Denethor’s Ghost: Lessons from "Lord of the Rings" | Thomas M. Doran| Thomas Doran | CWR blog
Can a story about wizards, elves, dwarves, and goblins teach 21st century believers something that Catholic apologetics, devotional books, and reasoned arguments can’t?
21st century Catholicism is up against it, not the first time in history but the first time for many living Catholics. The glorification of the lesbian-gay-transgender lifestyle is the newest commandment of the new religion of the land, and any objections make you a bigot, and sometimes a pariah. There are fewer abortions, but the “right to choose” is still the entrenched law of the land, and euthanasia is gaining greater public acceptance. Gluttonous consumerism has many admirers. The ghetto-izing of traditional Christian beliefs is underway. Human life keeps getting cheaper and cheaper, at least those human lives that are less equal than others, as George Orwell might say. Even Atticus Finch has gone off the rails.
In response, many Christians think that the only options are retreat, resignation, or rebellion.
Can a story like The Lord of The Rings teach us anything important about humanity’s present age and Catholicism’s present challenges? Lest we think that he was just an ivory tower storyteller, J. R. R. Tolkien lived through two terrible wars where the lust for power threatened to destroy the world, with Tolkien experiencing World War I firsthand in the European trenches. Because we moderns know that the world and liberty weren’t utterly destroyed in these wars, we forget that victory was by no means certain to those who lived through those cataclysmic years, with many, like Denethor in Tolkien’s story, succumbing to hopelessness or the accommodation of evil.
Though Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn are inspiring characters, the most instructive characters for our age are Denethor and his son, Faramir.
Tolkien’s Denethor ruled the chief city in Middle Earth. Though ostensibly a steward awaiting the return of the rightful king, so many centuries had passed since the city had a king that Denethor ruled as king and considered himself as such. Steeped in pride, he told himself that he was strong-minded enough to gaze into a Palantir, a seeing stone that revealed events far and wide. Unfortunately, Sauron was the lord of the Palantiri, and he gripped Denethor’s mind and twisted it, showing the Steward exactly what he wanted him to see—Sauron’s irresistible power, the devastation his armies were inflicting, the weakness and fickleness of his enemies. Thus, the combination of Denethor’s pride and his lust to use Sauron’s own devices against him drove the Steward to despondency and madness. “The Enemy has found it (the One Ring), and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous…Pride and despair,” he (Denethor) cried. “Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower (Minas Tirith) were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool (Gandalf). For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labor 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 arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet of black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.”
See how his mind has been turned to despair?