DenethorI’m reading through the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my son, and there’s a striking exchange between Gandalf and Denethor in The Return of the King. Gandalf has just arrived with Pippin from Rohan, and the two have been admitted into an audience with the Steward of Gondor.

As Denethor says of himself to Gandalf, “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.”

To this Gandalf responds, “Unless the king should come again? 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?”

Consider this claim not only in contrast with the decadent stewardship of Denethor, who conflates the particular good of his realm with the common good of Middle-earth, but also with respect to the corruption of Saruman. For as the resurrected Gandalf the White says, “Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.”

For a funny look at what Gandalf’s stewardship responsibility amounts to in the LOTR, check out the “Gandalf Problem Solving” flowchart (HT: Jon Acuff):Gandalf Problem Solving Flowchart