In the figure of Denethor, Tolkien accurately portrays a common type of human being. We all know someone like Denethor — unfortunately, often a colleague, friend, sibling, or even parent. Such a person is intensely competitive, always comparing himself with others, pleased to find fault, and quick to detect disingenuous ill-intent in those around him.
When Gandalf offers help, Denethor instantly claims to call his bluff and to assert his own moral and intellectual superiority:
‘Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need; but you deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’ (p.30)
In almost every exchange with Gandalf he accuses the wizard of treating him like a fool and of scheming to supplant him as chief power in Gondor:
‘Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. 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.’ (129)
His suspiciousness is always based on a shred of fact, such as Gandalf’s instructions to Pippin before meeting the Steward, and therefore it is easy for him to convince himself that the hasty and sweeping interpretation that he weaves out of that one fact is grounded in truth. Even with his own son, Faramir, one of the genuinely pure hearts in this book, he is quick to construe humility and deference as lurking ambition:
‘ I hope that I have not done ill?’ He looked at his father.
‘Ill?’ cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. ‘Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.
‘My son, your father is old but not yet dotard. I can see and hear, as was my wont; and little of what you have half said or left unsaid is now hidden from me. I know the answer to many riddles. Alas, alas for Boromir!’
‘If what I have done displeases you, my father,’ said Faramir quietly, ‘I wish I had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.’
‘Would that have availed to change your judgement?’ said Denethor. ‘You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.’
‘So be it,’ said Faramir.
‘So be it!’ cried Denethor. ‘But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.’ (85-86)
The last part of this exchange is an attempt to weaken Faramir by playing on his fear of guilt and failure, instilling in him anxiety and self-doubt that will follow him in every endeavor. I know you well is the constant refrain of a Denethor: he asserts unceasingly his capacity to penetrate into hidden motives and his invulnerability to deception. In my own experience I have found such people to be actually very innocent: since they are in fact bad judges of other people’s motives and are dimly aware of it, their default strategy is to ascribe malign complexity to everyone and to interpret accordingly. In politics, this strategy is probably safer than its opposite if what we wish to cultivate is a permanent defensive stance, but the enemy who sees through this can use it to his own advantage. Denethor’s innocence makes him blind to goodness and susceptible to Sauron’s manipulation. He clings to his posture of shrewd mistrust because it protects him — both politically and emotionally.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa gives a perceptive account of the Denethor type in a chapter on the traditional six realms of being: gods, asuras (or jealous gods), human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell. He sees these as not “places” but as different ways of being or as fundamental mindsets, which we render powerful by identifying with them. The vulnerable Denethor, out of self-protection, identifies with the mindset of an asura, which in South Asian mythology is eternally in competition with beings perceived as godlike. Trungpa’s description of the asura state is worth quoting in full because almost all of it is directly relevant to Denethor:
The dominant characteristic of … the jealous god or asura realm, is paranoia. If you are trying to help someone who has an asura mentality, they interpret your action as an attempt to oppress them or infiltrate their territory. But if you decide not to help them, they interpret that as a selfish act: you are seeking comfort for yourself. If you present both alternatives to them, then they think you are playing games with them. The asura mentality is quite intelligent: it sees all the hidden corners. You think that you are communicating with an asura face to face, but in actual fact he is looking at you from behind your back. This intense paranoia is combined with an extreme efficiency and accuracy , which inspires a defensive form of pride. The asura mentality is associated with wind, speeding about, trying to achieve everything on the spot, avoiding all possibilities of being attacked. It is trying constantly to attain something higher and greater. To do so one must watch out for very possible pitfall. There is no time to prepare, to get ready to put your action into practice. You just act without preparation. A false kind of spontaneity, a sense of freedom to act develops.
The asura mentality is preoccupied with comparison. In the constant struggle to maintain security and achieve greater things, you need points of reference, landmarks to plot your movement, to fix your opponent, to measure your progress. You regard life situations as games, in the sense of there being an opponent and yourself. You are constantly dealing with them and me, me and my friends, me and myself. All corners are regarded as being suspicious or threatening, therefore one must look into them and be careful of them. But one is not careful in the sense of hiding or camouflaging oneself. You are very direct and willing to come out in the open and fight if there is a problem or if there is a plot or a seeming plot against you. You just come out and fight face-to-face, trying to expose the plot. At the same time that one is going out in the open and facing the situation, one is distrustful of the messages that you receive from the situation, so you ignore them. You refuse to accept anything, refuse to learn anything that is presented by outsiders, because everyone is regarded as the enemy. (Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom,2002, pp.28-29)
The need for a permanent state of wary belligerence explains the impression of deadened hardness given out by the city of Minas Tirith, which has few plants and animals to soften the stony surfaces. This need is in fact a fear of softness, which includes a fear of the organic, of life itself. Denethor sleeps in mail and may even wear it next to his skin, like an exoskeleton:
Denethor laughed bitterly. ‘Nay, not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.’
He stood up and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! he was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great-hilted in a sheath of black and silver. ‘Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,’ he said, ‘lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.’ (92)
There are people who need to prove to others and themselves that they are tough; they wear black military clothing all day and every day, are armed wherever they go, keep several knives and guns in their bedroom, and talk endlessly about threats and ways of defending against threats. However, real warriors sleep naked or in pyjamas, and do not need to have their hand on a weapon at all times; this is because they know they are warriors without any of the accessories. The paranoid Denethor is really a fantasizer about warriorhood, perhaps because he has never in fact seen combat; this is why Aragorn poses such a moral threat to him, and why it is so easy for Sauron to set him at odds with his betters.