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.

Théoden Bound and Ashamed

Gandalf and his companions enter Théoden’s darkened hall whose majesty lies half hidden in shadows. Around them upon the walls hang many woven cloths and “over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend”. To one in particular their eyes are drawn even before they look upon the king himself because in the dark the light of the sun has fallen upon it through an opening high in the roof. “A young man upon a white horse… blowing a great horn… his yellow hair flowing in the wind.”

“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”

That we should look upon Eorl before we see the king is no accident. Eorl is forever young and Théoden is old; very old indeed. He is a man “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Eorl is bathed in sunlight while Théoden is hidden in the shadows. Tolkien means us to gaze upon Eorl in his majesty because that is where Théoden himself looks and what he sees acts as a constant reproach to him. Eorl rides to battle, to victory and to glory while Théoden sits helplessly by as he hears daily of defeat, of the death of his only son in battle and of the impending doom of his house and of his people. Almost his last words just a few weeks later at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will be, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”

Théoden has been ashamed, literally crippled and shrunken by shame even as Wormtongue’s whisperings have steadily weakened his resolve. Faced by the dangers that surround him he has withdrawn behind the diminishing safety of his own walls yet even there the image of his mighty ancestor rebukes him. Age must come to us all if we live long enough to see it and many find that the world about them becomes a more fearful place. Tove Jansson, writer of the wonderful Moomintroll stories, summered for many years on an island some way off the coast of Finland. One day she stepped out of her hut on the island to gaze upon the sea and she was suddenly afraid, a feeling she had never known before in that place. When she left her island as the summer ended it was to be for the last time. She never returned there again.

Théoden is freed from the prison of his own walls by Gandalf. We will think more about that next week. He will then throw himself into life for a few brief and dangerous days before finally falling in battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Those for whom the most important thing in life is to achieve security will find Gandalf’s behaviour reprehensible and Théoden’s foolish. What kind of care for the aged is it that counsels leaving safety and care and going into battle? Yet Gandalf’s counsel will enable Théoden to break free from fear and from shame and to die a free man. Who would deny him this? And which of us are in danger of denying freedom to ourselves and building darkened prisons for our own souls?