The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)
“The Companions of the Ring have become involved in separate adventures as the quest continues. Aragorn, revealed as the hidden heir of the ancient Kings of the West, joined with the Riders of Rohan against the forces of Isengard, and took part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg. Merry and Pippin, captured by Orcs, escaped into Fangorn Forest and there encountered the Ents. Gandalf returned, miraculously, and defeated the evil wizard, Saruman.
“Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo progressed towards Mordor to destroy the Ring, accompanied by Smeagol—Gollum, still obsessed by his ‘precious’. After a battle with the giant spider, Shelob, Sam left his master for dead; but Frodo is still alive—in the hands of the Orcs. And all the time the armies of the Dark Lord are massing.”
As the armies of the Dark Lord amass, Denethor, the Lord and Steward of Minas Tirith, sends his son Faramir on a hopeless mission to fortify the garrison on the river, where the first assault will fall. Faramir and his men are forced to retreat. While doing so, Faramir is shot with a poisonous dart and is carried, unconscious, to his father. At this point, Minas Tirith is besieged and surrounded by enemies. Denethor sits with his almost-dead son, so consumed by grief, guilt, and despair that he no longer cares about defending the city. When Denethor commands his servants to burn Faramir and him alive on a funeral pyre, the hobbit Pippin realizes that Denethor’s mind is overthrown before the city is overrun and goes for help.
Gandalf comes to save Faramir and to motivate Denethor to resume his fight against Sauron, but Denethor refuses to be persuaded. He is convinced that even if his people win the battle they are currently fighting that ultimately, Sauron will defeat them. He tells Gandalf that a fleet of ships with black sails is coming up the river to attack. The reader knows at this point in the story that those ships with black sails have been commandeered by Aragorn and an army of the men of Gondor that he has gathered from the southern provinces of the country. As Aragorn sails into the harbor, he displays the grand flag that proclaims his right to the kingship, giving the people of Gondor and their allies hope.
Even if Denethor had known that the fleet on the river was not what he had been led by Sauron to believe, he would not have shared in the hope and joy his people felt upon seeing the flag of the long lost king. Before Denethor kills himself on the flaming pyre, he says in pride and bitterness:
‘I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’Book 5, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor.”
We learn that Denethor had in his possession one of the Seven Seeing Stones of the ancient kingdom of Gondor. After his death, Gandalf observes:
‘In the days of his wisdom Denethor would not presume to use [the Stone] to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: . . . He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.’Book 1, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor.”
Denethor’s sad story has a modern parallel. A leader of my church taught this:
Fear, which can come upon people in difficult days, is a principal weapon in the arsenal which Satan uses to make mankind unhappy. He who fears loses strength for the combat of life in the fight against evil. Therefore the power of the evil one always tries to generate fear in human hearts. . . .
A timid, fearing people cannot do their work well, and they cannot do God’s work at all. . . .
Are we prepared to surrender to God’s commandments? Are we prepared to achieve victory over our appetites? Are we prepared to obey righteous law? If we can honestly answer yes to those questions, we can bid fear to depart from our lives.Howard W. Hunter, “An Anchor to the Souls of Men,” BYU Speeches, February 7, 1993.
So much evil exists in the world that it’s easy to become distracted and afraid—to concentrate on the battles Satan is winning instead of on the glories of Zion and the return of her King. As I acknowledge the first-year anniversary of this blog, I am keenly aware of the benefit I’ve received by focusing my leisure reading on the glimpses of Zion I receive through literature. Although I’ve been interested in the concept of Zion since I was a teenager, I didn’t start focusing my novel-reading in that direction until May 2014, when I came up with the idea for the blog.
During the year and nine months I’ve been engaged in this project, I’ve chosen the books I read with more care than I did before, and I’ve tried to give higher priority to those books than to web surfing and other types of casual reading. Then as I’ve delved into those high-quality books, I’ve become far more aware of the deeper religious themes, even in literature that was not written with an overt Zion-focus. All of this has helped keep me anchored in the hope of Zion, but somewhere along the line, I realized that I, like Denethor in The Return of the King, was still too often distracted by evil. I’ve come to understand that reading to find a “glimpse of Zion” is one of many tools I possess to keep me from being overcome by that evil. In my introductory post a year ago, I described that powerful tool as one of two different kinds of “Seeing Stones”:
I believe that literature at its best provides the human family with glimpses of the heavenly city and the holiness required to live there. I like to think of the glimpses of Zion I receive from literature being like the facets of a diamond or the colorful chips in a kaleidoscope. One alone may not give us a panoramic view of the heavenly city, but all together they provide a vision of spiritual beauty that can inspire us to rise above the mundane things of the world and attain those of a higher.