“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life . . . and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”
Denethor speaks this plea in the moments before he places himself on the burning pyre in Book V, Chapter 7. In this quotation, Denethor’s tragic error appears obvious—he is overly fixated with power. On the whole, however, Denethor’s descent into madness is subtle, and his personal struggle with evil transcends the simpler distinctions—black against white, East against West, evil against good—that abound in The Return of the King. All told, Denethor wants honor and prosperity for Minas Tirith and for Gondor. He wrongly assumes that he himself must have complete power to accomplish such goals. Denethor could rightly sit in the throne of Gondor, fulfilling his interim duties as Steward in place of the absent king. Instead, Denethor leaves the throne empty, and his self-pity leads to the neglect of Minas Tirith that is evident in the city’s decaying walls and vacant homes.
As Gandalf later surmises, Denethor, under the growing pressure of Mordor, has turned to the seeing-stone, or palantír, for power. The palantír itself does not symbolize evil; indeed, Aragorn claims he has wrested control of the palantír and has used it to mislead and discourage Sauron. Rather, the palantír symbolizes knowledge—particularly the ability to construe knowledge for the use of power or manipulation. The distinction between knowledge and wisdom is important: Tolkien implies that knowledge for knowledge’s sake can lead to evil, whereas knowledge tempered with wisdom—awareness of consequences—is more responsible and virtuous. The palantír provides Denethor with access to knowledge, but he does not have the wisdom with which to temper this knowledge and recognize Sauron’s lies. Through the stone, Denethor does not become a servant of evil, but he succumbs to evil lies. The effect of Sauron’s evil on Denethor surfaces in the Steward’s stated belief that “doom denies” him a flourishing lineage. Denethor accepts Sauron’s misleading lie that the coming King of Gondor will necessarily reduce Denethor’s own political authority and restrict the Steward’s personal welfare. Indeed, as we see later in the novel, King Aragorn grants Faramir, the new Steward, continued rule of Minas Tirith. Denethor’s tragic error lies in his belief that such unsolicited acts of goodness can no longer happen in the world of Middle-earth.