The Return of the King: Novel Summary: Book V Chapter 7

The narrative line doubles back on itself slightly, to the point at which the Witch King left the Gate to join the battle on the Pelennor Fields. The Lord of the Nazguls departure gives Pippin the chance to attract Gandalfs undivided attention. He and Pippin hurry to the necropolis where Denethor is planning to burn himself and Faramir alive. Gandalf urges Denethor to cease, but Denethor has fully descended into despair: “[S]oon all shall be burned.” Nevertheless, the wizard removes Faramir, already doused with oil, from the pyre that he may be healed. The wizard tries, in vain, to convince Denethor that he can still make a positive contribution the struggle against Sauron. But Denethor rejects this claim as futile and vain. He shows Gandalf the palanter in which he has, he believes, seen the inevitable doom of Middle-earth. He has seen, for instance, the black-sailed ships from Umbar sailing to Minas Tirith. He believes the City is doomed, and if he cannot continue the rule the City as he has, he “will have naught.” Despairing and prideful, Denethor leaps into the pyre and perishes in the flames, still clinging to the palanter. Gandalf later explains that, in the palanter, Denethor saw, not the whole truth, but only the truth that Sauron wished and allowed him to see. “[A]s the peril of his realm grew [Denethor] looked in the stone and was deceived. Thus the will of Sauron entered into Minas Tirith.” As Gandalf and his companions bear Faramir to the Houses of Healing, they hear the death cry of the Witch King and experience a sudden surge of hope; “and it seemed to them that the light grew clear and the sun broke through the clouds.”
Tolkiens masterful use of the palanter as a narrative device in this chapter underscores his thematic concern: false or misplaced confidence in ones knowledge of a situation is dangerous because it can lead to deadly despair. Denethor saw the ships of the corsairs of Umbar, but did not know that the corsairs no longer crewed them. He did not know that those ships brought Minas Tiriths salvation and not its destruction. Had he known, how different his fate might have been. Had he-ironically, renowned for his “far-seeing vision” by the citizens of Minas Tirith-not actually chosen to limit his vision to what Sauron had allowed him to see, what a different legacy he would have left. So, Tolkien seems to argue, is it for all of us. We must never assume we have complete and unbiased knowledge of a situation-even when (and this is an important point, as Tolkien is no moral relativist) we are convinced we are doing what is right. To put the matter another way: essential values are absolute and do not change. Human perspective, not Truth, is limited. Readers may argue with Tolkiens stance, but they must first recognize its presence in his work.