The Pyre of Denethor
The battle has already been won: the Rohirrim and Aragorn have come, the Witch-King vanquished, and the opposing forces driven from the field. Yet within the walls of Minas Tirith, the work of the enemy remains active and potent: “friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.” The work of the enemy is “madness and evil,” turning soldier against soldier and rending the hearts of men between conscience and authority, virtue and temptation. Pride, suspicion, despair, and fear fester in foul counsels, making “the Enemy’s victory certain indeed” if heeded, evoking “grief and horror.” The might and strength of the arms and hordes of the darkness pales in comparison to the terror, the division, the corruption that the work of the enemy cultivates in the hearts and souls of the good.
The questions of betrayal and loyalty dwell throughout The Lord of the Rings: the growing anxieties of Boromir, the poignant treachery of Saruman, the faithless chaos of orc interactions, to brief consider merely a few. The reach of the enemy has grown long indeed, but in its wake it leaves complicated questions and contexts. Denethor’s hamartia was his pride, but he nevertheless had strength of will and wisdom for long years to resist the strength of Sauron. The servants of the Steward, bringing wood and oil to their lord, were “just following orders” – can we judge for sure they knew his purpose? And most challenging of all is the case of Beregond, traitorous and loyal simultaneously, abandoning his post for the greater goods, disobeying orders for the sake of preserving innocent life, though slaying other life in the process. Sauron’s presence is certainly felt in the houses of the dead, but how much responsibility does Beregond carry for the disharmony? Can the nobleness of his intentions and the ramifications of his actions outweigh his guilt and his rue?
The lasting perversion of the work of the enemy make such considerations challenging. On the one hand, we recall (as Socrates claimed) that it is never right to do wrong, that the path to hell is paved in good intentions, that we are seek to be as perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. On the other hand, we recognize (as Socrates also claimed) that we are people of ignorance, that God writes straight with crooked lines, that only he who has not sinned is commanded to cast the first stones. It is dangerous to fall into pure utilitarianism, and simply measure the pain inflicted on the benefits gained; it is dangerous to make our hearts as stone, to show no mercy or understanding of the intentions and actions of others. There is a balance to strike and a need for complexity, and yet a desire for clarity and wisdom.
Yet, balance need not be held in contrast with clarity. Well-developed conscience can discern right and wrong; well-developed virtue can readily chose the better path. All acts will have their consequences, even those undesired: but a willingness to accept such consequences lends itself to the case for the choice. Beregond is willing to accept exile, even death, to save the life of his lord; yet ultimately only the judgement of the king can absolve his guilt. Hence the value of confession and reconciliation in counteracting the work of the enemy.
Betrayal and loyalty, treachery and chaos: the work of the enemy is crafty and pervasive. The only defense against it is to embrace those things it would undermine: loyalty and friendship, conscience and forgiveness. We must remain wary and vigilant of the disquiet of hearts, so that even in our madness we might be like Beregond and not Denethor: humble and not proud, and loyal in the end to the highest of things.
2015’s Reflection: “On Agony”