“Come Athelas! Come Athelas! Life to the Dying in the King’s Hand Lying!”

As Aragorn crushes two leaves of athelas in his hands after breathing upon them “straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy”. And so begins Aragorn’s healing journey from Faramir to Éowyn and then to Merry.

I said last week that I have been looking forward to writing about this chapter in The Lord of the Rings for some time now and so I don’t intend to rush through it. I also intend at some point to include a guest blog from a young writer whose work has impressed me so do look out for that. But this week I want to begin with something a little more personal, a memory that was jogged as I read the chapter again last week. And it was the description of the fragrance of athelas that I refer to here.

Readers will remember that when Frodo was wounded in the attack of the Nazgûl upon the camp beneath Weathertop Aragorn had Sam look for kingsfoil and they will remember how its fragrance lifted their hearts and its virtue stayed the evil influence of the poison in Frodo’s wound long enough for them to reach Rivendell. Now as Aragorn is revealed as king the fragrance is immeasurably greater and so too is the healing virtue. It “came to each like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.” And what follows for each is a fragrance that speaks of the particular way in which each is healed, made whole.

What this recalled for me was a dream that I had about fifteen years ago. In my dream I find myself in a hotel bedroom with a woman lying beside me and water pouring through a crack in the ceiling over my head. I climb out of bed telling the woman (who I never identify) that I will go and get the problem sorted out and find myself immediately in a field with a fence to my right and a long queue of people in front of me. I ask someone what the queue is about and they tell me that the Pope is in a shed in the field just up ahead and that they are waiting to see him. I decide to wait too and soon find myself in the darkened shed. The Pope is John Paul II and he is in the last stage of his life, a frail old man. Behind him a priest with shadowed face waits in attendance. No one speaks. I simply know that I must kneel before the Pope and wait for his blessing. He lays his hands upon my head and as he does so the room is filled with the most wonderful fragrance. I stand up knowing that everything is alright and that I do not need to return to the hotel room.

Of course it is my memory of the fragrance in the dream that was recalled when I read this chapter once again and it is the fragrance in relation to the revelation of Aragorn as king that I want to briefly ponder here as I think about my dream. In his book on male initiation, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr thinks about the power of the king archetype that is so rarely revealed in most men except in its dark form in the bully or in the weak form endlessly complaining that no one is paying sufficient attention to him. Rohr describes the true king as “the master of all power, so much so that he can risk looking powerless… The kingly part of a man connects heaven and earth, spiritual and material, divine and human, inner and outer. When you meet a man who seems a bit larger than life, you know he has some king energy. He is a healer of souls.”

The king that I met within myself in my dream was old, not fearing to risk looking powerless. The power came in the blessing which is the true revelation of the king energy just as it is in Aragorn. My disordered state was healed in turning to the king energy within me. I can say quite candidly that it is still being healed to this very day but I am learning in my contemplative practice where to turn and I think there is hope for me yet.

The Hands of the King are The Hands of a Healer. Aragorn in The Houses of Healing.

I have been looking forward to this part of The Lord of the Rings for some time now. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been carefully reading Tolkien’s wonderful story and that each week I write a reflection or meditation inspired by what I have just been reading. And so in recent weeks I have been reading Tolkien’s account of The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Death of Théoden and the Fall of the Witch King of Angmar at the hands of Éowyn of Rohan and Meriadoc Brandybuck of The Shire.

And now I want to turn to the beautiful account of the coming of the King to The Houses of Healing and in the weeks to come we will walk with him to the beds of Faramir, Éowyn and Merry and feel for ourselves the power of the king and perhaps, from afar, catch the fragrance of athelas. 

And just in case regular readers may have noticed that I have not made any reference to the timely arrival of Aragorn upon the battlefield that is because I want to reflect on that event through the telling of the story by Legolas and Gimli.

The battle that has been fought has been unlike any other in that a power is at work in the wounded that is named “the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl”. Tolkien tells us that “those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died”. Viktor Frankl describes something remarkably similar in his account of working as an inmate physician in the Nazi concentration camps with nothing more available to him than a few bottles of aspirin. He noted that if someone lost hope and a sense of meaning then they would almost certainly soon die. But if they were able to hold onto hope and meaning then there was a good chance that they might survive the many epidemics that swept through the camps even though they were half starved.

It is the coming of the king that brings hope and meaning to the stricken. In their seminal work, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette describe the energy of the King Archetype as being one that brings order and a sense that everything is in its right place without anything needing to be forced and as one that brings blessing and fruitfulness. It is not just Aragorn who brings this archetype to bear. We saw the impact that Théoden’s arising from his chair to lead his people once again had upon them. It was literally transformative. This transformation shows why Saruman and his agent, Wormtongue, put so much effort into unmanning the king. And now in the account of the events in the Houses of  Healing Tolkien makes it clear that Gandalf is unable to heal those who have fallen under the Black Shadow. It is not that Aragorn has a magic that Gandalf does not have but that he can connect to the King Archetype in a way that Gandalf cannot. Aragorn is the king.

In English history the belief that the king or the queen was a healer persisted right into the 18th century and a liturgy for the royal touch was included in the Book of Common Prayer that was possessed by most literate people of the time. It was only with the growing influence of the Enlightenment that the monarch came just to make a gift of money instead of also laying hands upon the sick. The Queen still makes the gift in a service on Maundy Thursday each year. Shakespeare wonderfully describes the older practice in lines from Macbeth,

“Strangely visited people, all swol’n and ulcerous,  pitiful to the eye, the mere despair of surgery, he cures, hanging a golden stamp about their necks, put on with holy prayers.”

It is this ancient belief that Tolkien draws upon here in the stories of Aragorn’s healings, and ancient belief that I would argue was seen at work in Viktor Frankl’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl showed implicitly in a way that Moore and Gillette do explicitly that access to the King Archetype is available to all of us and will order, heal and bless.

 

Merry Thinks About “Being Overlooked” Just One More Time

When Meriadoc Brandybuck enters the City he is just one more weary soldier among many others at the end of battle. All attention is given to the King of Rohan whose body is covered in a great cloth of gold and received with state and reverence. And with the king is Éowyn who is borne upon a litter and whose beauty calls forth tender sorrow from all who look upon her.

At the last it is Pippin who finds him as he wanders aimlessly along a narrow lane and as the friends meet again at last Merry sits down upon a step and weeps.

“I wish I could carry you,” Pippin anxiously declares. “You aren’t fit to walk any further. They shouldn’t have let you walk at all; but you must forgive them. So many dreadful things have happened in the City, Merry, that one poor hobbit coming in from the battle is easily overlooked.”

Now those who know Tolkien’s story well will know that Merry has carried a certain resentment about “being overlooked” throughout it. When we first meet him near the Bucklebury Ferry early in the journey of the Ring from the Shire he exudes competence and confidence in everything he does. He is the one who has prepared the cottage at Crickhollow for the frightened travellers, who have encountered the Nazgûl for the first time, with hot baths and a good meal. He is the one who reveals the conspiracy to Frodo and announces that wherever Frodo goes he and Pippin and Sam will go too. He has ponies and provisions ready for the journey and is able to offer local knowledge about the way into The Old Forest and even a little about the forest itself.

And then as soon as he steps outside the world he knows it all starts to unravel. The encounters with Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight and the later the Nazgûl in Bree, the last of which leads Barliman Butterbur to wonder if he might actually be on his holidays rather than a dangerous adventure, all cause him to lose the confidence with which he began. He is way out of his depth in a story so great and often so terrifying that it is always beyond his conceiving.

And yet he goes on.  It is Gandalf who says to Elrond of Merry and Pippin, “It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they had dared, and be shamed and unhappy.” And it is Merry’s refusal to be overlooked that leads him to go to the battle with Éowyn. At no time does he ever feel competent as he did at the outset of the journey but he never gives in and even his resentment, his feeling that he is no more than a piece of luggage to the great ones around him ultimately plays its part. It leads him to the moment when The Lord of the Nazgûl stands over the wounded Éowyn and is about to kill her. So intent is the deadly king upon his prey that he neither sees nor fears what lies behind him. And so it is Merry, “Master Bag”, who thrusts his sword into the tendons behind the knee of one who, until this moment, has believed himself invulnerable. Only Merry the hobbit and Éowyn the woman could have brought down this deadliest of foes and in the strangest of ways it is rejection and “being overlooked” that brings them both together to this vital moment.

Never again will Merry feel resentment about “being overlooked” or, if he does, it will be his memory of this moment that will transform that feeling.

“It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,” he says to Pippin. “I was overlooked just now by…”

Merry is now both sadder and wiser. His journey to adulthood, as it is for all who really get there, has been one that has been through fear and failure and sorrow. He has given his heart away and seen it broken and now he sits and weeps. But he does not give up. Step by step he keeps on going both to adulthood and a greatness of which he is entirely unaware.

The Palantir, Knowledge and Corruption

Denethor’s end, when it comes, is both tragic and yet utterly pointless. The pyre that he has prepared in the House of the Stewards is intended to be a magnificent gesture in which he will declare his freedom from tyrants whoever they are, Dark Lord or White Rider. And he will take his son with him so that he too will not fall into the hands of others. And yet at the last it is but a small, mean thing in the light of the events of the day. Peter Jackson portrays this well in his film showing the flaming body of Denethor at first filling the screen before suddenly pulling the camera back as if to a great distance so that Denethor’s fall becomes just another incident within a great battle. The words of  King Lear come to mind as he rails impotently at  his daughters,

“I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

As with Saruman it is a palantir that is revealed at the moment of crisis. Denethor shows it to Gandalf with furious pride as the symbol of his so-called freedom.

“Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory.”

Note what Denethor says, that to hope is mere ignorance and folly and that to know is to be certain of the victory of darkness. Saruman, if he were present, would say much the same thing. He too is corrupted by what he believes that he knows though there is a difference between them. Saruman is so convinced of his own greatness that he believes that he can become the ally of Sauron. He even believes that his own ringlore might enable him to out manoeuvre the Dark Lord. Denethor has no such illusion. He knows that the triumph of Mordor will inevitably mean his own enslavement and so refuses to become the ally of Sauron. But both Saruman and Denethor are corrupted by what they believe that they know.

So is Tolkien saying that all knowledge must lead to corruption and despair? Is it, as Denethor accuses Gandalf, that to hope must mean to be ignorant? Even from our knowledge of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings we know that Denethor’s accusation is untrue. The Council of Elrond makes it clear that Gandalf is entirely aware of Sauron’s strength. There is also the wonderful passage in which Galadriel declares, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!”

So it is not knowledge that corrupts Denethor and Saruman just as it is not ignorance that sustains the hope and the defiance of Gandalf or of Galadriel. What precedes knowledge in each of these figures is a fundamental moral choice. When Frodo offers the Ring, first to Gandalf and then to Galadriel, we are made aware of the inner struggle through which both of them have gone. And we see both of them reject the Ring and the power that it could bring to them. Both choose the possibility of defeat rather than the kind of victory that would be gained through the Ring. Such a victory would be entirely catastrophic. Denethor and Saruman have failed to make this choice, this fundamental rejection of evil and of despair. Denethor may not have chosen to be an ally to evil as Saruman has but his belief in the ultimate triumph of evil makes him an ally whether he wills it or not. And our fundamental moral choices will determine which side we will choose at the moment of crisis.

Eomer Prepares for a Good Death in Battle.

After the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the death of Théoden the battle upon the Pelennor Fields flows one way and then another. It is Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth who leads a charge from the city to come to the aid of the Rohirrim, led now by Éomer, but even with their forces combined upon the field and with their great skill in battle upon horseback the sheer number of their foes is ultimately too great and Éomer prepares to make a final stand. For this he has been long prepared since first hearing the songs of his people in the halls of Théoden. His spiritual formation has been made there and he knows that what is expected of him is to make a good death with his face turned towards his foes and with his men about him. He plants his banner upon a hillock and laughs as he cries out,

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking: Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall.”

And the song-makers will take the deeds of the day, the hewing of Forlong the Fat with axes as he fights on alone and unhorsed, and the trampling to death of Duilin of Morthond and his brother beneath the terrible feet of the mûmakil, and they will make them beautiful. Tears will flow as the great songs are sung once more and pride rekindled in the hearts of the people. The Rohirrim will know that they are a great people and boys will know, as they grow to manhood, that the worst thing that they could possibly do is to bring shame upon the memory of their ancestors. And so we recall once again the satisfaction that Théoden feels, even as life ebbs from his body, that he can face his forefathers without shame, that what has happened upon this terrible day can be spoken of with pride alongside the great deeds of the past.

It is a bad thing to rob someone of their pride. It is something that might be done by a mighty person who does not fear the power of their enemies, who seeks to display their own greatness by means of humiliation, but resentment will always lead to deeds of revenge and memories forged by bitterness are long. I like to think that the victors at the Pelennor Fields gave as much attention to enabling their foes to retain their pride as they did to winning the battle. It is a wise lord who knows how to make peace even as they must, in time of need, know how to make war.

There are some who in describing the times in which we live have named them an age of anger. They show how resentment, born of felt humiliation, is felt by growing numbers in a world in which a small number seek to gather as much power and wealth for themselves as possible at the expense of the rest of humankind. The powerful may for the time being be able to contain the angry by means of the security apparatus but we see that even the highest walls cannot keep all anger at bay. Our leaders and we whom they lead need to consider how we can allow those who regard themselves as our enemies to withdraw from conflict with pride. If we do not do this then we and our children may have to pay a great price for our pride and their humiliation.

Éowyn, Merry and The Lord of the Nazgûl

As Théoden lies, his body broken beneath Snowmane, only two among his household knights remain beside him. One is the hobbit, Meriadoc Brandybuck, who began the great ride of the Rohirrim in some indignation feeling that his offer of service to the king had been disregarded but who at this moment of horror is at Théoden’s side only because he has been carried there. And the other is the one who carried Merry into battle and who followed the king wherever he went in the fight. This knight named himself, Dernhelm, but is now revealed as Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, and niece to Théoden.

Éowyn is there because of her love for Théoden who has been as a father to her, and she is there because she seeks death. Indeed we could describe her as being one who has already died and so feels no fear.

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” she cries. And the Lord of the Nazgûl who has journeyed deathless through long ages and through battles beyond numbering, advances upon her to destroy both her and Théoden.

But he is resisted. The fear that robs all who try to cross his path of the strength even to try and resist him has no power over her for she is beyond fear, and then something new and entirely unexpected is brought to the story. When Éowyn declares her intent to hinder him he cries out that, “No living man may hinder me!” and in so doing he grants to Éowyn a new strength and determination for, as she declares to him, “no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.”

Doubt enters the Ringwraith’s mind and amazement the mind of the terrified hobbit and, within moments, Éowyn and Merry have pierced the sinews of the Black Captain that he had thought invulnerable to all hurt “and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died”. So passes the Lord of the Nazgûl in utter despair.

This is a moment of great power in Tolkien’s story and it is one that neither Éowyn nor Merry have foreseen nor even dreamt of. Merry wanted simply to follow Théoden into the battle. Indeed, all he wanted was not to be left out. Éowyn wanted only a death in battle to obliterate the unendurable pain of rejection that she has had to bear since Aragorn’s departure. But a deeper feeling is awoken in both of them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. Deeper than Éowyn’s despair or Merry’s fear and sense of insignificance. In Éowyn it is her love for Théoden and in Merry a realisation that he cannot stand by and let Éowyn die alone. These deeper feelings rouse them to action but, by themselves, could do little more than bring them to a brave death that would have achieved nothing. It is the pronouncement of the prophecy by the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar of old, that brings about his own destruction, turning Éowyn and Merry into deadly foes and making vulnerable an undead body that has been untouchable through long ages.

Many who have achieved something of significance in their lives have spoken of an energy, a strength, that is given to them at a critical moment. At that moment and for that moment only it is as if no power can stand before them. The desire to do some good and the strength to do it come together irresistibly. It is as if some latent possibility is released that can, it seems, achieve anything. It can never be ordered and we can never know when it will come but when it does then we must act with all the courage that we can muster. And such power comes to those who desire some good for others and never for some selfish end. It is this divine power that comes to Merry and to Éowyn at this critical moment.

Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

It is but thirteen days since Gandalf came to Edoras and restored a shrivelled old man to life and to vigour. Now his body lies broken upon the field of battle and life ebbs swiftly away. It is Merry who is near him at the end, who hears the words of a man at peace.

“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a black day, and a golden sunset!”

And we remember, that day after day, the wizened creature enslaved by the leechcraft of Grima Wormtongue had to look upon the image of his mighty forefather, Eorl the Young, as he rode to victory and glory long ago and so won the plains of Calenardhon for his people as a gift from the Steward of Gondor. Doubtless this torture was a part of Wormtongue’s purpose as the shame Théoden felt worked its way into his heart and so unmanned him. It was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lead his people into battle, casting down the chieftain of the Haradrim and his serpent banner and driving his forces from the field. And it was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lie broken before the wreck of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the foul monster that the Ringwraith had ridden through the air into the battle.

If Gandalf had failed to heal him or if he had chosen to leave him in his chair then doubtless Théoden would have held onto life a little longer. For many it is this clinging onto life that is regarded as the final work of old age and when the weakness and the pain of the last days of life is borne with courage as it was by Pope John Paul II who allowed the world to watch his final struggle and, as I remember it, by my own father who bore great pain with quiet dignity in his last days, then this is praiseworthy. But to hold onto life merely for the sake of extending our existence just a short while longer is hardly an achievement of any merit.

At the ending of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen Aragorn speaks to Arwen as he draws near to the end of his great life. Arwen finds the choice of her husband to lay down his life a hard one but Aragorn replies, “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”

Aragorn chooses the grace given to the Númenorians by the Valar of old to lay down their lives freely and so entrust themselves to the mystery of death unafraid. “In sorrow we must go,”  he says, “but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Aragorn lays down his life in freedom in the glory of his kingship. Théoden lays down his life in freedom upon the field of battle in the glory of a promise kept and his people raised from shame to honour. It is this freedom that is the essence of both in the ending of their lives. At the end of his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, puts it like this, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl recognised that our choice to find life as meaningful is the greatest one that we make and that we must make it daily. Théoden made the choice on that day in Edoras, made it again on the Pelennor Fields and so he ends his life in peace.