower level was on fire and men were fleeing from their posts. But Denethor was unmoved.
"Why? Why do the fools fly?" said Denethor. "Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!"In the early hours of March 15, Denethor had Faramir carried to the House of the Stewards in the Silent Street, where the Stewards of Gondor were traditionally entombed. He ordered that a pyre be built to burn him and his son alive. Wood was piled around Faramir and he was drenched with oil.
The Return of the King: "The Siege of Gondor," p. 98-99
Pippin ran to seek help from Beregond and Gandalf. Gandalf was forced to abandon pursuit of the Lord of the Nazgul, who went on to kill King Theoden of Rohan before being himself slain by Eowyn and Merry.
At the House of the Stewards, Gandalf rescued Faramir from the pyre. He tried to convince Denethor to face the enemy as a leader of his people and, if necessary, die honorably in battle instead of committing suicide. But Denethor had lost all hope. The visions shown to him by Sauron in the palantir had convinced him that defeat was inevitable.
"Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour 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 now arises there is no victory."Moreover, even if a brief reprieve were possible, Denethor did not want to concede the rule of Gondor to Aragorn.
The Return of the King: "The Pyre of Denethor," p. 129
"I am Steward of the House of Anarion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity."Denethor then tried to kill Faramir with a knife, but he was stopped by Beregond.
"What then would you have," said Gandalf, "if your will could have its way?"
"I would have things as they were in all the days of my life," answered Denethor, "and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard's pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated."
The Return of the King: "The Pyre of Denethor," p. 130
"So!" cried Denethor. "Thou hadst already stolen half my son's love. Now thou stealest the hearts of my knights also, so that they rob me wholly of my son at the last. But in this at least thou shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end."Denethor leaped onto the pyre, broke the rod of his Stewardship, and set himself ablaze, clutching the palantir. It was said that his burning hands could be seen in the palantir forever afterwards.
The Return of the King: "The Pyre of Denethor," p. 130
Later that day, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was won with the help of the Rohirrim - who had arrived at dawn just as Denethor was preparing his pyre - and Aragorn, who came in the black-sailed ships that Denethor mistook for a herald of Gondor's doom. Faramir was healed by Aragorn and immediately recognized him as his rightful King. Sauron was defeated on March 25 when the One Ring was destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. Aragorn was crowned King of Gondor on May 1, and Faramir became his Steward.
Birth of Denethor.
Sauron returns in secret to Mordor.
Birth of Finduilas, daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth.
Sauron declares himself openly in Mordor and begins to gather power.
Mount Doom bursts into flame.
Thorongil leaves Gondor after winning the favor of Ecthelion and evoking jealousy in Denethor.
Denethor marries Finduilas of Dol Amroth.
Birth of Denethor's son Boromir.
Birth of Denethor's son Faramir.
Death of Denethor's father Ecthelion II. Denethor II becomes Steward of Gondor. He begins to use the palantir shortly thereafter.
Death of Denethor's wife Finduilas.
Gandalf visits Minas Tirith and reads the scroll of Isildur.
June 19: Faramir has a dream concerning the Sword that Was Broken and Isildur's Bane.
June 20: Sauron's forces attack Osgiliath. Boromir and Faramir hold the western side of the Anduin.
July 4: Boromir departs for Rivendell to learn the meaning of the dream about Isildur's Bane.
February 26: Denethor hears Boromir's horn in the distance. Boromir is killed by Uruk-hai at Amon Hen.
March 7: News reaches Minas
Tirith that the Corsairs' fleet is approaching the Mouths of the Anduin.
The Beacons of Gondor are lit on the night of March 7-8.
March 9: Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Minas Tirith. Pippin swears fealty to Denethor. The armies of the fiefdoms of Gondor reach Minas Tirith. Denethor's messenger Hirgon arrives in Rohan with the Red Arrow seeking aid.
March 10: The Dawnless Day. Faramir returns to Minas Tirith and reports on his encounter with Frodo the Ring-bearer. An enemy force takes Cair Andros and crosses the river north of Minas Tirith.
March 11: Denethor sends Faramir to defend the river crossing at Osgiliath.
March 12: A force led by the Lord of the Nazgul captures the crossing at Osgiliath. Faramir is forced to retreat.
March 13: The Rammas Echor is breached and the Pelennor Fields are overrun. Faramir is brought back to Minas Tirith wounded and near death. Denethor looks into the palantir and possibly sees the capture of Frodo Baggins, leading him to mistakenly conclude that Sauron has the One Ring.
March 14: Denethor remains at his son's bedside and relinquishes command of Minas Tirith's defenses to Gandalf. At some point during March 14 or 15, the palantir reveals a Corsair fleet approaching, which unknown to Denethor is commanded by Aragorn. Denethor foresees doom for both Faramir and Gondor and he falls into madness and despair.
March 15: Denethor tries to burn himself and Faramir alive on a pyre. Faramir is saved, but Denethor dies.
March 25: The One Ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated.
May 1: Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor. Faramir becomes his Steward.
Denethor was the second Steward of Gondor of that name. There was also an Elf in ancient times named Denethor. The name Denethor means "lithe and lank" from dene meaning "thin and strong, pliant, lithe" and thara meaning "tall (or long) and slender."
The History of Middle-earth, vol. XI, The War of the Jewels: "Quendi and Eldar," p. 412, note 17
Denethor was the 26th and last of the Ruling Stewards of Gondor, who governed in the absence of a King. He was also referred to as Lord of Gondor, Lord of the City, the Lord of the White Tower, and Lord Denethor.
Family tree of Denethor II:
Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings has a section on "The Stewards" which includes information on Denethor's early days and marriage and his rivalry with Thorongil.
Unfinished Tales: "The Palantiri" gives additional detail on Denethor's use of the palantir and its effect on him.
Letter #183 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien gives further insight on Denethor's motivations.
The History of Middle-earth, vol XII, The Peoples of Middle-earth: "The Heirs of Elendil," p. 206-7 mentions that Denethor had two older sisters.
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