Of Stewards and Rangers
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Phrygian Flute, The: 11. The Pyre of Denethor
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light,
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
HE BURNS. Yet his hands are cold, as though Death herself had begun to claim him for her own. He lies on a narrow cot, straight and still as a young tree touched with winter’s frost; he does not hear the distant clash of arms, nor the soft, harsh weeping of the man who watches over him.
The tears fall, splashing soundlessly on the flushed cheek of the Steward’s son. If he could taste them, they would be bitter as gall, for distilled in each clear drop, was a lifetime of grief and love unspoken. A hand, gnarled yet gentle wipes them away; and tremulous fingers trace a small, deep scar under one eye, the contours of a countenance both familiar and beloved. With trepidation, they pause over the heart that beats faintly, then the wound that bleeds still, through its linen bindings.
Speak to me, my child.
But only silence answered him. The Steward remembered then, the blessing unsaid, and the parting words of his son. He remembered the fury of Mithrandir and the hasty words he too had spoken in rage and anguish. Denethor closed his eyes, rocking with the pain of what seemed like a physical blow.
If I should return, think better of me.
What did he think now, of this child who had gone so faithfully do his father’s bidding?
It was then that a dreadful thought struck him, and he shivered under his heavy robe of sable fur. No, no, it could not be. Surely Faramir could not have ridden to Osgiliath, thinking that his own father had sent him to his death? He could glean nothing now from the closed eyes and silent lips of his child. Yet, no son of his could be such a fool; for what cause had he given Faramir to believe such a thing? What cause indeed, save the lies of Mithrandir? He smiled grimly. If I should return, think better of me. No, those had been naught but a young man’s words of pride and anger. And for a while, Denethor’s breathing eased, and he was comforted.
“Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds,” Imrahil had said to him, in sorrow and reproach. Yet, Imrahil had not known; nor had he seen what the Seeing Stone had revealed to him in the fastness of the secret room in Ecthelion’s Tower: a nameless horror that crushed all hope in his breast, an Enemy against whose might no man, however valiant and noble, however great his deeds, could prevail. Yet, he, Denethor had dared resist Him – and the death and ruin of all he held dear were to be his punishment.
The end was near. He felt it in the shuddering of the stones beneath his feet, the faint cries of the dying; and in the draught, stealing through chinks in the high shuttered window that brought the acrid smoke of many burnings. Soon, this study with its tall shelves of books, the accumulated wisdom of ages, the ancient desk with eagle’s talons for feet that had so fascinated Faramir as a child would be no more. He remembered the Withered Tree – the Enemy would put it to the axe, just as He would put the people of the City to fire and sword. For a thousand years, the men of his line had guarded the Kingdom of Gondor, at first, hoping against hope that the King might one day return; and in later years, when the coming of the King had become little more than a story from the high and far-off days of long ago, held the South Kingdom as though it were their own. Did the Lords of Gondor know then, in their days of wisdom and power that he, Denethor would be last Steward of the Realm; that in his hands, all their long years of careful stewardship would come to naught?
He smiled – a twist of the mouth that was all bitterness. He had been blind – so blind! But now, his sight was true. Let that Ranger from the North come and do what he would! Let fire and ruin be his Kingdom; let the feathers of carrion birds be his mantle, and their bones his crown!
And so, in the howling darkness in his heart, Despair at last strangled Hope.
For a long moment, he looked down at the son he had loved less than another. “Once, long ago, I sent you away from me. And now, you have returned.” Slowly, he reached out to touch the fevered brow. “There are many things that I would tell you, my son, but there is so little time – so little…” His voice faded to a breath, and had Faramir woken then, he would have seen a look in his father’s eyes that none had seen before, nor would any see again. “Though I fear that you will not hear me now, for it is too late. Too late!”
The walls of the chamber closed in about him as though it were a tomb. His servants would have brought light, and a brazier to warm himself by, for the chill of early spring lingered still in the White City, but Denethor had forbidden it. What need had he of fire, when his son burned with a flame that no water could quench; what need of light when it was powerless to banish darkness?
“Forgive me, my child,” he said fiercely. “We shall not be parted at the last – that I promise you. I, your father.”
They passed down the Silent Street like a procession of ghosts, and only the swaying lanterns they bore marked them as living men. It was a story that those who lived told to their children, and their children’s children long afterwards – the dark tale of a grieving Steward and his dying son. Many years later, a venerable old hobbit – no less than the Took and the Thain himself, was to tell his eager listeners of how a frightened young Halfling in the livery of the Tower Guard had followed the Steward Denethor on his last journey past the high pale domes and the empty echoing halls of Rath Dínen. By the cosy hearth-fire of his own house-place, the Thain spoke of the shadowed images of noble lords long dead carved in stone, and how the footsteps of the living broke the dreadful silence as they passed into the House of the Stewards.
The tale grew with each telling, just as a tapestry is embellished by the hand of a nimble needlewoman; a dark tapestry, but a grand one, for all its sorrow and darkness. Yet, it was not a story that the Thain told often, for, like most other hobbits, he liked to talk of joyful things and stories with happy endings. This one, he told only when a certain mood came upon him, and when he remembered with longing and not a little sadness, the days of the Fellowship. Not even little Marigold, his favourite grandchild could persuade him to tell it, when he did not want to; for Peregrin Took knew, as did most master storytellers, that some stories should only be told when the time was ripe, lest they lose their power in the telling.
“Were you afraid, grandfather?” A child piped up.
“Terrified, Daisy, I was terrified.” He puffed thoughtfully on his pipe, and a small cloud of blue smoke escaped him. “I was a young hobbit then, only a mite older than your cousin Fortinbras.”
“Oh, but Fortinbras is old! He is already twenty-five!”
“Hush, Daisy!” cried Marigold impatiently, thumping her small fists on the kitchen table. “Grandfather, tell us of how you saved the Prince!”
Pippin settled back in his chair, grinning. “He wasn’t the Prince then, my lass – for he only became Prince after the War, when our King gave Ithilien to him and the Lady Éowyn. But that is another story! Faramir was only Captain of the White Tower, but a great and noble lord nonetheless. Many men loved him, and those doughty rangers of his would have followed him to the very pits of Angband and back if he bade them.”
“But the rangers were not with Faramir that day, for they were all at the lower levels of the City, fighting the Enemy.” Pippin’s voice became grave. “And so, he was alone, with his father and the few of us in the House of the Stewards. We came to a wide-vaulted chamber, you know, the sort that would echo if you shouted in it; only of course, none of us made a sound – we were too afraid for that, for the Lord Denethor had such a fey look upon him. So we crept in, quiet as mice. There were rows and rows of tables, each as high as the mantelpiece yonder, carved of marble; and on each table was the likeness of a dead lord of long ago.” Here, Pippin paused, and noted with satisfaction, the round eyes of his young audience. “The men laid Faramir and his father on an empty table, and Denethor spoke in a great voice (such a voice he had, my children!) ‘Bring us wood quick to burn - ’”
“Poor Faramir! The Lord Denethor must have been an evil man.”
Pippin removed his pipe and began filling it. The light of the hearth-fire rose and sank, and it seemed to young Marigold that a shadow crossed his face. He was silent a while, before he spoke again. “No, Merry,” he said sadly. “He was not a bad man, only one overthrown with grief. He loved Faramir –”
Stubbornly, the hobbit lass shook her head. “I would not kill a thing I loved, grandfather.”
“Ah, but would you save a thing you loved?”
Pippin lit his pipe, and the sharp scent of Longbottom Leaf filled the kitchen. “Well, the Lord Denethor tried to save his son in his own way. You see, Merry, if the Enemy had won through, the orcs would have enslaved or tormented all who yet lived; it’d give you nightmares if I told you what the orcs did to their captives. So, the Lord Denethor did the only thing he could to spare his son. It was a terrible love, but love nonetheless.”
“But he was wrong, wasn’t he grandfather, for you saved the Prince,” asked Daisy, looking up from her bowl of milk.
Laughing, Pippin said, “So he was wrong, little ones, and it was not I alone that saved Faramir. But back to the story. I ran like the wind, knowing only that I must find Gandalf, for he alone could stop Denethor in his madness. That was when I met Beregond; I have told you Beregond’s story before now, and I won’t tell it today – but on I ran, coughing and choking into the fire and smoke of outer City until I found Gandalf. He was quite grey by then, I tell you!” Pippin chuckled, remembering. “He snatched me up and set me on Shadowfax, and we were away, plunging up the cobbled streets of the White City, and all the while, the clangour of war rose and deafened us. A hunting horn sang in the gloom; then someone cried, “Rohan has come!” and everywhere, men were running to the Gate, snatching up the arms they had thrown down in despair.”
“Up and up we went, until we came to the Citadel; and there, my heart lifted a little, for a light was growing in the southern sky, and it seemed that the long night was ending. Beregond was gone by then, of course, and the poor porter slain.”
Pippin stopped a while to warm his hands by the fire. “Gandalf sent Shadowfax away – you can’t tell how sorry I was to see him go! – but we hurried down Rath Dínen and came to the House of the Stewards in no time at all. There, we found a great pyre, ready for the burning, and the Prince lying upon it, dreaming in his fever. The smell of oil was in the air, and smoke from the torches. I shall never forget it,” Pippin said, shuddering in spite of himself.
With lowered voice, he told the children of the courage and treachery of Beregond, and how Gandalf sprang onto the pyre, nimbler than the quickest hobbit lad, taking Faramir in his arms, and out of danger. “He called for his father in his sleep, his voice harsh and broken by fever. Denethor heard it, and for the space of a single heartbeat, the madness died in his eyes, and he wept like a man whose heart is breaking. He cried, ‘Do not take my son from me! He calls for me.’” Gravely, Pippin turned to Marigold and took her small hand in his own. “It was then, Merry, that I learned that the Steward loved his son.”
Marigold nodded, squeezing her grandfather’s hand in turn. “I know.”
And at last, Pippin spoke of the end of the last Ruling Steward of Gondor. “Denethor’s eyes kindled again, and he leapt onto the pyre thrusting a flaming brand amidst the dripping wood. It caught at once, and before the fire roared up to take him, he broke the staff of his stewardship across his knee and flung shattered pieces into the blaze. But before he laid himself down to die, he took up the Stone and cradled it to his breast as though it were a child. He uttered a great cry, and after that, we heard no more.”
“So passed the Lord Denethor, son of Ecthelion.” For a long time, Peregrin Took bowed his head and was silent. The children heard the crackling of the merry little hearth-fire that had seemed almost a friend to them, and shivered. “I wept then, for though I did not love the Lord Denethor, I pitied him, and for a while, he had after all, been my liege lord.” The Thain looked up, opening his arms to the children. They ran to him at once, and he bent to kiss Daisy’s brow as she sniffed through her tears. But Marigold stood tall and straight in the crook of his arm, her eyes bright. Dear brave Merry, he thought, smiling. Softly, he whispered, “And for ever afterwards, it was said that if any man looked into that Seeing Stone, he would see only two aged hands withering in flame.”
This Chapter is largely based on the book, though I’ve made Pippin abridge the account of Denethor’s death and Faramir’s rescue by Gandalf for the children’s sake. With thanks to Raksha who suggested writing the Pyre scene from Pippin’s eyes!
I don’t have a genealogy of Pippin’s family with me, save for the family tree in Appendix C of Return of the King, which unfortunately stops at Faramir I. So, I have taken the liberty of inventing the two little granddaughters Marigold and Daisy.
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