This week in the Lord of the Rings re-read, we visit “The Houses of Healing” in Chapter 8 of book V of The Return of the King. The usual spoilers and comments follow after the jump.
Merry accompanies the procession of Théoden and Éowyn into Minas Tirith, but becomes separated from them and is found by Pippin. Merry, Éowyn, and Faramir become patients in the Houses of Healing and grow silent and cold from being exposed to the Nazgûl. Hope wanes until Ioreth, one of the wise-women, mentions an old saying that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” Gandalf goes and finds Aragorn, who had not intended to enter the city in hopes of avoiding a confrontation with Denethor. Aragorn agrees to help but directs Imrahil to rule the city and Gandalf to lead them all.
When Aragorn comes to the Houses, he is greeted by Pippin. He asks Ioreth and the herb-master for athelas, and eventually overcomes their long-windedness and acquires enough to call and wake the three patients. Faramir wakes to quiet joy; Éowyn to health but not, perhaps, to hope; and Merry to hunger and grief. The former Fellowship members are reunited and then Aragorn spends much of the night healing the people of the City. He slips out of the city just before dawn, “(a)nd in the morning the banner of Dol Amroth, a white ship like a swan upon blue water, floated from the Tower, and men looked up and wondered if the coming of the King had been but a dream.”
The thing that most struck me about this chapter is what a different view of war it gives us. Until now it had been fairly, well, heroic: dawn charges and singing and apparently-hopeless stands over the body of your king. And now we have a chapter that opens with a view of “the wreck and slaughter that lay about all” and prominently features a magical version of post-traumatic stress disorder. Since this is the chapter that also really wraps up the battle plot, I think it’s significant that we end with this view of war—that we get this view at all.
I admit that it took me way longer than it should have to realize that the Black Shadow was, in fact, a magical form of PTSD. Not a psychologically realistic one, of course (compared to Frodo), but a stand-in that serves the dramatic function of showing the traumatic effects of battle while saving the long-term and more serious version for Frodo. I think it would not be unreasonable to criticize this chapter for such a simple problem and solution, but I am inclined to give it a pass because there is PTSD later; this kind of rapid-onset magical despair is consistent with the Nazgûl’s effects so far [*]; and this is more than I expected from the level of psychological development that the battle had been conducted at so far. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this, though.
[*] Note that other people have actually died of it before Aragorn gets there, otherwise they wouldn’t know the progression of the disease.
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Before I go further with talking about this chapter, let me just get this out of the way now: I cannot bear Ioreth. Every word that comes out of her mouth is like sandpaper on my nerves. I can see that she serves a function, that she’s the equivalent of the hobbits who are carefree, that she provides a realistic view into the thinking of ordinary people. But I just want her to be quiet.
(I particularly loathe that I can count the female character with speaking parts without taking off my shoes, and she’s one of them. Lobelia, Mrs. Maggott, Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, Éowyn, Ioreth, Rosie Cotton, Mrs. Cotton. Did I miss any?)
I am a little surprised that it takes her to give Gandalf the idea to go look for Aragorn, though; I’d have thought that Gandalf would be dragging in anyone he could think of who might have an idea.
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Some other things about the Houses of Healing proper. Here are the three different scents of the athelas for each of the sick we see Aragorn heal:
Faramir: “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.”
Éowyn: “it seemed . . . a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if 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.”
Merry: “like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees.”
I admit that I had a hard time parsing Faramir’s; I believe it is, in effect, describing the Platonic ideal of spring? I’m guessing “renewal” for the symbolism, to go with unstained but lifeless, and food.
Everything I can think to say about Éowyn otherwise keeps getting tangled in what’s going to happen in “The Steward and the King,” so I think I’ll just note Gandalf’s summation of the situation (which seems confirmed by her words when she wakes) and move on. Don’t let me stop you from discussing her, though.
‘My friend,’ said Gandalf [to Éomer], ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on. . . . who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’
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Aragorn. His efforts here to avoid conflict with Denethor got me inevitably thinking about what a conflict would have looked like. And since I had made cryptic references previously to feeling like it would have been too similar to the Scouring, it seems like now would be a good time to explain that.
*deletes several starts on long hypotheticals, rambling discursions on characters, and the like, as excessive and likely obfuscating rather than clarifying*
Let me sum up. Denethor as written would not—could not—accept Aragorn as King. But Aragorn is not going to be prevented from being King to spare the feelings of one man. So, like Saruman, Denethor will have to be (at best) turned away, resentful and vindictive, with those around him sad and somewhat repulsed at what a once-great man has come to. And I don’t think we need to do that more than once.
And yes Denethor written differently would survive to meet Aragorn and accept him as King, but that would, not to put too fine a point on it, suck. Denethor serves so many purposes in the narrative: counterpoint to Théoden, demonstration of the subtler influences of Sauron, honorable but mistaken opponent to Gandalf and Aragorn, layer of hierarchy to be removed and permit change and growth, echo of the sins of Númenor, genuinely tragic figure. Plus he is just so well-written as he stands, psychologically complex and convincing and emotionally engaging, and his suicide is so carefully constructed. I think it would be a real shame to lose all that out of the narrative.
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Hobbitry. I found genuinely funny Aragorn’s speech to Merry after he woke; I can just hear him saying it. (Also, to a lesser degree, the scene where Aragorn arrives at the Houses and Pippin calls him Strider, because I imagine Imrahil practically holding his nose at the uncouthness of it all.) I was not quite convinced by Merry’s excursion into philosophy, though. I know he’s the most mature of them in a lot of ways, but his transitions into and out of the philosophical bits just didn’t quite work for me—I couldn’t make myself “hear” it all in a plausible way.
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Finally, just a minor question: I note that it’s specified that there are twelve torches and twelve guards while Théoden lies in state; anyone know of specific symbolism or historical resonance?
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.