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Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, is a fictional character in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King, which is the third and final part of his novel The Lord of the Rings. He is the 26th Ruling Steward of Gondor.

Denethor II
Tolkien character
AliasesSteward of Gondor
Book(s)The Return of the King (1955)


Flag of the Stewards of Gondor

Denethor was born in T.A. 2930, the first son and third child of Ecthelion II.[1] Ecthelion became the 25th Ruling Steward of Gondor in T.A. 2953, and at the same time Denethor became the heir apparent, inheriting the Horn of Gondor. He succeeded his father as Denethor II in T.A. 2984.

As stated in the early chapters and the Appendices of The Return of the King, Denethor was widely considered a man of great will, foresight, and strength. However, he failed to reach out to his people, who flocked instead to Thorongil, an outsider who served Denethor's father with great renown. Thorongil vanished from Gondor four years before Denethor would succeed his father as Ruling Steward. Thorongil (who was secretly Aragorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North and hence a claimant to Gondor's throne) had advised Ecthelion to put faith in the wizard Gandalf, whom Denethor distrusted.

In T.A. 2976 Denethor had married Finduilas, daughter of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth. She gave birth to two sons, Boromir and Faramir, before dying when they were ten and five years old, respectively (T.A. 2988). Denethor never remarried, and became more grim and silent than before.

In a conversation with Pippin just before the first meeting with Denethor, Gandalf described Denethor as "…proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power [than Théoden of Rohan], though he is not called a king." Following that meeting, after Pippin has sworn fealty to Denethor, Gandalf further commented:

He is not as other men of this time…by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.[2]

Unlike Saruman, Denethor was too strong to be corrupted by Sauron. In the novel, he began secretly using a palantír to probe Sauron's strength, though he incorrectly insisted he was able to control it. The effort aged him quickly, and the knowledge of Sauron's overwhelming force depressed him greatly, mostly due to deliberately biased visions from the palantír on the part of Sauron. Boromir's death depressed Denethor further, and he became ever more grim. Nonetheless he continued to fight Sauron with every resource at his disposal until the forces of Mordor arrived at the gates of the White City, at which point he lost all hope.

In the published essay on the palantíri, Tolkien wrote:

He [Denethor] must have guessed that the Ithil-stone [Sauron's palantír] was in evil hands, and risked contact with it, trusting his strength. His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits.

Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron... [while] Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his defeat was inevitable, and so fell into despair. The reasons for this difference were no doubt that in the first place Denethor was a man of great strength of will and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son.[3]

Near the novel's climactic battle, Denethor ordered the warning beacons of Gondor to be lit, and forces were called in from all of Gondor's provinces. The civilian population of Minas Tirith was sent away to safety. As invasion seemed imminent, Denethor sent the Red Arrow to the Rohirrim as a call for aid. The Council decided that Gondor could make no stroke of its own, but Denethor ordered Gondor's forces to the city's outer defences at Osgiliath and the great wall of the Rammas Echor. He wanted to make a stand, since the defences had been built at great expense and not yet been overrun, and he assumed that no help was forthcoming from Rohan since his messenger had not returned with the Red Arrow (the messenger had in fact been killed by Orcs during the ride back to Minas Tirith).

The outer defences were placed under the command of Faramir. Faramir knew his men could not stand against Sauron's army, but he nonetheless obeyed out of respect for his father and late brother. In the ensuing battle Faramir was badly wounded, apparently mortally; he was carried back in the retreat to the city, which was now under siege by vastly superior forces.

“Hope on then!” laughed Denethor. “Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west... 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 Anarion. 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.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Denethor's spirit was broken by the apparent loss of his son, and he ordered his servants to burn him alive on a pyre prepared for himself and Faramir in Rath Dínen. He took the white rod of his office and broke it over his knee, casting the pieces into the flames. He laid himself down on the pyre and so died, clasping the palantír in his hands. He also attempted to take Faramir with him, but was thwarted by the timely intervention of Peregrin Took, who saved Faramir from the flames with help from Gandalf and the guard Beregond. They were too late to save Denethor, however; he burned to death as Sauron's forces stormed the gate.

The Stewardship technically passed to Faramir, but he was in no condition to exercise any authority, still being close to death; he was taken to the Houses of Healing with little hope. But contrary to Denethor's forebodings, Faramir recovered, and the Stewardship was not emasculated. Indeed, when Aragorn became King, he not only confirmed the Stewardship to Faramir and his successors, but raised their rank to Princes of Ithilien.


Denethor's madness and despair has been compared to the madness and despair of Shakespeare's King Lear. Both men are first outraged when their children (Faramir and Cordelia, respectively) refuse to aid them, but then grieve upon their children's death – which is only perceived in case of Faramir. According to Drout, both Denethor and Lear also show "despair of God's mercy" which is extremely dangerous in a leader who has to defend his realm.[4]

Unlike Aragorn and his allies, Denethor is also incapable of displaying what Tolkien called "northern courage" in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, i.e., the spirit to carry on in the face of certain defeat and death.[5]


Denethor was voiced by William Conrad in Rankin/Bass's 1980 animated adaptation of The Return of the King, and by Peter Vaughan in BBC Radio's 1981 serialization.

Peter Jackson adaptationEdit

In Peter Jackson's live-action film trilogy, Denethor was played by John Noble. He first appears in a deleted scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but does not have a major role until the third and final film in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In the DVD commentary of that film, Jackson describes Denethor as a sort of Shakespearean tragic character. This film portrays Denethor in a substantially more negative light than the novel. In the literature, Denethor is described as an exceptionally capable, committed ruler, although grim of bearing. He is shown as chiefly responsible for successfully defending Gondor for decades and gathering what strength it can muster, at great personal cost and sacrifice. According to Tolkien, he was:

...a masterful man, both wise and learned beyond the measure of those days, and strong willed, confident in his own powers, and dauntless. (...) He was proud, but this was by no means personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.[3]

In contrast, the Jackson adaptation portrays him as a cowardly and weak ruler who works against his kingdom's defence. In the film adaptation, Denethor refuses to light the beacons of Gondor to call for the aid of Rohan against the inevitable assault from Sauron's army, which lurks in Osgiliath; against Denethor's wishes, Gandalf has Pippin light the beacon. In the novel, Denethor has already lit the beacons before Gandalf has even entered Gondor. The films have Denethor send his remaining son Faramir to lead a suicide mission to Osgiliath. In the novel, Denethor's carefully timed cavalry charge is targeted against the advancing Enemy in the open terrain near Minas Tirith; Denethor actually rescues Faramir and his forces. In the film, Denethor panics at the sight of Sauron's approaching army and calls for the city's defenders to flee (prompting Gandalf to knock out Denethor and take command of the city's forces), whereas in the novel he states that it is senseless to run from the enemy as there is no hope of escape. In the book, Denethor uses a palantír to gain tactical information on the Enemy and gleans information about Gandalf's plans from Pippin, whom he believes to be a spy. The films do not include these elements.

The film adaptation also portrays Denethor unfavourably in his character. While the novels imply that Denethor favors Boromir over Faramir, the film amplifies this to the point where Denethor treats his younger son with undisguised contempt. The films depict Denethor as self-indulgent, eating and drinking gluttonously as besiegers approach the city, whereas in the book he is sternly ascetic in his habits. Gandalf's view towards Denethor is more compassionate in the books, even as the latter goes insane, whereas he is more disgusted and angry at Denethor in the film.

Denethor's death is also changed in the film. While both the film and the book have Denethor attempt to burn himself and Faramir in the Stewards' tomb, the book depicts Denethor as immolating himself after Gandalf and Pippin save Faramir from the funeral pyre while in the films, Shadowfax knocks Denethor into the burning funeral pyre; Denethor, engulfed in flames, runs to the tip of the promontory of Minas Tirith and casts himself from it, falling to his death.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R.; Christopher Tolkien (ed.) (1996). The Peoples of Middle-earth, "The Heirs of Elendil". Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. pp. 206–7. ISBN 0-395-82760-4.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith"
  3. ^ a b Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (2012). Tolkien, Christopher (ed.). Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 526–527. ISBN 054795199X.
  4. ^ Smith, Leigh (2007). "The Influence of King Lear on Lord of the Rings". In Croft, Janet Brennan (ed.). Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. McFarland & Company. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-78642-827-4.
  5. ^ Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, p. 28–9, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1

External linksEdit

Preceded by
Ecthelion II
Stewards of Gondor Succeeded by