Welcome again, dear readers.
In our last, we were thinking out loud about the Dark Tower, the Barad-dur. This brought us easily to the White Tower of Minas Tirith
but then, almost by Sauron’s power, we were carried beyond it to a shadowy place, as JRRT describes it:
“A strong citadel it was indeed, and not to be taken by a host of enemies…unless some foe could come up behind and scale the lower skirts of Mindolluin, and so come upon the narrow shoulder that joined the Hill of Guard to the mountain mass. But that shoulder, which rose to the height of the fifth wall, was hedged with great ramparts right up to the precipice that overhung its western end; and in that space stood the houses and domed tombs of bygone kings and lords, for ever silent between the mountain and the tower.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
“domed tombs” was an interesting detail—and made us think of the huge necropolis (literally “dead city/city of the dead”) near El-Minya, in Egypt.
(This is from a very interesting blog, “jennyfaraway.com” which we recommend that you might take a look at. If you google “El Minya”, the major images are all from her site—and, as she seems to have traveled almost everywhere short of Mordor, there’s lots more to see and read about.)
The bigger picture, however, was that there was an entire area of the city which had been set aside as a cemetery for “bygone kings and lords”, along a street called Rath Dinen, “Silent Street”, only to be entered by “a door in the rearward wall of the sixth circle, Fen Hollen it was called”. (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”) Fen Hollen means “Closed Door”, and “it was kept ever shut save at times of funeral, and only the Lord of the City might use that way, or those who bore the token of the tombs and tended the houses of the dead”.
It is to this door that a small procession comes, even as the outer walls of Minas Tirith are being attacked by a vast army from Mordor.
Denethor, whose mind has actually been completely taken over by Sauron’s power through his use of a palantir, is about to do something terrible beyond that door, where “Beyond it went a winding road that descended in many curves down to the narrow land under the shadow of Mindolluin’s precipice where stood the mansions of the dead Kings and of their Stewards.”
As we know, Denethor is now convinced that Minas Tirith, and Gondor itself, are about to fall to the Dark Lord, even as he believes that Faramir, wounded in the last defense of the causeway across the Pelennor,
(by Ted Nasmith, always a favorite of ours)
is dying. In his despair, Denethor is about to rush the process by cremating Faramir and himself alive although this goes against Gondorian tradition—as Denethor says, “No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.”
Denethor orders attendants to pick up Faramir’s bed and “Out from the White Tower they walked, as if to a funeral, out into the darkness…”
To us, two images came immediately to mind and we wondered whether they were models for JRRT:
- something Tolkien must have known as a common sight in his time in the trenches in the Great War, the removal of the wounded on stretchers
- all of the funerals of monarchs he would have seen growing up and as an adult writing The Lord of the Rings in photographs in magazines and newspapers and even in newsreels, from Victoria (1901)
to Edward VII (1910)
to George V (1936)
to George VI (1952).
Huge processions wound
through London’s streets where, since the funeral of Edward VII, the casket bearing the monarch would be carried into Westminster to lie in state for a brief time
before ultimate burial—also since Edward VII—at St George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle.
Here, in fact, is the tomb of George V and his wife, Queen Mary,
modeled on something much earlier and which might turn up in churches not only in England, but in other parts of western Europe, tomb effigies.
And JRRT, having seen such, we’re sure, as they’re fairly common in England, has them appear in “the House of the Stewards”—which is a kind of euphemism, as this is clearly the burial vault for the Stewards:
“There Pippin, staring uneasily about him, saw that he was in a wide vaulted chamber, draped as it were with the great shadows that the little lantern threw upon its shrouded walls. And dimly to be seen were many rows of tables, carved of marble; and upon each table lay a sleeping form, hands folded, head pillowed upon stone.”
These aren’t tables, of course, but the tops of tombs, like this one:
That Denethor has gone mad is clear to see in his command to his attendants, who have “laid Faramir and his father side by side” on one of these “tables”:
“Here we will wait…But send not for the embalmers. Bring us wood quick to burn, and lay it all about us, and beneath, and pour oil upon it. And when I bid you thrust in a torch.”
To the first audience to read this scene, in 1955, just three years after the last state funeral, that of George VI,
that madness would have been underlined by Denethor’s “No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.”
The Stewards, though not the kings of Gondor, had ruled like kings for 25 generations, and it’s easy to see in “the House of the Stewards” that they treated themselves like kings, even in their burials. That Denethor would choose a “heathen” end and in the place of formal entombment could only mean that there was little left of the mind of the man who once had ruled Gondor while waiting, at least symbolically, for the return of the King. The readers of 1955 would have been well aware of how a real monarch was to be laid to rest and not as the Steward was, when “Denethor gave a great cry, and afterwards spoke no more, nor was ever again seen by mortal men.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor”)
The attempt at a combination murder and suicide, as well as such a violation of custom, so indicative of the overthrow of Denethor’s mind by Sauron, has a fitting aftermath:
“But the servants of the Lord stood gazing as stricken men at the house of the dead; and even as Gandalf came to the end of Rath Dinen there was a great noise. Looking back they saw the dome of the house crack and smokes issue forth; and then with a rush and rumble of stone it fell in a flurry of fire…”
Denethor has warned of a catastrophe when he replies to Gandalf:
“But soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind.”
With the (literal) fall of the House of the Steward, it is Denethor himself who must be little but ash.
Thanks, as ever, for reading, and
As so often, it might be that something in Tolkien’s own world has either stimulated his imagination or he has borrowed something for his own purposes. Here’s a domed building at Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera, opened 1749, which JRRT must have passed by perhaps on a daily basis. Could this be one source for the House of the Stewards on Rath Dinen?
While researching this posting, we discovered this:
a LEGO version of the pyre of Denethor, by Jackson Williams. You can see more at: http://www.moc-pages.com/moc.php/372301/330571