Aragorn moves from Faramir’s bedside to Éowyn’s and there he hesitates a moment.
“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her.”
And now in that uncertainty he crushes the leaves of athelas into the bowl of steaming water not knowing whether he can call Éowyn back from the darkness that seeks to claim her or if he can to what she will return.
Last week we saw how when Aragorn anointed Faramir with the water and the healing herb how the fragrance that filled the room evoked the deepest longing of Faramir’s heart. Now as Aragorn “laves her brow” with the water and her right arm “lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet” a new fragrance fills the air about them.
“It seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and and clean and young, as it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”
If in Faramir’s case the fragrance evokes his longing, I believe, for “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”, in Éowyn’s case it is surely something in relation to her desire for her people that is sensed here. Gandalf has reminded Éomer of the words that Saruman spoke to Théoden, words and insinuations that Wormtongue spoke more subtly but no less destructively.
“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”
What would Éowyn long for more than something entirely opposite to the “reek” that fills her nostrils? Something that would take away her sense of shame, the shame that for a moment she dreamed that the mighty warrior who enters her prison would save her from. I picture Éowyn gazing at the same tapestry of Eorl in his youthful glory, the tapestry that so crushed the spirit of Théoden, and as she did so I believe that it took her to the place of utter purity that the fragrance evokes. Of course the historical ride of Eorl out of the North would have been with real horses whose sweat would have mingled with that of their riders but not so the myth that is seen in and through the tapestry. That is an evocation of something eternally new and clean and unsullied.
Tolkien had a deep love for what he termed Northernness which in the form that has come to us through the mythology of the North is ultimately bleak and without meaning. But he discerned something that lay beyond that, something that he could see in the myth of the death of Baldur and in the longing of those who wept for him. When Tolkien spoke of true Northernness it is the clean cold air from snowy mountains of which he speaks that blows away the stain of our failure and shame. This is the truth that lies deep within Éowyn’s soul and that is called forth as Aragorn calls her from her dark valley. Aragorn is right when he says to Éomer that Éowyn “loves you more truly than me”. Éomer belongs more truly to that which Éowyn most truly desires. But Éowyn’s story does not end here. We shall see when we return to her at a later point in her stay in the Houses of Healing that her desire can lead her to something new and entirely unexpected and yet remain true to her original vision.