In the first part, we are told that Denethor had been a good and wise Steward and had "held the forces of Mordor at bay" for long. When Pippin and Gandalf visit Minas Tirith, he seems quite different from this description. He is very stubborn and irrational, as well as rude to even his own son. It appears he has lost his mind. Was Denethor always like this, or is there any particular in-text reason for the change in his behaviour?
Yes. The main reason (which the films only hint at), is that he has a Palantír (one of the seven seeing-stones, another one of which Saruman has). He knows that Sauron has one too, but he is overconfident and thinks he is powerful enough to control it.
In reality Sauron has been using it to show him only bad news (massing armies everywhere, lost battles, the ships of the Corsair sailing up the Anduin (Denethor doesn't know that they are actually under the control of Aragorn)). Sauron can't make a Palantír lie, but he can make it show you the part of reality that he wants you to see.
This drives Denethor to despair, thinking that all is already lost. Combined with the loss of his son Boromir, years of frustration over being just a steward instead of a king (aggravated by the fact that he knows the heir to the throne is coming), and finally the apparent death of Faramir, it pushes him over the edge.
20One of the many instances of my saying I wish they covered this in the movie. Aug 6, 2015 at 13:36
19FWIW, it is confirmed that Denethor was actually right about the situation being hopeless. Even if they managed to win the Battle of Pelennor, they had no military chance of victory and all they could hope for was to delay their end. The only chance of survival was the One Ring's destruction, which was obviously an insane plan to a rational person. See the discussion in council after Pelennor. What really pushes Denethor over the edge is that after Famamir's "death" he looks into the Palantir a last time and his grief is taken advantage of by Sauron. Aug 6, 2015 at 14:45
5Denethor does hint at this obliquely in the movie. In the first scene between him and Gandalf: "Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind? I have seen more than you know."– PlutorAug 6, 2015 at 15:38
14"A truth misinterpreted is so much more useful than a lie." John Bull– Au101Aug 6, 2015 at 15:51
4@Jonathon Winoski - Because legal right to use the Palantir, with both Aragorn and Denethor, had means a lot. It gave them an advantage that even Sauron could not entirely overcome. Aug 6, 2015 at 23:17
Denethor is not so cool with Gandalf as his son Faramir, and Aragorn are for instance.
there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. [Appendix A: The Stewards]
Ecthelion was Denethor's father and Aragorn counseled him to trust in Gandalf, but Denethor
suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him. [The Stewards]
Gandalf warns Pippin to be on his toes in the presence of Denethor. So his mood and manner are not lost on Gandalf who has known him for over 80 years.
Théoden is a kindly old man. Denethor is of another sort, proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power, though he is not called a king. [Return of the King; Minas Tirith]
I would not say that Denethor was irrational either. He was of sound mind even though he had been aged before his time. When he and Gandalf confront one another he tells him
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 mans's, unless the king should come again. [Minas Tirith]
It has probably been ingrained in each Steward about the rule in Gondor that the King can only be someone who was descended directly in the male line from Anárion. Denethor himself held fast to this and he more likely than not knew who Aragorn was, perhaps not his true name, but he knew of his lineage and did not trust him. He was his "rival" in their early days in Gondor and also perhaps loved the power he had. Before he does kill himself he mentions
I am a Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity. [The Pyre of Denethor]
It should also be noted Gandalf came to Gondor thinking perhaps that Denethor had been turned. But this was not so. Sauron could not dominate him through the Palantir as he had done with Saruman. What did break Denethor in the end was the thought that his line was wiped out
my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnants of the Kings of Men. [The Siege of Gondor]
3In many ways, I think Denethor is the most rational character in the story (and that is, perhaps, what he represented to Tolkien: a purely rationalist viewpoint.) It is difficult to argue with most of the things Denethor says unless you have 'faith' like Gandalf and the reader that everything is going to work out. Aug 7, 2015 at 20:51
Even if the official title was "Steward", Denethor and his family had been the only rulers of Gondor for almost one thousand years, since the death of King Eärnur.
In the book, when he meets Pippin and Gandalf, he is already aware that:
Boromir is dead
Together with Gandalf (almost by his hand) is Aragorn, who is going to claim the throne.
Has been ruling all his life
Is the last member of a long dynasty of (for anything except the name) kings
Was probably grooming Boromir as his heir.
And suddenly finds that:
he is going to lose his power
he is the last one of his dynasty,
his son is dead; all he knows about it is that the new King was supposed to be near him,
the throne is to be claimed by someone who, at most, has seen Gondor in the distance (and to top that, comes alongside the quite Machiavellian Gandalf)
there is none of the help his son was sent to ask for.
Additionally, Sauron pressure is intense and he does not know if Aragorn will be a help against it or will try to claim his title immediately (leading to internal dissent).
It is quite understandable that he was not very happy with anything related to the Fellowship. Sincerely, I would have thrown Pippin from the top of the walls.
“Denethor and his family had been the only rulers of Gondor since the beginning of the Third Age, when Isildur died” – actually not. After Isildur's death, Gondor was ruled by Meneldil son of Anárion and by his line. Only in TA2050 did the Stewards take over (not so much because there was no successor but because king Eärnur died in a stupid duel with the Witch-King, more or less alone, and no-one in Gondor quite knew what had happened to him). Aug 6, 2015 at 18:12
@leftaroundabout I stand corrected, thanks; anyway that still makes for almost one thousand years of Steward rule.– SJuan76Aug 6, 2015 at 19:09
"not so much because there was no successor but because king Eärnur died in a stupid duel with the Witch-King, more or less alone, and no-one in Gondor quite knew what had happened to him". That was part of it, but there also was not an obvious heir and there was concern that an attempt choose a new king might lead to a second kin-strife. Aug 6, 2015 at 23:27
1"quite machiavellian gandalf" Very appropriate– ValandilAug 7, 2015 at 20:17
2"someone who, at most, has seen Gondor in the distance" is not actually true, though Denethor might have thought it was: Aragorn had been to Minas Tirith and served alongside the then-young Denethor. But he had done some under the name Thorongil, not revealing his true identity. Aug 8, 2015 at 19:43
He always loved Boromir and almost despised Faramir. He knows that his favourite son died on his way back from Rivendell. And now two persons with whom Boromir was traveling show up at "his" place. I think he just went mad with grief over Boromirs death.
2Do you have any quotes from him suggesting his despised faramir? I always read it as he loved both his sons, but Boromir was a clear favourite. The film sure made it seem he hated him and wanted him to die, but sending your son to captain men already based at Osgiliath seems like the right thing for a ruler to do. Aug 6, 2015 at 16:01
@MikeyMouse I wrote "almost despised". Sending your last son into almost certain death at Osgiliath doesn't speak of much love. They could have used these men in the defense of the city. I didn't read the books for some time and maybe I'm to influenced by the movies where he indeed seems to hate Faramir.– ThomasAug 7, 2015 at 6:45