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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
The Pyre of Denethor 1: Fire

Menelwyn
Rohan


Oct 13 2008, 9:35pm

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The Pyre of Denethor 1: Fire Can't Post

First, apologies for the slight delay in getting things started this week. I've been out of town and out of internet connection for the last four days! Anyway, here we go.

Welcome to this week’s discussion of The Pyre of Denethor. I’ve decided to take a thematic approach to the chapter, beginning with some prominent images that occur in the chapter.

The first image that I want to address is a fairly obvious one, fire. I counted at least 25 references in this chapter to fire, flames, burning, and similar things. The first of these is, of course, the pyre of the chapter title.

Is the pyre in the chapter title more than a literal reference to the way Denethor dies?

Denethor seems to use the language of burning as his image of the way that everything in his world will end. Describing the situation to Gandalf, Pippin reports that Denethor “says we are all to burn.” Later, Denethor says, “But soon all shall be burned…. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.”

Why is Denethor fixated on this particular image for the end of “all”?

We have often noted lights in the eyes of various characters. Denethor too has a light in his eyes, which is clearly described as the light of a fire. The first time we see him in the chapter, “a light like fire was in his eyes.” Moments later, when Faramir calls on his father, “the flame died in his eyes.” When Gandalf tells Denethor that he at least should not kill Faramir along with himself, “Denethor’s eyes flamed again.” It may also be relevant to this point that, when showing the palantir, Denethor’s face “was lit as with a red fire” and “his eyes glittered.”

Discuss the light in Denethor’s eyes. How does it compare with the lights we see in the eyes of other characters? What is the significance of its appearing and disappearing? Why does some of this seem to be triggered by Faramir?

The palantir itself shows images of fire. “The globe began to glow with an inner flame.” The final image that the palantir is able to show is “two aged hands withering in flame.” And Beregond tells of a “strange light” from a room in the Tower that is apparently from when Denethor was using the palantir.

Why is this palantir so associated with fire? If it is due to Sauron, would other palantiri (e.g. Saruman’s) also show this kind of fire? Why does the palantir retain the final image of Denethor’s hands in the fire?

Certain symbols of the House of Stewards go up in flames. Denethor breaks the staff of the stewardship and burns it on his pyre. Later, the building that houses the tombs of the Stewards also is destroyed in the fire with Denethor.

We know that the House of Stewards is ending, so it is perhaps not inappropriate that symbols of it are destroyed. But why do they need to burn with Denethor? And a random question: Faramir has a Steward’s staff on the day of Aragorn’s coronation. Did they have a spare sitting around, or did they make a new one in the intervening days?

Tolkien personifies the fire of Denethor’s pyre. “Those outside heard the greedy roaring of the fire within,” and “the flames danced…among the ruins” of the Stewards’ tomb. Why the personification?

The last sentence of the chapter contains the phrase “and all the fires sank.” What’s going on there? Is it at all significant that this occurs in a grey rain brought by the wind?


Elros
Rivendell


Oct 13 2008, 11:28pm

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My thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

Is the pyre in the chapter title more than a literal reference to the way Denethor dies? I think so. Fire is associated with hell or damnation, which seems to be what Denethor is comdemning himself and Faramir to. Also, when well laid plans go awry, they are said to go 'up in smoke'. I think that saying is appropriate to describe the intentions of Denethor as Steward.

Why is Denethor fixated on this particular image for the end of “all”? Denethor thinks Sauron is going to win and unleash a Hell on Middle Earth. Whether or not Gondorians believed in Hell is uncertain, but Tolkien certainly did.

Discuss the light in Denethor’s eyes. How does it compare with the lights we see in the eyes of other characters? What is the significance of its appearing and disappearing? Why does some of this seem to be triggered by Faramir? A twinkle in one's eye is usually associated with hope or determination, yet with Denethor the opposite is true. His eyes burn with the flame of despair and defeat. The flame of despair waned in his eyes and briefly turned to hope upon hearing the voice of his only surviving son. Unfortunately for Denethor his mind is too far gone. His hope quickly dissipates and returns to despair and anger when he hears the Wizard pleaing for the life of his pupil.

Why is this palantir so associated with fire? If it is due to Sauron, would other palantiri (e.g. Saruman’s) also show this kind of fire? Why does the palantir retain the final image of Denethor’s hands in the fire? I had always associated with Sauron, so yes Saruman's communications with Sauron would look very similar to what Beregond described.


We know that the House of Stewards is ending, so it is perhaps not inappropriate that symbols of it are destroyed. But why do they need to burn with Denethor? Symbolism

And a random question: Faramir has a Steward’s staff on the day of Aragorn’s coronation. Did they have a spare sitting around, or did they make a new one in the intervening days?
I would like to believe they made a new staff for Faramir. I think the Ruling Stewards of the Third Age are utterly and completely a thing of the past, and a new Steward's staff for the Fourth Age is appropriate.


Ataahua
Superuser / Moderator


Oct 14 2008, 12:10am

Post #3 of 11 (499 views)
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Seeing the world through flame-tinted glasses [In reply to] Can't Post

Is the pyre in the chapter title more than a literal reference to the way Denethor dies?
I always thought the title was literal, but you could say that with his last actions Denethor also brings the end to the world of Stewards. Of course he sees endings as being catastrophic (unsurprisingly when one of the ‘endings’ before him is the destruction of Gondor at the hands of Sauron’s Orcs), but we see that you can’t have a beginning without an ending – in this case, the beginning of the new rule of Kings in Gondor.

Why is Denethor fixated on this particular image for the end of “all”?
Sauron has showed Denethor a highly edited view of what is happening in Mordor and elsewhere, enabling Denethor to make the worst possible conclusions. In effect, he’s seeing the world through Sauron’s eye – a lidless eye, wreathed in flames. Maybe that influence can be seen as an infection of the mind, and – poetically – Denethor’s looking on the world through Sauron’s flaming Eye.

Why is this palantir so associated with fire?
Poetic license – fire ends everything, and the start of the Fourth Age is also the end of Elves, Istari and Dark Lords in Middle-earth. We’re moving from a time of magic and immortality to the strength of Men, where items such as palantiri will have no place.

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded b*****d with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.


Ataahua's stories


batik
Tol Eressea


Oct 14 2008, 2:05am

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So passes Denethor, ... [In reply to] Can't Post

Is the pyre in the chapter title more than a literal reference to the way Denethor dies?
I say, yes. Denethor's pyre was created by more than wood and oil-- his attempt to see/know more than he was capable of handling, his abandoning hope, his refusal (inability?) to accept change, his bitterness, his arrogance were all involved in his being consumed.

Why is Denethor fixated on this particular image for the end of “all”?
Two thoughts on this. Either his arrogance has lead him to believe that if he goes, everything goes. Or the imagines from the palantir are *burned* into his mind-he truly believes the world as he knows it will be burnt away.

Discuss the light in Denethor’s eyes. How does it compare with the lights we see in the eyes of other characters? What is the significance of its appearing and disappearing? Why does some of this seem to be triggered by Faramir?
This saddens me--witnessing Denethor's final (emotional) struggle between rational and irrational thinking. That struggle, I think, accounts for the light appearing and disappearing. Tolkien's words-"...and he wept, and he said: Do not take my son from me!" and "...looking with longing...he wavered." Straight to my heart. That so goes against what I offered about Denethor in a previous question but that's the beauty of the story-we can see the layers of these characters!

Why is this palantir so associated with fire? If it is due to Sauron, would other palantiri (e.g. Saruman’s) also show this kind of fire? Why does the palantir retain the final image of Denethor’s hands in the fire?
I am not very in the know about this but am sure the Palantir (see, what's the proper plural form for Palantir?) were not created to be associated with fire. I can only guess that somehow they have been tainted by ill use. As for why the hands in the fire image is retained--a memorial? a warning?

We know that the House of Stewards is ending, so it is perhaps not inappropriate that symbols of it are destroyed. But why do they need to burn with Denethor? And a random question: Faramir has a Steward’s staff on the day of Aragorn’s coronation. Did they have a spare sitting around, or did they make a new one in the intervening days?
I suppose the staff was Denethor's most tangible object of authority and he was not leaving it *behind*. A gesture on his part.
It's not impossible to think there was another staff somewhere in Minas Tirith but would like to think one was made for Faramir and the occassion.

The last sentence of the chapter contains the phrase “and all the fires sank.” What’s going on there? Is it at all significant that this occurs in a grey rain brought by the wind?
A crisis has passed, the threat of *all* being consumed is being washed away.



Elizabeth
Valinor


Oct 14 2008, 2:16am

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Cleansing fire [In reply to] Can't Post

Many societies prefer to cremate the dead because fire is considered cleansing, preferable to alternative forms of decomposition. The cleansing aspect was also the reason (or justification) for burning heretics and witches.

When we last saw Denethor, I observed

Quote
If it is indeed true that "all is lost" and the city is about to fall to the hordes of orcs and other undesirables thronging the walls, with Sauron poised to assume control of Middle Earth, is dying sooner rather than later so irrational? The orcs have been catapulting heads into the city; how many imaginative ways do you suppose they have of despoiling the bodies of the Steward and his heir? Might an honorable funeral pyre indeed be a better option?


The city is now burning, and no relief is in sight (we've moved back in time: the Rohirrim are just arriving, but Denethor doesn't know that), Sauron has shown Denethor the massive extent of the forces arrayed against him (including the Corsairs -- Sauron probably doesn't know about Aragorn & The Dead). Above all, Denethor is consumed (another 'fire' image) by guilt over the circumstances surrounding his parting with Faramir, and he's fully accepting responsibility for losing both sons (as he sees it). In his madness, he probably senses a need for cleansing.





The Rohirrim, by Peter Xavier Price

Elizabeth is the TORnsib formerly known as 'erather'


Dreamdeer
Valinor


Oct 14 2008, 8:19pm

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PTSD [In reply to] Can't Post


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Why does the palantir retain the final image of Denethor’s hands in the fire?




In Middle Earth everything partakes of some degree of sentience. The One Ring seduces, Turin's sword speaks, stones in Mordor listen in shock to laughter, and traumatized land will not grow grass. This holds true for the palantir as well, especially since it carries so much magic. It suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so cannot stop obsessing on the horrifying image locked in its memory. That final, tragic image of Denethor's hands burning while still holding it has become the metaphor and climax for the entire hideous experience of becoming enslaved to Sauron's will, of being forced to slowly destroy a good man, and ultimately become an unwilling party and closest witness to an excrutiatingly painful suicide.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Darkstone
Immortal


Oct 15 2008, 8:06pm

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"But the old man would not so, but slew his son..." [In reply to] Can't Post

2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered […..]
3 His life appeared of no value to [him...]
5 And Babylonian speaks bad counsel to Evil-merodach […..]
6 Then he gave an entirely different order but [………]
7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tiers……]
11 He does not show love to son and daughter […..]
12 …family and clan do not exist [………]

-Clay tablet fragment, item no. BM 34113 (sp 213) in the British Museum.

(BTW, Evil-merodach was Nebuchadnezzar’s first-born.)


Is the pyre in the chapter title more than a literal reference to the way Denethor dies?

I think it’s one of Tolkien’s little philological jokes. It seems to be a veiled reference to “The Furnace of Nebuchadnezzar”. Nebuchadnezzar, or Nebuchadrezzar, or Nabuchodonosor, or anything within reason, is a corruption of the original Babylonian, “Nabu-kudurri-usur”, translated as "O Nebo, defend my rule", which of course would be quite appropriate for Denethor. So would Faramir be Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego?


Denethor seems to use the language of burning as his image of the way that everything in his world will end. Describing the situation to Gandalf, Pippin reports that Denethor “says we are all to burn.” Later, Denethor says, “But soon all shall be burned…. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.”

Why is Denethor fixated on this particular image for the end of “all”?


It does seem related to Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, which involved a dying white tree, which Daniel prophesied as a warning about his pride, which God punished by making him mad.


Discuss the light in Denethor’s eyes.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword:
-Revelation 1:14-16


How does it compare with the lights we see in the eyes of other characters? What is the significance of its appearing and disappearing? Why does some of this seem to be triggered by Faramir?

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
-Genesis 22:5


And Beregond tells of a “strange light” from a room in the Tower that is apparently from when Denethor was using the palantir.

Sounds like the weird light people saw when the disciples were celebrating Pentecost up on the second floor.


Why is this palantir so associated with fire? If it is due to Sauron, would other palantiri (e.g. Saruman’s) also show this kind of fire? Why does the palantir retain the final image of Denethor’s hands in the fire?

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

- Wilfred Owen, The Parable of the Old Man and the
Young (1920)

Owen’s famous poem, a parable for WWI, was later integrated into The War Requiem, the famous reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. Interestingly, Sean Bean played in the 1988 movie version. Very highly recommended.


We know that the House of Stewards is ending, so it is perhaps not inappropriate that symbols of it are destroyed. But why do they need to burn with Denethor?

It’s almost like the burning of ballots and notes during the selection of a new pope, who is also a Steward.


And a random question: Faramir has a Steward’s staff on the day of Aragorn’s coronation. Did they have a spare sitting around, or did they make a new one in the intervening days?

Same place Gandalf gets his replacement staffs.


Tolkien personifies the fire of Denethor’s pyre. “Those outside heard the greedy roaring of the fire within,” and “the flames danced…among the ruins” of the Stewards’ tomb. Why the personification?

Almost sounds like all the consternation caused by the disciples at Pentecost.


The last sentence of the chapter contains the phrase “and all the fires sank.” What’s going on there? Is it at all significant that this occurs in a grey rain brought by the wind?

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
-Acts2:1-4

Again we have a little philological joke here. In original Hebrew, “Rushing Mighty Wind”, is a pun on the phrase “Spirit of God”.

Anyway, everyone in town saw the lights up on the second floor and wondered what the heck the disciples were all up to. One consensus was that “These men are full of new wine.” (Acts 2:13)

******************************************
The audacious proposal stirred his heart. And the stirring became a song, and it mingled with the songs of Gil-galad and Celebrian, and with those of Feanor and Fingon. The song-weaving created a larger song, and then another, until suddenly it was as if a long forgotten memory woke and for one breathtaking moment the Music of the Ainur revealed itself in all glory. He opened his lips to sing and share this song. Then he realized that the others would not understand. Not even Mithrandir given his current state of mind. So he smiled and simply said "A diversion.”



Laerasëa
Tol Eressea


Oct 15 2008, 11:28pm

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Interesting points- [In reply to] Can't Post

The palantir has given Denethor an illusion of despair and hopelessness; could it also have given him some sort of illusion of omniscience? It's interesting, though, because to be as certain as he is of Man's fate, you would think that he believes himself to be more powerful than he does (I mean, what sets him apart from other characters is his strong faith in the fact that neither he nor anyone else has power over their fate...for other characters, strong faith would be a kind of enabling trait, if that makes sense).

I guess like you said, he's seeing himself as Sauron sees him, without realizing it.


As for the fire...I guess it's true that fire both ends and begins things. It's kind of like how a forest fire sometimes helps forests flourish (it helps bring up nutrients in the soil or something like that). Denethor's death, however horrific, was very convenient for Gandalf and Aragorn (and therefore the line of kings of Gondor).

The palatir and the fire I think are the most related due to their aptitude for destruction/corruption. The palantir consumes Denethor until his hope and sanity is entirely burned away, and it leads him to his own death- in a pyre. Fire in this chapter seems to be both contagious and addictive- and Denethor takes the palantir with him to his firey death.

Edit: on a related note, I'd say that that's also why the palantir keeps the image of Denethor's hands- because Denethor had been consumed so much by the palantir that he had, in a sense, become a part of it. If fire is fueled by what it burns- and the palantir is supposed to represent fire somehow, then Denethor would have been the palantir's fuel: what the palantir (/Sauron through the palantir) had control over. In order for the palantir to have any power (or in order for Sauron to have power through the palantir), someone has to use it- and therefore "fuel" it. Denethor did just that, and in doing so, maybe he kind of became a part of the palantir?

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(This post was edited by Laerasëa on Oct 15 2008, 11:37pm)


squire
Valinor


Oct 17 2008, 1:42am

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The power of fire [In reply to] Can't Post

You make an excellent presentation on Tolkien's use of flame and fire imagery to depict Denethor's downfall in this chapter.

I couldn't help but remember that Gandalf also has associations with fire, starting with his fireworks, and ending (after the writing was mostly over) with the revelation that he bore the third Elven ring, whose element was Fire, which he used to light the fire of courage in the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.

This aspect of Gandalf does not come up here, probably because it would have inappropriately mixed the metaphor. When Gandalf arrives in Denethor's crypt, his anger is not like a flame, but like a white light - Gandalf's other spiritual attribute, which receives much more emphasis during this entire phase of the War of the Ring.

We've discussed Tolkien's ambivalence about flame and fire before. Fire is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Positive examples include the various campfires that hold off the darkness (remember the one that leads a tree of Fangorn to warm itself, although the forest hates Saruman for his rapacious cutting for fuel!); the warmth of lamplight seen in the distance at dusk after a long hike; Aragorn's use of firebrands to ward off the Nazgul - they use fire, but they do not love it, what did that mean exactly?; its use in cooking, as witness Gollum's pathological fear of flame and distaste for cooked food; and as mentioned before, Gandalf's fireworks.

Given all this positive imagery, it is interesting to see how evil fire has become in this chapter, both in Denethor's self-imagery and its reflection in the burning of the city.

Couldn't Gandalf, if he had chosen, have extinguished the torches that Denethor's servants had brought and that Denethor used to immolate himself? It would certainly seem to have been within his power, since he did something similar in the goblin cave in The Hobbit.



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N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


Oct 20 2008, 5:59pm

Post #10 of 11 (404 views)
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Gandalf and goblin-fire. [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
Couldn't Gandalf, if he had chosen, have extinguished the torches that Denethor's servants had brought and that Denethor used to immolate himself? It would certainly seem to have been within his power, since he did something similar in the goblin cave in The Hobbit.


Good point! But then why was he unable to put out the fires from the tree-tops two chapters later in that book?

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>
We're discussing The Lord of the Rings in the Reading Room, Oct. 15, 2007 - Mar. 22, 2009!

Join us Oct. 20-26 for "The Houses of Healing".

****************************************
And we're discussing Tolkien's classic essay, "On Fairy-stories", Oct. 20-Nov. 30. This week:

"The definition of a fairy-story – what it is, or what it should be – does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country."

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N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


Oct 20 2008, 6:05pm

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"Naur an edraith ammen!" [In reply to] Can't Post

Some parallel language in these two passages:


Quote
Swiftly he snatched a torch from the hand of one and sprang back into the house. Before Gandalf could hinder him he thrust the brand amid the fuel, and at once it crackled and roared into flame.




Quote
Picking up a faggot he held it aloft for a moment, and then with a word of command, naur an edraith ammen! he thrust the end of his staff into the midst of it. At once a great spout of green and blue flame sprang out, and the wood flared and sputtered.


<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>
We're discussing The Lord of the Rings in the Reading Room, Oct. 15, 2007 - Mar. 22, 2009!

Join us Oct. 20-26 for "The Houses of Healing".

****************************************
And we're discussing Tolkien's classic essay, "On Fairy-stories", Oct. 20-Nov. 30. This week:

"The definition of a fairy-story – what it is, or what it should be – does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country."

+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=
How to find old Reading Room discussions.

 
 

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