The Stewards of Gondor
"Believe it or not," Tolkien's books symbolically say, "the king is coming." The Lord of the Rings' symbolism is drawn from the central metaphors of Scripture, and affirms them. 

Analysis by Greg Wright


The Stewards of Gondor  

This page was created on September 10, 2003
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

The Stewards of Gondor

  The minor characters in The Lord of the Rings often provide the most satisfying grist for the mill of spiritual discussions. Last month's article on Peter Jackson's Orcs, for instance, spawned a series of thoughtful and interesting threads on the nature of the soul, justice and responsibility. Similarly, a couple of Boromir fans "called me to account" a few weeks earlier. In my review of The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, I remarked that Boromir's heated encounter with Frodo on Amon Hen revealed the man's "true colors." How hard on folks I must be, they speculated—how self-righteous—if Boromir's inability to resist the temptation of the Ring becomes his defining characteristic, overriding his general virtue, honor and selflessness.

My two young friends were right about me, and they were wrong. Like all of us, it's very easy for me to point out the moral failures of others without confessing my own—and that is self-righteous. And I most certainly do have my own moral failures, as my wife, pastors and close friends can well attest: moral failures that, with God's Spirit, I hope to overcome. So Boromir is just like all of us, not different. All have sinned, the Apostle Paul wrote, and fallen short of the glory of God. And unless we accept God's grace and forgiveness, our "true colors" are very much sinful.

But these are not the points I was making with my comment about Boromir. At Amon Hen, Boromir only made plain the intention he formulated upon finding Isildur's Bane at Rivendell: to bring the Ring of Power to Gondor as an aid in its defense. Though his purposes may have been honorable, he had been a duplicitous member of the Fellowship of the Ring, as Galadriel perceived in Lórien. When confronting Frodo at Amon Hen, he openly declared himself against the Fellowship's purpose: to carry it to its destruction in Mordor.

Why is this an important point at all? Because in Peter Jackson's movies, and in Tolkien's books, a contrast is being deliberately established. Boromir's temptation is not unique, but his failure to resist might be. The Ring later comes under the influence of other men: of Aragorn, also at Amon Hen, and of Faramir in Ithilien. They face the same temptation as Boromir. How do they respond? What is Tolkien trying to say through these contrasts? Is Jackson trying to say something different?

Kings and Stewards

Faramir and Boromir are, of course, brothers. They are the sons of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. They are heirs of the Steward, and Boromir, as a boy, expected one day to become Steward himself, leading the southern kingdom of Gondor. But what does that mean, to be "steward" of a "kingdom." You can't have a kingdom without a king, can you?

Peter Jackson's movie The Fellowship of the Ring includes "historic" sequences featuring Isildur, the man who cut the Ring from Sauron's hand and later died in an orc attack on Anduin. Isildur's father was Elendil, the High King of the Númenórean lands in Middle-earth, and ruler of the northern kingdom of Arnor. Elendil forged an alliance with Gil-Galad the Elf-lord in order to defeat Sauron; both died in the battle, and it was Elendil's sword Narsil which Isildur took and raised against Sauron. The shards of Narsil are those which Boromir finds in Rivendell while Aragorn, who is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, looks on. How is it that Aragorn is heir?

Elendil had another son, Anárion. The two mighty stone figures which guard the lower passage of Anduin with outstretched arms are the images of brothers, Isildur and Anárion. At Elendil's behest, these two sons shared the throne of Gondor. Like Elendil, Anárion also was slain in the war against Sauron. Following the war, Isildur traveled north to assume the throne of Arnor and was ambushed by orcs; and the throne of Arnor passed to his surviving son while the throne of Gondor passed to the heirs of Anárion. Over the long years, the northern kingdom declined; but the line of Isildur endured, culminating at last in Aragorn, son of Arathorn: the only heir of Elendil. For the line of Anárion failed in Gondor, and its care passed into the hands of stewards, who were to act as heads of state until Isildur's heirs should come to reclaim the throne of Gondor—an eventuality so long neglected as to become unthinkable in Boromir's day.

Why Stewards?

So why did Tolkien invent his history in that way? Why does Anárion's line fail? Why not have a king on the throne of Gondor instead of a Steward?

First, stewards are a historic reality for the British. King James I of England, among others, was a Stuart: of Scottish ancestry, and steward of the throne of Scotland. James I of England was also James VI of Scotland, a country whose monarchy had, like Gondor's, failed of succession and passed into the hands of stewards. After a time, the family adopted the name Stuart, the Scottish form of "steward," to indicate their status. Not surprisingly, many of the Stuarts perceived their role differently from others who sat on the throne of England; for while they may have been Kings or Queens in title, their very name reminded them that they were preserving the kingdom in the name of the rightful monarchs, and not under their own right or authority.

Second, Tolkien was very much interested in the spiritual symbolism of stewardship. The words "steward" or "stewardship" appear over twenty times in the King James translation of The Bible (yes, that King James, the Stuart). In the New International Version, by contrast—translated some 350 years later—the same words appear less than half that frequently, and "stewardship" not at all. Since the time of the Stuarts, the popular understanding of good stewardship has diminished somewhat. The term expresses the spiritual reality that the things which we have are not our own: that they are given us by God to manage for our own good and the good of others. Because God is the true owner of all things, we merely act on behalf of God, and really have no "rights" whatever when it comes to position or possession—just like the Stewards of Gondor.

The Throne of Gondor

Tolkien builds this concept into the historic reality of Gondor. Denethor and his sons are not Kings, and will never be. As stewards, they merely manage the kingdom for the eventuality that a rightful king may one day be restored to the throne. After several hundred years, though, the stewards of Gondor are justifiably skeptical of a king's return—a situation not unlike our own spiritual condition today. And this is the central spiritual symbolism of The Lord of the Rings: the return of the king.

In both the books and the movies, Aragorn returns from the long-faded north kingdom to reclaim the throne of Gondor as its rightful owner: the heir of Elendil and Isildur. The king's return is the fufillment of a prophecy long derided by those who have lost faith. Will the king return to have found his stewards faithful?

In our own world, the Christian faith also prophesies the return of a king: Jesus, the Christ—not an earthly king, but a spiritual king. It is a prophecy long derided by those who can point to over two thousand years of history as proof that this "king" will not return, much as the skeptics of Gondor claim. But when this king returns—if the "Second Coming" of Christ happens, critics say—will he find his stewards faithful, or off doing their own thing?

"Believe it or not," Tolkien's books symbolically say, "the king is coming." The Lord of the Rings' symbolism is drawn from the central metaphors of Scripture, and affirms them.

The Good Steward and the Not-So-Good

As The Fellowship of the Ring features Boromir, The Two Towers features Faramir. The Return of the King will introduce us to their father, Denethor. So far, though, Boromir and Faramir provide us with a subtle contrast of stewardship. Both act on behalf of their father, the true Steward. But the temptation which the Ring presents highlights a difference of character between the two.

While both Boromir and Faramir understand that it is their duty as protectors of Gondor to do all that they can to bring aid against the enemy, Faramir has no apparent desire to wield the Ring himself. Until it becomes clear to him that Frodo is the one who rightfully bears the burden—for Jackson in Osgiliath, while for Tolkien in Ithilien—he merely desires to bring the Ring to Denethor, who will determine its fate or use. Like Éomer of Rohan, however, Faramir is not willing to follow the letter of the law if doing so means doing the wrong thing. He lets Frodo continue his appointed quest, and then prepares to face the consequences of having done so.

By contrast, loyalty to Gondor is a smoke screen allowing Boromir to harbor and yield to temptation. On the surface, he declares loyalty to the Council of Elrond; yet all the while—at Caradhras, at the Gates of Moria, in Lórien, on Anduin, at finally at Amon Hen—he both secretly and overtly seeks to guide the Ring to Gondor instead of Mordor. Not surprisingly, Boromir spends most of his time butting heads with Aragorn, while Faramir will later become one of Aragorn's most trusted captains.

Aragorn, of course—the rightful king, who could by position claim the Ring as a royal possession and heirloom—never wavers in the face of the same temptation. Like Jesus, the spiritual king of the Christian faith, he does not consider power "a thing to be grasped," and himself comes as a servant both of the Council and the afflicted.

The End of the Story

The Fellowship of the Ring, of course, ends with Boromir's heroic death, in which he more than atones for his failings. In his dying words, Jackson's Boromir stirringly pledges fealty to the returning king. The extended version of Fellowship fleshes out Boromir's character, and Sean Bean's portrayal is dynamically sympathetic.

Will the extended version of The Two Towers do the same for Faramir? We shall see. Jackson's Faramir seems less noble than Tolkien's; but the same could be said for Boromir, in the absence of the extended Fellowship.

What about Denethor? How will he be portrayed in The Return of the King? Like Theoden, will his character undergo significant changes in service of Jackson's cinematic vision? Will the contrast between steward and king ultimately become as strong as it is in Tolkien's books? That also remains to be seen.

And what about us? What kind of stewards are we? Do we even acknowledge that we are stewards? If we have instead declared ourselves kings and queens of our own lives, what next? How does our story end?

Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing... But if that servant say in his heart, "My lord delayeth his coming"; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers... For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required... Luke 12:42-48, King James Version!

LOTR Coverage Index here

E-mail Greg Wright here

The Lord of the Rings © 1999-2004 New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.