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 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.

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.

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

The King and The Healing of Éowyn

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.

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was 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.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.   https://stephencwinter.com/2015/09/08/faramir-remembers-that-which-is-beyond-elvenhome-and-will-ever-be/

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.

Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor

All who know the story of The Lord of the Rings know that without Sam Gamgee Frodo Baggins could never have reached Mordor so that, in other words, Sam carried Frodo to Mordor. But this week we are going to think about the way that Frodo carried Sam to Mordor and we will show how Sam could never have made the journey he did without Frodo or become the person that he did without him. It was Sam’s relationship with Frodo that enabled him to grow into someone who could inhabit this story that is far too big for him even though he is never really aware that this is what is happening to him.

In the very first scene of The Lord of the Rings we meet Sam’s father, Gaffer Gamgee, sitting in The Ivy Bush on the Bywater Road talking over the news with the assembled gathering there as the Shire prepares for Bilbo Baggins’s great party. As they talk the Gaffer ruminates aloud over his anxiety that Sam is being taught how to read and write by Bilbo and that he loves to listen to Bilbo’s stories.

“Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you, I says to him. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.”

Of course the Gaffer’s words are prophetic because the stories of Elves and Dragons in which Bilbo had been a participant draw Sam right into the heart of the Quest of the Ring and a trouble that is indeed far too big for him. When some years later Sam overhears the discussion between Gandalf and Frodo  on the true nature of Bilbo’s ring and how Frodo would have to leave the Shire it is his love for tales of “dragons and a fiery mountain, and- Elves, sir” that draws him to the window then through the window as Gandalf drags him through it. It is his longing to see Elves that leads Gandalf to say to him, “I have thought of something… to shut your mouth, and punish you properly for listening. You shall go away with Mr. Frodo!”

Sam’s love for the tales he has heard will take him straight to Mordor but there is another love that will take him there too and that is his love for Frodo. It is when Sam hears that Frodo is leaving the Shire that he chokes and so gives away his hiding place outside the window. It is his love that first awakens his imagination in a way beyond anything that the Gaffer could ever conceive and would fear to do so and it is through the awakening of his imagination that Sam longs to see and to know for himself.

This is what I meant when I said that Frodo carries Sam to Mordor. This is what happens when one person awakens the imagination of another. The Gaffer, fearful of the unknown, deliberately tries to keep his son within the known world of cabbages and potatoes. Bilbo, and then Frodo after him, takes Sam into an unknown, fearful and wonderful world. I look back now with the deepest gratitude to the teachers who read wonderful stories to me, who introduced me to beautiful music and who taught me wonder. But even as my heart was opening to beauty I was already aware that most of my playmates were making different choices. And who can say which was the right one? Sam’s drinking partners in the pub laugh at his dreaminess and so it is that they never go to Rivendell; but then neither are they attacked by Ringwraiths or, wracked with hunger and thirst, stagger through the hell of Mordor to the fiery mountain. It is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to have our imaginations awakened. And it is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to truly love another. Sam is carried to Mordor by Frodo. His life would have been safer but also poorer if he had stayed at home. If we choose safety then we must also choose poverty. But if we choose wonder then we must also choose fearfulness.

On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.

 

Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.

Image

 

What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.