508 – The Houses of Healing

The Houses of Healing

Chapter 8 follows on from Chapter 7, but also overlaps with Chapter 6, which told the entire story of the battle.  When it opens, Eomer and Aragorn would still be in the thick of a battle that has not yet been won.

Merry, who would appear unhurt, follows the men bringing the dead Theoden and the unconscious Eowyn to the Houses of Healing at Gondor.[A]

Note that Tolkien avoids the word ‘hospital’, which arose in mediaeval times and was originally any sort of place offering hospitality.  This in turn arose from the Latin hospes, signifying a stranger or foreigner, hence a guest.[B]  Tolkien undoubtedly knew this.  He also uses deliberately archaic terms for things in Gondor, whereas in The Shire the language is mostly 1940s-modern.

Merry appears unhurt, but has been overlooked.  No one notices when he takes a wrong turn:

“To Merry the ascent seemed agelong, a meaningless journey in a hateful dream, going on and on to some dim ending that memory cannot seize.”

But Gandalf notices.  We learn later than he can see things far away from him, and so would know that Merry was hurt from the part he played in killing the Witch-King.  So he sends Pippin to find him:

“‘I think you must have fallen asleep on your feet and taken the wrong turning. When we found that you were not with them, Gandalf sent me to look for you. Poor old Merry! How glad I am to see you again! But you are worn out, and I won’t bother you with any talk. But tell me, are you hurt, or wounded?’

“‘No,’ said Merry. ‘Well, no, I don’t think so. But I can’t use my right arm, Pippin, not since I stabbed him. And my sword burned all away like a piece of wood.’”

That’s Hobbit toughness – most people would say ‘I just struck at a ghostly monster and the magic cripples me.’  Of course it might be the malice of Mordor at work, inhibiting him from seeking aid.

His behaviour is certainly not normal:

“‘Are you going to bury me?’ said Merry.

“‘No, indeed!’ said Pippin, trying to sound cheerful, though his heart was wrung with fear and pity. ‘No, we are going to the Houses of Healing.’”

Pippin cannot in fact get Merry the whole way, but gets a message taken:

“It was not long before Gandalf himself came in search of them. He stooped over Merry and caressed his brow; then he lifted him carefully. ‘He should have been borne in honour into this city,’ he said. ‘He has well repaid my trust; for if Elrond had not yielded to me, neither of you would have set out; and then far more grievous would the evils of this day have been.’ He sighed. ‘And yet here is another charge on my hands, while all the time the battle hangs in the balance.’”

Even as Gandalf the Grey, he had evidently been able to guess how seemingly unimportant people might count.  Specifically:

  1. Orcs sent to look for unspecified Hobbits take Merry and Pippin, with the Mordor Orc Grishnakh thinking they have the One Ring. So no one except Gollum is looking for Frodo and Sam.
  2. They rouse up the Ents against Isengard, and those Ents send Huorns to finish off the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. This frees Rohan to come and save Minas Tirith.
  3. Pippin by taking the Palantir misleads Sauron. He also encourages Aragorn to claim it.  They mislead an enemy who has wholly overlooked the main danger.
  4. Merry, going where he was not supposed to go, helps win the battle by helping Eowyn slay the Witch-King. And also helps save a woman who will later marry Faramir.  They will presumably start a new line to help preserve decent values.
  5. Finally, it will be their task to free The Shire. Without their long adventures in the south, they would probably have tried and failed, as their cousin Fatty Bolger did.

Arguably Pippin also produced an unexpected benefit by unwisely dropping a stone into a deep hole in Moria.  If that helped rouse the Balrog and got Gandalf killed, it paid off because he came back with stronger powers.

A commentary on a 1977 game of the Quest advises players to get Gandalf killed off as soon as possible, just so he can return more usefully.[C]

Within Tolkien’s vision, Gandalf might know things from his hazy memories of the Music of the Ainur, before the world started.  Others have foresight, including Aragorn and his ancestors – but of course they are remotely descended from Melian, another angelic spirit.

Gandalf’s foresight is also put back as an explanation for him sending off Bilbo as a ‘burglar.  You can find that as ‘The Quest of Erebor’ in Unfinished Tales.  Tolkien had written it as part of LOTR but then left it out.

In the tale as told, an elderly nurse called Ioreth plays an unexpected roll when she sees Faramir’s peril:

“‘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.’

“And Gandalf, who stood by, said: ‘Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor; or have you not heard the strange tidings that have come to the City?’”

We now catch up with the events of Chapter 6.  Aragorn, Eomer and Prince Imrahil meet on the battle field and discuss what they do next:

“Aragorn said:

“‘Behold the Sun setting in a great fire! It is a sign of the end and fall of many things, and a change in the tides of the world. But this City and realm has rested in the charge of the Stewards for many long years, and I fear that if I enter it unbidden, then doubt and debate may arise, which should not be while this war is fought. I will not enter in, nor make any claim, until it be seen whether we or Mordor shall prevail. Men shall pitch my tents upon the field, and here I will await the welcome of the Lord of the City.’…

“I have no mind for strife except with our Enemy and his servants.’

“And the Prince Imrahil said. Your words, lord, are wise, if one who is a kinsman of the Lord Denethor may counsel you in this matter. He is strong-willed and proud, but old; and his mood has been strange since his son was stricken down.”

They would not yet know that Denethor is dead.

Aragorn stays outside.  Eomer and Imrahil enter, with Eomer encouraged to find that his sister still lives: he had thought her dead.

Imrahil, finding Denethor dead and Faramir near death, is now the highest authority in the realm.  He suggests sending for Aragorn, but Gandalf has already sent for him to attempt healing of the sick.  And he once again refuses to take over:

“The Lord of Dol Amroth [Imrahil] shall rule the City until Faramir awakes. But it is my counsel that Gandalf should rule us all in the days that follow and in our dealings with the Enemy.’ And they agreed upon that.

Gondor is hierarchical, and Imrahil is shocked at the informality with which Pippin greats Aragorn:

“‘Strider! How splendid! Do you know, I guessed it was you in the black ships. But they were all shouting corsairs and wouldn’t listen to me.”

Aragorn has of course lived much of his life among people who thought him an odd outsider.  And he has not yet claimed the throne of Arnor, which would make the Hobbits his subjects.  Nor does he want formalities with people he has been on equal terms with. And knows, which the others presumably do not yet know, that all of his hopes rest with Pippin’s cousin Frodo.  He recognises the debt:

“Strider shall be the name of my house, if that be ever established. In the high tongue it will not sound so ill, and Telcontar I will be and all the heirs of my body.’”

His first task is to heal Faramir:

“‘Here I must put forth all such power and skill as is given to me,’ he said. ‘Would that Elrond were here, for he is the eldest of all our race, and has the greater power.’…

“Have you athelas?’

“‘I do not know, I am sure, lord,’ [Ioreth] answered, ‘at least not by that name. I will go and ask of the herb-master; he knows all the old names.’

“‘It is also called kingsfoil,’ said Aragorn; ‘and maybe you know it by that name, for so the country-folk call it in these latter days.’

“‘Oh that!’ said Ioreth. ‘Well, if your lordship had named it at first I could have told you. 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”. Still it smells sweet when bruised, does it not? If sweet is the right word: wholesome, maybe, is nearer.’”

Gandalf thinks of riding to fetch some from the woods she mentioned.  But first they go look for some in the city itself.  Meantime Aragorn studies Faramir’s wound.  He is able to tell that this was not from a Nazgul dart, but an ordinary Southron arrow.  That wound is healing, but the dark magic of Mordor and his own grief are killing him.

The lore-master comes.  He knows the names but has no idea that this matters:

“It has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness. Unless, of course, you give heed to rhymes of old days which women such as our good Ioreth still repeat without understanding.

“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!

“It is but a doggerel, I fear, garbled in the memory of old wives. Its meaning I leave to your judgement, if indeed it has any. But old folk still use an infusion of the herb for headaches.’

“‘Then in the name of the king, go and find some old man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some in his house!’ cried Gandalf.

Tolkien would have been thinking of all those in his profession who knew a vast array of facts about old tales and verses, but refused to take them seriously.

Within the tale, they get some two-week-old leaves, which Aragorn crushes and then casts into hot water:

“Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For 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. But Aragorn stood up as one refreshed, and his eyes smiled as he held a bowl before Faramir’s dreaming face.

“‘Well now! Who would have believed it?’ said Ioreth to a woman that stood beside her. ‘The weed is better than I thought. It reminds me of the roses of Imloth Melui when I was a lass, and no king could ask for better.’

“Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. ‘My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?’

“‘Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!’ said Aragorn. ‘You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.’

“‘I will, lord,’ said Faramir. ‘For who would lie idle when the king has returned?’

“‘Farewell then for a while!’ said Aragorn. ‘I must go to others who need me.’ And he left the chamber with Gandalf and Imrahil; but Beregond and his son remained behind, unable to contain their joy. As he followed Gandalf and shut the door Pippin heard Ioreth exclaim:

“‘King! Did you hear that? What did I say? The hands of a healer, I said.’ And soon the word had gone out from the House that the king was indeed come among them, and after war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.”

Faramir has heard of Aragorn, but has not seen him.  Presumably it is magic that lets him recognise who this is.

Next he turns to Eowyn:

“The arm that was broken has been tended with due skill, and it will mend in time, if she has the strength to live: It is the shield-arm that is maimed; but the chief evil comes through the sword-arm. In that there now seems no life, although it is unbroken.

“‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them.”

He then explains that he had seen earlier that evil had touched her:

“When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Eomer?’

“‘I marvel that you should ask me, lord,’ he answered. ‘For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Eowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king’s bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!’

“‘My friend,’ said Gandalf, ‘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.

“‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Theoden’s ears? Dotard! 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? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips; you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But 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?’

Considering that Tolkien was born in 1892, this is a surprisingly positive view of a woman who goes beyond traditional roles.  Vastly more so than C S Lewis.  Of course Tolkien knew and respected the older pagan-heroic culture in which women could indeed be as active as Eowyn is.

Aragorn repeats the procedure that healed Faramir.  Then has Eomer call to her, when she does not respond to his voice.  She awakes but is confused:

“She opened her eyes and said: ‘Eomer! What joy is this? For they said that you were slain. Nay, but that was only the dark voices in my dream. How long have I been dreaming?’

“‘Not long, my sister,’ said Eomer. ‘But think no more on it!’

“‘I am strangely weary,’ she said. ‘I must rest a little. But tell me, what of the Lord of the Mark? Alas! Do not tell me that that was a dream for I know that it was not. He is dead as he foresaw.’

“‘He is dead,’ said Eomer, ‘but he bade me say farewell to Eowyn dearer than daughter. He lies now in great honour in the Citadel of Gondor.’

“‘That is grievous,’ she said. ‘And yet it is good beyond all that I dared hope in the dark days, when it seemed that the House of Eorl was sunk in honour less than any shepherd’s cot. And what of the king’s esquire, the Halfling? Eomer, you shall make him a knight of the Riddermark, for he is valiant!’

“‘He lies nearby in this House, and I will go to him,’ said Gandalf. ‘Eomer shall stay here for a while. But do not speak yet of war or woe, until you are made whole again. Great gladness it is to see you wake again to health and hope, so valiant a lady!’”

Mordor spells had made her think her brother dead, which she had no reason to believe.  But once restored, she immediately thinks of her debt to Merry.  Who is the next and least urgent for healing:

“‘Do not be afraid,’ said Aragorn. ‘I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Eowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.’”

This was well before ‘gay’ acquired its present meaning.  I’d never heard of it as a term for homosexuality before the 1970s, and I remember people explaining that this had been a long-used code-word.  Apparently of English origin, and it began with female prostitutes saying they were ‘gay in the tail’. It faded out in England, spread underground in the USA and then surfaced with English decriminalisation.

Tolkien presumably knew nothing of this.  But has Merry return in typical Hobbit spirit:

“‘I am hungry. What is the time?’

“‘Past supper-time now,’ said Pippin; ‘though I daresay I could bring you something, if they will let me.’”

Pippin resented the rigid mealtime rules he observed while serving Denethor.  Naturally this does not apply to Merry.  He also wants pipe-weed, but Aragorn reminds him that he too must rest:

“I have not slept in such a bed as this, since I rode from Dunharrow, nor eaten since the dark before dawn.’

“Merry seized his hand and kissed it. ‘I am frightfully sorry,’ he said. ‘Go at once! Ever since that night at Bree we have been a nuisance to you. But it is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place.’

“‘I know that well, or I would not deal with you in the same way ‘ said Aragorn. ‘May the Shire live for ever unwithered!’”

Aragorn and Gandalf meantime are looking more widely:

“‘The Lady Eowyn,’ said Aragorn, ‘will wish soon to rise and depart; but she should not be permitted to do so, if you can in any way restrain her, until at least ten days be passed.’

“‘As for Faramir,’ said Gandalf, ‘he must soon learn that his father is dead. But the full tale of the madness of Denethor should not be told to him, until he is quite healed and has duties to do. See that Beregond and the perian who were present do not speak to him of these things yet!’

“And the other perian Meriadoc who is under my care, what of him?’ said the Warden.

“‘It is likely that he will be fit to arise tomorrow, for a short while,’ said Aragorn. ‘Let him do so, if he wishes. He may walk a little in the care of his friends.’

“‘They are a remarkable race,’ said the Warden, nodding his head. ‘Very tough in the fibre, I deem.’”

‘Perian’ is the more formal term for Halflings or Hobbits.

Aragorn goes on to help others, with physical wounds or those caused by Mordor magic.  As do the sons of Elrond, who would have similar gifts.  But though many would welcome Aragorn as king, he remains modest.

“And word went through the City: ‘The King is come again indeed.’ And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.

“And when he could labour no more, he cast his cloak about him, and slipped out of the City, and went to his tent just ere dawn and slept for a little. And 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.”

It is not a dream, but also Gandalf and Aragorn know that Sauron has many more armies to throw at them.



[A] It should be Théoden and Éowyn: but I do not use accents or other diacritical marks.  In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.

As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/

[B] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospital#Etymology

[C] The game was ‘War of the Ring’, see https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2228/war-ring.  The commentary I do not have an exact reference for: but when I can check, my memories are almost always accurate.