I have been enjoying Olga’s work in recent months and so I invited her to contribute a Guest Blog based upon the chapter in The Lord of the Rings entitled The Houses of Healing. I am delighted that she agreed to do so and so I publish her piece today prefaced by a short introduction about herself. I do hope that you will enjoy this and other work that she has written.
Olga is a teacher of English with a passion for languages, British music, the works of J.R.R Tolkien, mythology and fantasy literature. You can find her reflections on the world of Middle-earth here https://middleearthreflections.com
A lot of folklore tales might sound unbelievable to those living years away from when these stories were first composed, but most of folklore has a grain of truth in it and is deeply rooted in the past. Speaking of the traditions or culture of the days gone by, such tales can be passed from generation to generation, but their factual value may diminish as ancient lore becomes forgotten and substituted by more contemporary ideas. However, at a certain point these beliefs of old can return and come to life before the unbelieving eyes of modern onlookers.
This is exactly what several characters experience throughout The Lord of the Rings. Tales which have long been dismissed as mere fiction or pure nonsense, come alive, as if bringing the magic and the fascination of old into the increasingly practical world. When we enter the Houses of Healing in The Return of the King and watch Aragorn tending the sick, we see a beautiful legend return from the oblivion of a mere myth.
When Aragorn asks Ioreth the old wife for athelas, his request is met with mild surprise. At first she does not even understand what herb Aragorn means until he uses its other name – kingsfoil:
No, we have none of it, I am sure. Why, I have never heard that it had any great virtue; and indeed I have often said to my sisters when we came upon it growing in the woods: ‘‘kingsfoil’’, I said, ‘‘’tis a strange name, and I wonder why ’tis called so; for if I were a king, I would have plants more bright in my garden’’
(Return of the King, p. 159)
Ioreth’s reaction plainly shows that a lot has been forgotten in Gondor, where the plant is not known to possess any healing virtues. Athelas is valued mostly for its refreshing scent and ability to cure headaches. In truth, Ioreth fails to understand the real meaning and implication of the name kingsfoil, thinking that having a name like that the herb should somehow look bright enough to fit kings’ gardens: she simply judges the book by its cover, looks on the outside but not inside.
When summoned, the herb-master is equally puzzled by Aragorn’s asking for athelas. He echoes Ioreth’s words in his ignorance of any virtuous qualities of this plant. However, he does remember the old verse:
When the black breath blows
and death’s shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king’s hand lying!
(Return of the King, p. 160)
The herb-master dismisses the verse as a mere doggerel «garbled in the memory of old wives» which they repeat «without understanding» and shows a somewhat scornful attitude to the rhyme, disbelief in athelas’s healing qualities. For him, just like for Ioreth, athelas and the verse about it are nothing more than a pack of meaningless nonsense. But both – the plant’s name and the verse bear a lot of significance and point to the old myth than will soon become reality for Gondor.
The word kingsfoil consists of the element king and the Old French element foil, which means «leaf»: the name of the herb in English literally means «king’s leaf». Both – its Sindarin name athelas and Quenya name asëa aranion, presumably bear the meaning «beneficial of kings». So, the herb’s name in any language does not imply, as Ioreth mistakenly thinks, that this humble-looking plant is supposed to grow in kings’ gardens for decoration, but that in the hands of the true king these leaves can work wonders.
By the time of the War of the Ring Gondor had been kingless for a long time. Under the rule of Stewards the people of those lands forgot a lot of lore which used to be common in the time of kings. So it is no wonder that the virtuous qualities of athelas are no longer remembered there: there was no king to use it in healing. Brought to Middle-earth by Númenóreans (who, in their turn, might have received it from the Elves of Tol Eressëa), athelas grew very sparsely and mostly near the places of their former dwellings. In the Third Age only those who wandered in the wild retained the knowledge of athelas’s healing properties.
When Ioreth weeps for the gravely wounded Faramir, little does she know that her wish is soon to be granted:
Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.’
(Return of the King, p. 154)
Especially powerful in the royal hands, athelas points to Aragorn as to the rightful king of Gondor – the heir of Isildur. With the war in progress, Gondor is going through very hard times. Amid the chaos of the destroyed Minas Tirith Aragorn’s mysterious arrival brings not only cure to the sick, but also hope to the people of Gondor: the true King has finally returned.
1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.