Author: isiscolo / Isis
Summary: This is the story of Denethor, last of the ruling Stewards of Gondor. You say you know this one already? Maybe you do, and maybe you don't.
Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Notes: Title comes from movie soundtrack, but this is more based on the bookverse. Thanks to vulgarweed for her beta suggestions.
Spoilers/Warnings: Spoilers for all three volumes/films.
Original story: Flames for the Forsaken by stephantom
Ash and Smoke (Retrospective Remix)
So, you want me to tell you a story, do you? Sit down and make yourself comfortable. That cushion, over there against the wall – that one is quite soft. Would you like some tea?
The story I am about to tell you is an old story, a story from the end of the Third Age: it is the story of Denethor, last of the ruling Stewards of Gondor.
You say you know this one already? Maybe you do, and maybe you don't.
This is the story of Denethor, last of the ruling Stewards of Gondor, and how although he was not king, yet he sacrificed himself to save his kingdom. Ah, now your eyebrow goes up. You have heard it told differently. You have heard, maybe, that he was mad. But what is madness may sometimes look very much like great cleverness, you know, and occasionally the opposite may be true.
In his time, Denethor son of Ecthelion was known to be a wise man, a thoughtful man, a man who had studied the histories of those who had come before and who could see in his mind what was yet to come. He was tall and fair and yes, he was proud. Why should he not be? Of the men of the House of Húrin, the Stewards who ruled in Gondor, he was most like to a king.
And make no mistake: he loved Gondor fiercely, placing her above all others in his heart, as a king should love his kingdom, as any ruler should love his land. You may say, perhaps, that a king should love his queen to a greater degree, and it may have been true that for a while, Denethor did; but the fair Finduilas died untimely, and after that there was nothing in his heart but Gondor, and his sons that should inherit its rule.
But his sons are his own flesh, you say, and shouldn't they come ahead of the land? You would make a pretty poor king, I think. For a kingdom is not mere land: it is land and crops and cattle and men, city walls and country fields. It is every drop of water and every blade of grass. It is greater than any single man that inhabits it, whether he is a farmer, or a blacksmith, or a son of a king.
In the story you heard, perhaps it was said that Denethor greatly loved his elder son Boromir, with no love to spare for his younger son Faramir. But consider: his elder son would become Steward after him, would inherit his kingdom. And as in many ways the ruler and his land are the same, so is his heir both somewhat more and somewhat less than any other man. He is bound to the kingdom and will share her fate, whatever that may be.
And in those days, as the Third Age drew to a close, Gondor faced a grim fate indeed. A dark cloud massed upon her eastern border. Sauron looked upon her fields and cities with desire, and toward Minas Tirith he stretched his terrible grasping hand. Into this world Ecthelion's son came of age.
It was for the love of Gondor that Denethor dared the mysteries of the palantír of Anárion. When he gazed into the Anor-stone he could see things at great distances, and thus he learned much of what passed in Middle-earth, both in Gondor and beyond her borders.
But he had another kind of long sight as well, for the blood of Westernesse ran true in his veins. If he bent his will to it, he could read the thoughts in the minds of other men. He could divine the past and he could see the future, and he did not need a palantír to do it.
Of course, reading the future isn't as easy as reading a book. The future reveals itself in hints and in glimpses. A vision is seen for an instant in the mirrored water of a basin: the water stands still only for a moment – then it ripples, and the vision is gone. Dreams of the future are forgotten when the sleeper wakes. The future tells riddles, and it is up to us to determine what they mean.
For example, there was the dream that sent Boromir to Rivendell – yes, I see you remember that story. Seek for the Sword that was broken, a voice told him and Faramir, in their dreams; it spoke of counsels and tokens and Halflings, but did it tell him what any of that actually meant? No, of course not; that's not the way visions work. So they were left to wonder: Whose counsel? What tokens? Which Halflings?
There shall be shown a token that Doom is near at hand, said the voice in the dream. If Boromir had known that it would be his doom, would he have gone to Rivendell?
Well, yes, he would have. That's the point.
The future tells riddles, but it does not tell lies. What is foretold always comes to pass. And if it does not come to pass exactly as you thought it would, it doesn't mean that the vision is false. It just means you didn't interpret it correctly.
Denethor saw a vision of the future, and what he saw was Gondor in flames. He saw the city walls breached, the fields littered with bodies, the sky raining down ash and smoke, and the river running red with blood; and all this he saw through a curtain of fire, as all that he had lived to preserve and keep, that he had sworn never to forsake; all of it shattered, and burned to the ground.
Denethor saw it all burn before his eyes, and he knew he could not keep it from happening. But he was a wise man and a thoughtful man, and he also knew that what he saw in his dreams, and in the palantír, and in still water before it rippled and broke, was not necessarily the literal truth. Visions are allegories. Dreams are riddles. The future is inevitable and unstoppable, but – even to one who has the far sight – it is never clear until it comes to pass. And even then, it is never completely clear.
Yes, of course then it becomes the past. But that is less fixed than you might think. After all, before I began this story, you thought you knew what had happened back then, at the end of the Third Age. Maybe you are not so sure any more.
So. In the great hall of the High Court in the Citadel of Minas Tirith, Denethor questioned the Halfling Peregrin son of Paladin as to the manner of his son Boromir's death. Slain by orc-arrows, he was told, and his body given to the Great River.
He grieved at his son's passing, at the loss of Gondor's heir. But also he wondered: where was the fire he had seen in his vision? If Boromir had been consumed by flames, then that would have fulfilled the doom of Gondor by fire. But Boromir had been slain by arrows. Gondor still lay threatened.
And Denthor was Gondor; Denethor and now his son Faramir. So when Faramir was borne back to the Citadel on a litter, deathly still and silent, Denethor watched over him carefully. Were Faramir to die of his wounds, another piece of Gondor would be ever unclaimed by fire. And that would leave only –
There was a gentle rap at the door; then it opened. He looked up from Faramir's body and saw the Halfling's face, small and anxious, and then the messengers. Their garments were streaked with soot and ash. They smelled of smoke. He knew what they had come to tell him before they spoke a single word.
Gondor burned. Or rather: the walls and courtyards and towers burned. The Steward of Gondor and his heir waited in the White Tower. They were no less Gondor than were the walls and courtyards and towers. Perhaps they would be saved.
But the Steward of Gondor was an old man, and Faramir lay still as death. It might be that he was already dead. Perhaps, thought Denethor, he could make a bargain with the future: their lives by fire for the city preserved.
Wait, you object. That is not how it happened. The Halfling fetched Gandalf, you say, and Gandalf saw madness in Denethor's eyes. Denethor raved of fire and flame, ash and smoke, pride and despair; Gandalf stepped forth to carry Faramir to safety, to carry him from the madman who would sacrifice him on the pyre. That is how the story goes, yes, yes, we have all heard it before.
So, tell me: how do you know this is really how it happened? Was Denethor mad – or did he, with clear eyes and a resolute heart, offer himself up to the flames that they might spare the kingdom? Who was it who told you the tale you believe? Was the storyteller there in the room with Denethor and Faramir and Gandalf that night, in the great hall of the High Court of the Citadel of Minas Tirith?
Well, no; nor was I. I am an old woman, but I am not that old. Yet there are stories passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter; stories that twine along the tree of a family like ivy, wrapping the trunk from its roots in the ground to the far-off branches that reach for the sky. These family histories bind us together, reminding us that these characters are not just figures invented to amuse the listener. They are real people; they are my mother and my father, and my father's father, and my father's father's father, and so on back into the dimly-remembered past. We remember them – and we honour them – by telling their stories. Sometimes these are the same stories that others tell of these our ancestors. Sometimes they are very different.
Denethor was known for the fine library he kept in Minas Tirith; and a man who reads books to learn the wisdom of the past often writes his own, to serve the future. Perhaps his account was discovered by one of his descendants – one of my ancestors – and this story has been passed down the years to me, and I have told it to you.
Then again, perhaps I simply invented it all from air and shadow. Perhaps this story is only an old woman's attempt to dispel the rumours of madness that swirl about her distinguished family name. Or maybe I am only trying to amuse you. After all, you said you wanted me to tell you a story.
You do not know if my tale is false, any more than you know if the one you have always heard is true.
But the tale of the battle is told by the victor. The flames were extinguished; Sauron was defeated; the line of Elendil has been restored, and the White Tree blossoms. Denethor is gone, and years have passed. That is what we know. The rest is just a story.