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 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.

Théoden, a True Warrior King

From time to time during the history of this blog we have drawn upon the work of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette on the masculine psyche in their book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. In this book they speak about these four archetypes in both their mature and their immature manifestations and how we can gain access to the positive energies related to each one. That we do connect to the energies related to each archetype is inevitable. We cannot avoid this and any attempt to repress the energy is futile. So Denethor hates and fears the kingly energy that he sees in Faramir but Faramir is not playing a game as his father accuses him of doing. Faramir’s noble kingliness is so deeply rooted that it is able to resist the anger and scorn of his father. Eventually Denethor makes various attempts to kill his son so great is his hatred. And eventually we see Denethor’s relationship to the archetypal energy of the king become entirely destructive. He gives up the responsibility that he has towards his people in their darkest hour and uses all the energy that is left to him in an attempt to destroy both himself and his son.

Théoden too has been through his own struggle with impotence and despair. When we first met him in the darkness of Meduseld we saw the contrast that Tolkien drew between the glory of Eorl the Young, celebrated in a tapestry that adorns the walls of the hall, and the shrivelled old man imprisoned within his own mind and the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue. Gandalf liberates the true Théoden and does so to such effect that just a few days later Théoden is able to lead his people on the glorious charge against the hosts of Mordor massed against the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden manifests the energy of the king and the warrior archetypes in their most positive way. As a true king he shows his people that he will die in their defence. As a true warrior he hurls himself into the forefront of the battle with such force that he is able to turn the direction of the battle. Even the Lord of the Nazgûl himself must leave his long cherished triumphant entry into the city in order to deal with the new threat. And as a warrior king Théoden focuses the energies of all his people onto one goal and that is the defeat of their enemies. So truly does he manifest these energies that all his people are as one with him upon the charge, even the frightened Merry.

Last week we saw how Tolkien turns to the language of myth in order to describe this scene and the energy expressed within it. It is Oromë the Great Hunter that Tolkien invokes, the Valar with whom the Rohirrim feel the closest connection believing their greatest steeds, the Mearas, to have been descended from horses that Oromë had brought out of the West at the dawn of time. Tolkien deliberately re-enchants the scene by this means. Théoden becomes a godlike figure and his people will follow him into the very jaws of hell itself.

When the archetypal energy of the true warrior king appears to be absent then the whole community suffers. In an organisation it might be a growing belief that the leaders are more concerned with their own interests than with the organisation as a whole. Myths such as that of the Fisher King, literally a tale of a king who gives up his call to lead his people in order to go fishing every day, described the ebbing away of energy from the community. Crops are not planted or harvested; children are not born or nurtured. The community ceases to believe in its own future. Such communities become vulnerable to the predatory power of dark lords just as Germany did to Hitler and to national socialism in the 1930s. When that happens the outcome is always destruction.

Rohan had been on the road to destruction and the predatory lusts of Saruman before the intervention of Gandalf. Now with their king restored to them they ride to glory.

 

Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.

The Suffering of Faramir

Denethor has sent Faramir to the fords of Osgiliath so that he might try to hold them against the invaders for as long as possible. All remaining hope is pinned upon the arrival of the Rohirrim to raise the siege and Denethor hopes that in holding the outer defences of the Pelennor he can keep the hosts of Mordor from the walls of Minas Tirith itself and that the Rohirrim will not be divided from the defenders of the city.

That is Denethor’s hope but the invading force is too great in number for Faramir to withstand and soon they are in retreat and eventually the retreat becomes a rout. Only the action of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who turns back the attack, and of Gandalf, who withstands the Lord of the Nazgûl, saves the fleeing force from slaughter.

But for Faramir this comes too late. Even as the Nazgûl swerve aside Faramir is struck by a deadly dart and Imrahil carries him from the field of battle. Faramir is defeated and his life hangs by a thread.

Faramir has lain down his life for his friends, a line from the Gospel of John in which Jesus, on the night of his betrayal declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends”. It is a phrase that Shakespeare takes up in the speech made by Henry V to his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the king calls them brothers “be he ne’er so vile”. Faramir has fallen at the head of his men seeking to ensure an orderly retreat. Imrahil declares to Denethor that Faramir has done “great deeds” but he has fallen and will play no more part in the war except to declare Aragorn, king, and then to wait.

I meet very few people who are able to wait well when their work is finally done. Often they rail against a loss of power and influence sometimes seeking to intervene when it is no longer appropriate that they should. They should have been ready to pass on a task or responsibility to another but they fail to do so. They may become angry at their apparent impotence and the lack of respect or gratitude that they feel they should receive from others and their anger may turn to bitterness or depression.

Faramir does not give way to this although he will come close to it and will need the intervention of the king in the Houses of Healing. But just as we thought of his Christlikeness in the laying down of his life for his people so too do we see him pass through dereliction on his road to healing and serenity. We are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But why does Faramir’s dereliction end in life while Denethor’s ends in a despairing death? My conviction is that Faramir truly suffers. In saying that I use the word in its old sense of giving permission to something to happen, of believing that there is something that is bigger even than my death. Something that gives meaning to my death even if I do not know what it is. Ultimately Denethor’s death is a denial of suffering. He gives permission to nothing. Nothing has meaning. Faramir will awaken through the aid of the king and will serenely await the outcome of the final battle. If it ends with victory and the king returns he will lay down his office even as he was prepared to lay down his life. If it ends with defeat he will lead his people in a final defence of the city believing that this too will have meaning. One heart will be won entirely by the nobility of his patience but that is a story we must tell another time.

On Gandalf and His “Fool’s Hope”.

Denethor is right!

I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.

“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.

“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”

“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”

“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”

Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.

In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.

And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.

Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.

The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories. But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence  showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.