And in the middle (round about the two-thirds point, actually) there is the odd, striking scene of Denethor’s suicide. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is a semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT’s imagination. He doesn’t want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising: ‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death’ snaps Gandalf — perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it’s one law for wizards, another for Gondor. ‘Only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair …’ [III:129]
It’s tempting to see this as a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction. More, Gandalf does not lecture Denethor to prevent him from ending his life, only to stop him from doing so by his own hand: ‘your part,’ he tells the Steward, ‘is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’ If you want to die, fine: go out into the city and get cut down by an orc. That would be OK! This sees to me a strange logic, as if we might say ‘suicide is wrong, but suicide-by-cop is fine’.
I think Adam is wrong about this. (As I’ve said before, he is rarely wrong; maybe it’s only about The Lord of the Rings that he’s wrong.)
Let’s make some distinctions — but before I jump in, let me say this: I don’t think that suicide is always (maybe it is not even usually) the result of despair. Many people who take, or try to take, their own lives have not come to a conclusion about the meaningless of life, or of their lives. When someone tells a suicidal person that things will get better, the suicidal person doesn’t necessarily disagree with that — doesn’t necessarily have a view about it at all. Often, those who take their own lives simply cannot bear their pain any longer and will do whatever they have to to make it stop.
Okay, having made that sobering statement, now let me move on.
Point the First: There’s a difference between fighting a battle you’re sure you’ll lose and “suicide-by-cop.” The point of the former action is not to be killed by an orc, but to kill orcs — and by killing them maybe saving a friend from being killed, or slowing the advance of your enemies long enough for some of the women and children to escape. You may be certain that eventually an orc will kill you, but you’re going to try to take as many with you as you can, and you’re doing that for a cause larger than yourself. Similarly, even if we grant that Gandalf “effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum” (a point that as it happens I do not grant), the fact that he did it “to save his comrades” — to keep the Quest going, to give Frodo a chance to make it to Mount Doom with the ring — makes it an act not of despair but of hope.
Point the Second: It is important to note that Denethor is the Steward of Gondor, which is to say, he has sworn vows to preserve and protect that land. This is what Gandalf is reminding him of in this exchange, in which Denethor speaks first:
“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”
“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.”
To accept the mantle of the Steward of Gondor is like getting married in that one does it “for better or worse.” By taking his own life Denethor is simply, and disgracefully, renouncing and mocking his own vows. (It is telling that he refers to himself simply as “The Lord of Gondor,” whereas Gandalf more precisely refers to him as “my lord Steward.”) By contrast, if he were to go out and fight, even in the certainty of his own death, he would be faithful to his vows, for reasons noted above.
Point the Third: Denethor couldn’t be more explicit that his despair arises from the thwarting of his personal preferences:
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”
My way or the fire way, as it were. This is not a decision born of intolerable pain but rather one born of a childish indulgence in ressentiment.
In all these ways we see that even by the standards of his own pagan warrior culture — as opposed to Tolkien’s own Christian standards — Denethor’s despair is clearly blameworthy, and Tolkien doesn’t have to tie himself in knots or smuggle in Christian ethics in order to show that. As Aragorn says much earlier in the novel, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”
Point the Fourth: But there is an interesting difference between the pagan understanding of despair and the Christian one. The pagan denunciation of despair is not, as we have seen, based on a commandment to have hope, for yourself or for others. This is a point that C. S. Lewis often made when he described his own deep attachment to the ethic of the Norse gods. In his late book Letters to Malcolm he wrote,
You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed — that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if — let’s make an impossible supposition — His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, ‘They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending’ — would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’
(I suspect that in writing that last sentence Lewis had in mind this fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The key thing here is not the belief that the Good will win out — that’s as may be — but rather the belief that the Good is the Good, and deserves on that account alone our loyalty.
But Christianity raises the stakes by asking us to believe not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail. For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. (And again, though Christian theology has often associated suicide with despair, I deny that there is any necessary association. Many people have left suicide notes asking for God’s forgiveness and — rightly, I think — hoping that He will raise them up on the last day.)
Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier:
“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.”
That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.
It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.”