“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.

 

Frodo Finds Strength to Do What He Must Do

“Who can now hold the fords when the King of the Nine Riders comes? And other armies will come. I am too late. All is lost. I tarried on the way. All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.”

And so once more Frodo falls into despair as the sable clad armies of Minas Morgul pass by him on their way to take the fords of Osgiliath and then onward to assail the mighty fortress of Gondor itself, Minas Tirith. For Frodo Gondor now bears a human face and it is Faramir’s face that he can see as he watches the Lord of the Nazgul pass him by. His body still carries the memory of the wound that he received at the hands of that fell king at Weathertop. Now he sees him at the head of armies. Who can withstand him?

At all times Frodo has lived at the edge of his despair on his journey and most especially after the fall of Gandalf in Moria and then the attempt by Boromir to seize the Ring at the Falls of Rauros and the sundering of the Fellowship. At all times he is exhausted and as, he says to Sam, the Ring is “heavy on me, Sam lad, very heavy. I wonder how far I can carry it?” Yet time and again he finds strength to go on. We remember the refreshing dream just before the Black Gate and his laughter at the song of the Oliphaunt that Sam sings. We remember most of all the unexpected friendship that he found in his meeting with Faramir. Each moment has been unlooked for but each has found him out and given him strength to journey on once more. Now as he gazes upon the armies of Mordor and weeps in his despair it is a voice that reaches out to him.

“Wake up, Mr. Frodo! Wake up!”

And something in the voice, for it is Sam’s voice, calls him back to the Shire and to Bag End where everything is at peace, where he is at home. And in the inbreaking of the memory of home and of peace, entirely unsought for, he finds strength once again. “Despair had not left him, but the weakness had passed.” He knows what he must do even if there is nothing left to save and no one that he can tell. “What he had to do, he had to do, if he could, and that whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else knew about it was beside the purpose.”

The purpose is the task itself and few people ever reach the maturity that Frodo displays here. It is an essential part of our growing up that we want to please the important people in our lives. At first this means our parents and grandparents. I still carry in my heart words of praise and encouragement that my grandmother spoke to me at a key moment in my life. They will always be a source of pleasure and of strength to me. But there comes a point when to go in search of such praise and to need someone to tell will keep us from doing the work that we came to this life to do. There comes a time when we must bid farewell, first to our grandparents and then to our parents, and even if we have had the fortune to find wise and kindly fathers and mothers in the communities, in the organisations, in which we have lived and worked there comes a time when we find that they must leave us. If there are to be such fathers and mothers then we must become them ourselves. The moment when we come to this place will be a lonely one but those who reach it and who do not flee from it as Frodo does not flee from it now are those who bring strength and blessing to others on the same journey.