Lessons from Denethor

Our first glimpse of this nobleman from Gondor is far from pleasant. He appears briefly in The Two Towers to compliment one son on his recovery of Osgiliath and berate the other for its loss. Denethor is the acting Steward of Gondor. His family undertook its protection after the apparent death of the line of true kings. Denethor’s cruel treatment of Faramir, and his high praise of his elder, favored son Boromir, is a foreshadowing of the events in the final dramatic conclusion. Only when it is too late does he discover the true nature of his heart.

A dividing love for his sons.

Parents should protect their children and encourage them to grow up certain of their value and significance. Sadly, many people underestimate their roles in their children’s lives and are poor guardians. Divided relationships can begin at a young age and only drive families apart with the passing of time. There are many reasons a child will pull away from a parent, but it often involves that parent’s appreciation for their child. If all someone hears is complaints over their grades, their friends, their chosen pursuits, or constant scolding, it’s natural to feel distant toward the person responsible and sever their emotional ties to protect themselves.

A contrast in fatherhood shows in the similarities and differences between Elrond and Denethor. They have nothing in common aside from their children. Elrond is a good father, while Denethor is not. Both are strict, but Elrond acts in his daughter’s best interest while Denethor’s motives are purely selfish. The worst thing you can do is show affection for one child over another. This is Denethor’s greatest failing, even beyond his resistance to a transfer of power or lack of loyalty to the line of kings. 

Instead of praising his sons’ individual talents, he wanted Faramir to be a carbon copy of Boromir. Why? Boromir was the warrior, the firstborn, a mighty force confident in his talents. Boromir was everything Denethor wanted to be in his youth but could never achieve. Therefore, he was the much-praised son. This would have been all right had Denethor had the same respect and approval for Faramir’s individuality. Faramir is a good strategist, but a tender soul. He’s not meant for battle but goes into it because he’s needed… and to please his father.

In scripture we find a similar tale of two brothers and their father. One parent each favored one twin, Jacob and Esau; Esau by his father, because he was bold, masculine, and a warrior; and Jacob by his mother because he was intelligent, tenderhearted, and kind. This bias damaged the family, eventually leading to discourse. The resemblance between Esau and Boromir and Jacob and Faramir is uncanny. Unlike their scriptural counterparts, Denethor does not drive his sons apart through his prejudice. Instead, it draws them closer as brothers.

Denethor pays the ultimate price for his favoritism: he sends the wrong son to Rivendell, which results in his death.

Greed overpowers intelligence.

With great power comes great responsibility. Each of the characters in The Lord of the Rings faces this challenge in different ways. Denethor is a man of great power and influence. He is the authority of Gondor, the last stronghold of Men. His borders are all that keep the armies of Mordor from flooding Middle-earth. This is a responsibility and an honor. It places a heavy burden on his shoulders. Rather than being responsible for his actions, Denethor has grown lazy. He feasts when he should fight, and places more interest in his palantír than the goodwill of his people. Denethor ill-treated his gift of leadership, so Gandalf removes him from his position.

There’s a parable Jesus tells about a master who left property in the care of his three servants and went on a journey. The first, who received the largest amount, took a risk and invested it. He doubled the amount. The second servant was not so bold and kept it in the bank where it earned interest. It made a small profit. The last servant was afraid he would lose the money, so he buried it for safekeeping. When the master returned home, the first two servants pleased him, but not the third.

This parable is about our gifts and the responsibility that comes with them. The more gifts God gives us, the more he expects us to use them for good.

Denethor is the third servant. His gift is the rule of Gondor in the king’s absence. Had he been wise like the first servant, he would have strengthened their borders, expanded the city, built up their armies, and replenished the treasury. He could have sought an alliance with Rohan for the benefit of both nations and befriended the Elf-kingdoms in case war ever threatened their white towers. He might have made Gondor great to prepare for the return of the king. Instead, he used his power for nothing; he hid it, sat on it, and grew fat on it. He dwelled in idleness, dreaming about the Ring. Like the master angry with the third servant who fired him, Gandalf returned to defy his authority and remove him from leadership.

No one enjoys relinquishing power, but Denethor flat out refuses to submit. His pride comes before his fall. Learning to use our gifts, to not hide them under a bushel or squander them on meaningless things, but also prepare to pass the torch when it is time for another to take our place, is one of the greatest things we can ever achieve. To trust our gifts were for a purpose, to use them, and to leave and let another soul take our place. It’s not a demotion; it’s an honor.

Withholding love until it’s too late.

One of the sad things about Denethor is he doesn’t realize how much he loves Faramir until he believes his son dead. No other force on earth can compare to love. For love, we do many things. We make sacrifices; we give our heart and soul, and sometimes we die. For love, we go to war, we fight, protect, pray, intervene, speak out. Love is the greatest power on earth. It’s not shallow or self-seeking, but earnest, deep, pure, not motivated by any evil or selfishness. There are many types of love. The love we hold for our family and friends, our faith, our pets. They’re all different, but equally important. 

“I love you” are three little words we should say more often. You never know when someone will leave and never come back. We should never depart in haste or anger, for we might never see that person again. Denethor’s last words to his son were in scorn and anger…. he wanted to take them back, but it was too late. Make certain you don’t make that mistake. Tell the people you love how much you love them and take care with your words. You never know when one of you may die.

We shouldn’t let the opportunity for love pass by because we fear the pain of loss. It is always worth it. It is better to feel something than nothing. If you’re running away from forming attachments, from making true bonds, you’re missing the depth of life. It is better to love and hurt than never love at all. When we lay on our deathbed, we won’t regret the hours we didn’t spend working… we will regret the people we didn’t love enough, the time we didn’t spend with them. Let’s set out to have no regrets when we look back on our relationships.

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