So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In discussing Faramir during his recent course at Signum University, 'Tolkien's Wars and Middle-earth', John Garth astutely noted the parallels between Faramir's relationship with his father in The Pyre of Denethor (RK 5.vii).850-57 and Isaac's relationship with Abraham in Wilfred Owen's The Parable of the Young Man and the Old, which retells the story of Genesis 22:1-18.1 Just as Owen has in this poem mythologized the distrust which the young soldiers on the Western Front often felt for their older superiors who sacrificed them needlessly, as they saw it, so, too, Tolkien: Denethor first sends his son on a hopeless mission from which he returns near death, and then he attempts to burn him alive on the funeral pyre on which he means to kill himself. Thus, as is often the case, we may see Tolkien incorporating and transforming his experience of World War One in his literary works.
This is an area of study too long neglected, but which has lately begun to receive proper attention, thanks to works like Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle-earth, and this year's Baptism of Fire: the Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, edited by Janet Brennan Croft. And it is a mark of just how much study needs to be done that writers such as Owen and Tolkien, whom most readers and critics would consider worlds apart, can have so similar a response to the war. Indeed it is tempting to ask if Tolkien was acquainted with Owen's poem, but this may be impossible to answer, and the story of Abraham and Isaac was -- and is -- one of the best known in the Bible. All we can say with certainty is that both men would have known the story in Genesis.
Yet Tolkien's vision is as multifarious as C. S. Lewis said it was. If we set aside the links between Tolkien, World War One, and the story (I nearly said 'the parable') of Denethor and Faramir, there's still more to see. For Tolkien recasts elements of the tale of Abraham and Isaac to tell a story of his own in The Pyre of Denethor, one about fathers and sons and pride and despair, just as Genesis tells of humility and faith. While several sets of fathers and sons appear in The Lord of the Rings -- Glóin and Gimli; Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir; Beregond and Bergil; Sam and the Gaffer -- only in this case do both father and son play prominent and critical roles in the story. Nor can we ignore Boromir in this connection, since even dead he is part of the dynamic of sacrifice acted out by Denethor and Faramir.
First let us have a look at Genesis 22:1-18 (KJV):
22 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Abraham acts out of faith. When the Lord tells him to sacrifice his son, he does not question or balk. He accepts that the Lord is the Lord, and that obedience is his due. In fact we see faith in operation throughout the story, as Abraham's men and his son obey him without question. Nor does the story tell us that Isaac resisted being bound. He submits to his father's authority just as Abraham did to God's. The one hint we get that Abraham is not some entirely emotionless monster is his response to Isaac, that 'God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.' This statement is true of course (both presently and with prophetic irony), but it is also a prevarication. Abraham will not tell Isaac that he is to be the lamb.
Now it might seem that nothing in The Pyre of Denethor or the story leading up to it matches God's command to sacrifice Isaac, but that is not quite so. For after Denethor has dispatched Faramir on a fruitless errand against all advice (RK 5.iv.816) -- an act he characterizes as 'spending even my sons', which is the mark of 'all great lords' (RK 5.iv.818) -- Faramir is lucky to return alive:
The Prince Imrahil brought Faramir to the White Tower, and he said: 'Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds, and he told all that he had seen.' But Denethor rose and looked on the face of his son and was silent. Then he bade them make a bed in the chamber and lay Faramir upon it and depart. But he himself went up alone into the secret room under the summit of the Tower; and many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out. And when Denethor descended again he went to Faramir and sat beside him without speaking, but the face of the Lord was grey, more deathlike than his son's.(RK 5.iv.821; cf. vii.856-57)
As we later learn, Denethor has just looked into the palantír of Minas Tirith, not for the first time, and been deceived by Sauron into abandoning all hope of victory or survival (RK 5.vii.856). Add to this the bitter conflict within him over the way he has 'spent' his sons (RK 5.1.754-56; iv.812-13, 816-17, 824), and his mind is overthrown. Once all that he values seems lost -- city, sons, stewardship -- it does not matter that Faramir is not yet dead.
Messengers came again to the chamber in the White Tower, and Pippin let them enter, for they were urgent. Denethor turned his head slowly from Faramir's face, and looked at them silently.
'The first circle of the City is burning, lord,' they said. 'What are your commands? You are still the Lord and Steward. Not all will follow Mithrandir. Men are flying from the walls and leaving them unmanned.'
'Why? Why do the fools fly?' said Denethor. 'Better to burn sooner than late, 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! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!'
The messengers without bow or answer turned and fled.
Gandalf, when informed of Denethor's actions, immediately comments: 'Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has the power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work' (RK 5.vii.850), a sentiment he repeats or hints at no fewer than five more times in this short chapter (RK 5.vii,851, 853, 854-55, 856 [twice]). So it would seem that Sauron plays the same role here as God does in Genesis 22. Let me be clear about this. I am not saying that Sauron told Denethor in so many words to burn himself and Faramir to death. I don't think that's what Gandalf is saying either.
Rather, Sauron uses Denethor's pride and despair to destroy him by deceiving him about what he is seeing. As with the temptation of the Ring, the creation of Sauron's malice and subtlety, the details will work themselves out in accordance with the stature of the person tempted: Gandalf and pity, Boromir and victory, Galadriel and rule, Sam and a garden, Gollum and murder. So, unlike God in Genesis 22, Sauron does not issue a specific command, but like him he sets events in motion.
Tolkien, moreover, was well aware that 'to tempt' is, fundamentally, 'to test,' even if it has acquired the predominant meaning 'to attempt to lure into evil.' And it is precisely as a test that he construes the act of looking into a palantír. Once Gandalf learns that Sauron has one of the seeing stones, he speaks of an encounter with him through the stones in just that way:
'Maybe, I have been saved by [Pippin] from a grave blunder. I had considered whether or not to probe this Stone myself to find its uses. Had I done so, I should have been revealed to [Sauron] myself. I am not ready for such a trial, if indeed I shall ever be so. But even if I found the power to withdraw myself, it would be disastrous for him to see me....'
and(TT 3.xi.595, emphasis mine)
'Easy it is now to guess how quickly the roving eye of Saruman was trapped and held; and how ever since he has been persuaded from afar, and daunted when persuasion would not serve. The biter bit, the hawk under the eagle's foot, the spider in a steel web! How long, I wonder, has he been constrained to come often to his glass for inspection and instruction, and the Orthanc-stone so bent towards Barad-dur that, if any save a will of adamant now looks into it, it will bear his mind and sight swiftly thither? And how it draws one to itself! Have I not felt it? Even now my heart desires to test my will upon it, to see if I could not wrench it from him and turn it where I would...'
(TT 3.xi.598, emphasis mine)
In fact the use of a palantir is always portrayed as a struggle against Sauron. Pippin struggles to break free and fails (TT 3.ix.592). Saruman is 'trapped and held,' 'persuaded', 'daunted,' and 'constrained,' all of which suggest his attempts to resist. Gandalf fears to hazard such a trial. Only Aragorn, has both the right to the stone and the 'will of adamant' that allows him to prevail -- 'barely' but completely -- in such a struggle (RK 5.ii.780). Denethor, perhaps because he lacks the right to use the stone, which makes it folly for him to try, seems to himself to have won the contest of wills with Sauron, but the Dark Lord is deceiving him by influencing what he sees (RK 5.vii.856). Like Saruman, Denethor's wisdom fails. His pride and despair work against each other to counter his strength and undermine his reason. Thus he fails the test, just as Abraham, through faith and humility, passed it. And in failing the test Denethor causes unnecessary death -- his own not least -- and strife among his own, in contrast to the unity and obedience that prevails among those who follow Abraham.
Both Abraham and Denethor, moreover, receive visits from messengers. Denethor in fact receives two such visits, first by his own men who seek to recall him to his duty: 'What are your commands? You are still the Lord and Steward' (RK 5.iv.825). His mad response so terrifies them that 'without bow or answer they turned and fled.' Their failure to bow signifies the breakdown of the bonds between them, in much the same way as Beregond's subsequent choice to forsake his post and draw his sword to protect the helpless Faramir (RK 5.iv. 826-27; vii.850-52, 854-55).
The second messenger is of course Gandalf -- all of the Istari 'were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron' (RK B 1084) -- and like the 'angel of the Lord' in Genesis he comes explicitly to stop the 'burnt offering' about to be kindled.2 And every word of Gandalf's conversation with Denethor underlines the fact that, unlike Abraham, Denethor had no 'authority' to do as he was doing. Rather he was acting out of pride and despair, like 'the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power' (RK 5.vii.851-54). Gandalf's 'authority is not given to you' (by whom?) and his reference to 'heathen' kings are rare suggestions of supernatural authority in The Lord of the Rings, which the transition to a discussion of the earthly power of the Steward and the return of the King emphasizes by contrast.
Nor is Tolkien any stranger to making use of this passage in Genesis, but adapting it to his own needs. In the mid to late 1950s he wrote the chapter of The Silmarillion entitled Of Aulë and the Dwarves.3 There, in a passage whose language is quite biblical, Aulë is surprised by Ilúvatar after he has created the race of Dwarves.
Now Ilúvatar knew what was done, and in the very hour that Aulë's work was complete, and he was pleased, and began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them, Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to him: 'Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?'
Then Aulë answered: 'I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?'
Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: 'Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.' Then Aulë cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilúvatar, saying: 'May Eru bless my work and amend it!'
In humility and obedience, 'as a child to his father,' Aulë offers up what he has created without authority, and even asks if it would not be better to destroy 'the work of my presumption.' For his submission he is rewarded, just as Abraham was. Denethor transgresses as well, by daring to use the palantír without the right to do so, by scorning the return of the lawful King, and finally by preferring suicide and murder to courage and duty. Unlike Abraham and Aulë he will not submit to authority. His pride and despair prevent it and destroy him. Thus in The Pyre of Denethor Tolkien transforms the elements of the story of Abraham and Isaac to shape a powerful mythic portrayal of the terrible consequences of Denethor's flaws and errors of judgement.
If, as Garth persuasively argues, Tolkien's portrayal of the relationship between Faramir and Denethor also draws form and power from the relationship between the young soldiers in the trenches and their generals who 'spent their sons' with such profligacy, then Tolkien's use of Genesis here, likening Denethor to an Abraham who refused the messenger's command to spare his son, seems even more powerful and damning. And, if anything, it is that detail, which both Tolkien and Owen share -- the refusal to heed the messenger -- that makes me believe Tolkien likely did know Owen's poem.
1 As John Garth has also pointed out in class and in correspondence, the parallel between The Pyre of Denethor and The Parable of the Young Man and the Old has also been noted before here and here.
2 'Angel' comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, a translation of the Hebrew מלאך, 'malakh,' both of which mean 'messenger.' Quite frequently in the letters Tolkien refers to the Ainur in general as 'angelic.' See, for example, Letters, 153, p. 193-94. See also letter 181, p. 237 on Gandalf: 'His function as a "wizard" is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers: to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided.'