Withered Tree

Author: Altariel

Nominator: Linda Hoyland

2011 Award Category: Alternate Universe: General - Second Place

Story Type: Story  ✧  Length: Medium Length

Rating: Teen  ✧  Reason for Rating: Mature Language/Themes

Summary: A penny for the Old Guy... An AU set in Minas Tirith.

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Reviewed by: Raksha the Demon  ✧  Score: 10

A sere and searing story, which feeds the mind and touches the heart. Denethor and Faramir and Aragorn dominate the story, one can feel the undercurrents of emotion and history between all three characters. One cannot help but feel terribly sorry for Denethor here, who might have lived in honor and peace, watching his son marry and give him grandchildren, but who cannot bend, only break like a branch of the withered tree. Aragorn shines as a man of honor and political will at the same time; he has the courage to wait in hope, just long enough for Faramir to make the decision which he awaits, without forcing that decision by having Faramir told the truth about Denethor's actions in Rath Dinen. And Faramir is beautifully written here as well; his is the hardest choice of all, to be true to himself and his ideals, or true to his father's beliefs. Although Denethor still chose death at the end of this story, at least he saw Faramir live, and Gondor, and the world, delivered from Sauron. Gandalf and Imrahil are well written here, and Eowyn's portrait in particular is beautifully rendered...The complex psychological thriller with political overtones; an outstanding foray into the realm of Might-Have-Been.

Author response: Thank you for this great review, Raksha. I feel sorry too for Denethor: there is so much to live for in the New Age, but it isn't enough. The struggle against Sauron has cost him too much, and everything looks twisted out of shape. I'm glad that you liked Aragorn in this: that piece of the plot took so long to work out - would he tell or wouldn't he? I'm glad he followed his best instincts, and turned out to be the King that Faramir hoped he was. Thank you again for reading and reviewing!

Reviewed by: Clodia  ✧  Score: 10

Altariel's AU opens on a deceptively cheerful scene: Peregrine Took scolding the local children, then reminiscing to his son Faramir - but on this telling of an old, familiar tale, darker shades intrude. From that summer scene, we jump straight back to the terrifying moment in the House of Stewards years before. This time, Denethor listens to Pippin and rather than setting light to himself and his son, he steps back from the pyre. Faramir is taken away to be healed. But this is no happy AU: so Denethor, even as his sick son is being carried away, rushes back and throws his torch into the House. As Pippin says, [I could hear that old stone House cracking and burning and breaking]... and down it comes. Denethor, still alive, still that proud old man, ejects Aragorn from the Houses of Healing. Aragorn is allowed inside in the end, but not as king: in the morning, the stewards' banner flies over the Tower and [it seemed to men that they had woken from a dream. A dream of peace and restoration that moment by moment slipped away, as the waking world washed over them]. The omens continue bad and Denethor's dark despair continues to lay its shadow over the city. In the absence of the armies, gone to distract the Enemy's eye, everything is poisonous at Minas Tirith. What will Denethor's survival mean in the victorious aftermath of Sauron's fall? A tense stand-off. The Steward comes at the end of a powerful line and has ruled too long to lay down the power of his house now. Civil war threatens to come hard on the heels of a war so lately won: [father against son, brother against brother], as Faramir says. There is no easy ending here. This is a stunning story: so beautifully written, so true to all the characters, and so carefully played out! It is both tragic (Denethor) and inspiring (Faramir, and Aragorn's trust, and Eowyn, who cannot be held against her will). A wonderful piece!

Author response: Thank you so much for this review! This story took so long to write, and it was sometimes quite a painful process. I'm really glad that people have had a chance to read it, and that you enjoyed it!

Reviewed by: Linda Hoyland  ✧  Score: 10

I don't usually enjoy AUS very much, nor am I a Denethor fan, yet to me this was one of the most outstanding stories I read during the past year and worthy of repeated reasons. I love the way it is presented as the "true" story by an ageing Pippin as he recalls the events of the Ring War. I've often wondered what would have happened if Denethor had not burned on the pyre and listened to Gandalf's or Pippin's pleas. Would he ever have accepted Aragorn? would Faramir have lived? I did read a story in which Faramir dies as Denethor will not allow Aragorn near his son and Denethor lives on as a bitter old man. This story provides another scenario in which Denethor is made to accept Aragorn's help for Faramir, but even though Aragorn saved his son's life, Denethor still rejects him and a stalemate occurs after the Ring is destroyed.Aragorn is left to camp outside the City, which has become an unpleasant place full of spies. Faramir is the catalyst by deciding to leave the father who tried to kill him for the man who gave him life. I especially enjoyed the all too brief Aragorn and Faramir scenes in this story. Like in the book, Denethor does die and in an equally chilling fashion. A truly memorable and outstanding story.

Author response: Thank you for this review, Linda, and thank you for reading an AU Denethor story! I'm very glad that the story rang so true for you, and that you enjoyed it.

Reviewed by: Azalais  ✧  Score: 10

The best AU stories are always those which cast a new light on the original text - or, for those of us invested in the notion that JRRT unearthed just some of the many potential versions of the histories of Middle-earth, which ask "But what if, really, it happened like *this*?" Which version, I wonder, would Denethor rather we remembered? The Steward who, twisted and pressured beyond bearing at last by the Enemy, believing his son dying and his City lost, made a dramatic and terrible end by fire? Or the embittered old man, as defeated by Aragorn's coming as he might have been by the victory of Sauron, who hanged himself from the White Tree as his last gesture of defiance that he might be neither jester nor slave? Both the politics and the character portraits in this piece are masterly; this is an absolutely plausible Denethor, reacting exactly as we can imagine he would had he lived to set his face like flint against the return of the King. Imrahil, Faramir, Eowyn are rooted in canon yet at the same time very particularly Altariel's vision of them, familiar to those of us who know and love her Fourth Age fic. The portrait of Eowyn especially, still caged by the politics of powerful men yet seeing clearly the path to freedom, wrung my heart. Very convincing, very real and so, so sad. If you've never sympathised with Denethor yet, read Withered Tree and you may weep for him.

Author response: Thank you so much, Az. You know I'm a big fan of AUs, and getting to play variations on the presented history was a real pleasure for me - however long the blasted thing took to write! I really wanted to do justice to Denethor here, desperate, passionate, cornered, and ultimately just a little too far gone to make it through. And thank you for the comments about Eowyn, I worked hard to make her feel present and an active agent in the story-world.

Reviewed by: Dwimordene  ✧  Score: 10

I'm not sure how I've not reviewed this story yet. Altariel began writing [Withered Tree] some time ago, and every update sent me back to reread the whole thing again. Tolkien, perhaps forseeing that, in making Denethor and Aragorn basically mirror images of each other, shaped by circumstances to radically different ends, he had made it impossible for them ever to reconcile, had to ensure that the two would never directly confront each other at the critical moment. Altariel continues in the tradition of the art of deferred confrontation, but takes the harder road: she lets Denethor step back from the pyre, and gives readers a tale of political impasse. Intrigue, spies, uncertainty - tent cities and broken walls mark the return of the victorious army of the West, and a question: who will rule in this land? Denethor or Aragorn? With force out of the question, it comes down to the question of whom else the people of the city and its guardsmen will follow, and the answer is evident: Faramir. Faramir becomes the linchpin, and as he goes, so goes the city and the kingdom. Yet he is injured, exhausted, and isolated by his father, who in turn is wounded in ways that are less easy to see. Possibly one of the most beautiful and painful moments is Denethor, discussing the possibility of the rebirth of Minas Tirith with a weary Faramir - for a second, one can see Denethor on the cusp of transformation. But it isn't enough; not even Éowyn, who plays her part in the intrigue faithfully, is enough. She has the unenviable task of breaking the news to the Steward that in a way, Denethor has lost his other son, if not in the way he had expected. She pleads with him to regain Faramir and life a second time. Altariel puts Eowyn right where she needs to be. She and Denethor, who both have come close to death and managed not to succumb, are well-matched, and Éowyn has the right to plead with Denethor because she has overcome his same despair. But again, it isn't enough, though at least Denethor seems willing to see something worthwhile in the love that Éowyn has for Faramir. What would ever be enough for Denethor is a question this story leaves me asking. Brilliantly written, Altariel takes a difficult situation and spins it out to the bitter, ambivalent end. Well done!

Author response: Thank you so much for this review, Dwim. You know how long this took to write, and how painfully slow the process was, so I'm really glad that the whole works for you. What would be enough for Denethor? I think he tells us that: "I would have things as they were in all the days of my life [...] and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be 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 it was never going to happen, not even if Boromir had returned with the Ring. (Oh dear, is that the complementary AU to this one...?) Thank you again for this smashing review.

Reviewed by: KyMahalei  ✧  Score: 10

This intriguing AU story told with a sobering and elegant hand. In it Altariel explores an alternate history to having Denethor die on the fiery pyre when Faramir is brought before him. In a complex balancing of people and events, she explores some of the complexities that might have existed had Denethor insisted on his right to remain steward, even after Aragorn arrived. Altariel's characters are both rich and robust. Faramir is portrayed with strength and integrity. Eowen is lovely, but also comes across as clear headed and strong-minded.Pippin has an unexpected but critical role to play in this story. He stays true to his hobbitness, but manages to reconfigure the power within this story to a satisfying resolution. Denethor it is perhaps the best rendered character in the story. So often he is cast as the villain. In this story. He comes across as a troubled but very believable figure. Another attribute worth noting is the lyrical nature of this story. Altariel's images particularly those related to light, provide a poetic setting for events in the story. This story is not a simple rendering of an alternative universe but an exploration of people and power within Tolkien's framework. It's an excellent story and a satisfying read

Author response: Thank you for this generous review. This story took me such a long time to write, and I'm grateful to hear that the balancing act paid off! Pippin's pivotal role in this story is thanks to my friend (and fab writer) Alawa, who is a great Pippin fan. Very glad that you enjoyed reading the story.

Reviewed by: Darkover  ✧  Score: 6

This is a fascinating AU story--especially when the reader gets deeper into the story and learns exactly *why* it is AU. The dialogue is hardly short of brilliant, and the style is close to that of Tolkien. This is very much a bookverse story, and it is very intense, but realistically so. Everyone is in-character, and the interactions between everyone, the way that friendships develop, the convoluted loyalties, as well as the romance of Eowyn and Faramir, are all superbly written. The madness of Denethor is written just as convincingly; he is still very wrong-minded, but under the circumstances, it seems almost logical. The last two chapters are the best, especially as Faramir begins to comprehend that it is not just because of Aragorn's bloodline that the latter deserves to be king. The ending is neat and appropriate.

Author response: Thank you, Darkover! So glad that you enjoyed the last two chapters in particular - I was so long writing this story that I wasn't sure that the end emerged organically from the start. It's good to know that everything held together. Thank you for reading and reviewing!

Reviewed by: Wormwood  ✧  Score: 5

I have loved this story from the first time I read it, and it is hard to give it proper justice in a short review. I found the portrayal of Denethor and Eowyn particulary memorable, especially the way Denethor almost leaves Faramir in Eowyn's care in the end, knowing that she is one who loves his son. Denethor was never one to go quietly into that long night, and the image of the old man hanging from the withered tree is both sad and fitting. No-one writes Denethor better than Altariel in my opinion. He is a complicated and in many ways difficult man, but also one whom life did terrible things to.Marvellous story!

Author response: Thank you so much, Wormwood. The idea of Denethor and Eowyn interacting with each other absolutely fascinates me. I don't think she would be afraid and, as a result of that, I don't think he would be dismissive. I imagine him being amused by her at first (as he is with Pippin), and then having to take her seriously. With my happier AU head on, I imagine her going a considerable way towards mending the relationship between Denethor and Faramir. I'm really grateful for this lovely review.

Reviewed by: Liadan  ✧  Score: 3

This is a fascinating AU that explores the events that unfold in the House of the Stewards focusing on Faramir and his father Denethor, and in Minas Tirith just after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Author response: Thank you!