In my previous piece, I mentioned briefly the principles of Christian typology found in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga. Namely, unlike a direct allegory, one character can be a type of multiple Biblical figures. Frodo’s loyal companion Samwise Gamgee, for example, serves as an image both of St. John the Beloved Disciple and Simon of Cyrene. Conversely, one figure from salvation can be represented by multiple characters. Different aspects of Our Lady are represented by Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen while the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King is represented by Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn.
Just as the figures of Our Lady and Our Lord are not perfect analogues, neither are other figures from the Passion whom Tolkien chooses to use his characters to represent. In the previous piece, I described how Gollum/Sméagol is a Judas figure. However, Judas is also represented by Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.
Denethor as Judas
At first, such an identification seems strained. Denethor was not a member of the Fellowship (though his son Boromir was). Moreover, he was not even aware of Frodo and his mission to destroy the Ring until Frodo and Sam were already in Mordor (having been aided in their journey there by his other son Faramir). He does not actively betray anyone, lest of all Frodo (though Boromir does…somewhat). Denethor is a Judas figure because he succumbs to the same sin that Judas did.
The Despair of Denethor
Judas fells remorse soon after the arrest of Jesus, perhaps once his former Master is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. He goes to the priests, states that Jesus is innocent and tries to give back the silver he was paid to betray Him. After he is coldly and hypocritically rebuffed, he throws the silver away, then goes out and hangs himself. This is despair because he does not believe he can be forgiven and does not want to live with the guilt of his betrayal of Christ.
Denethor’s descent into despair is not so sudden but it is no less dramatic. Denethor gives into a fear that Sauron is so powerful that there is no way to defeat him. He loses all hope and even goes so far as to order his men to abandon their posts and flee, leaving Gandalf to command the defense of the city of Minas Tirith. This despair is exacerbated when Faramir appears to have fallen in a battle to which Denethor sent him. In the end, like Judas, his despair leads him to commit suicide, albeit by self-immolation rather than hanging.
Qui est Petrus?
Who then is Peter? Denethor certainly exhibits some Petrine attributes. He is, after all, Steward of Minas Tirith, the city of the King of Gondor. The purpose of his office is to rule the city in the King’s stead until he returns. (Hence, Gandalf’s rather epic, biblical sounding line, “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King, steward!“) Another for steward is “vicar.” Also, many have taken the biblical office of steward in Davidic kingdom (described in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah) to be a prefiguring of the Petrine Office (which is why the reading is often paired with the Gospel reading in which Christ gives the keys to Peter). However, the primary Petrine figure in the Lord of the Rings is Saruman.
Saruman, like Denethor, was never part of the Fellowship and his actions are more similar to those of Judas as a betrayer rather than Peter as a denier. However, there are certain very “papal” aspects to Saruman’s characters. He is the head of the order of Istari, or wizards, whose job is guard against the rising power of Sauron and lead the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth in combat against. Although he himself is an Istari, Saruman is nevertheless their head. He, like his fellow Istari, carries a staff as symbol of the power of his office. And he wears white robes.
It is not until Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White that he overthrows Saruman and, in effect, takes his place. He does so by magically breaking Saruman’s staff, the symbol of his office. The Petrine nature of Saruman’s office is further made clear in Saruman’s dialogue with Gandalf immediately prior to this. Attempting to sow dissension between Gandalf and his allies, Saruman accuses him of desiring power and using Théoden, Aragorn and others merely as means to that end. Saruman asks Gandalf if he wants “the key of Orthanc.” Orthanc is the name of the tower that is Saruman’s base of operations, one of the eponymous Two Towers.
The Pride and Presumption of Peter
Ultimately however, Saruman is a reflection of Peter not because his actions precisely match those of Peter but that their cause does. Peter is often contrasted with Judas in that Peter is what Judas could have been. Both betrayed Jesus in some way, though the betrayal of Judas is inarguably worse. Nevertheless, they both showed signs of repentance. In the end, Peter requests and receives forgiveness for his denial. Judas on the other hand, sinned against the virtue of hope, despaired of the virtue of hope and hanged himself.
The sin of despair made Judas think that nothing he could do would merit the forgiveness of Jesus. He failed to realize that while this was true, the grace of Christ was sufficient for him and Jesus would have willingly showed mercy on him had he asked. Peter sinned against the virtue of hope but in the opposite way. He presumed that he could remain faithful through his own strength and that he did not need the grace of Christ. Peter told Jesus, with his characteristic brash boldness, that “”Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33) This of course leads Jesus to warn Peter that Satan has demanded “to sift him like wheat” and prophesies Peter’s threefold denial “before the cock crows.” Thus, the parts played in the Passion by Peter and Judas are both caused by the sins against the virtue of Hope.
Likewise In The Lord of the Rings, Denethor falls to despair while Saruman falls to presumption. Gandalf warns Saruman of the dangers of using a “seeing stone” known as palantir. The palantiri were originally created as a means of communication between realms but one was captured by forces of Sauron and therefore corrupted. Gandalf warns Saruman not to use a palantir because Sauron could corrupt and influence him through it. In his pride, Saruman thinks that he is strong enough to contend with the will of Sauron. He ignores Gandalf’s warning and precedes to use the palantir, thus coming under the influence of Sauron. (This can, of course, serve as powerful allegory and warning of the dangers of various occult practices, even “white” magic and fortune-telling)
Through the palantir, Sauron demonstrates his power and convinces Saruman that “against the power that is arising in the East, there is no victory.” However, rather than despairing as Denethor did, Saruman decides to join forces with Sauron, presuming in his pride that he is strong enough to contend with Sauron and treat with him, in not as an equal, at least as a valuable asset. In doing so, he once again ignores the warning of Gandalf that “There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will, and he does not share power”
It is barely hinted at in the movies, but in the books, Denethor is also corrupted by his use of a palantir, though which Sauron shows him the forces arrayed against Gondor. Thus, like Peter and Judas, Saruman and Denethor commit the same sin (using a palantir) but the results manifest in different ways. Like Peter and Judas, one sins by presumption and the other by despair.
It is thus no accident, that the one man who can safely use the palantir is Aragorn, who was given the name Estel by his foster-father Elrond. Estel is Elvish for “hope.”
This article originally appeared on the author’s personal blog as part of an ongoing series on the Passion. Please check it out at Pope Damasus and the Saints