“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.

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

  1. What a beautiful connection of athelas’s scent with the one in your dream! And what a powerful dream it was! Thank you for sharing your experience, Stephen!
    I’ve emailed you, by the way 🙂 Really looking forward to hearing from you.

    • Thank you for your comment, Olga. It was a powerful dream and one that remains very clear in my memory all these years later.
      I will reply to your email shortly. Many thanks for getting in touch.

  2. What a fascinating dream! I love the humility of Aragorn who enters first only as a healer, rather than the king he will become. Obviously this was filmed. I wish they used it. Those words of Faramir’s upon waking are so beautiful.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Aragorn really is a king who is not afraid to appear powerless. I wonder if Peter Jackson got that.
      I agree with you about Faramir’s words. I look forward to reflecting on them next week.
      God bless you too, Anne Marie 😊

  3. Wow! That is indeed a remarkable dream. Fragrance is a powerful image both in Tolkien and in Christianity. I’ve been studying the life of Lúthien, and she also is associated with an “odour of immortal flowers” from the gardens of Lórien (as is her mother, Melian). Is it a coincidence that Tolkien later decided that the herb Lúthien used to cure Beren after he is shot by Curufin was athelas. I like to imagine that Melian brought it with her from Valinor.

    • Thank you so much, Kate, for leaving your first (and I very much hope not your last!) comment on my blog. The dream was certainly remarkable for me but not rare, or so I am discovering. A significant, even transformative, encounter with a king or father like figure is not uncommon and the Pope is right up there as a frequent character in these dreams and I am not even a Catholic! Essential to these dreams is a getting in touch with one’s own king energy.
      Thank you so much for telling me about the place of athelas in other parts of Tolkien’s legendarium. Once again I am struck by the beautiful subtle relationship between the feminine and the masculine in Tolkien’s writing. It really is only the ignorant who accuse him writing stories about jolly chaps in an Oxford common room. I did not know that Lúthien healed Beren with athelas and I am sure that you are right when you say that Melian brought it with her from Valinor. I cannot help but contrast the closing of Thingol’s heart and the loving generosity of Beren and Lúthien. That their hearts should be linked to the unassuming and generally unnoticed athelas does not surprise me, nor that Lúthien should be linked to a natural fragrance of flowers. You have given me something to ponder upon and I am most grateful.

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