The King’s Leaf. A Guest Blog by Olga Polomoshnova.

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

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.

Works consulted:
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.

April 9: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945

I first encountered the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I came across a battered paperback copy of his “Letters and Papers from Prison” when I was teaching at Kafue Secondary School back in my twenties. All I knew about him then was that he was put to death by the Nazi regime at the end of the Second World War and so I was intrigued to know what he had written. I understood little of what I read back then and was even disturbed by some of it. What kept me going was the integrity of his life and so I read and re-read that slim volume until it became a part of me.
I offer you this reflection on the 72rd anniversary of his martyrdom. I could offer one or two minor factual corrections to what is written here but the essence is correct. I am even more certain now than when I first encountered Bonhoeffer that what he has to offer is vital to the life and faith of the church and the future of humankind. I offer this here in the hope that some of my readers may get to know him too.

Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Menblog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906. He studied at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. His doctoral thesis was published in 1930 as Sanctorum Commuunio.

From the first days of the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer was involved in protests against the regime. From 1933 to 1935 he was the pastor of two small congregations in London, but nonetheless was a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. In 1935 Bonhoeffer was appointed to organize and head a new seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwald. He described the community in Life Together and later wrote The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer became increasingly involved…

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Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Thanks to the people who have been reading this post today in the fourth week of Advent when, from of old, the church has sung the O Antiphons, an ancient prayer that had such an effect upon the young Tolkien when he first read them in Old English. The connections between Tolkien’s Christian faith and his legendarium are often hidden but they shine forth in Shelob’s Lair. When you have read this why not try putting the O Antiphons into a search engine and see where they take you.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of…

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Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy

Tolkien caused the Fellowship of the Ring to set out from Rivendell on their great journey on December 25th, Christmas Day, the Feast of the Nativity, and that the Ring should be cast into the fire on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (which is in itself a huge clue to the reality that his story points to something greater than itself. The fall of Sauron is not the end of the story.) Stephen Greydanus has written a beautiful reflection on the Catholic Faith that Tolkien brought to the writing of his greatest work and in this final week of Advent I would like to offer it to you here.

The Fellowship of The King


Note: This article refers to important, even climactic plot points in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings necessary to this overview of the spiritual significance of Tolkien’s work. If you haven’t read the books and wish to be able to do so (or to watch the films) without knowing in advance what will happen, please do so before reading this article.

    J.R. R. Tolkien once described his epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Yet nowhere in its pages is there any mention of religion, let alone of the Catholic Church, Christ, or even God. Tolkien’s hobbits have no religious practices or cult; of prayer, sacrifice, or corporate worship there is no sign.

     To make matters more difficult, Tolkien was equally emphatic that The Lord of the Rings were not to be understood allegorically. In fact, Tolkien was…

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Gandalf Teaches Us that the Just Shall Live by Faith.

Let us begin by speaking in the defence of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. He is no traitor. He knows about the Ring and about Frodo’s mission but even though he is in despair when he looks into the Palantir for the last time he does not betray what he knows. Sauron may have been able to seduce the proud heart of Saruman but Denethor is too great a man for that. But the Dark Lord is able to control all that Denethor can see in the Stone and so at the last as Denethor sits beside his wounded son his spirit is broken and he refuses to lead his people in their final defence against the hosts of Mordor.

“Follow whom you will,” he says, “even the Grey Fool, though his hope has failed. Here I stay.”

And so at the darkest moment it is Gandalf who takes command of the defences of the city.

“Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail.”

All through his stewardship Denethor has placed great value on the gaining of intelligence and it has served him well. He has often been able to remain a step ahead of his foes and to muster sufficient force to hold them at bay. But Sauron has always been able to play a long game. Even the loss of an army has not truly weakened him and at the last he is able to show such overwhelming force that Denethor is convinced that all is lost and so he abandons the duty that he owes to his people and retreats to a private place within his heart.

Gandalf knows just as much about the power of his enemy as does Denethor. In his case that knowledge is not about the size of a particular army but is based upon an experience of long resistance to a foe that he first encountered when Sauron was chief lieutenant to Morgoth in the First Age of the Earth. Gandalf knows, even more than Denethor, just how powerful Sauron is and yet he does not despair. Denethor derides Gandalf’s refusal to give in as a “Fool’s Hope” but it is founded upon something that goes far deeper than that.

Gandalf’s “Fool’s Hope” is based, as far as Denethor is concerned, upon the belief that two hobbits can penetrate the defences of Mordor and carry the Ring to the Cracks of Doom and there destroy it. For a man who has spent his life assessing the likely outcome of any action based upon good intelligence the possibility that Frodo will succeed is so ridiculously tiny as to be laughable. Of course any course of action based upon such a possibility can only be dismissed as a “Fool’s Hope”. But Gandalf has not placed his faith in Frodo. Of course he trusts that Frodo, aided by Sam, will give the very best that they can and he honours them for this but it is not their courage or even their luck that is the basis of his faith. Gandalf’s faith is in God and in a goodness that will ultimately prevail even though all seems lost. Frodo caught a glimpse of the Music of the Ainur when in the Halls of Elrond in Rivendell, an unseen flow that runs through history and will carry us to an ending that will have nothing to do with death so that its aliveness will be beyond anything that we have ever known. Sauron can never know it because he can only see death and darkness as the end of all things and so he worships these things. Gandalf  has long known this music and so he teaches us, as does St Paul, that “the just shall live by faith” and he refuses to give in even if the end of the battle will be his own death. He knows that his own death will not be the end.

Holy Fool

Thanks to Father Aidan Kimel I came to know this remarkable film recently and I have watched it twice in recent weeks. Now I want everyone I know to see it too. Father Kimel has written an excellent review and includes a link to the film and I have reblogged both here. I particularly liked the phrase in his review that begins, “To his surprise, irritation and bewilderment, God makes him…” I will let you read the rest of the sentence and the rest of the review.
That phrase made me ponder the question, What has God made me do over the years that I have not welcomed and yet has proved to be essential in revealing my True Self, that which God loves?
I do hope that some of you will watch The Island and that you will let me know your response. I know that it will change me on repeated viewings over the years.

Eclectic Orthodoxy

A few weeks ago Fr Ioan Badilita, Romanian priest and Dogmatic professor at the Theological Seminary in Iasi, encouraged me to watch The Island. I immediately ordered it from Amazon. This past Friday evening my wife and I sat down and watched it.

I loved it … no … that is not the right word. I was moved and inspired by it. It touched my soul. I know I will watch it again. It is a movie that I need to watch once a year. Lent would be the right time.

The Island presents the story of a man who commits a terrible act of betrayal and violence, becomes a monk, and spends the rest of his life offering penance and tears to God. And to his surprise, irritation, and bewilderment, God makes him a fool for Christ and worker of miracles. Fr Anatoly does not wander the streets nor…

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