These past couple of weeks I have been teaching The Lord of the Rings — which, let me tell you, is an enjoyable thing to do — and one theme has struck me with particular force this time through the book. It’s the matter of stewardship.

The question of how best to understand stewardship comes up in the several clashes between Gandalf and Denethor, the Steward of Gondor — the holder of a hereditary title, whose office is to govern and preserve the realm of Gondor until a rightful King returns to claim the throne. Denethor — for reasons that will be known to anyone who has read the book — mistrusts Gandalf, believing the wizard to seek complete control of Gondor. His hostility leads to this exchange:

‘Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need; but you deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’

‘Unless the king should come again?’ said Gandalf. ‘Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for. But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?’

At which point Gandalf turns and stalks out of the hall. It’s noteworthy that he implicitly contrasts rule and stewardship — at least in his own case, and perhaps he means to apply this to Denethor as well. It depends, I suppose, on what the Steward means by “rule.”

A little later on, we discover that Denethor takes his own “rule” of Gondor considerably too seriously when he admits that even if a rightful king returns — and he has reason to believe that this will soon occur — he will not resign his place. “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.”

This outburst prompts a question from Gandalf — and I think we should hear in this question genuine inquiry, not sarcasm:

‘What then would you have,’ said Gandalf, ‘if your will could have its way?’

‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’

And in this despair he takes his own life. Obviously Denethor wants no king on Gondor’s throne because that would diminish or end the role of the Steward; that the return of the King would surely mean a great renewal for the country never crosses his mind. He can think only of his own status and that of his family. But in rejecting the kingship he leaves himself with no real hopes for the future except the continuation of Gondor’s long slow decline. Though Denethor is more mad than evil, he reminds me a little of Milton’s Satan: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Better to “rule” over a dying city than to be diminished in a restored one.

His son Faramir, who will assume the Stewardship after him, could not possibly be more different. A couple of hundred pages earlier in the story we have heard him tell what he hopes for and, implicitly, what he thinks his role as Steward is. This is one of my very favorite speeches in The Lord of the Rings:

‘For myself,’ said Faramir, ‘I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.

Note that Faramir thinks not of his own glory or that of his family, but of his city: he wants the true King to return because this will mean the flourishing of his homeland. Nor does he see himself as a ruler, but rather a caretaker. And he wants that city to grow in stature and power not to dominate others but to simply to be “beautiful as a queen among other queens.” Unlike his brother Boromir, who perhaps came to love war and power for their own sake — and thus was tempted to the point of madness by the vision of a Ring of Power — Faramir sees the sword, the arrow, and the warrior as cruel necessities, and thinks only of “that which they defend,” a city that, in proper health, should not be feared, but rather loved for its beauty and wisdom.

Consider this a parable for all stewards, and for all Commanders-in-Chief.