As Sauron’s vast orc army faces off against a shaky coalition of human nations in the most consequential battle of the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Lord Denethor II burrows himself deep within the burial grounds of the mountainside city of Minas Tirith. Portrayed chillingly by Fringe actor John Noble, the ruler of the declining and king-less nation of Gondor abdicates his role mid-conflict and prepares both he and his definitely-not-dead son for self immolation.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
“Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must,” he mutters. In the book, his dialogue expands the vision behind this rhetoric: “Soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.” In the film and in the book, he encourages Pippin to piss off and die in whatever way seems best to him.
The Steward’s submission offers a textbook guide for What Not To Do in a Siege, but the tragedy of Denethor transposes well onto modern conditions. Considered today, the arc gives us an operatic and useful glimpse into the social-media-driven Doomer movement: a millions-strong cohort driven by current-event horrors to believe that humanity is, uh, irrevocably doomed. The Steward of Gondor shows us that despair can be even more destructive than apathy.
All shall soon be ended
Denethor’s personal rationale is simple: The fight is doomed, evil will win, and survivors will endure worse than the slain. Aside from the death of his beloved son Boromir, the movie doesn’t make explicit the reasons behind Denethor’s macabre jadedness, but the book offers a critical revelation: Denethor, using a palantir, has seen visions manipulated by Sauron that compel him to despair and hopelessness. Imagine Frodo’s vision in the Fellowship Of The Ring, in which the Shire is burned and the hobbits enslaved and tortured — but that it was available for Denethor to gaze at whenever he felt compelled.
Where Denethor was a man overcome with dread, the doomer movement — referred to or described as being “doompilled” — is one fueled by social media feeds filled with global horrors and news reports on the climate crisis rather than a magical speaking-stone. The core belief is that since humans have irreparably damaged the earth, our lives will continue to get worse and worse until an extinction event mercifully wipes us out.
It’s a legible response: White supremacist extraction capitalism had already battered the globe before a pandemic arrived to exacerbate its worst tendencies. With many countries stumbling toward third wave case counts and deaths, and most of us forced to continue to work while foregoing personal care and pleasure, it’s easy to see why folks are being doompilled even with mass vaccination on the horizon and record levels of concern on climate change.
But Denethor was ultimately wrong in his suggestions, and his death (and attempted murder of his son) was in vain. His commitment to despair and rejection of hope exacerbated his community’s situation and harmed his comrades. So what can we and doomers, grappling with the twin-engine churning of late stage capitalism and imperialism under the shrouds of a global pandemic and climate crisis, learn from Denethor’s downfall?
Despair, or folly?
In his book The New Climate War, Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Centre, quips that at least in the film adaption of Return Of The King, Gandalf was present to crack Denethor in the face and halt his campaign of surrender. (Later, Shadowfax boxes him up pretty good, too.) “Sometimes I feel that way about doomists who advocate surrender in the battle to avert catastrophic climate change,” he writes.
Mann argues that the ‘too late, we’re screwed’ rhetoric has been co-opted by extraction industries to continue their work unhindered, and that we have an obligation to rail against the “doom and gloom that we increasingly encounter in today’s climate discourse.” The central problem, Mann says, is that “Doomism and the loss of hope can lead people down the very same path of inaction as outright denial.”
Mann cites research backing up his claim that fear doesn’t motivate people to action, while worry, interest, and hope — a supporting cast of Tolkien motifs — reliably do. Quoting University of Colorado’s Max Boykoff, he reminds readers that “if there isn’t some semblance of hope or ways people can change the current state of affairs, people feel less motivated to try to address the problems.”
But how and why did Tolkien write Denethor 75 years ago as an impossible pessimist set against an inherently optimistic tale? “Denethor is the essential despair figure in this story of people refusing despair,” says Tolkien expert and author John Garth, likening him to Boromir’s succumbing to temptation amid refusals to do so. “The whole story would not work without that.”
As Garth explains, pieces from the author’s past can help illuminate Denethor’s tragic arc. The Tolkien expert and author says that Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth book series evidences when Tolkien wrote certain passages. The character of Denethor emerged during the Second World War, when two of Tolkien’s sons were involved with the British military. The death of Boromir was written in 1942, and Frodo’s rendezvous with Faramir was written in 1944. According to Christopher, his father finally wrote Denethor’s plot in 1946. By then, he’d consoled and mourned with the parents of two of his closest friends killed in World War I, and fretted over his own sons’ possible deaths.
“He was really intimate with these experiences of parental loss or fear of loss on a personal level and as an observer of friends’ parents,” says Garth. Set against a backdrop of potential fascist invasion, these experiences were likely to have coalesced into the sort of intense melancholy that characterize Denethor. “Coming up with these ideas in the middle of the Second World War when there was no obvious victory on the horizon, it was obviously an intensely felt process, a working out of anxieties and convictions.”
Garth says that Denethor’s connection to 21st century doomers can also be read through Tolkien’s environmental bent. “It’s not just a war,” Garth says of Lord Of The Rings. “It’s about the earth being under threat of complete destruction by industrialists.” Garth notes that even though Tolkien was believed to have hated allegory, the symbolism of an older man’s despair causing him to betray his own child is also pertinent given the generational implications of boomers legislating certain disaster for the future.
The Denethor of Jackson’s Return Of The King is a relatively nuance-free character, a miserable, hapless prick rather than a respected, prestigious leader. Tolkien fans have taken issue with Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh’s interpretation of Denethor; a 2003 review of the movie called it a “caricature” of “a snarling and drooling oaf rather than a noble pessimist.”
But faithful or not, the film’s Denethor has become one of the trilogy’s most enduring pop culture phenomena. To prepare for the part, actor John Noble has said he immersed himself in Denethor’s circumstance: “I did understand everything, everything about him, how he got where he was,” said Noble. “It required quite a bit of research, a bit of understanding about the human psyche, the human condition.”
Even Denethor’s manic munching was a considered piece of a human teetering on the abyss’ edge. “That’s what that was — obsessive eating,” Noble said. “That’s sad. Again, if you’re looking at where the character would be at that point, that’s what you do. That’s what he did.” Reflecting later on his turn as Denethor, John Noble has expressed empathy for his character: “This depression, an abject depression, can happen to people — we know this,” he told an interviewer. “Basically he lost faith and hope.”
Garth admits he sometimes considers whether Denethor’s worldview is indeed correct. “I’ve often wondered why it is that we have stories that have happy endings and uplifting moments. Is it an abdication of realism?” says Garth. “But no, I think that it’s really bound up with the human spirit, and what the human spirit requires for its survival.”
The problem with Denethor’s doomism and the contemporary doompill movement is the community impact of their myopia. It is a very real and legitimate thing to be terrified to the climate crisis, but recoiling into inaction — especially for white North Americans and Europeans who exist and wield power in arguably the most impactful parts of the world — is consequential for all, and disproportionately so for people in poor countries most likely to feel the effects of the climate crisis hardest and fastest. Even the most striking of arguments in favor of stepping back from the fray, like Jenny Odell’s smash 2019 book How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, advocate not for total disengagement, but for rationing our engagement according to what is most important.
As climate crises close in and the pandemic continues to keep us apart, the doomer movement has as much reason as ever to despair. Denethor shows us why we can’t afford that, and why we must organize against it to work toward solidarity, care, and hope, even in the harshest of conditions. Gandalf wasn’t able to stop Denethor in the end, but his pleas to the steward are still instructive: “You think, as is your wont, my lord, of Gondor only. Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be.”