“Denethor looked indeed much more like a great Wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older.”
― The Return of the King, Minas Tirith
Denethor II (Third Age 2930 – 3019, aged 89 years) was the twenty-sixth and penultimate Ruling Steward of Gondor. He succeeded his father Ecthelion II at his death in T.A. 2984. Denethor was described as appearing noble and powerful, even to rival the lordliness of Gandalf. He was proud, tall, wise, far-sighted, and valiant; 'more kingly' than any of his predecessors for a long time. He proved a masterful lord and a great ruler, seeing to all things large and small under his command.
Denethor was born the third child and first son of Ecthelion II, Ruling Steward of Gondor, in T.A. 2930.
Denethor was a masterful man, but also a proud one. When a northerner named Thorongil, a year younger, came to Gondor and won Ecthelion's trust and affections, Denethor grew jealous. Thorongil, a war genius and one who looked enough like Ecthelion to be his close kin, won the love of the people, so that Denethor's envy grew. It is possible that he figured out that Thorongil was really Aragorn II, and with Mithrandir wished to supplant him. He was not sorry when Thorongil vanished to the east.
In 2976 he married Finduilas of Dol Amroth, whom he loved deeply, daughter of Prince Adrahil II of Dol Amroth. She gave birth to two sons: Boromir and Faramir. He doted upon his eldest son, Boromir, while Faramir, his second son, with his actions and friendship with Mithrandir, often displeased his father. In the mean time, he studied the lore of Gondor, including the archives that only he and his father could access. Part of his studies were devoted to the lore of the palantíri.
Eight years after his marriage, Ecthelion died and Denethor became Ruling Steward. Denethor was not viewed very highly in the eyes of his people in comparison to Thorongil, and moreover there were already dark rumors of power rising in the east. For these reasons, Denethor looked into the long-forbidden Anor-stone, seeking to surpass Thorongil and Gandalf in wisdom, and to keep an eye on them. Because of the manner of his viewing, he was greatly strained and aged prematurely.
Only four years after the death of Ecthelion, Finduilas died as well. Denethor was grief-stricken, and became more grim and silent.
The palantír showed him much of what he wanted to see, and his knowledge grew exceedingly, so that he was wondered at by the people. But eventually Sauron, looking into the captured Ithil-stone, discovered that Denethor was using the palantír. Sauron attempted to wrench the Anor stone to his will, but failed due to Denethor's strength of will, his integrity, and his right to the use of the stone. But this caused even greater stress upon the steward's already weakened body, coupled by the apparent invincibility of Sauron shown him by the stone. Denethor, meanwhile, looked not only at Mordor, but also probably to Saruman, and extracted information from the wizard to his benefit, which Sauron was helpless to prevent.
He became blind to all struggles save that of him and Sauron, his people and Sauron's Orcs. He mistrusted all others who resisted Sauron but were not under his own rule. He wore mail under his robes, to prevent himself from getting soft in his old age.
Faramir, his youngest, began to have dreams, speaking of Imladris and Isildur's Bane. Boromir convinced his father to send him, instead of his brother and in the end Denethor gave in. Boromir did not return from his quest; he was shot by Uruk-hai on Amon Hen and Faramir and Denethor both heard the horn of Gondor, several days later his horn was found cloven in two, and was found by watchers below the Entwash, and brought to Denethor. Denethor, desperate for the death of his Heir, looked in the Palantir more often than he usual and so it grew his despair.
Knowing of the coming stroke of Mordor, Denethor called in the Captains of the Outlands to defend Minas Tirith. Nazgûl began to fly over the city, out of view but still casting shadows of fear.
Thirteen days after Boromir's death, Mithrandir arrived with the hobbit Peregrin Took. Denethor openly vented his rage at first, but at the same time was curiously attracted to the hobbit, a witness of his son's death, questioning him closely and suspiciously. When Peregrin offered his service in return for Boromir's sacrifice, Denethor was pleased and amused. After examining Pippin's barrow-blade, he accepted the hobbit's service courteously. He then confronted Gandalf. While they supped, Gandalf told of the fall of Isengard. Denethor hinted at his own abilities to see what happened in the world. He racked the hobbit with questions for an hour, and then gave his guests lodging.
Siege of Gondor
“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!”
― Denethor II
Soon after the Rammas was surrounded and Gondor placed under siege. Faramir returned from errands in Ithilien, and told the story of his encounter with Frodo Baggins, two days before, and of his journey to Cirith Ungol. At the name of this place, Gandalf himself seems to be extremely uneasy. A discussion on the matter followed between Denethor, Gandalf, and Faramir, in which Denethor revealed he had guessed more than was said by his son. He noticed that Faramir had looked at Mithrandir to understand if he was saying too much. Denethor knew about the Ring and he was aware of Frodo's mission. He accused Faramir of condemning his people to certain death and he told Gandalf that on this matter he would have decided to hide the Ring. Not to use it or to destroy it, but to hide it.
Noticing his son's weariness, Denethor allowed Faramir to rest for the night.
Denethor never said explicitly that he would have liked for Boromir to live and Faramir to die: when asked by Faramir, he said that he would have liked for their places to be exchanged, as if Boromir was in Ithilien he would have brought him a mighty gift (the Ring).
In a council held the next day, Faramir was sent to strengthen the garrison of Osgiliath. The decision was not taken by Denethor himself, but by the Council, lead by Denethor but to which Faramir took part, agreeing in the end with his father's will.
Faramir recovered the lost ground all the way back to the Anduin, but soon faced fresh troops from Minas Morgul and Harad, led by the Witch-king, a master strategist and one of terrible presence. Faramir was driven back to the Causeway Forts, but these fell, and Faramir was forced to retreat, having lost a third of his men. The retreat was dogged by the Nazgûl, and Faramir was wounded almost to the death by a southern arrow thought to be a poisoned dart.
After Imrahil had brought him the body of Faramir, nearly dead, Denethor gave in to despair and seemed not to be interested into anything but his son's life. While the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields collapsed at many points, he looked into the palantír; he found the Enemy stronger than ever on all fronts and feared that the Ring was in his hands. The sky is black and Frodo has been captured in Mordor.
Denethor suddenly seemed years older, and his will snapped. He abandoned leadership of the city to Gandalf and Imrahil, staying by his son's side in the White Tower, thinking that everything was lost for his family, his city, his people. Rohan had been cut off and could not come to their aid; the first circle was also in flames: this last piece of information was the final trigger for Denethor's suicide.
He prepared a pyre for him and Faramir in Rath Dínen. He was hampered in his aim by Beregond, one of his own Guards of the Citadel, and Gandalf, who removed Faramir from the pyre. When Faramir called his name, Denethor seemed willing to abandon his suicidal designs, but suddenly he raised up the palantír and prophesied the doom of Gondor, acknowledging that a new enemy was about to arrive: the pirates from Umbar. In a final speech to Gandalf, he said that he would have liked for things to be as they had always been in his life: to be a ruling Steward of a free city, ruling in peace and with his sons masters of their own will. But if he had to see his city in the hand of an illegitimate King, and his son turned into the pupil of a wizard, than he preferred to have nothing and to decide how to end his own life. He took the white rod of his office and broke it on his knee, casting it into the flames, symbolizing the end of his stewardship and the end of the rule of the Stewards. He then laid himself down on the table with the palantír on his breast and so perished.
Faramir did survive, and the city did not fall due to the timely appearance of the Rohirrim and the Dúnedain with Aragorn II. Faramir kept the title of Steward, but not of Ruling Steward, for he recognized Aragorn II right to take the throne. Saving Faramir, Eowyn and Merry's life using Athelas, Aragorn II was first acknowledge as the 'King' by the people of Minas Tirith, before he could actually claim the title. Faramir's reaction to his father's death is not recorded, but it is said that the news of his death wasn't given to him, during the first days of his recovery, in order not to grief him.
Denethor was named after the Nandorin chieftain of the First Age. The name is Nandorin fit into the Sindarin sound range, and is said to mean 'Lithe and lank'.