I’m a great fan of mythology, not make-believe stories, and entertainment but as metaphor, a way to relate to the “larger than life” circumstances in which we find ourselves. Theoden and Denathor from the Lord of the Rings are great for this type of analogy.
Both are aging, both have lost their sons on which they placed their hopes for the future. Beyond these comparisons they are very different in the way that they deal with the overwhelming challenges of their situation.
In the book, The Return f the King, by J.R.R.Tolkien, unlike the film by Peter Jackson, Denathor is extremely intelligent and disciplined. Far from being sated with sensorial pleasures, he leads a spartan existence. His intelligence is his greatest obstacle. Gazing into a magical device he sees clearly at a great distance, but the images are warped. He sees the threat that his world is facing but he only sees what appears in the glass. He does not see the world itself. Convinced that the future is fixed on an inevitable path he takes his own life and almost succeeds is ending the life of his surviving son.
Théoden when we first see him has sunk down into a premature dotage. His mind has also been overthrown by external forces but in his case, he has acquiesced, he takes no action but allows others who are untrustworthy to act on his behalf. His awakening sets him on a path toward his own doom but also his liberation and redemption. Knowing he cannot succeed he acts anyway in the hopes that his efforts will make him worthy in the eyes of the long line of ancestors before him and, against all hope, to be worthy of the songs of future generations.
The meaning in this is not even thinly veiled. This is not book or a movie it’s our actual life in this year 2022. Our choice is “to rise above the height of all your fathers…or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin.” Tolkien who faced loss at an early age and the terrifying calamity of “The Great War,” as well as a global pandemic that took the lives of millions of people, gives us another gift. It is the notion that “even the wise cannot see all ends.” None of us know what will happen and at the darkest hour we may find “aid unlooked for,” if we can only find our courage.