Talk to me about Denethor as a character!
1) I'm only talking about book Denethor, because movie Denethor makes me want to stab myself in the eye, and I always skip his scenes anyway, so I can't especially comment on them.
2) I'm not going to try to defend Denethor's appalling treatment of his sons, because that was fucked up, man. I totally get people who just can't stand the character on any grounds because of it. I find him interesting because of his politics, his situation, and the way he interacts with the themes of LotR
. (Though I have to say that his treating his sons the same way he resented being treated by his father, doesn't lessen the inherent tragedy of his story.)
To me Denethor always felt like a man in the wrong genre. His failure was a failure to hope against all odds, a failure in a belief in miracles. If he'd been in A Song of Ice and Fire
, not The Lord of the Rings
, he probably would have done a lot better.
It's not unreasonable that he gave up (though it was certainly wrong), given the pressure he was under, and had been under for at least forty years. As far as he could see, he had no allies, was surrounded by the enemy, with more enemy coming up the river, and further enemy massing in Mordor in case they survived this round; everyone and everything he loved was dead or dying, and it was his fault (all this underlined by several decades of off and on mental contact with Sauron), and yeah, no, done. Which is understandable, but wasn't what everyone else was doing. And as I said, I'm not excusing his actions, especially not in regards to Faramir, but I've always felt a good deal of sympathy for a pragmatic man who didn't realise he was in a heroic story.
(I mean, Gandalf and Faramir are like, Okay, so we gave the most powerful weapon in history to a four-foot-tall member of a peaceful landed gentry, and sent him and his gardener into the enemy stronghold. Don't worry! It'll be fine!
And Denethor has some doubts on that score, for some reason.)
I also really like the horror aspect of how the book actually reads. We hear A LOT about Denethor before he shows up on page.
We see him first through Boromir's eyes, as the leader of an embattled city, and a master of lore, then through Gandalf's as a somewhat unfriendly man of little patience, who is beset on every side, but who has also literally read almost every book in Minas Tirith: “If indeed you look only, as you say, for records of ancient days, and the beginnings of the City, read on! For to me what was is less dark than what is to come, and that is my care. But unless you have more skill even than Saruman, who has studied here long, you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this City.”
We again and again see Boromir's absolute faith in his city and by extension his father, and his desperation to protect both, that eventually drives him mad. And you can see the expectation placed on him, the eldest son of the city to save it at any cost. Théoden and Gandalf talk about Minas Tirith as a stronghold, and again treat Denethor as synonymous with that. When we meet Faramir, we see him talking about Denethor managing battles, Faramir talks about him sitting in his high chair, waiting for news, and again more or less treats him AS the city. He talks about Denethor's pride and loyalty to the city, and to his role as Steward. He's people and his line are talked about as hardy, wise and brave.
In the build up to meeting him, Gandalf talks to several layers of guards about the City, and it's pretty clear that Denethor is involved in every aspect of siege preparation. Finally, Gandalf says to Pippin, "Denethor is of another sort, proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power, though he is not called a king."
So he's this fixture, like the city: immovable, strong, wise and very proud. When we meet him, Pippin immediately compares him to both Aragorn and Gandalf.
And then the cracks start to show, and it's horrifying, because he's the one holding the City together, and if the City falls, literally everyone on earth is screwed. Especially since it's from Pippin's point of view, there's this deeply terrifying, oh, god, the captain of this ship is losing it, and he's going to take us all down with us. And that to me is the fix of it, the fall is so much more powerful because of the set up.
I was talking to someone over on F_FA about what would have happened if Denethor had held on and survived the siege (with his mind intact, which isn't super likely given the extended use of the Palantír), and I honestly couldn't see it. Because he IS proved wrong about everything, miracles did occur, everyone was saved by the unlikeliest person imaginable, and I'm not sure how his pride could have handled Gandalf and Aragorn/Thorongil being right, and himself being wrong.
Plus there's the whole issue of Aragorn not having a legal claim to the throne, but very much having the support of the City, and having just helped save the world In Accordance With Prophecy, which I don't see Denethor doing that well with either, especially given their rivalry as younger men. I can't see him leading a side in a civil war, especially not at that point, but holy resentment, Batman. I think it would be very, very difficult for him to live in the same city with Aragorn, but at the same time I can't see him ever leaving Minas Tirith after giving his whole life to it.
That said, I'd be interested in reading that fic.