This piece concerning Denethor went from being a short reflection to short essay, as is sometimes the way in these matters.
I'm interested to see if anyone else feels Denethor has saving graces that tend to be overlooked!
Denethor is my choice to begin reflections on 'Stewardship'. Some would say he is an example of one found wanting in the role, but, judged over the course of his long stewardship, I take a more favourable view of his motives and behaviour.
As several Denethors come into the tales, including an Elf, let me make clear the one I write of here is Denethor II, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor in the darkest days of the Third Age.
Denethor's habitual bad press is not unjustified. When the action turns to Sauron's great assault on Minas Tirith, Denethor is seen as wavering, indecisive, grieving inconsolably for the loss of Boromir, and abandoning his responsibility for the defence of the city. When he throws himself in despair on his own pyre, it is clear he has lost all hope not only for himself, but for the descendants of Númenor and the race of Men.
Can anything positive come out of all that? I believe so.
Stewardship, like kingship, is a lonely office. It requires leadership, sound judgement, and the ability to keep both friend and foe in their place. Being aloof is part of the job description. The steward stands vicariously for an absent or incapacitated party, and when the wishes of that party are unclear, or worse still if the return of the latter is problematic or unlikely, great uncertainty arises. [I imagine Popes in particular must struggle, and infallibility only adds to the burden. At least Denethor was free of that particular expectation.]
A steward needs good counsellors and a clear understanding of the requirements of office. Denethor does not appear to have had either. Though born to the office, and in theory awaiting the return of the king, by the late Third Age Denethor could be excused for believing his primary purpose was to repel boarders.
In effect he was in the same category as Ethelred, another leader widely - and wrongly - condemned as weak and vacillating. Like the Wessex king, Denethor was 'redeless', that is, lacking good counsel; and like Ethelred, I see him as being not unprepared for or incapable of the task of ruling, but lacking in people of quality to assist him.
For a long time he had wrestled alone, in secret, with the Dark Lord himself. The palantír would have shown him only disturbing revelations for a considerable time, yet Denethor courageously continued to dare to look in the stone in an effort to confront Sauron and remind him that Gondor still stood proudly and defiantly against Barad-dûr. The mental strain must have been overwhelming, and to continue in this vein for so long is the action of a courageous and vigilant steward. When Aragorn looks in the stone of Orthanc and wrestles in mind with Sauron, he admits his strength was "enough - just". Set this against Denethor's long years of going to the stone and enduring the worst Sauron could reveal to him, and it cannot be said that the Steward of Gondor was feeble of will or lacking in courage of the highest order.
Who could Denethor have taken into his confidence? In whom could he trust? These are the questions on which his stewardship should ultimately be judged.
His wife, whom he had loved dearly, had long since died, leaving him without the precious source of private wisdom, emotional solace, and unwavering loyalty that he had known during their marriage. His mighty son Boromir, always his pride, had been slain, seemingly (to Denethor) in an inglorious escapade unworthy of such a warrior. Faramir, most unfairly, was no substitute in the eyes of his stern father. A leader so isolated from family and friends becomes highly vulnerable, and needs other forms of support all the more.
Wizards were of little assistance. Denethor had good reason to doubt Saruman, and after the treachery of Isengard was fully revealed, Denethor may be said to have reason to doubt even Gandalf, if only by association - and absence. His attitude to the roving Mithrandir can be seen in the dismissive reference to Faramir as "a wizard's pupil". From Denethor's standpoint, no Maia did him any favours.
The Elves appear to have been far from his counsels too. The lack of contact is highlighted when he has to send Boromir on the long and perilous journey to Rivendell. There appears to have been relatively little contact with Elrond, or with Galadriel and Celeborn. These, who could have been so valuable to him, were far removed. Denethor must be held partly accountable for the dearth of contact, which may have been his greatest mistake.
Among Men, in terms of support in arms, Rohan was virtually all that remained. The Dúnedain were too few and far too distant. Denethor could not even be sure Théoden would answer his summons, especially so soon after the desperate victory at Helm's Deep.
In Denethor's mind, Gondor, and he himself, stood alone. He had felt this for a long time, and it is of great importance in assessing his final actions.
There is one further source Denethor might reasonably have expected help from: his king. Denethor was, after all, a King's Steward. He was not able to know fully of Aragorn's status or plans, even though Aragorn had fought for Gondor, albeit in disguise. Could Aragorn have done more to aid his long-serving steward, to inform or counsel him? Denethor's proud bearing would not have made it easy, and he may well have dismissed Aragorn out of hand with the "wizard's pupil" tag.
All these absences of support and missed opportunities to help rendered Denethor's position against the Dark Tower virtually impossible. Only great courage and strength of mind and will could have endured so long in that situation, hence the degree of admiration I feel Denethor is entitled to have.
Certainly Denethor's last days are sad to behold. Peter Jackson was unkind - though entitled, I admit - to portray him as a morose glutton who flees the field before the battle is determined.
Denethor did not prove a good steward at the end, though for long and difficult years he was both a faithful and courageous one. He is worthy of a place in Rath Dínen, the Silent Street, with his forebears in the great office. Though the tomb be empty, the enduring legacy of this lonely steward should be one of honour.