The Pyre of Denethor
What if Denethor had not gone mad with grief and pride? What if Gandalf had not been distracted and needed for the rescue of Faramir from untimely death? What if the White Rider had been able to set forth onto the Fields of Pelennor as he must have originally intended?
It’s an interesting thought experiment: if Mithrandir had not be otherwise preoccupied, would he have confronted the Black Captain before death came to Theoden? Perhaps the King of Rohan would now live, and Merry and Eowyn would not now be at death’s door. For the white against the black had long been prepared, and on multiple occasions Gandalf had reference a great test that awaited him. What more appropriate foe for Gandalf that the Witch King, and even greater terror than the Balrog that Gandalf the Grey once met in Moria.
And yet…what if? Would Gandalf have been able to defeat the Enemy’s chief servant? After all, the prophecy foretold that the wraith would not fall to the hand of any man. Gandalf, though certainly something more than mortal man, appears in the form of one: could he have fulfilled the doom set on the Pelennor Fields? Or would his presence instead have actually distracted and delayed the action of Eowyn and the courage of Merry, preventing them from performing their great defiance? In short, was perhaps the work of the Enemy that held Gandalf back necessary for the triumph that came?
It is hard to say: and even Gandalf seems torn and uncertain as he looks out from the walls, seeing great victories but also great sorrows. Yet we can play the same language game out for any of the events at the Pelennor Fields, any of the circumstances throughout The Lord of the Rings: what if Beregond had not stormed through the porter’s office? What if Elrond had prevailed and Merry and Pippin not been sent out with the Fellowship? What if the Ring had come to Minas Tirith? The what ifs rain down upon us, and they drown us in their uncertainty.
And still, they are fleeting: for they are only visions of if, not realities of is. Reflecting on the what ifs of our lives can provide some food for thought, some realizations and comforts. Yet they can also consume us, leading us to inaction and grief. When faced with choices, we must have both the wisdom and will of Gandalf at the gate: to ask the right questions, to mull the right factors, and to make a choice, and then seize that choice without delay. For we can ultimately only choose one thing, rightly or wrong, at any time, and we may not know what prophecies we held aid, or what feats can be accomplished, even if it seems that we have chosen that path that we did not intend.