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Lordship Under Siege: Denethor's Suicide and Medieval Heroic Nihilism

Lordship Under Siege: Denethor's Suicide and Medieval Heroic Nihilism

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Published by Nicholas Hirsch
Essay analyzing Denethor's behavior in the context of northern medieval heroic poetry. References Tolkien's essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and his Ofermod to "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth", as well as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon.
Essay analyzing Denethor's behavior in the context of northern medieval heroic poetry. References Tolkien's essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and his Ofermod to "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth", as well as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon.

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Published by: Nicholas Hirsch on Apr 20, 2010
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Lordship Under Siege: Denethor¶s Suicide and Medieval Heroic Nihilism
³Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred,dying with their backs to the wall.´-
J. R. R. Tolkien, from ³Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics´, p.7
Denethor is a problematic character in
The Lord of the Rings
. His actions, his personality andthe manner of his death all raise questions about the relationship between the story and its medievalroots. Though there are rough parallels and connections which tie his place in
 Lord of the Rings
to themedieval framework which Tolkien engages in regularly throughout the work, these seem to betenuous, and to break apart when scrutinized too closely. However, Denethor's place in the storycannot be entirely divorced from its mythological origin, nor do his actions take place in a narrativevacuum. If 
The Lord of the Rings
is Tolkien's attempt to work within a pre-Christian Englishmythological framework, then even those characters who do not act heroic may still express somethingabout the heroic paradigm.Though Denethor's antipathy and madness seem to be attributed within the story to theinfluence of the Dark Lord, I would argue that Denethor's apparent rejection of the value system bywhich many of his ³nobler´ counterparts operate is the point at which Tolkien most closely allows amodern, critical perspective of the nihilistic side of the medieval heroic tradition. In order to supportthis view, I will examine Denethor from several positions: first, I will look at the contrast and parallels between Denethor and Théoden within
The Lord of the Rings
; second, I will place these commonalitiesin the context of doom (and despair) in the medieval heroic paradigm, exemplified by Hrothgar in
 Beowulf 
; third, I will look at Denethors suicide as either a departure from the heroic idiom, or as a
 
criticism of its underlying nihilism.On the surface, Denethors actions appear in stark contrast to his lordly counterparts, especiallyKing Théoden; while Théoden marches doggedly into battle against the forces of darkness and theinevitable Doom which threatens him, Denethor sinks into a state of nihilism, acting in bad faith as alord, as a thane and as a father as he attempts to co-opt his own destruction (and that of his son). Acloser look, however, reveals parallels between these two Lords of Men which appear to stem fromTolkien's own conception of the Northern heroic tradition. Denethor's despair is the shadow of Théoden's heroism; both operate in the same framework of inevitable destruction and failing strengthof men, a theme echoed by Tolkien throughout the books and in his essay on
 Beowulf 
: ³that man, eachman and all men, and all their works shall die´ (Tolkien, ³Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 9).Denethor and Théoden are both old men, long past their prime, though their demeanor iscontrasted by Gandalf, who describes Théoden as a ³kindly old man´, while Denethor is ³of far greater lineage and power, though he is not called a king´ (Tolkien,
 Lord of the Rings
, 753). A short whilelater, Pippin compares Denethor to Gandalf himself, admitting that, at first glance, Denethor 
looks
 ³more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older´ than Gandalf (LoTR, 757). Théoden, meanwhile,looks so shriveled with age that he looks ³almost a dwarf´ (512). Despite this apparent contrast,however, the parallel of age a fate remains. Both men exist in a twilight state: the end approaches;doom is imminent. They, and all their works, shall die sooner than later.Further similarities make the contrast in their personalities that much starker. Denethor andThéoden are lords under siege. Both men have spent their lives fighting the forces of Mordor. Bothhave lost sons, sons who died fighting the same war. Both grieve for the loss of the world they haveknown, and are faced nonetheless with a responsibility to protect their lands and people from that samedarkness. Their losses are personal, their tragedies immediately relevant. They are truly ³caught in thechains of circumstance«dying with their backs to the wall´ (Tolkien, B:MC, 7).Théoden channels this sense of obligation in two great battles; one at Helm's Deep and the other 
 
at Minas Tirith. At Helm's Deep, facing almost certain defeat, he leads a cavalry charge into the vasthordes of the enemy, goading himself and his companions along on the hope that, should they die, their deaths will be worthy of a song, ³if any be left to sing of us hereafter´ (LoTR, 539). At Minas Tirith, itis also the promise of song with which he rides into battle: ³Forth rode the king, fear behind him, / fate before him. Fealty kept he; / oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them. / Forth rode Théoden´ (LoTR, 803).Denethor shares no such hope for songs or glory, but
does
appear to share the burden of leadership andfealty, the keeping of which becomes problematic.Bravery in the face of fate is central to northern medieval heroic culture, which Tolkien appearsto be working with in
 Lord of the Rings.
³
 Lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif 
somod´ - life is loan: allshall end, light and life together perishes. These words hold true especially for Hrothgar, the sad oldKing of the Danes in
 Beowulf 
, who is doomed to die by his own nephew's hand even as Beowulf saveshis people from the monsters who stalk the night. The burning of Heorot by Hrothulf (or Ingeld?) is presaged by the poet, just
before
Grendel's appearance (
 Beowulf,
81-83), and guessed at by Beowulf later as he reports to Hygelac (2029-69). Hrothgar 
will 
fall, and seems to know it as he tearfully kissesBeowulf goodbye, knowing ³that never again would they look on each other / as in this brave meeting´(1872-3).It is hard to read the tone of Hrothgar's warning to Beowulf, then: ³Soon in their turn sicknessor war / will break your strength, or the grip of fire / overwhelming wave, or sword's swing, / a thrownspear, or hateful old age; / the lights will darken that were your eyes´ (Beowulf, lines 1763-67). Eventhose who live through the death and fire will eventually be overcome by time. The placement of thisspeech immediately after Beowulf's victory over Grendel's mother is strange, and calls into question theHrothgar's state of mind. The speech is essentially a warning against pride, an acknowledgement that,in the end, all of any leader's accomplishments will not avail them when their strength finally failsthem. Hrothgar's defeat is not merely at the hands of his nephew's treachery, but of old age, which³took from him the joy of his strength ± a thing that harms many´ (1886-7). Speaking these truths

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