“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.

Father and Son: Denethor and Faramir

Dressed in the livery of the Tower of the Guard, Pippin is hardly noticed as he enters the Chamber with Faramir and Gandalf as they come to speak with Denethor. He stands behind Denethor’s chair as befits his servant and so he is able to watch Gandalf and Faramir as Faramir gives his report to his father.

As we have learnt in recent weeks, Pippin sees with his heart and soul when Faramir reveals that he has met Frodo and Sam Pippin looks at Gandalf’s hands, “white they seemed now and very old, and as he looked at them, suddenly with a thrill of fear Pippin knew that Gandalf, Gandalf himself, was troubled, even afraid.”

Gandalf is afraid, and we will think more about this in another post on this blog, but Denethor is angry. He is angry, even beside himself with rage, because Faramir has chosen, not to bring Frodo and the Ring to Minas Tirith but to allow him to continue his journey to Mordor. Faramir has chosen to disobey his father.

“I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle.”

As far as Denethor is concerned, that which made Pippin’s heart goes out to Faramir in love is mere play acting. Faramir is playing the part of a gracious lord. We can imagine that from childhood Denethor delighted in his warrior son, Boromir giving him praise even though it was Faramir who was more like his father in wisdom and insight. Does this suggest that Denethor secretly despised his own qualities and wished that he had those that Boromir displayed? I think that it does. After all, when Aragorn served Denethor’s father, Ecthelion, in disguise under the name of Thorongil, Denethor was jealous of him. Aragorn too displayed the warrior qualities that Denethor aspired to.

Aspiring to certain qualities that he perceived himself as lacking, learning to despise the ones that he had, Denethor even comes to believe that Faramir is merely acting. Here too we can see that Denethor has learned, himself, how to play a part. He is the same age as Aragorn and yet he is an old man sitting in his chair in the tower. It is one thing to play a part in our youth. In order to make our way in life we may even have to present ourselves for a time in a manner that others will respect and, perhaps, even admire; but as we grow older and our energy diminishes the effort required to play our chosen part begins to take its toll. Our lives lose the joy and spontaneity that comes when we are freely our true selves. In place of that joyous freedom comes both hardness and anger. The anger is directed at all who seem to display, naturally, the qualities that we desire. And when that person is someone close to us, especially when that person is a son to an embittered father that anger goes very deep indeed.

We can see why in the face of such hostility Faramir turned to Gandalf as a father. In Gandalf Faramir saw one who said a, Yes, to his true self. Under Gandalf’s loving and approving gaze Faramir, just as Aragorn did, was able to grow into his true self and to flourish. That is what true fathering does. It is not that the son has to find a self that is acceptable to the father. That is what Denethor desired of his sons. To find an acceptable self is just as destructive of the true self, of what we might also term as the soul, as is the rebellious self.

That is why we probably need others to be fathers to our sons. Sometimes we are just too close to be able to give them the freedom that they need to flourish. Perhaps that is where the old wisdom of godfathers comes from. It is a wise father who knows when to give way to another to provide what he lacks.

Denethor cannot do that. He needs to control and so his unhappy relationship to his son will play itself out to its tragic conclusion. Of that need to control we will see more next week when we think of Denethor and the Ring.