It’s no easy job, managing a kingdom, let alone one on the brink of collapse. Invaders to the east, a lackluster neighbor to the west, pirates to the south, orcs all around, and oh yeah, the devil himself knocking at your doorstep. Let’s not forget that your oldest son is dead (the one you liked) leaving you with just the younger (the one who can do no right). Your beloved wife is long gone, and now there is a bossy wanderer in your face trying to tell you what to do. Such was the lot of Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, the 26th Steward of Gondor in the waning days of the Third Age of the Sun.
We’ve had a card for Denethor since the launch of our game, and it was a good one, in its day. However, like its namesake, the card has come on tough times and is now frequently shelved for newer and shinier heroes. But the first pack of the Dream-chaser Cycle has put the last (or is it second-to-last?) Ruling Steward back in our collective sights. We raved about him on the most recent episode of The Grey Company, but who is the man behind the card, and what can we learn about his realm as it stood on the very edge of the precipice?
EXPLORE THE LORE
At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. He did not look up. Solemnly they paced the long floor towards him, until they stood three paces from his footstool. Then Gandalf spoke. ‘Hail, Lord and Steward of Minas Tirith, Denethor son of Ecthelion! I am come with counsel and tidings in this dark hour.’
Book V, Chapter I, “Minas Tirith”
Denethor was born the third child and first son of Ecthelion II, the 25th Ruling Steward of Gondor, in T.A. 2930. Tolkien describes Denethor as “a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore.” His character is perfectly mirrored in the dual reflection of his two sons. On the one hand, he was thoughtful, like Faramir, a studied man, as befits a ruler, and an intelligent leader. On the other hand, he was masterful, like Boromir, a strong warrior and captain, but flawed and prone to jealousy.
This jealousy was ignited early on in Denethor’s life, before he inherited his Stewardship, when a “stranger” from the north, calling himself Thorongil, came mysteriously to Gondor and stole the admiration of many a Gondorian, including his father Ecthelion. This northerner looked like one of the line of the Stewards, and bore himself in the same fashion. He was an astounding captain and hero and he came to overshadow the young Denethor. As Appendix A tells us, “Indeed [Denethor] was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was placed ever second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father.” The future Steward stewed.
According to “The Palantíri” in Unfinished Tales, the exact when and why of Denethor’s turning to the ancient Seeing-stone are “a matter of conjecture” but he was at least in part motivated by his desire to surpass Thorongil and Gandalf in knowledge and information. Some say that he figured out Thorongil’s true identity. His fear of being supplanted grew into suspicion, but also motivated him to look “further and deeper than other men of his day”.
For a time though, Denethor’s less desirable traits were checked by the love of his life, who he married in 2976. Named Finduilas, his wife was the daughter of Adrahil of Dol Amroth, the sister of Prince Imrahil, and “a lady of great beauty and gentle heart”. In a most tender and humanizing line about the Steward, we are told that he “loved her, in his fashion, more dearly than any other”. Finduilas was a fair and caring woman, surely with Elvish-blood in her veins. Not unlike the Elves, she felt things deeply, and was sad as often as she was joyful and she bore Denethor a strapping young son, Boromir, and five years later another, Faramir. This may, perhaps, be considered the happiest time of Denethor’s life. Thorongil had “departed into the shadows whence he came” and his father Ecthelion still held the Rod of the Steward.
A year after Faramir’s birth though, things took a turn for the worse. Echtelion passed away in 2984. Denethor came into his own as the Steward of Gondor, “holding the rule of all things in his own hand”. The erudite part of Denethor continued to study the lore of Gondor, the history of his lands and of his Enemy. But Finduilas’ health took an ill turn and “it seemed to men that she withered in the guarded city, as a flower of the seaward vales set upon a barren rock”. In 2988, Finduilas passed away and Denethor grew all the more grim, reserved, serious, and distrustful.
Denethor’s pride grew. He “would sit long alone in his tower deep in thought”, using the palantír, something none of the other Stewards had ever dared since the fall of Minas Ithil. It is thought that the “general strain” of wrestling with the device, and the “breaking strain” of his confrontation with Sauron in its sister-stone, caused Denethor to age prematurely. When our heroes meet him in Return of the King in the passage, he’s only 89 (young for a man of nobility) but bore the marks of the aged even before the War. As Beregond introduces him to us:
‘Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time.’
This description more readily matches our new Leadership hero, who looks even “more like a great Wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older.” While Peter Jackson depicts Denethor as a one-dimensional villain and foil for our heroes, Tolkien’s Denethor is more complex. As he writes in “The Palantíri”:
“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. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.”
If I may say so myself, our newest hero card captures this characterization perfectly! But as we all know, Denethor misread his destiny. Thorongil was the greater man. And Denethor refused to trust anyone but himself. He faltered on the line between the glorious Gondor of the past, and the waning Gondor of the present.
In his firstborn, Denethor put the hope of the future. But when the cloven Horn of Gondor is discovered, and Boromir proven dead, his descent into utter madness begins. For who would pick up the pieces and drive Gondor onwards? Surely not Faramir, the soft and thoughtful. Too like his mother, was the younger brother. Captain, maybe, but not Champion. And that meddler Gandalf would love to see Gondor crumble into ruin under the leadership of Denethor, wouldn’t he? Then he would supplant the Stewards with the upstart from the North, as he had planned all along! The line of the Kings, drawn all the way back to Númenor, had faded near to extinction, leaving lesser men to inherit things. The weight was too much for the Steward.
When Faramir returns from Osgiliath, wounded and near-death, our wise Steward is finally broken beyond repair. All is lost: his City, his line, his family. Imrahil assumes command of the city, and Denethor sits in the House of the Stewards on Silent Street with Faramir awaiting the End.
“Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. No tomb for Denethor and Faramir! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn! “
On his pagan pyre, Denethor will burn his son and, with Faramir, himself. All that saves the Captain of Gondor is the bold treason of Beregond, swift feet of Pippin, and timely aid of Gandalf. But while the Wizard arrives just in time to retrieve Faramir from the deadly house, he is too late for Denethor. Holding the glowing palantír aloft with his wild eyes gleaming, Denethor shares the final foresight which has finished his mind: a “fleet with black sails” now wafting on the winds up the Anduin.
So Sauron’s lies claim one more victim.
“Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze, he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.”
The ships are coming, yes, but they don’t bear the Umbar pirates and the end of the West, but that stranger from the North, Thorongil, now revealed in majesty as Aragorn with the Grey Company at his command, and many men of the Outlands besides. After the battle, though the new King is come, Aragorn wants things done properly and Faramir is appointed to serve as the Steward of Gondor. In the end, when the War is over and Aragorn is officially coronated, Faramir retains the title of Steward. He is, however, no longer the “Ruling Steward”. He adds to his new title another, “Prince of Ithilien”, and so ends the governance of the heirs of Mardil who had cared for Gondor for thousands of years.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
Personally, I love, love, love, love, when we have the “old” and “young” version of characters! We first saw this with Théoden King. His Tactics version is a young, vibrant Marshal, defending the Mark. His Spirit, “Santa Claus” edition shows the older ruler at the time of the War of the Ring. So it is with Denethor.
Joshua Cairós has shown us a proud, fit, but old Denethor in this new edition. The throne is behind him, purpose it is in his eyes, but he is tired. I love it.
Mr. Cairós says he has more Lord of the Rings pieces coming for us from FFG. We’ve already seen his work on another card in this same pack, Heed the Dream, featuring Denethor’s son Boromir approaching the Council of Rivendell. He has also done a number of cards for Game of Thrones for FFG as well as some Star Wars art. To check out these and more of Mr. Cairós’s work, head over to his DeviantArt page now!
Denthor has been represented many different times and many different ways throughout the years. John Noble has etched a particular image of him in our minds. I find that his performance was stellar, his voice and delivery perfect, but his look is, of course, off. Théoden and Denethor were both old men during the War, but I suppose middle aged men make for better warrior-types on screen. Nobody can eat a cherry tomato better than John Noble though.
His age was, perhaps, overemphasized in the 1980 Return of the King cartoon. He looks more like the Dungeon Master from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon than a strong, older ruler.
Finally is my favorite, The Pyre of Denethor by Anke Eißmann. It feels like a John Howe painting, but with more of a medievalist approach, even if Denethor is a bit young-looking. Perhaps the gift of long life hadn’t dwindled so much after all!
DISCUSS THE CARDS
The new Denethor is all about resources, and rightly so! The Steward should have many resources at his disposal, and the Leadership “faction” of the Gondor trait has been about resource manipulation since the Heirs of Númenor box. This is reflected in both his Setup ability, and his Action.
In an effort to promote the new(ish) RingsDB.com, and to spare you my lackluster deck-building, I present a deck that is both thematic and indicative of the power of the new Denethor.
In the Service of the Steward was made by the great stokesbooks and features everything you want from a thematic Gondor deck: lots of soldiers flooding the board, resource manipulation, and all the trimmings. I will digress and let you read more about the deck by clicking the image above!
Denethor remains a fixture in our game, as he should. He was one of the last, great Men of his age, succeeded only by his equally able sons and the legendary Aragorn. I look forward to many more games with the Steward on my side!