I have already argued that Sleeping Beauty is Walt Disney’s feminist masterpiece. But now it’s time to argue for something else…
At first glance the movie seems to be a typical fairytale. The beautiful princess is in a cursed slumber, and the prince must save her with True Love’s Kiss. However, upon further inspection of characters and a few coincidences one can discern the true nature of this animated movie. It is, in fact, an alternate version of Westeros. It is the story of A Game of Thrones played between the Houses of Lannister, Baratheon, Targaryen, and most importantly, the Blackfyre pretenders.
This is most obvious in characters’ visual traits.
King Stefan is certainly a Baratheon. Specifically he is Steffon Baratheon, although probably not King Robert’s father. He is dressed in bold black and yellow robes, trimmed with gold, and his hair is dark as jet. Though not easily moved to anger, Steffon can and will fly into a frothy rage. He threatens war against King Hubert (who we will get to later) when the latter suggests that Steffon would make a poor grandfather to their future descendants. He loves to drink, especially if it is not his own.
He even begins the movie by proclaiming a holiday and inviting every man, woman, and child “… of high or low estate…” to his castle for his daughter’s christening. Almost all of these traits are the hallmarks of House Baratheon.
Another obvious noble is King Hubert Lannister. Though his hair color has faded, the paleness of it suggests he might have been blond once. He is decked in head to toe with scarlet and gold robes, their volume is evidence of the extreme wealth of the Westerlands, as is Hubert’s weight. Seven hells, Hubert even has the money to build a brand new castle for his son and daughter in law. He calls the castle (which he says has “40 bedrooms” and a dining hall) a “honeymoon cottage.” Hubert is also quick to come to blows when his honor or the honor of his family is questioned. He tries to beat Steffon with a fish after Hubert assumed a slight against his son, Philip.
Together, the Lannisters and Baratheons of Disnesteros hope to join their houses in marriage. Both have only one child, and the combined the might of the Stormlands and the wealth of the Lannisters would make a powerful alliance. Powerful enough to even challenge the mighty dragons of Old Valyria, House Targaryen. Why would the ever watchful and often suspicious Targeryens allow such a merger to take place? Because there is already a Targaryen on the inside to make sure that the royal interests are safe:
Yes, with her golden-blonde hair and dark robes, Queen Leah is Blood of the Dragon, and her daughter will be after her. Aurora herself has hair even paler than her mother’s, and her eyes are constantly cited as being purple in color. The children of House Targaryen are always charged to maintain the peace and surety of their parents’ rule. Under the watchful gaze of Queen Leah, the other Targaryens can be assured that no treachery is afoot. Besides, the children of Aurora, thus the grandchildren of the reigning Targaryen monarch, stand a chance to be married back into the fold. Thus, through another marriage, the Targaryens would cement their control over both the Stormlands and Westerlands. They play the game well.
Of course, one could argue that there is too much magic in this story for it to take place on Westeros. However, let us not forget that magic is alive and well in the world. The sorcerers of Qarth know it, the Alchemist Guild in King’s Landing uses it to make wildfyre, the Maesters maintain Valyrian candles that still burn. Even beyond The Wall there is magic, and it is this magic that is used for the young Princess Aurora.
Yep, that’s right. These three feminist badasses are Children of the Forest. The Three Good Fairies are very short even though they seem to be of an advanced age, just like the Children. Their names are indicators of their true nature as well. “Flora” means flowers, “Fauna” means animals, and “Merryweather” is… good weather. All the Children we have met so far have been named for the natural world, and this keeps with the theme.
Of course this all leaves us with one final question. Who is Maleficent?
She is a member of the Blackfyre family.
Black robes and purple accents are not far off from the blacks and reds of the Blackfyres. Those of Old Valyria are known to have a deep connection with magic. Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers, a Targaryen bastard, was said to have dabbled in the magical arts, allowing him to listen in on any conversation and find the king’s enemies before they could strike. Maleficent just studied more, locked up in her castle. She skinchanges with her raven, Diablo, so much that the raven has become intelligent. She even is associated with the dragon; much as the common folk said that Robb Stark could turn into a wolf, some say Maleficent can turn into a dragon.
More than ever, Maleficent has a reason to disrupt the potential marriage of Aurora and Philip. An alliance that strong, and under Targaryen control, would make a Blackfyre invasion from Essos simply unfeasible. Even with the last dragon remaining to House Blackfyre, the alliance is too great to surmount. We have already seen how tenuous the alliance is, as Steffon and Hubert come to blows over a drunken quarrel and threaten war on each other. All Maleficent has to do is disrupt the alliance and Disnesteros will tear itself apart with civil war.
Alas, Maleficent’s plans come to naught. Philip proves himself a true member of his house:
And if all of this doesn’t convince you, perhaps the most obvious reference to the true location of Sleeping Beauty is a brief line from Flora, as she makes her plans to preserve the Baratheon/Lannister/Targaryen alliance: “Even walls have ears.” It’s downright chilling.
All images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Object of Desire Thrills and Chills
Full confession, I love murder mysteries and crime thrillers. I grew up on crime procedurals and British murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the like. As an adult I graduated from the tamer Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote that my mom preferred to the more gruesome Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, and CSI. However, my love for crime stories still remains, just see my enjoyment of Dark. While I enjoy the occasional romance, thrillers and mysteries are more my pace for summertime reading. Over the weekend, I sat down with Dal Maclean’s brand new release from Blind Eye Books: Object of Desire. It’s a story filled with mystery, angst, and thrills, though also with its share of drawbacks.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Tom Gray is one of the world’s top models—an effortless object of desire. Self-contained, elusive and always in control, he’s accustomed to living life entirely on his own terms. But when Tom comes under suspicion in the gory death of his employer, his world spirals into chaos.
Someone’s framing him. Someone’s stalking him. And as old secrets come to light, Tom finds his adversary always one step ahead.
Will Foster is the only man Tom trusts to help. But Tom brutally burned all bridges between them two years before, and Will paid a bitter price. If he wants to survive, Tom must prove his innocence to Will—and to the world.
The Good Stuff
As a thriller, it’s quite good. I’m not surprised by much, but there were several moments where I was caught by surprise with a reveal. I can’t say more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, it caught me off guard more than once, and that’s truly high praise from me.
But does the ending resolution satisfy? That’s the big question with a mystery novel: is the revelation of the villain and how they accomplished their heinous crimes satisfying? For Object of Desire, the answer is yes, with caveats (that I’ll get to later). The revelation itself truly satisfies. The book twists and turns its way to the solution in a truly gratifying series of unmaskings. Just when you think you know, you don’t. A whole closet full of shoes drops over the course of it, and I loved reading it unfold. Whatever else I may say about Object of Desire and Maclean as an author, she writes one hell of a thrilling mystery story.
For a good thriller, you have to feel for the protagonist. You need to like them, worry for them, and always feel like the threat of danger is both real and unwelcome. Thankfully, Tom is likable. He’s appropriately flawed, by which I mean his flaws are appropriate to his job and the way those flaws work themselves out in his relationships never get in the way of relating to him. He’s a teensy bit of a stereotypical no-strings-attached model type, but his backstory provides enough context that it never feels flat or lazy. The push-pull of his dynamic with his ex, Will, and the two other men in his life—Nick and Pex—is believable. Plus, it’s great angst fodder, and I am a huge fan of angst.
In fact, I adore it. The slow burn romance/angst between Will and Tom in Object of Desire provides just enough release from the mystery while also furthering it. She really makes you want it, and it hurts so good. Maclean integrated the romantic subplots well into the overarching thriller plotline. When I’m reading the mystery, I want more romance, and when I’m the romance sections, I want more mystery. So, long story short, she did her job well intertwining them to where they mutually enhance each other.
All of the primary characters felt well fleshed out and round. All the men may be suspiciously gym-built, handsome, well-manicured, and sport full, lush, pouty lips, but who cares? That’s part of the men-loving-men (mlm) fantasy of it all. Every male protagonist—and some of the antagonists—are sexy and dtf, and that’s part of the aesthetic. It may not be my personal aesthetic, but this isn’t really for me, a queer woman. I can say, though, that for gay male readers, I can see how this would be super fucking hot to read.
I also really enjoy the casual gayness of the book. Almost all the primary characters are explicitly queer and quite a few of the secondary ones as well. Tom having a married woman-loving-woman (wlw) couple who live next door and help take care of his cat John utterly delighted me. Queer ladies and gents supporting each other ftw! Oh, and bisexual male love interest? Yes, please. I don’t know how normal it is for bi male character to exist in gay thrillers, but seeing one made me over the moon. Bi male rep is so rare, so good job Maclean.
Here come the chills; like the hot water tank running out of hot water right at the end of the shower, it diminishes, but doesn’t destroy my overall enjoyment of the book. I’ll start with the caveats to the resolution I mentioned at the outset. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the use of a certain Hitchcock film as an inspiration, but that may be because I’ve seen it used multiple times in other crime shows. As I said, I’ve been pretty deeply immersed in crime procedurals and mystery novels for decades. This may be one of those your mileage may vary moments.
My biggest struggle with the resolution of the story followed a thread that I’d picked up on early on in the novel with regard to women and mental illness. Again, it’s kind of spoiler-y, but I’ll just say that when your cast of female characters is fairly small and three of them are mentally ill/unstable, obsessive, jealous, controlling women ruining queer men’s lives, I’m uncomfortable.
When it comes to the erotic sections, I’m not sure how to comment. As a queer woman, and one with highly specific taste in smut, I’m not the best person to judge. This isn’t smut that’s for me, after all. I actually hesitated in putting this under potential drawbacks because my quibble isn’t so much with the events as with the writing of them. I will say that the scenes felt well placed and paced and the emotional weightiness was on point.
However, some of the descriptions didn’t work for me. I’m not sure anybody’s skin can be described as “dusky rose gold,” for example—especially if the rest of their skin is olive toned. Some of the anatomical movements and mental reactions bordered on unpleasantly painful sounding. (Is having one’s balls turned inside out during an orgasm really a feeling that someone can have? And if so, is it desirable? To me that just sounds awful.) This might just be a me thing, because I prefer less…vivid descriptions of body parts and movement, even in my f/f erotica, so your mileage may vary.
I also wished that the author had cut her exposition and scene description in half. As more of a visual person, I find long, overly-complicated descriptions of clothing, rooms, and scenery distracting. Others might not find it so, so take that with a grain of salt. Still, the prose leaned toward purple at times, especially with the use of color words and adjectives/adverbs. Such of flowery descriptions purely for their own sake confused the tone and didn’t fit with Tom’s vocabulary. Thankfully, it wasn’t pervasive.
However, Maclean truly excels at dialogue. My favorite moments were where characters would just talk to each other, as she has a way with characterizing them through word choice. So, I wish we’d gotten more of use of dialogue and less use of over-long descriptions.
Final Score: 7/10
Object of Desire offers truly delightful thrills and an endlessly twisty mystery that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Despite suffering at times from purple prose and overly extended descriptions, the book balances romance and mystery well. And, while there may be unfortunate implications in the handling of certain female characters and mental illness, I found the rest of the characters to be delightfully flawed and complex. Overall, a good read and one that I feel comfortable recommending to my friends interested in this genre.
About the Author
Dal Maclean comes from Scotland. Her background is in journalism, and she has an undying passion for history, the more gossipy and scandalous the better. Dal has lived in Asia and worked all over the world, but home is now the UK. She dislikes the Tragic Gay trope, but loves imperfect characters and genuine emotional conflict in romantic fiction. As an author and a reader, she believes it’s worth a bit of work to reach a happy ending. Agatha Christie, English gardens, and ill-advised cocktails are three fatal weaknesses, though not usually at the same time.
Her first book, Bitter Legacy, was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award Finalist for best Gay Mystery and was chosen by the American Libraries Association for their 2018 Over The Rainbow Recommended Books List. You can find Dal Maclean on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her website.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images courtesy of Blind Eye Books
Get Ready for a Summer Rom-Com, Queer Girl Style
Summer is right around the corner, and you know what that means: summer reading! Books by the pool, books to take on vacation and relax with on the airplane or bus. Summer is a time for lighthearted, brain-candy stories like action flicks, superhero movies, and rom-coms. Other than Valentine’s Day and Christmas, summer is basically prime rom-com season. And for women loving women (wlw), that means…we got nothing. Rom-coms and stories of young summer love are by and large straight and heteronormative, unfortunately. But there’s hope! Because I just finished The Summer of Jordi Perez and I can say definitively that if you’re looking for a queer story of summer love, plus sized fashion, friendship, and a fat, queer girl falling in love with a cool, artsy girl, this is it.
A Brief (Spoiler-Free) Run-Down
Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Ibby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick to other people’s lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby’s been happy to focus on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a great internship at her favorite boutique, she’s thrilled to take the first step toward her dream career. Then she falls for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Hard. And now she’s competing against the girl she’s kissing to win the coveted paid job at the end of the internship.
But really, nothing this summer is going as planned. She also unwittingly becomes friends with Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro-type who wants her help finding the best burger in Los Angeles, and she’s struggling to prove to her mother—the city’s celebrity health nut—that she’s perfectly content with who she is.
Just as Abby starts to feel like she’s no longer the sidekick in her own life, Jordi’s photography surprisingly puts her in the spotlight. Instead of feeling like she’s landed a starring role, Abby feels betrayed. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image others have of her?
The Good Stuff
The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding has everything a good summer rom-com needs: a compelling female protagonist who wants love but isn’t sure she believes it will come true for herself, a cool, seemingly out-of-reach love interest, a best friend with a new boyfriend who is kind of unsure of this new cool girl, a new friend looking for relationship advice from the girl who can’t seem to find love. And burgers. (The best rom-coms have food be a major theme, in my opinion.)
Plus, readers of fanfic and lesbian fiction will welcome the subtle use of tropes we’re familiar with from those genres: tol/smol, blonde (well, pink-haired, but Abby’s a natural blonde)/brunette, opposite styles, one bed job they’re trying to share. In many ways, it feels like the perfect hybrid of romantic comedy and fanfic—and I mean that as a compliment.
When I started reading, I could immediately think of friends I would recommend this book to. It’s very much within the aesthetic of so much of the fiction my friends read, but it’s mainstream and it’s a summer rom-com—just the kind of story that we wlw rarely get to see. One of the best parts of the book is how cinematic it felt. Maybe it’s just because I’m so visual and tend to ‘watch’ books while I read them, but I could picture this book playing out on screen as a summer teen blockbuster rom-com no problem. It has all the right beats and pacing for a film but works super well as a book, too.
Spalding does an excellent job capturing the tone and voice of teen romance. Yet, even as an adult I found Abby relatable. Partly because I felt like the sidekick who’d never get my own romance growing up. Partly because Abby is so open about how she feels and thinks. She’s honest about her feelings. She’s at once confident in her sense of self and style but with that niggling insecurity that so perfectly captures teenage self-ambivalence (or at least did for me).
I especially love how well Spalding did showing us how important fashion is to Abby. And not just in her internship and blog. Every time Abby changes into a new outfit, we get a rundown of what it is in detail, plus we see her minute observations of other people’s fashion choices. That’s the kind of writing that characterizes a protagonist well. We know how much fashion means to Abby because we see it impact her thought processes.
“No, I wasn’t in love with clothes, but maybe I was in love with how clothes made me feel. I was designing how other people saw me.”
I also appreciated Abby’s interiority. There were moments where her day-dreaminess and tendency to lose track of conversations felt very familiar to me. As someone with ADHD, these kinds of things happen all the time, yet I rarely get to read that process in print. Now, Abby isn’t diagnosed or anything, but this is one of those moments were, whether Spalding meant it or not, Abby reads as ADHD and I found it charming. I so rarely get to see that representation of my neurodiversity in general, much less with a fat, queer girl in a romance.
Abby’s internal monologue about her feelings for girls is also one of the most #relatable things ever. Seriously. Spalding has that dry, self-aware gay panic voice down, and it’s utterly delightful to read. In response to realizing she thinks fellow intern Jordi is hot, Abby responds with:
“The human condition is bullshit.”
Later on, she says,
“I’ve never seen her bare legs before, and it’s honestly a lot to process.”
I couldn’t stop laughing because of how called out I felt by it.
The other characters have a lot of heart, too. Jax is surprisingly decent, and his dynamic with Abby reminds me of one of my good friends, a lesbian, describing her relationship with her best male friend. I also liked how Spalding wrote the dynamic between Malia and Abby, especially how it grew and changed over the course of the book.
Abby’s relationship with her mom hit home to me. My mom isn’t a health nut, but the same unhealthy dynamic exists between us as it does between Abby and Norah. The fundamental belief that you parents don’t support you and want to change you is one that a lot of queer teens have to deal with. Spalding found a way to talk about that without making it entirely about homophobia, which I think worked really well in telling this story. Abby’s relationship with Jordi and her relationship with her mom got to be two different things that affected each other, but never did homophobia become the looming shadow that overtook the joy of Abby’s first love.
More than anything, Abby’s relationship to herself, Jordi, her friends, and her mom felt very true-to-life. This seems to come from a place of intimate experience. Whether Spalding herself went through these struggles or not, that it can seem so intimate and real speaks highly of her as an author. It never veers into uncomfortably voyeuristic, but it never loses that sense of being honest. The formulaic nature of romantic comedy can at times undercut the heart that should be the driving force of the story. Spalding never lets that happen, and I’m impressed.
Like most teen rom-coms, The Summer of Jordi Perez is about romance, but it’s also about change. About what happens when the people closest to go to college or start dating. About the perception of loss and loneliness that comes when your best friend has more time for their boyfriend than you and your older sister, who was once your main confidante and balance in a chaotic family, moves away. It’s about family dynamics and friendships changing and how to work through that while you’re seeing your life change in other ways. There’s a lot going on, and Spalding balances out all of the threads of change in Abby’s life quite well considering how much there is.
The fact that Abby Ives doesn’t have any other queer friends, and in LA of all places, seems strange. When I was in high school and still under the impression that I was straight (HA!), even I knew that the queer kids all hung out together because I hung out with them (Yeah, yeah, it makes sense now, but then? I had no idea that meant anything.) There were the theater gays and then there was the group of mostly lesbians and a couple bi girls and guys who hung out separately. I guess with my other friend groups I was the token gay, even if unaware, but still. I knew where the queer kids hung out and that they came in packs.
That Abby knows absolutely zero other queer people at her school and has to wonder if both Jordi and her former crush are gay and try to figure it out by trolling their social media didn’t quite fit with what high school had been like for me. Maybe things are different now? Either way, it would have been nice to have Abby have one queer friend she could relate to.
I also wish we could have gotten more interactions between Abby and her boss/mentor Maggie. I really liked that dynamic and think there’s a missed opportunity there. It would have made the book longer, for sure, but I wouldn’t have minded. The payoff in giving Abby an older female figure, and one that she perceives as a mentor in her field, while she’s struggling with the internal conflict over who is going to get the job could have been amped up, especially if Jordi likewise got off-screen mentoring sessions with Maggie. Plus, I like the idea of Abby getting to have more of a mother figure given how toxic her relationship with her own mother is. However, your mileage may vary on this point. It’s more a personal desire than an objection to the book itself.
I also would have liked a bit more time with the conclusion. But that’s kind of how rom-coms go right? Everything leads up to the big crisis, then it dwells there for a while, then it’s all neatly wrapped up in a couple pages/minutes. The ending is happy, you feel good about where the story is headed, and can imagine the happiest of endings further down the line. And even with how brief it is, Spalding managed to bring in a healthy discussion of consent, forgiveness, and moving forward after feeling betrayed, so I can’t complain too much. Maybe I just like my afterglows a bit longer 😉
Final Score: 8/10
There’s a lot to love about The Summer of Jordi Perez. The unabashed centering of a queer, pink-haired, fat girl in a rom-com brings me a lot of joy. Wlw are under-represented in this genre as it is, much less wlw who aren’t immediately ‘marketable’ to a straight audience (read: conventionally attractive). This is a book for queer girls, make no mistake. And I love that about it. Overall, it’s a light, enjoyable read. Perfect for summer time! So grab a burger—preferably In-N-Out animal style, the objectively best burger (the book agrees with me!)—your shades, and a cute, fruit-print skirt or shirt, and get ready to fall in love.
About the Author
Amy Spalding has a BA in advertising and marketing communications from Webster University and an MA in media studies from The New School. Amy studied long-form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of several other young adult novels including Kissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys, Love and Music (and Missing Ted Callahan), Ink is Thicker than Water, The New Guy (And Other Senior Year Distractions), and The Reece Malcolm List. She grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the Better weather of Los Angeles.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
Denethor Despairs at the Siege of Gondor
J.R.R. Tolkien, as he would like you to keep in mind, was not a fan of allegory. He states in his letters, on twelve or thirteen different occasions, that he does not like allegory and that he is not allegorically-minded. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings he bluntly states, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations… I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability.” There’s a rote-ness to his objections, and they are asserted every time the subject of allegory is even obliquely mentioned. It’s an argument that Tolkien seems used to countering.
“The Siege of Gondor” is one of the better examples of why Tolkien’s work can feel so allegorical, and why it ultimately is not. The siege, as it unfolds, is filled with tension and violence. Fiery projectiles smash into people and walls, a magicked wolf-demon battering-ram smashes through the front gate, severed heads get launched into the city. A siege is never pretty. But in “The Siege of Gondor,” the battle often feels existential more than physical. The tension between light and darkness, hope and despair is ubiquitous: it culminates with face-off between the Witch-King, a dark despair-monster, and Gandalf, decked out in white and radiating hopeful light. The momentum of the siege is largely measured in how much despair the Nazgul are able to inject into the men of Gondor lining the battlements. It’s an obvious, rather tropey vision of a fantasy battle, echoes of which can be seen trailing down the decades of subsequent fantasy epics.
But this sort of battle, and this sort of conflict, is not necessarily the focus of “The Siege of Gondor.” There is a battle happening, of course, that is drenched in morally-coded language. One that could easily be extrapolated into allegory. But before it’s simply written off as such, it’s helpful to take a look at what Tolkien actually thought it meant, and how it fit into storytelling. And the best place to do this is probably Tolkien’s letter to Stanley Unwin, after Unwin’s son Rayner read Tolkien’s manuscript and passed on his impressions.
Do not let Rayner suspect “allegory.” There is a moral, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals–they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.
And that brings us around to the real focus of “The Siege of Gondor”: Denethor.
Hope, Despair, and Denethor
I was pretty taken by the second half of that letter excerpt. Tolkien’s story is fixed in time, even an imagined time. It is the result of specific events rather than universal principles (though an echo of the latter can always be dug up). And Tolkien’s characters are people. Their actions resonate with universals (there’s that Neoplatonism again!) but are not embodiments of them. It’s a story of people and their context. Universal principles are present, but incidental.
Denethor is the best instance of this. Of course, he’s a case study in despair. The chapter’s climax features him marching off to his mausoleum, scaring all his guards, and flamboyantly declaring:
Better to burn sooner than later, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.
It would be easy to cast Denethor as the anti-Aragorn or anti-Faramir, falling into a despairing madness as the other two face grim fates with quiet and stoic resolve. He would function as a type or a counter, a foil for the protagonists who matter more in the long run.
But Denethor never manages to be—in Tolkien’s terms—quite representative of that sort of universal. He is too much a person of his moment, driven by a complex web of insecurities both political and personal. Throughout the chapter he flickers between cruelty, despair, pettiness, and arrogance. His fall, here and over the next few chapters, is not an abstract symbol. Denethor is a messy entirety of a person, his despair a statement of itself rather than a reference to something more abstract.
Denethor as Steward
Denethor’s despair is intrinsically rooted in his position as steward. He comes from an impossibly old house, handed down from son to son, ancient and illustrious even when Gondor’s origins and history had started to become brittle. He sees Gondor both as the only beacon of light in the world and as teetering on the edge of utter failure. He sees himself as a bulwark against evil and as the dimming conclusion to a fading house. And he sees himself as tied to the fate of Gondor intrinsically, a position that fills him with fear and pride that often burst out in fits of cruelty, arrogance, and astonishing levels of pettiness.
This myopic view of the world was apparent from Denethor’s first appearance, when Gandalf chided him for being a steward only to those immediately around him (a criticism he levels again here in “The Siege of Gondor”). The arrogance and fear this engenders is apparent throughout the chapter. When mentioning to Pippin that all great lords use other men as their weapons—drawing a direct, concerning parallel between himself and Sauron—Denethor feels the need to insist that this is not due to necessity but choice:
He stood up now and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! He was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great hilted in a sheath of black and silver. “Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,” he said, “lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.”
There is a flamboyant, performative element to Denethor’s leadership. He is utterly disengaged from his people (once again, it’s difficult not to hold Théoden in contrast). He asserts an abstract sort of leadership, decked out in secret clothes of austerity that affect only his own perception of himself. And he spends too much time inside his own head, to the extent that, in his position as steward, he increasingly sees the fate of himself and his whole society as intertwined. When Faramir returns, injured and on the edge of death, Denethor seems to imply that the end of his own line and the end of Gondor are linked.
Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.
As his line extinguishes, so does Gondor. And later in the chapter, as he prepares to burn himself and Faramir, the reverse seems to be true as well. “We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West,” he states. “The West has failed.
Denethor as Father
Beyond his role as steward, Denthor’s despair is also rooted in his role as a father – particularly as a bereaved one. He is abjectly terrible to Faramir in this chapter. He’s routinely petty and dismissive, snapping back abuse at innocuous questions.
“I hope I have not done ill?” He looked at his father.
“Ill?” cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. “Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skillfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.”
It seems like a baffling response to a deferential question, until the end. Denethor spends “The Siege of Gondor” both jealous and in mourning, grieving for Boromir and resenting Faramir for his relationship with Gandalf. He even—continuing on from “Minas Tirith”— seems to despise Faramir because of the similarities that they share.
“If what I have done displeases you, father,” said Faramir quietly, “I wish had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.”
“Would that have availed you to change your judgement?” said Denethor. “You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”
“So be it,” said Faramir.
“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”
There is the sense that Denethor is not only grieving the death of one son and the perceived estrangement of the other, but also grieving that Faramir embodies the sort of leadership that his own time and position seemed to deny him. It is a luxury, Denethor seems to think, to be generous and gentle. To see his son practice it while he believes he cannot only seems to accelerate his resentment. And this, of course, leads to Denethor’s twofold denunciation of Faramir: telling him that he wished he had died in Boromir’s place, and then sending him out, “unthanked and unblessed,” to die in Osgiliath.
So many of Denethor’s problems are problems of his own making. He feels perpetually trapped inside his own head, old habits and conceptions grinding deeper into furrows from which he’s trying to climb out. This only grows with the revelations coming up in “The Pyre of Denethor.” Yet despite this, I always find there to be something very pitiable about Denethor, despite his coldness and his cruelty. He feels trapped in a cycle of poor decisions, powered by his place in the world and his fears and insecurities. He contains universals, as Tolkien would say. But he doesn’t stand in place of them.
- While I spend most of my time here on Denethor, the siege elements worked very well for me. The first fires springing up on the distance and a low rumbling, the utter rout of Faramir’s host at Osgiliath, the unrestrained unpleasantness of the siege itself. It is dark, relentless, and distressing, and Tolkien does well in conveying the weight of the army swelling in like a wave and the chaos of Minas Tirith’s desperate and apparently insufficient response.
- I also quite liked this line, when the walls of the Pelennor first came down. Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard. “They have taken the wall!” men cried. “They are blasting breaches in it! They are coming!” It’s a nice echo of the final lines in the Book of Mazerbul in Moria.
- The fact that Gandalf, often more austere and implacable after his Balrog fight and makeover, trembles during Faramir’s story is a nice and subtle indicator of how intense Frodo’s mission is, even though he’s been off-screen a while. His distress over hearing that they are passing through the Morgul Vale does the same, especially since we’re about halfway through Book V.
- I enjoyed that, near the chapter’s start, Denethor is once again compared to a spider. I am unsure if there is a higher comparative purpose to it or if Tolkien just likes/hates spiders.
- Pippin’s description of Faramir is nice as well: “the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and is now quiet… here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of the Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race.” There’s a hopefulness in that description that’s touching, the depiction of Faramir as something old and new at the same time.
- Prose Prize: At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate. It seemed to Pippin that a pale light was spread about it and the heavy shadows gave way before it. It’s a chapter of conversation more than pretty prose, but I did enjoy the “small star down on the dusky fields.” I am also probably slightly biased because I remember being very fond of Peter Jackson’s depiction of this moment; it’s one of my favorite shots of the trilogy.
- Contemporary to this chapter: While reading this, I hadn’t realized that quite so many days were passing! We’re covering March 10th to the very early hours of March 15th. This is largely concurrent with “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” coming up next. Rohan musters and rides out of Dunharrow, meets the Wild Men in Druadan Forest, and arrives at Pelennor Fields at dawn on the 15th. Frodo and Sam go from the Crossroads all the way through their encounter with Shelob. And as Minas Tirith is being besieged, Sam is making his way to rescue Frodo in Cirith Ungol. A busy couple of days in Middle-earth!