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 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.

The Siege of Gondor: A Word to Those For Whom Hope Has Gone

“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.

“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”

And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot be breached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:

If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light  are both alike to thee.

This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.

In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.

Don’t give up.

 

 

Some Reflections on The King of Gondor

To become a man, truly and healthily drawing upon the King archetype, it is necessary to serve an apprenticeship, serving a master and learning all that can be learned from him. Aragorn has been such an apprentice. The great fathers of his life have been Elrond of Rivendell and Gandalf the Grey but he also contested against the forces of Mordor under Ecthelion, the father of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and under Thengel, father of Théoden, the King of Rohan. There is a passage in a letter from St Paul that speaks of such apprenticeships and their outcome.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

We live in a world in which we desire wealth and success as soon as possible.  In the words of Simba, the lion cub, “I just can’t wait to be king!” I confess that when as a young man I found myself, for a time, working on factory production lines when I thought I was destined for great things I used to fantasise about marching into a great corporate building surrounded by an entourage who hung upon my every word. I had no idea then that in working in factories alongside other workers that I was serving the kind of apprenticeship that St Paul speaks of and that it had just as much significance for my life as did my university studies.

In 1943 the pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a paper for fellow members of the conspiracy to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It was a reflection on what had been learned through 10 years of living under the tyranny of the Third Reich and asked questions about the way ahead. At its heart Bonhoeffer wrote these words:

” The ultimate responsible question is not how I am to extricate myself heroically from the affair, but how the next generation is to live.”

For Bonhoeffer the idea of responsibility was the same as the biblical idea of righteousness and it perfectly describes what Aragorn is in Tolkien’s story. Last week we drew the contrast between him and Saruman in terms of ambition. Saruman really wants to be king! Now we also see in what way Aragorn is different from Boromir. Boromir desperately wanted to be the hero of the story. He wanted to raise a banner that the whole world would flock to and march under. Aragorn wants to make room for the next generation to live. Not just to exist but to live. When the moment comes to raises his banner and to declare himself king he will do so but not in order to be the hero but in order to serve the people and the people know it.

Next week we will think about the terrible journey that Aragorn must take in order to reach the battle in time. He must tread the Paths of the Dead. And when he does so he will be followed by the Rangers of the North because they love him; he will be followed by Legolas of the Greenwood Realm and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain because they love him; and Merry would have followed him if he could, as would Eowyn of Rohan, but he would not permit them to come with him. All are willing to lay down their lives with and for him because they know that he would lay down his life for them.

It is important to know that the kind of apprenticeship, spoken of by St Paul, does not refer to a particular period of our lives. It does not mean that at some point I must serve an apprenticeship in order that I can become a master and direct the labours of others. To be an apprentice is a way of life. I choose to learn all that I can each day from what each experience can teach me. And each day I am ready to act boldly  and responsibly when called upon to do so. Aragorn is about to tread the Paths of the Dead. I have duties to perform. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.

Gandalf Speaks of His Stewardship

Poor Pippin!  For a long and exhausting hour he has to stand between Denethor and Gandalf and to tell his story the best he can. As he does so he is aware of Gandalf “holding in check a rising wrath and impatience”.

At the last Denethor speaks: “The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”

Those last words should be read with a fierce irony for Denethor knows of Aragorn. Indeed he has known him for a long time because Aragorn served his father, Ecthelion, hiding his true identity and going by the name of Thorongil. Denethor resented Thorongil’s  masterful nature, “the most hardy of living Men” and “elven-wise”, “worthy of honour as a king who is in exile.” This is why when Denethor speaks of the good of Gondor he speaks, as it were in the same breath, of his own dignity. For him the two have become one and the same.

So it is that when Gandalf speaks it is with a courteous ferocity:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

This is a wonderful speech and is the nearest that we find to a confession of faith throughout the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth, not to preserve a kingdom, praiseworthy though that would be, but to preserve something deeper, something for which all earthly kingdoms exist, and that is all “that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again.” To fulfil this task given him by the Valar it would be a distraction, an unnecessary burden to rule a kingdom and yet Denethor does not believe him. Neither for that matter does Saruman and if Sauron were ever to question Gandalf he would not believe him either. Why is it that people are sure that someone of the stature of Gandalf must want to rule over others? Is it that they fear their own powerlessness, believing that only those who rule over others have any value? Eventually Denethor will abandon even his care for his people finally reaching a place where only his own grIief has any meaning. In the same way Saruman will reach this place regarding his bitterness. Nothing else will have meaning for him either.

We live in a world that suffers from those like Denethor or Saruman. Even in our democracies we seem all too ready to elect them to power. What the world really needs is more people like Gandalf; those who give their lives to be stewards of that which is good, beautiful and true. It may be that we live in a time in which the kingdoms that we love may decline and even fall but if we understand aright our calling as stewards then we will not be discouraged because we will be working and praying for the coming of a kingdom. And we do not need the power that Gandalf has in order to be stewards even as he is. All we need is to have the same love for “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands” and to offer ourselves as we are with all our weakness. Gandalf has called many people to share his stewardship from the great like Aragorn to the weak like Pippin and each will play his part. Sadly Denethor will reject the call. Pippin will give more to Gondor than its lord. We can give more to the world as stewards than its rulers do seeking their own glory.

The Despair of Denethor

When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli entered the halls of Théoden in Meduseld it was into a place of darkness. The throne chamber of Minas Tirith is not dark and stifling but cold and austere. The darkness of Meduseld matched the mood of its lord but Gandalf was able to deliver him, taking him outside into the wholesomeness of the wind and the rain. The throne chamber of Denethor is not dark but light but the light is cold revealing a man who has already bidden farewell to hope. Tolkien finds the image that most truly describes the man who sits upon the Steward’s chair beneath the throne of Gondor even at the one point in scene that reveals a little warmth. He speaks of “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening.”

The fleeting moment comes when Pippin offers his service to Denethor. It is a moment when he shows that Gandalf’s words about him at the defences of the Pelennor Fields are true and Denethor recognises this too. “Looks may belie the man- or the halfling.” Pippin is indeed “a valiant man”. He hardly recognises it himself but he is battle hardened and the pride with which he answers Denethor is a good pride. That it is able to reach Denethor, even for a moment, shows that the Lord of Gondor has still a spark of life within him. For a true elder delights in the pride of a younger man, by one who is not daunted by hard words, who speaks courteously and yet looks him in the eye. The true elder is not threatened by a young man who displays such character.

But the moment soon passes, for Denethor is in the process of casting aside his eldership. The one young man for whom he truly cares is dead and his horn lies broken upon his lap. Boromir died at the hands of orcs at the Falls of Rauros, giving his life for Merry and Pippin, seeking to atone for his attempt to sieze the Ring from Frodo. Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart. “Though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” From now on every person will only play a part in the story of his private grief. He is no longer Steward of Gondor in anything but name and even his son Faramir must be punished for being the son who is alive when Boromir is dead.

Do we condemn Denethor for this? Surely our hearts go out to him in his grief and yet we remember that Théoden too lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship leading his people in battle, thus restoring their pride. We honour Théoden for this event as our hearts go out to him also in his grief.

Denethor’s grief is mingled with a pride that cuts him off from all other bonds. Ultimately it will cut him off even from his true self as despair will always do. The early Fathers of the Church understood this, teaching that metanoia, the radical turning of the heart toward the light that is usually translated as repentance, must be founded upon a renunciation of despair. Sadly this was later to be reduced to the modification of certain behaviours, usually those that did not conform to the social norms of the time, thus often pushing more adventurous spirits outside of the church. But this was not the case when the church itself was the true home of the adventurous spirit. And it is never true when a saint calls humanity home to its true selfhood when it is fully alive.

And this is how we know that despair, while it may call forth our deepest sympathy, is not a true state of the heart. Denethor is already preparing his own funeral pyre even as he questions Pippin and receives his service. For the one who is connected to the true self even preparing for death is not an act of despair but of expectation.

You Have Come to the End of the Gondor that You Have Known

These are not the kind of words that we want to hear from our prophets. When times are hard we want to be comforted; we want to be encouraged. We do not want to hear of endings but of continuings. In my work as a priest I am not sure that I have ever heard someone at the end of life when their body is failing actually look forward to the adventure that lies ahead so that the laying down of life is something that is done in faith and with joy. Sometimes sheer weariness may be expressed; a longing for the struggle to come to an end but often the desire is to return to a normality to which they have become used even if there is little or no  pleasure to look forward to within it.

This is the kind of normality to which Gondor has become used. This is a once great kingdom founded by Elendil and by his sons, Anárion and Isildur, and which in alliance with Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, was able to overthrow Sauron even when he carried the Ring. Minas Morgul, the city of the Ringwraiths, was once Minas Ithil, the tower of the moon. The Black Gate that was shut against Frodo and Sam was first built not to keep enemies out of Mordor but by Gondor in her pride to keep her enemies shut within it.

Pippin’s first impression of Minas Tirith is of this glory. He “gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful.” But what he sees is not the great city in the glory of its  maturity but in the fading of its declining years. “It was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” Pippin and Gandalf make the thousand foot climb up to the Citadel of the Stewards at the summit of the city and as they do so in every street they pass “some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names, Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

This is one of the most poignant expressions of the slow defeat that has been a major theme of The Lord of the Rings and we have seen it in many places through our journey; in the once great halls of Khazad-dûm and in the bleak city of Edoras and the darkened hall of Théoden in Meduseld. In each place we have seen something that once was great after its fashion now falling into decay and ruin and even as we have seen this we have seen also the rise of the powers of darkness. Who can triumph over them? Surely at the end even the bravest resistance is ultimately futile. Saruman thought this and so chose to side with the dark seeing such an alliance as the only means to further his own ambition. Soon we will meet Denethor, Steward of Gondor who has no more hope than Saruman and who although he does not take the way of betrayal also believes resistance to be futile.

This is the defeated world to which Gandalf declares: “Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known.” It may be that Gondor will fall and Gandalf does not hide this possibility from them; but it is not despair that Gandalf brings to Minas Tirith but hope and in the weeks ahead we will think about this hope both in the time of the War of the Ring and in our own time for we too are come to the end of a world that we have known and we too need such hope as can be brought to us. Gandalf calls Gondor not to despair but to fight on and so must we.